Trails for Wales: FAQs with Kie Foster

Just as James Brown was known as the hardest-working man is showbusiness, Kie Foster is widely regarded as the hardest-working man in MTB advocacy – and Cycling UK’s off-road policy advisor has been staying on the scene almost as long as the Godfather of Soul.
With serious reform to access rights in Wales a very real possibility, we thought Kie would be the best person to answer some of the questions that have popped as we’ve been promoting the Trails for Wales campaign with Cycling UK…

Kie FOster
Kie Foster on top of Snowdon / Yr Wyddfa

Hi Kie, firstly why don’t you tell us a bit about how and when you got into MTB? And what kind of riding do you enjoy now?

I started off as a roadie, but my first exposure to mountain-biking proper was when I was doing a YTS with the Forestry Commission all the way back in 1991, the Emmelle Kielder classic, off the back of that we ended up doing what must have been one of the first series of waymarked trails, and a small team of us spent time building a chunk of the ‘cross border route’ from Kielder to Newcastleton.

Back then the routes were mainly along existing forestry roads, so it’s been interesting to see the evolution. I trained in and retain a deep interest in wildlife and conservation management, so I absolutely came into MTB from the background of exploring the countryside.

In recent years I’ve had some health troubles which have curtailed my riding and seen me spending more time doing advocacy, but when I’m out on the bike I would absolutely put myself in the bracket of ‘rambling on wheels’ rather than ‘adrenaline junkie’.

I know you were one of the key figures involved in Imba UK, many years ago, could you give us the nutshell version of your MTB advocacy career?

I think the real credit has to go to people like Colin Palmer and Paddy Harrop there, but yes, I helped. I got dragged into the advocacy work through the conservation knowledge discussed above, it seemed (and often still feels) like nobody was actually communicating with the stakeholders or sitting at the tables that were needed to make a difference. That the antis were dominating the conversation.

That background has ended up being remarkably useful as it allows me to converse with and understand the concerns of land managers better. I took a job at Mavic and stopped doing any advocacy for a few years to prevent a clash of interest, but after leaving to look after my daughter I started getting back into it, then the Welsh consultation cropped up and I sort of took on using my background and contacts to work on that, leading to Cycling UK (CTC as was) asking me to act as an advisor on off-road access issues.

So let’s turn to Wales. You were the driving force behind the first phase of Trails for Wales back in 2015, can we assume it was the magnificent response to that campaign which has prompted the Welsh Government to propose this radical overhaul of access rights now?

They’ve been pretty open with us that it made them sit up and take notice. There’s a consistent message that Scottish access wouldn’t work in Wales and whether that’s right or wrong, there’s huge resistance to change from all sides.

Some stakeholders were even pretty confused in their own response there, opposing shared use of footpaths but supporting Scottish Access. The proposals currently on the table are, I think, pretty brave from a political aspect, and realistically as far as anyone is willing to go at the moment.

I am sure that some will complain it’s not as good as what they have in Scotland but as Ronald Reagan said many years ago, if you can get seventy-five or eighty percent of what you are asking for then take it and fight for the rest later.

And for those who haven’t read the proposals, what are the main changes the WG is suggesting?

The key one for most riders would be access to footpaths for bikes and horses. Truth is, that the vast majority of footpaths that cyclists are likely to use after the change in legislation are already being ridden on by cyclists anyway, so it won’t make a huge difference to the curmudgeonly old buggers who have been riding ‘cheeky trails’ for years now, but it *will* make a big difference for those just coming into the sport.

It’s issues like this that make it so important that the MTB community is heard in this consultation, we can’t afford to sit back and think “I’m alright Jack”, particularly since whatever happens in Wales is likely to have huge impacts on future access legislation in England. We are absolutely thinking about the bigger picture here.

So would these single-status rights of way mean big changes to countryside infrastructure? Would stiles or kissing gates have to be replaced with gates?

Stiles have been being removed on key routes for some time now, BS5709 ‘gaps, gates and stiles’ is pretty clear that the instillation of new furniture should always be to the least restrictive option wherever possible.

Replacing stiles with gates is positive for a whole variety of users, particularly those with mobility problems. However, I don’t see anyone suggesting that they would need to be replaced en-masse, it seems pretty sensible and reasonable to suggest that when existing furniture needs to be replaced through wear and tear at some point in the future, often many years down the line, that it is to the least restrictive option, and often this is part funded by the ROW department anyway.

Changes to the rules regarding CroW access land are also on the table. Can you give readers a brief explanation of what CroW land is? And of what’s proposed for Wales?

It gets a bit complex here, because CRoW means that there’s ‘Access Land’ and ‘Section 15’ land, which has rights of access under pre-existing legislation or agreement.

All of this land is open to recreational access on foot, it’s generally mountain or moorland, Forestry Commission (Natural Resources Wales) land, or registered common, some of this common land also has rights for access on horseback under an older act of Parliament. At the moment, there is no right of access on bikes to any of this land.

Essentially, the WG wants to make access land open for a whole variety of non-motorised recreation uses, including horse riding, wild camping, paragliding etc. As long as they are performed responsibly.

In the published consultation cycling was missed off that list of activities. It’s been suggested that this may have been an error, but we have tried to make the case pretty strongly in our response that we should be included and we think it would be pretty unfair if we weren’t.

We believe that as a rule of thumb, it’s reasonable to say that anywhere where horses are allowed access, bikes should be allowed to go too.

There are probably not many people who have read the full Cycling UK response to the current consultation. Would you like to try to boil the key points down to a few paragraphs?

A friend of mine, ultra-endurance hero Mike Hall, who was sadly taken from us in a road accident this year, summed it up perfectly during the first consultation: “Bikes are brilliant and the countryside is for everyone”.

Mike Hall
The late Mike Hall got it (pic: Antony De Heveningham).

Cycling is great – both for people’s physical health and for their mental health and well-being, mountain biking is even better as it provides a greater connection with nature and the environment (and less chance of getting run over too)

Last year, Cycling UK and Open MTB conducted a survey on off-road access that ended up with more than 11k responses, we found that 67% of off-road rides on rights of way began from the door, whereas more than 90% of rides at mountain bike ‘trail centres’ began with a car journey, often of more than an hour.

This suggests to us that access to the rights of way network plays a vitally important factor in encouraging regular physical activity close to home, particularly amongst youth and other groups who do not have access to their own motorised transport.

On top of this, 74% of riders said that they found it difficult to link together ‘legal’ routes – people naturally prefer a continuous off-road loop, it’s not like it’s easy to nip out for a quick spin on the current network, too many bridleways end on footpaths or commons, or even worse pitch you out onto a fast road.

Rural roads account for only 32% of pedal cycle traffic, but for 58% of pedal cyclist fatalities. We are literally forcing mountain bikers and horse riders onto the most dangerous roads when there are thousands of miles of alternative routes that are available for them to enjoy the countryside with.

All these factors together underline the important opportunity offered by liberalising use of the existing rights of way network order to promote participation and physical activity on a day to day basis. There exists the potential to encourage recreational activity across a much wider area of Wales, and with a far-wider demographic profile, than those who currently benefit from forest based trail centre developments. 

I know Cycling UK are taking a collaborative approach with other representative groups on this. What can you tell us about that?

We’ve sat around the table with all the other stakeholders like Ramblers and BHS, and we are all agreed that, being realistic, not all (ie. not 100%) of paths would be suitable for shared use, and I think that if we are being honest most of us in the MTB community also know that there are a few routes that aren’t ever going to be suitable.

The only real disagreement is where you draw the line, and how that gets sorted out and communicated. Nobody has put a percentage figure on it, but we think that the ones that need a mandatory restriction are a tiny percentage and can be easily excluded.

However others think that each route should be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Ultimately that will be for the WG to decide, but, personally speaking, I can’t see how a case-by-case assessment of 20k miles of footpath could ever work logistically, given the administrative burden it would create.

As I mentioned above, the fact is that most of the routes that cyclists want to use, they are already using unofficially anyway.

Why is it important for people to make a response to the WG? Do they have to live in Wales to do so?

WG representatives told us at an open meeting that numbers matter – but also real personal opinions matter too. I would bend over backwards to ask riders to actually pen a few of their own words and send in their own reasons of how and why better access would be good for them. I think there is bound to be an extra value for the opinions of Welsh residents, after all, it’s them who the WG are responsible to at the elections, however you can’t overlook the importance of MTB tourism for the Welsh rural economy, so opinions of English people and other nationalities who are more likely to visit (and spend money in) Wales as a result of better access are also important.

I think that the biggest-value responses are likely to come from cycle and cycle-tourism related businesses in Wales, and I would beg them to sit down and do a response themselves saying what it might do for their business.

What would you say to people who think “I ride footpaths anyway so why upset the applecart?”. Has the WG ackowledged that current RoW rules are being routinely flouted, with no real issues?

Not directly, but we do speak to them, and, well, they ‘know the score’, I don’t think we would be having this consultation if they didn’t. As for those who think we are better not to rock the boat, well, I’ll say it again, ‘I’m alright Jack’

What do you think is in this for the WG? How would it (or the country) benefit?

Do you know what, I would love to give some utopian vision of ‘suddenly, children will spring forth on their bikes to ride to school, and millions more will start mountain biking’ but we know it’s unlikely to be like that.

However, the points I’ve made above about health and well-being are vital, and when you sit down and speak to public health officials who are seeking to engender population level change, you realise that the benefits of shifting even a small percentage of the population to be a bit more active are just huge, massive amounts of public money spent on health conditions and medication from often preventable disease and things like well-being and mental health issues.

The tie-ins with nature and accessible green space are well proven, making that space accessible to more people for more activities has to help. Add into that the benefits of more rural tourism and the potential savings in administration for local authorities (anyone who has done any rights of way applications will tell you how complex and arcane this can be) and it has to be a no-brainer

So, what kind of details would you suggest people might like to include in their custom responses?

Big issue talking points in my opinion would be:

This would make me more likely to come to Wales on holiday because…

This would help my business because…

This would make me ride my bike more because…

This would make me ride in different places because…

Apart from sending their own response to the WG, what else can people do to help?

I think the Welsh residents need to be speaking to their AM to explain why they need to back these proposals when they go to the Senedd, and they need to be telling their bike shop and bike businesses in Wales to be dong the same.

I think that for everyone else, they need to be joining organisations like Cycling UK because, frankly, until MTBers are an important membership demographic in these organisations, there won’t be the resources or priority committed to it that there needs to be.

I don’t know if you’re a betting man, but what do you think are the odds of this happening? 

The legislation gong through, honestly? About 65% likely, but I think the more difficult thing is some of the detail, like whether it’s a clear presumption in favour of all but a few problem footpaths or if it goes case-by-case (which will take decades to happen) I think is really in the 50/50 bracket, we really need to fight this.

And finally, would you like to tell us about your most-memorable Welsh ride? 

I grew up to the age of 13 two miles from the Welsh Border, so much of my childhood was spent exploring Welsh castles with my Mum. My most memorable ride though was up Snowdon on Christmas Day 2007.

I had either worked or had kids to look after on every previous Christmas day, so with my first ‘free’ one I drove up the night before, spent Christmas Eve drinking in the Veynol Arms with most of the mountain rescue team (who put me under strict instructions not to **** up their Christmas dinner) and then slept in the back of the car, before riding up in the morning (well, largely pushing, particularly when I got to the snow and ice near the top), before taking in the views and the amazing descent. I can’t begin to relate the warm glow from spending Christmas morning doing something so bloody enjoyable.

Use Cycling UK’s tool to make your personalised response to the Welsh Gvenerment.

If you’ve been inspired to join Cycling UK – the link is here.

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