Get on my land! Q&A With Mark Slater, Cycling UK

Cycling UK’s latest off-road campaign is urging riders to lobby the government over its plans for agricultural subsidy post-Brexit. It might sound a bit dry, but the charity’s off-road organiser Mark Slater has been explaining why it could be a big win for MTBers…

Hi Mark, can you start off by telling us what this new campaign is about, in a nutshell?

It’s about taking advantage of this generational opportunity to reform rural subsidies and secure a truly ‘green Brexit’, its about enshrining ACCESS as a public good in any new system for farm subsidy payments.

70% of UK land is agricultural, so the new bill is really important because it will set the agenda for the future of our countryside and have an impact on the quality of the environment and everyone who wants to enjoy it. Cycling UK wants landowners and farmers to receive the support they need, not just to keep our current rights of way open, but also to improve them.

Bike on farm track
I’ll resist any clumsy analogies about pots of gold.

This isn’t just about off-road cycling. We’re working with other outdoor access groups who share a common goal to ensure that everyone can enjoy the countryside equally. It is about making sure public money is spent in ways which ensure that access to green spaces, better connected motor-traffic-free path networks and rights of way can be maintained and improved with public funds.

The organisations involved believe the agriculture bill should include measures to ensure farmers fulfill their existing legal responsibilities for path maintenance and to reward them through public payments for increased and improved public access. It is important that public money supports farmers, as custodians of the countryside, in delivering this critical public good and helps ensure the countryside is an even more welcoming place for people to visit and enjoy.

What would Cycling UK actually like to see happen? What would be the key benefits for mountain bikers on the ground?

If cyclists ruled the world! We would see a shift from the current system to one that recognises access as a public benefit, a system which values access to the natural environment and green space, a system which financially incentivises farmers and landowners to create new routes for public access; reimburse farmers and landowners for capital works that are required to create new routes and offer farmers and landowners an annual payment to help better maintain the rights of way across their land.

A reformed farming subsidies system with public support for the inclusion of public access as a public benefit would have positive ramifications for all.

Landowners will be paid to maintain and enhance rights of way on their land.

Cyclists will be able to access more routes

Cyclists will enjoy more promoted routes with way marking

Cyclists will have a better joined up network for recreation and sustainable travel.

Communities will be healthier and rural economies strengthened.

So don’t let this opportunity pass, make your voice heard and help support our farmers to say “Get on my land!”

Rights of Way have taken a pretty low priority in recent years, has the government done anything concrete yet to suggest that’s actually changing?

The Government’s Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy states that: ”The Government wants walking and cycling to be a normal part of everyday life, and the natural choices for shorter journeys such as going to school, college or work, travelling to the station, and for simple enjoyment. As part of our aim to build a society that works for all, we want more people to have access to safe, attractive routes for cycling and walking by 2040.”

In the context of rural travel and recreation it is hard to see how the Government can achieve its 2020 target to “double activity measured as the estimated total number of cycle stages made” or achieve the central purpose of its active travel strategy without radical change. The facts are clear, the biggest limiting factor for the take-up of cycling is fear of traffic.

Approximately one-third of all cycling in the countryside is already off-road, most of this utilising the 22% of the public rights of way system that cyclists and horse riders have access to. It was accepted by government that the primary use of this network was recreational – as such, it is clear that the importance and use of footpaths and other rights of way has reflected and moved with time and societal change. It is therefore vital that as changes in patterns of recreational use are witnessed the PROW network evolves to better suit them.

Speaking earlier this year at the Oxford Farming Conference, Minister for Environment and Rural Affairs Michael Gove said: “I believe we should help landowners and managers to make the transition from our current system of subsidy to a new approach of public money for public goods over time”.  

For Cycling UK, “public goods” is a key phrase. In the context of farming, this means incentivising landowners and managers with subsidies to improve public access to green spaces – to encourage them to invite people to Get on their land! on bikes, in other words. Subsidies, in fact, were one of the measures we highlighted in our recent vision for rural cycling, Beyond the Green Belt.

A simple, cost effective way to increase cycling and walking in the countryside would be to improve existing rights of way and open more high-quality, well-surfaced and usable multi-user routes. This alone would mean that agri-funding was delivering a huge public good, when combined with the opportunity to improve the connections people with nature and farming, the case for funding improvements in public access to the countryside is compelling.

Natural England’s statistical dataset (Monitor of Engagement in the Natural Environment) tells us that roughly 1/3 of recreational cycling in the countryside is off-road and mountain biking, mostly on Britain thousands of miles of public rights of way. Nationally, the proportion of cyclists usually cycling off the road in parks, open country or private land has increased over the last 10 years, (from 19% in 2006 to 24% in 2016).

Moorland singletrack
Not all land under agricultural use is planted with crops.

Visits to green spaces in towns and cities were more likely to involve road cycling, while visits to the countryside were more likely to wander off-road. All that feeds into why we are calling for off-road cycling and walking provision to be improved through the use of agricultural grant money.

Rights of way in other nations of the UK seem to be progressing up the political agenda, both nationally and locally. Scotland led the access revolution in 2003 with the ‘Right To Roam’ Act and they have seen more than £250 million per year in economic benefits from cycling alone since the legislative change. This has bolstered rural communities and diversified their offering to visitors and local residents.

The Welsh Assembly is also addressing access issues and have proposed reforming the law to help remove the restrictions to the benefits that access can deliver to local communities and beyond, which Cycling UK and OpenMTB supported through the Trails for Wales campaign. Now with Michael Gove’s Green Brexit plans, Defra have also recognised the importance of well maintained and connected rights of way and the vital role they play in supporting our rural towns and villages.

Aside from the proposed tie between farm subsidies and increased access, is Cycling UK seeking any further measures such as infrastructure?

At the moment, cyclists and horses have access to about 22% of the rights of way network, with no general consideration of suitability, meaning that a muddy or ploughed field path might be open to all, but a well surfaced track nearby is restricted to access on foot. Our recent off-road survey found that 73% of riders think the current network is unsuitable for modern use, and that 85% of off-road cyclists found it difficult to piece together ‘legal’ routes.

Future countryside access legislation and grant systems need to support and enable improvements in countryside access, in order to better enable cyclists, walkers and equestrian users to safely access and enjoy the countryside. Grant systems ought to prioritise access improvements that have been identified in local authority Local Transport Plans or Rights of Way Improvement Plans. We think that there is huge potential for land owners to be financially rewarded for creating improved off-road links to plug gaps in the existing rights of way and green infrastructure network, particularly where this connects existing routes which can no longer be used safely because either the roads connecting them have become unsafe for non-motorised users or because the rights of way network has become fragmented by the building of new roads. 

How do you believe the rural economy could benefit from increased public access rights?

Access isn’t just about the physical ability to participate in an activity on land; it’s about the opportunities it presents; and it’s about the bigger picture. Strong evidence shows that environmental stewardship and responsible behaviour in the countryside is a by-product of engagement with nature. 

Tourism, day and overnight visitors.

Increased public physical and mental health benefits

Better connected motor-traffic-free networks

Diversification of product for landowners

Opportunity to connect more with the natural environment and protectionism.

Are any other user groups on board with this campaign?

Yes, a coalition of organisations has teamed up to encourage people to add their voice to the campaign to protect and enhance the future of countryside access. Ramblers, The British Horse Society, the British Mountaineering Council, the Open Spaces Society and Cycling UK are urging people to sign their joint petition, which calls on government to ensure the upcoming agriculture bill recognises the importance of access as a public good and includes measures which protect and enhance access to the countryside. 70% of UK land is agricultural, the new bill is really important because it will set the agenda for the future of our countryside and have an impact on the quality of the environment and everyone who wants to enjoy it.

The opportunities from a new agricultural funding model include the improvement of recreational multi-user links from urban areas to the wider countryside – particularly in the form of greenways, disused railway tracks, and improved access to National Trails for cyclists and horseriders.

Cycling UK believes that it’s vitally important that public access is seen as something that sits hand-in-hand with conservation and biodiversity. Routes such as National Trails and disused railway lines can provide vitally important landscape scale wildlife corridors, as well as providing the perfect opportunity to better connect the public with nature. A funding model which brings together subsidies for improved public access and environmental stewardship payments would encourage farmers and other landowners to collaborate to make the countryside an even more welcoming place for people to visit and enjoy.

Support “Get on my land!” now

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