Ride Sheffield’s relationship with Derbyshire County Council (DCC) has been somewhat fractious over the years. In an effort to create a more cooperative atmosphere, we recently met with Allison Thomas, Assistant Director for Planning and Environment and Richard Bonner, Assistant Head of Countryside Service. The primary reason for the meeting was to impress on DCC that while we reserve the right to criticise them for some of the less sympathetic work they’ve carried out on Peak District bridleways, we’re also keen to offer alternative solutions and forge a working relationship.
Obviously, given past history, there was a slight air of suspicion in the early exchanges, with the DCC representatives citing some of the posts on this very site. (I’ve included some links at the end of this post so you can judge for yourselves whether we’ve simply been critical or constructive in the past.)
The meeting convened on the Fox House end of Houndkirk Road where the idea was to demonstrate that blanket sanitisation of byways, (like Stanage Causeway), isn’t always necessary. Sheffield Rights of Way Team (SRWT) have done a great job by creating a flat track on one side of Houndkirk Road while leaving the other side for those who fancy a bit of a challenge, retaining much of the character of this ancient byway, bedrock and all.
Ride Sheffield was left in no doubt that local authorities face some major challenges not least the threat of legal action by members of the public who consider that a bridleway or byway isn’t being maintained to a suitable standard. And therein lies the rub. Local authorities are being starved of resources by central government and are being forced to choose between defending a legal action they will almost inevitably lose or simply sanitising the trail in question. It’s not difficult to understand why in these austere times and given the current legislative framework, they often resort to the latter.
Ride Sheffield’s counter-argument is that much of the work carried out recently has deteriorated rapidly and is in some cases dangerously loose. Ironically, one of the most successful byway schemes recently is also the work of DCC. The Roych has suffered badly from 4×4 use and DCC have overhauled it using local stone in a way that satisfies all users. Unfortunately such a level of maintenance is expensive and being part of the Pennine Bridelway, the Roych benefits from revenue streams unavailable to normal rights of way.
Which is an indication of how local authorities are trapped by tight budgets and the current legal framework into short-termism of the worst kind. Threatened with legal action, they are forced to act quickly rather than with the long-term in mind. The work on the Roych could conceivably last for twenty years while some recent work utilising crushed gritstone or, worse still, road planings, will be lucky to last five.
Our second venue was Piper House Gate on Blackamoor. Although it had its critics at the time, this work by SRWT retained much of the character of the existing bridleway while facilitating the passage of regular horse traffic. It was carried out after consulting local horse riders and mountain bikers and has proved both hard-wearing and a workable compromise. Owing to time constraints, it wasn’t possible to show the DCC representatives some of the other successes on Blackamoor such as the volunteer efforts on Devil’s Elbow that have transformed a boggy track into a year-round option.
Our main point was that remedies for eroded tracks should be site-specific not one-size-fits-all. This however requires a level of consultation that DCC find difficult. They are legally obliged to talk to local access forums on which there are generally representatives of all user groups but actually working on a case by case basis with user groups is beyond them owing to budgetary constraints.
Which all sounds dreadfully pessimistic and, in a sense, it is. Current legislation places the second biggest user group in the great outdoors a very poor third on the pecking order. In spite of the growing economic effect of mountain biking and it’s obvious health benefits, we are all but invisible in the eyes of current rights of way legislation. DCC are fully aware of the aforementioned economic effect. However, given legal threats and dwindling funds, their hands are tied.
However, a few crumbs of comfort did come from the meeting. Unsurprisingly, they’re very interested in the volunteer work we’ve being doing and have forwarded the name of their volunteer officer so we can contact him. They’re also interested in putting together an authoritative study proving just how important mountain biking is to the Peak District’s economy.
Caught between a rock and a hard place it’s difficult not to have sympathy with hard-pressed public servants and perhaps we should reserve our anger for politicians who obviously care little for the rural economy or those who choose to enjoy themselves in the great outdoors.
A few previous posts on the subject of DCC –