Policy and Politics: Call to speed up the Environment Bill

Stephen Cook

A new group is lobbying to protect the landscape from vehicles.

A new alliance of 14 countryside organisations is pressing the Government to pass the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill as soon as possible to prevent further damage to the British landscape caused by off-road vehicles and motorcycles.

Most of the members of the Green Lanes Protection Group are voluntary organisations, including the Ramblers' Association and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England. But it also includes the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), once the Country Landowners Association.

The Bill, which received its second reading in the Commons on Monday, sets up a new agency called Natural England to regulate use of the countryside.

Part six includes new provisions for limiting use of tracks, known as green lanes, by 4x4 vehicles and motorcycles.

At present, green lanes can be registered as "byways open to all traffic", including motorised vehicles, if evidence can be produced that they have been used by wheeled vehicles in the past.

The Bill would put an end to this right, while preserving the right of farmers and others to use vehicles off the road.

The Green Lanes Protection Group is warning that off-road organisations are trying to register as many routes as possible as byways open to all traffic before the Bill comes in - hence the call for speed.

Richard Jarman, head of communications for the CLA, said: "We understand that the Bill will not be retrospective, so existing applications will have to be completed before the Bill takes effect.

"So, unless the Bill is brought in as soon as possible, it could actually make the situation worse in that the whole world and his 4x4 will be out there trying to get routes registered while there's still time."

One of the members of protection group the Council for National Parks is campaigning for an amendment to the Bill that would allow national park authorities to make traffic regulations limiting off-road use even where vehicles have right of way.

The group says that the growing use of off-road routes by four-wheel drive vehicles and trail bikes has caused serious and sometimes permanent damage to ancient routes in the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District, the South Downs and the Ridgeway.

"They frequently erode the paths, causing huge ruts," said the group.

"They ruin enjoyment of the routes for walkers, cyclists, riders and carriage drivers. They also hinder farmers and land managers from using the routes during their work.

"Even when illegal off-roading or damage occurs, it is very difficult for the police to secure prosecution."

The explanatory notes to the Bill say it will limit vehicular rights that can be shown on the definitive maps of public rights of way maintained by local authorities in England and Wales.

It does this by "halting implied creation of rights of way for mechanically propelled vehicles"; preventing post-1930 use of a way by a mechanically propelled vehicle from giving rise to any future public right of way; and - subject to some exceptions - extinguishing existing public rights of way for mechanically propelled vehicles if those rights are not already recorded on the definitive map. Illegal use can no longer, as before, be cited as a precedent.

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