The editorial in the latest Rough Stuff Journal (Vol.67, No.6) refers to the impact of recreational motor vehicles (i.e. 4x4 's and motorbikes) on 'green lanes' and a proposal at the next AGM to provide financial support to the Green Lanes Environmental Action Movement (GLEAM) and to the Yorkshire Dales Green Lanes Alliance (YDGLA). I am responding to this having 25 years' experience managing rights of way disputes in local government.
Organisations such as GLEAM and YDGLA proactively oppose local authorities when plans are put forward to record byways along country lanes and tracks. Members of GLEAM in particular have also assisted landowners in fighting new footpath and bridleway proposals. Before any meaningful discussion takes place on this matter, we need to recognise that the term 'green lane' has no legal definition and is simply a descriptive turn of phrase. Therefore, I presume the criticism is aimed at the use of recreational motor vehicles on unmetalled country lanes designated as byways (which can be used by all types of vehicular traffic).
The law on rights of way in England and Wales is complex (and is different in Scotland). The network comprises of over 140,000 miles of footpaths, bridleways, restricted byways and byways open to all traffic (BOAT). The public can only use motor vehicles on BOATs which amount to around 2% of the total network. Additionally, many historic rights of way have been forgotten and fallen out of use over time, however processes are in place whereby these 'lost ways' can be claimed by submiting evidence to a local authority. The right to apply for a 'lost' vehicular right all but ceased in 2006 following the introduction of legislation deliberately aimed at limiting motors on rights of way. As a result, only a handful of such applications currently remain unresolved.
In my opinion, 2% of the rights of way network is a very small slice of the cake for recreational motor users. I also believe that the RSF should think long and hard before providing financial support to the very organisations whose members have been proactively engaged in fighting proposals for byways, bridleways and footpaths in the past. It is a fact that some of the byways now enjoyed by RSF members were only saved due to the efforts of organisations such as the Auto Cycle Union (ACU) and the Trail Riders Fellowship (TRF). A nationwide ban on motors, as is being suggested actually requires parliamentary legislation and would be the death-knell for groups such as the ACU and TRF etc, however, without additional police resources, unlawful use would continue unabated. Members of the RSF should also note the fellowship's Articles of Association which expressly set out to 'assist in the preservation of access by cyclists to off road routes including tracks, byways and bridleways'. Accordingly, the proposal runs contrary to the fellowship's own rules.
Notwithstanding the fact that much of the damage to byways is caused by private farm traffic, I have found that rutted and water-logged lanes are often the result of a lack of proper maintenance by the highway authority i.e. vegetation is rarely cut back to allow in air and light, and drainage problems are routinely ignored. Some unsurfaced roads will always be liable to ruttng and waterlogging and it is worth noting that prior to the advent of tarmacadam the vast majority of England's country lanes were impassable after prolonged wet weather. Where routes do suffer at the hands of 'off roaders', local authorities also have powers to temporarily ban motor use and allow a period of time for damaged surfaces to recover. This power is frequently used in my area and to good effect.
In 1968, The Countryside Act allowed the use of pedal cycles "not being a mechanically propelled vehicle" on bridleways. Members of the RSF and cyclists in general therefore owe a debt of gratitude to the horse-riding fraternity for sharing this wonderful and ancient resource with us. N.B. I note that some online forums are now complaining about damaged bridleways caused by ebikes, which are capable taking some cyclists into places which were previously inaccessible. The British Horse Society has recently embarked on an expensive and time-consuming project (Project 2026) to ensure that thousands of 'lost' bridleways are officially added to local authority's records. If approved, these new routes will bring enormous benefit to ourselves. Surely the RSF should support projects like this, rather than supporting groups whose actions lead to fewer public rights?