The Peak District is under attack from illegal off-road driving. With outrage reaching fever pitch, is it time that off-roading became extinct? Ed Douglas gets behind the wheel.
It’s Sunday morning at the top of the Limb Valley on the outskirts of Sheffield. A rambler walking his dogs up the path towards a stile encounters a couple of mountain bikers lifting their bikes over. The rambler tells the bikers they’re on a footpath, not a bridleway, and not legally allowed to ride this trail. The mountain bikers explain – in the frankest terms – just how unconcerned they are with his opinion and ride off down the hill.
There are all kinds of reactions to this scenario, which happened, but not to me. If you’re a mountain biker, you may be frustrated by the lack of trails linking out into the Peak District and how little progress has been made in accommodating the huge growth in biking in the last ten years. You might resent how dog-owners seem to think that hanging plastic bags of shit from trees equates to responsible disposal of their mess.
You may also fume at how ramblers assume the countryside is just for them, that they tend to be older and bad-tempered and unwilling to compromise. Or you might be infuriated at how some people are quick to use the law when it defends their interest, but ignore it when it doesn’t. I can feel the resentment bubbling up. Soon it will cross the threshold of that current default mode of some parts of the public and most Daily Mail readers – outrage.
There’s a lot of outrage in the Peak District right now, a lot of tempers flaring. Trawl through online forums for various activities – actually, don’t bother because I’ve done it for you – and you get the impression temperatures are rising, even in the depths of winter. There’s been a recreation boom in the Peak District in the last twenty years. When John Major took over from Margaret Thatcher, mountain biking barely existed – ditto paragliding. Organised events and races have mushroomed. Four-wheel-drive vehicles have got cheaper. More people own horses. Trouble is, we’re having so much fun it’s starting to hurt.
The tribe under most scrutiny in the Peak District is off-road drivers – the pantomime villains of this drama. (Although be careful how you use the phrase ‘off road’ – see glossary – because they argue quite correctly that they’re on roads, just ones without tarmac.) The image you’ve got in your head right now is of a middle-aged bloke with some tats and a beer belly sat in an ageing Range Rover trundling under Stanage. Or else a biker dressed for Star Wars, spattered with mud, racing along Longstone Edge. I’m betting you’re not thinking of a woman, and you’re not thinking of someone who reads poetry.
Such clichés have an element of truth – but are often misleading. Let me give you two scenarios. A couple of years ago, just a few hundred yards from the Limb Valley on Blacka Moor, three bikers interrupted my own Sunday morning ramble, powering up a trod across the heather.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” I told them.
The leader raised his visor. Bearded, around forty years old. Not some kid out on the razz from one of Sheffield’s less-favoured neighbourhoods.
“Yeah, we’re lost. Sorry.” This was an obvious lie. There are no legal trails nearby and his number plate was obscured with carefully packed mud, a common tactic for bikers breaking the law.
“You know perfectly well where you are.” The biker’s face darkened, and I got a stream of abuse before he and his mates turned around and sped off, chewing up the ground as they went.
Then again, on a trail near Bradwell Moor, I once blocked the path of a biker, and suggested he was also breaking the law. The ‘crosser’ raised his goggles – but this time I got a smile.
“I don’t think so mate, but let’s have a look at the map.” Seriously, this man should have been working for the United Nations. Not only was he legal, he gave me a dazzling seminar on the legal status of the track we were on. I’m willing to bet he reads poetry too, although obviously the manly stuff, like Tennyson. We parted on warm terms.
It’s the former view of off-road drivers the media and some pressure groups focus on in the current debate. And without doubt those breaking the law are having a crippling effect on the prospects of legal off-road driving in the Peak District.
Yet more – most – of my encounters with bikers have been like that with the diplomat. They usually slow down, often nod a greeting and try to accommodate other users, even when those other users are hostile. And they’re not the only people out having fun and breaking the law. Even climbers do it. Should all of us be banned for the reckless actions of a few?
I can’t think of another representative body more conscious of how their sport impacts the public than the Trail Riders Fellowship. Their code of conduct is exemplary. And gosh, do they know the law. The clearest explanation of the complex and sometimes dysfunctional legislation that determines the classification of rights of way in Britain is on the websites of vehicle user groups. They also rely on some of the best legal representation available.
All that muscle is necessary: vehicle user groups are locked in a kind of trench warfare in the courts over each and every trail whose status comes under scrutiny. For each one there are hundreds of pages of evidence to consider. Lake District officers produced a file 600 pages long for DEFRA to decide recently that Walna Scar Road should be confirmed as a restricted byway, closing it to motorised traffic after years of controversy.
National parks, because of their special status, have struggled to accommodate the growth of motorised recreation. They have a statutory duty to protect the parks’ cultural and natural heritage while making them accessible to the public and looking out for local communities. That poses some fundamental questions. What sort of activities should be allowed in a national park? Is motor-sport appropriate? Is it more or less appropriate than, say, grouse shooting?
The phrase ‘quiet enjoyment’ is often used in offering a definition of what’s acceptable. But it doesn’t have any legal status and, as an idea, it’s a tough one to define. Stanage can seem like Oxford Street on a summer weekend – and some might feel that climbing breaks their definition of ‘quiet enjoyment’.
There is a mechanism for deciding between conservation and recreation: the Sandford Principle. The principle is often assumed to mean that conservation trumps recreation, but that’s not quite how it stands. When the Sandford Principle was included in the 1995 Environment Act, the wording was more nuanced, stating that “greater weight” be given to” the purpose of conserving and enhancing the [park’s] natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage.”
Still, that phrase ‘cultural heritage’ is important. Some motor-sport advocates have tried to argue that since we’re dealing with roads here, albeit unsealed ones, ‘natural beauty’ doesn’t come into it. Yet, they also argue green lanes have a history stretching back hundreds of years – their claims for usage rely on them. That sounds to me like cultural heritage. The state of, for example, the Long Causeway under Stanage is a tragedy. It used to be paved with worn stones, just like the trail on the moor above, but that surface is long gone and we’re left with a rubble-strewn mess. Not only has the Peak’s cultural heritage been damaged, Derbyshire County Council’s repairs to the Causeway have proved short-lived – and weren’t of a sufficient standard to allow horse-riders to return.
The Peak District has tried hard to accommodate motorised vehicles on legal routes through education and consensus. This process was spearheaded by Operation Blackbrook – a worthy co-operation between the police, the park, residents and user groups. Other national parks have been far quicker to reach for the legal instrument of choice in banning motorised vehicles: the Traffic Regulation Order (TRO).
This is partly because the Peak District National Park Authority (PDNPA) isn’t responsible for maintaining the Peak’s roads, unlike, for example, the Yorkshire Dales. That responsibility falls to Derbyshire County Council, which has been glacially slow to respond to the growing clamour for action from other user groups.
Nevertheless, the Peak does have the authority to issue TROs under provisions in the National Environment and Rural Communities Act – and it’s come under huge pressure to use that power. Last year the authority finally issued a TRO to ban motorised vehicles from Chapel Gate, a notoriously eroded track running from Rushup Edge to Barber Booth in Edale. Yet even this toe in the water has been contentious.
TROs come in three flavours, permanent, temporary and experimental, the option chosen for Chapel Gate. Issuing them is strewn with pitfalls. Lack of maintenance isn’t a justification, and there have to be sufficient grounds or an order will be open to legal challenge.
The Trail Riders Fellowship is challenging the Chapel Gate TRO in the High Court on several grounds, not least that there wasn’t much experimenting planned by the PDNPA to find out how responsible motor vehicles are for the damage. They claim a substantial portion is caused by water erosion. The upshot is more work for lawyers funded by the taxpayer and recreational groups. This prompted one biker to suggest acidly: “Here’s a novel thought. Why not invest some resources on route maintenance and concentrate legal efforts on those breaking law?” The monster-truck-sized irony is that the DCC have actually repaired Chapel Gate at a cost of tens of thousands.
On the other side of this very deep divide are local residents and other users whose interests have been compromised. In the last couple of years their voices have grown louder. One of the reasons so much pressure is being exerted now on the PDNPA is the recent co-ordinated action of parish councils galvanised by voters fed up with the noise and damage from motor vehicles. They have grown impatient, even angry at what they perceive is an unwillingness to grasp the nettle.
This frustration has coalesced into new or resurgent campaign groups, like the Forum for Ancient Byways, which brings together parish councils mostly in the Hope Valley, Rocking the BOAT, focussing on Longstone Edge, and most ominously of all, if you’re an off-road driver, the Peak District Green Lanes Alliance. This is modelled on its sabre-toothed big brother in the Yorkshire Dales, where the national park authority has issued many more TROs, although not always successfully.
The Green Lanes Alliance brings together local residents, conservation bodies and recreation groups. The horse-riding lobby group Peak Horse Power, formed in 2010, is particularly vocal, especially its vice-chairwoman Patricia Stubbs, whose cracks of the whip in the letters pages of the local press get an equally robust response from vehicle users.
Off-roaders say that they have as much right as anyone to enjoy the special landscape in exercising their legal rights. They point out that all kinds of recreation causes damage, including walking. If local authorities are so cash-strapped they can’t maintain their rights of way properly, then that’s a problem for all of us; vehicle users shouldn’t be criminalised for it.
I think if climbers faced the same level of opposition as off-road drivers, we’d find the experience deeply uncomfortable. Yet they must still answer some serious questions, if they’re to resist the gradual extinction of their sport. I can understand the idea of driving green lanes being a journey, in the same way a walk or run can be. But the suspicion is that some drivers like their green lanes to have obstacles and challenges, to spice up the day.
I put this question to Richard Entwhistle from the Peak District Vehicle Users Group, an articulate spokesman for the 4WD and motorbike lobby. “There’s truth in that. Some will come and use a damaged road for the challenge. They will see it as a ‘pay and play’ venue where you don’t have to pay, and they’ll complain when the road is put right. But then again mountain bikers did that when the Houndkirk Road was fixed. They complained louder than anyone. But these are roads, not adventure playgrounds.”
Entwhistle argues that the way to solve the problem in the Peak District is to maintain unsealed roads properly, removing their appeal for those looking for some cheap trialling. He was also intimately involved in Operation Blackbrook, which has lost impetus with the retirement of the police officer who ran it, Kevin Lowe. “He was very good at banging heads together.”
What about the problem of illegal driving? “There’s only so much we can do. We can encourage people to join responsible user groups like ours, but ultimately it’s not our job to sort out those who break the law. That’s the job of the police.”
Entwhistle points out that under the Police Reform Act (2002), police have the authority to issue warnings and seize vehicles if those warnings are ignored.
The PDNPA has said it will continue to work with vehicle user groups and other interests through Local Access Forums to find compromise. But there has been a clear shift of attitude in favour of issuing more TROs. Campaign groups are waiting to see if this tough talk in the Peak District will be followed by action. There’s a new note of despair among some off-roaders that the tide has turned against them, and that with them gone other recreational users will follow.
Henry Norman of mountain-biking pressure group Ride Sheffield is not convinced his sport will be next. “An engine makes quite a difference. The noise, smell and sheer bulk of vehicles can be quite imposing.”
Despite some bad experiences with off-roaders, he doesn’t want to see them banned. “Unfortunately, it is a minority of users that do the damage, but that minority are out of reach of the responsible and organised users.”
Mountain biking also has its fringe element. Occasional hostility towards mountain bikers at Local Access Forums has persuaded some to ride where they like. But, says Norman, “mountain bikers have to try and be whiter than white, we need to show that we are willing to be able to cooperated and to be able to behave. Otherwise we will make very little positive progress.” Without a national representative body like the BMC to lobby on their behalf, and with fewer rights in law than other countryside users, mountain bikers find themselves in a weaker position than climbers.
Mountain-biking trail centres, Norman adds, are recruiting a new kind of biker, highly skilled but uncertain of their responsibilities in the countryside: “These riders, with no malice intended, don’t necessarily know where they can or can’t ride. They’re just out to have fun.”
The unpalatable truth is that these tensions around recreational use of the national parks are set to grow. In an era of austerity, rights-of-way budgets look horribly vulnerable. Things are going to get worse, not better. The Roych, one of the most heavily-used vehicle tracks in the Peak District, is regularly maintained as part of the Pennine Bridleway. Yet that could soon be lost in the next round of cuts.
It seems ludicrous – and bitterly ironic in this Olympic year – that the nation’s rights of way network, a critical part of our infrastructure, should be so undervalued even as the Government frets about declining participation in sport and obesity. If different user groups are going to co-exist in something like harmony, it will take more money and a change in attitude.
We’ll need a greater focus on responsibilities rather than rights, on consideration for others rather than blind prejudice. So, next time you’re in the Peak, try smiling more. And in the meantime, give quiet thanks climbing was recognised in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act.
BMC member Ed Douglas is a freelance journalist. When not researching arcane off-road terminology, he’s often found smiling in the Peak.