Concerns about access have been voiced ever since the Government began talking about it’s proposals for the public forest estate disposal. Only lately are these concerns crystallising into real worries as people understand more of the potential impact.
Here’s a roundup of some of the coverage and statements from concerned organisations:
Campaigners have now released a letter from civil servants suggesting that cyclists and horse riders will have no guaranteed use in future of what is currently public woodland.
The letter, sent earlier this month by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to a riding group in Suffolk, stated: “There are currently no plans to designate the public forest estate with higher rights of access to include provision of access for cyclists and equestrians.” However, it would be up to the new owner to decide if they wish to continue any permissive access arrangements. Last night Defra officials insisted that the letter was “out of date” following ministerial guarantees last week.
However, The Sunday Telegraph has established that almost 40,000 hectares – 15 per cent of the English forest estate – is not covered by the guarantee.
A Defra spokesman told this newspaper: “You are right to say this 15 per cent being sold off will not have the same guarantees of access that the land has at the moment.”
British Horse Society
Equestrian access to thousands of acres of England’s forests could be lost if public forests are sold off as part of the Government’s efforts to plug the national deficit. A consultation on the future of the public forest estate opened this morning and the Society is urging all equestrians to respond.
As it stands, horse riders have access to just 22 percent of public rights of way and horse-drawn vehicle drivers a mere five percent – therefore the loss of any other safe off-road riding opportunities in our forests would be devastating for equestrians if access is not preserved.
Horse & Hound Magazine
Woodland hacking enjoyed by thousands of riders is in peril as the government prepares to sell off at least 15% of Forestry Commission land.
And although rights of way for walkers will be safeguarded, the new landowners will be under no obligation to allow riders on their land.
Mark Weston, British Horse Society (BHS) director of access, told H&H: “It is imperative that informal equestrian access is formalised before land is sold off. Thousands of miles of riding are at stake.”
Cycle Touring Club
The Forestry Commission provides around 20% of all off-road cycle access in England, with a standard of usability far greater than that found on the rights of way (RoW) network, making it attractive both to mountain bikers and the family cyclist.
While woodland owners outside the Forestry Commission have a reasonable track record for encouraging access on foot, this is not the case for cycling, with only a handful of woodlands open for cycles including Crown Estates at Bracknell, Ladybower Woods in the Peak District and Penshurst Woods in Kent.
Increased burden of management, the desire for privacy, liability issues, and conflict with shooting interests are cited as the main reasons for this lack of enthusiasm.
There are around 10,000km of trail open to offroad cyclists within English Forestry Commission woodlands including 8,700 km of gravel tracks and 1,400km of waymarked challenge and family trails.
All of the English Forestry Commission freehold forests have been dedicated in perpetuity for public access on foot through s16 of theCountryside & Rights of Way Act 2000. None has been dedicated for cycling.
British Mountaineering Council
Millions of people enjoy the recreational and environmental qualities that our English woodlands provide. Currently, all Forestry Commission-owned land is open access land under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CROW) and this will continue if and when it is sold. However, the commission only owns the freehold to around 200,000 acres of land, the rest being leasehold. It is these areas of land that will be most vulnerable to potential change as access is only by permission and may not be guaranteed as part of a sale.
Although the Government has said that access provisions under CROW would continue for any privatised forests, these could also be challenged by new owners and there may be no legal obligation for owners to maintain footpaths and tracks, and car parks could be closed. The fear is that rules on access and environmental protection may be waived to encourage the private sector to offer the best price.
The BMC along with other leading recreational organisations are currently opposing those elements of the Public Bodies Bill which give Government wide ranging powers to alter the nature of bodies which hold land for public benefit and who do so in trust. In particular, we are seeking assurances that as a condition of any future sale of land, that public access is secured and protected for future generations.
The consultation does not guarantee current permissive access but – “Where there is currently permissive access, for example by bike and horse, we will seek to secure equivalent rights as part of any transfer to new owners and managers”. Permissive access can and has in the past been removed by new landowners very fast and gives no security of access.
The Ramblers feels that the more people who can enjoy the countryside the better, we work with other users to get the best access for all and will do so to ensure that access is at the top of the agenda when sales are considered.
What about the public benefits of Forestry Commission land in providing facilities such as signs, toilets and carparks? These are all provided for on a permissive basis and any new landowner can remove them.