The Off-Road Campaign:
The ancient network of paths and green lanes that criss-cross our countryside are amongst our oldest monuments and an integral part of our heritage, but they are vulnerable to the impact of powered vehicles. Modern transport has enabled many more of us to gain access to our beautiful countryside, which is a clear benefit, but it is a challenge to ensure that the mode of access does not itself destroy the beauty and heritage that we come to enjoy.
The Ridgeway National Trail:- One of the often overlooked achievements of the post-War Attlee Government was the creation of our system of countryside access. The 1947 Hobhouse Committee of Parliament, on Footpaths and Access to the Countryside, led to the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, 1949. Amongst the Act’s provisions was the designation of some long-distance paths as National Trails. The ancient Ridgeway route from Cambridge to Seaton in Devon was amongst the first considered for this purpose. However, it was not until July, 1972, that a much-shortened version of The Ridgeway, between Avebury and Ivinghoe Beacon, was approved, and the new National Trail was officially opened on 29th September 1973.
The Off-Road Problem:- The improved countryside access afforded after World War 2 soon led to new challenges. The rapid, post-War growth in the numbers of off-road motor bikes and 4x4s, often driven or ridden aggressively to enjoy the challenge of negotiating unsealed tracks, rapidly became a major problem for the ancient, unsurfaced green lanes never intended for that purpose. The Ridgeway, despite its National Trail status, was badly affected, particularly on the western half of the Trail, where The Ridgeway’s origins as an ancient highway meant that it was classified as a Byway Open to All Traffic. The surface of the Trail was severely damaged in many places, becoming a sea of mud in the winter and then dangerously rutted as it dried in the summer. Precious archaeological sites were damaged and other users were disturbed by engine noise.
GLEAM and GLPG:- The Green Lanes Environmental Action Movement (GLEAM) – [www.gleam-uk.org] was founded in April 1995 by David Gardiner and Elizabeth Still, to co-ordinate the opposition to the off-roaders across the country, and to mobilise opinion against the rape of our green lanes. FoR was amongst the first of GLEAM’s members, and GLEAM’s national spread and the expertise and sterling efforts of its founders and its Honorary Adviser, Graham Plumbe, proved invaluable in the campaign. An off-shoot of GLEAM, The Green Lanes Protection Group (GLPG), an association of organisations opposing off-road use of green lanes, led by David Gardiner and by FoR’s Chairman, Ian Ritchie, proved an effective lobbyist for legislative change.
Legislation:- Problems mainly arose from the unsatisfactory definition by the !949 Act of “Roads used as a Public Path”, or RUPPs, since this did not determine vehicular rights. The 1968 Countryside Act introduced the further class of “Byway Open to All Traffic” or BOATs, but also failed to define this classification. The Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 introduced a revised test based on proof of existing vehicular rights; but this also failed to address the problem satisfactorily, since it left complainants with the almost impossible task of proving no past vehicular use. Attempts in 1986 to introduce a Traffic Regulation Order (TRO) on some sections of the Ridgeway under the 1984 Road Traffic Regulation Act were overturned at a Public Enquiry in 1992, in favour of an ineffective Code of Voluntary Restraint, but some seasonal TROs were achieved later. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act, 2000, abandoned the unsatisfactory RUPP definition, in favour of the new form of “Restricted Byway”, but allowed drivers using such routes to claim the defence of prior vehicular rights, which could be established by pre-motor traffic; in other words, previous use by a horse and cart could justify use by an articulated motor truck! This remaining problem was addressed, hopefully finally, by ss 66-72 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act, 2006, which effectively extinguishes future claims to BOAT status. Once existing claims for this designation have been settled, the main legal issues should have been laid to rest.
The Present Position:-. Most of The Ridgeway sections in Oxfordshire and West Berkshire, previously classified as BOATs, have now been reclassified as Restricted Byways and therefore banned to motor vehicles. There are now only about 3 miles of the trail that are open to motor vehicles all the year round. A further 14 miles in Wiltshire, including a section through the Avebury World Heritage Site (WHS), is still the subject of a TRO and has motor vehicle rights for 5 months each summer. It has become increasingly clear that damage is being caused by motor vehicle use even during the summer to the underlying archaeology within the WHS, and Wiltshire Council is being pressed to control this. We will continue to campaign for a complete ban on all non-essential motor vehicles along the whole of The Ridgeway.