Trails for Wales one step closer

Mountain bikers could be riding on footpaths and open access (CROW) land in Wales as the government said it is now working towards changing access rights.

>>> Five must-do routes in Wales

This brilliant news comes after last year’s campaign TrailsforWales run by OpenMTB and Cycling UK, and a nation-wide consultation that saw the views of over 16,000 people considered.

The overwhelming majority of respondents supported greater access, and it seems like the Welsh government is listening, with a goal of creating shared access on all paths that would mirror the rights enjoyed by outdoor enthusiasts in Scotland. For mountain bikers that would mean that riding your bike on a footpath, or CROW open access land, would be perfectly legal. Of course there will need to be some restrictions to this uniform open access, but this would be done on a case-by-case basis.

“It will progress significant changes to access rights and facilitate an assumption of non-motorised multi-use on access land and the public rights of way network,” said Welsh Assmebly member Hannah Blythyn. “This will provide users such as cyclists and horse riders with many more opportunities to access the outdoors.”

Scotland currently has ‘presumed access’. This means there is a presumption of ‘responsible access’ and is just what the Welsh government is suggesting for the new rights of access. Improving access rights for people is all about improving physical and mental health, the Welsh Government said, with six in 10 adults overweight or obese and one in four experience mental health problems or illness at some point during their lifetime. The potential financial rewards from opening up Welsh access and swell the coffers must be pretty appealing too, the figures from the Scottish government suggest mountain biking currently generates between £236.2m and £358m a year for the economy.

Consultations needed

Some parts of the proposed reform are uncontroversial, the Government says, like allowing organised cycling events on bridleways. Less easy will be the access reforms themselves because there encompass “highly polarised views which have hindered all efforts to reduce the conflict between users to date,” Hannah Blythyn said. These should include allowing bikes and horses on footpaths and reducing restrictions on open access land. Just as tricky are plans to extending access land to the coast and cliffs, which would give incredible access to hundreds of miles of singletrack along Wales’s rugged coastline. Think the Wales Coastal Path, 1,400 km of trail from Chepstow in the south to Queensferry, Flintshire, in the north, bliss.

Also in the plans are ideas for a single statutory digital map of all rights of way, public access land and designated National Trails. At present there’s no such resource making it sometimes tricky to know onto whose land your ride might take you.
“I will make information on areas available to the public for outdoor recreation more accessible in order to support the Taking Wales Forward commitment to ‘go digital-first in our delivery of government services’,” Hannah Blythyn said.

The statement also suggested creating a new type of public right of way — cycle paths. Yup, we’ve heard of those before, but we don’t have any more information on them in this off-road capacity, but our guess is it would provide access only for mountain bikers.

The Welsh Government hopes to get round these entrenched views by getting people to talk. They’re setting up an Access Reform Group that will draw in people from all sides of the argument. This magazine expects OpenMTB and CyclingUK to have a place in the group, and perhaps even British Cycling.

The history

Anyone familiar with this story will remember that back in June 2018 the Welsh Government said they weren’t going to take any action on reforming land access. This despite the public consultation carried out the year before that was overwhelmingly in favour of the administration’s own suggestion of creating single-status rights-of-way – effectively allowing cycling on most footpaths. There were around 16,000 responses in total, with more than 70 per cent backing the plan.

We’re not sure what’s changed, we asked Hannah Blythyn and the Welsh Government for an explanation but heard nothing back. We can only guess that Brexit got in the way and tied up all the civil servants. Whatever the reason, it’s great we’re back on track for open access.

Could we all be riding virgin singletrack by next summer then? Not likely. “We’re not expecting to see overnight changes, we’re hoping it’s something that will be years rather than decades,” said Tom Hutton, who helped found OpenMTB.

“I think the crux is that this is incredibly positive,” he said. “Something really good will come out of it. Exactly how much and when are still a little up in the air but it does go to show that diplomacy and consultation do work and we need to do more of it and keep the pressure on.”

The potential rewards are huge. There are 33,000 miles of rights of Way in Wales and footpaths account for around 78% of this. Here’s hoping.

What is CROW land?

Not land set aside for ravens and such which, but a land designation under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. This normally gives the public right of access to land mapped as ‘open country’ (mountain, moor, heath and down) or registered common land. People can walk, run and climb in these areas but crucially not ride a bike or horse unless the landowner says so. The new proposals hope to flip that round so you can ride on CROW land unless there’s a good reason to prohibit it.

Who is OpenMTB?

The Welsh Government launched a consultation on access rights back in July 2015 and Open MTB started its campaign in September that year to push for improving those access rights for mountain bikers. The campaign was also designed to put pressure on England to follow suit. The Trails for Wales campaign is fronted by CTC and Open MTB. CTC is a British cycling charity and OpenMTB is a group composed of journalists, guides and other interested parties that was formed after the opening of the consultation.