Local cyclists have slammed the New Forest National Park Authority's (NFNPA) proposals to redirect some of a £3.57 million grant for cycling facilities into road maintenance and funding facilities outside the park. The Department for Transport money was intended to support the first rural Boris Bike-style hire scheme and a family cycling centre, but NFNPA now plans to spend it on resurfacing roads and other projects with only the most tenuous connection to cycling in the New Forest.
The proposals, dubbed 'Plan B' by local riders, have been hastily drawn up by the NFNPA after it voted to axe the original scheme because of local opposition.
The largest proposed expenditure will go on repairing the edges of a six-mile section of road in the forest, Rhinefield Drive. The NFNPA says it will spend £1,275,000 to "‘cycle proof’ an important on-road route through the centre of the National Park. Upgrade road edges on both sides (without road widening), creating a consistent, high quality surface for cyclists to access this key scenic route through the heart of the National Park."
Critics of the plan say this is using cycling funding to repair a road damaged by motor vehicles.
New Forest Cyclist, a local cyclist and prolific tweeter who founded a petition to save the hire bike scheme, says: "I cycle this road regularly, and this proposal is not needed or wanted by cyclists. It will only benefit drivers, who will be able drive faster on this road once it has been improved or widened, and it will not increase cycle trips, so it simply doesn't deliver the DfT's stipulated outcomes."
He points out that the DfT's grant is intended to be used for capital projects while this is road maintenance, and he casts doubt on the NFNPA's claim that the repairs will not widen Rhinefield Drive. "Road widening by stealth" is a big issue in the forest, he says. "The damage caused to this road has been done solely by motorists, why should cycling funding be used in this way?"
The NFNPA also plans to spend money on two other projects that are arguably resurfacing and maintenance work, rather than meeting the DfT requirement for ideas that demonstrate a "high quality of scheme design and innovation".
Replacing gravel with, er, gravel
The national park will spend £140,000 resurfacing 16 miles of Forestry Commission gravel roads, replacing the current loose gravel with "a more compacted path gravel surface".
"This will not lead to an increase in cycle trips, or an increase in number of cyclists," says New Forest Cyclist. "The gravel track network is currently very disjointed and of negligible benefit to cyclists."
Another maintenance project that has been rolled into the plan is the resurfacing of the A35 Lyndhurst to Ashurst cycleway. The £700,000 track was opened six years ago and the authority now plans to spend £130,000 "upgrading" its surface.
The NFNPA says DfT approval has already been granted for this expenditure, which is curious as it's hard to see how this amounts to capital expenditure and not maintenance. It's also not clear if the necessary permission has been obtained from Natural England and the often vociferously anti-cycling New Forest Verderers.
New Forest Cyclist describes using this path as "terrifying" as the narrow grass strip between the path and the A35 puts cyclists "inches away from HGV's travelling at 60mph in the opposite direction". It also appears to be substantially narrower than the DfT's recommendation of 2.7m for a bidirectional path.
Most bizarrely, the NFNPA proposes to spend £300,000 on a project outside the boundary of the national park.
A few miles west of the New Forest, Moors Valley Country Park and Forest is an adventure park with a narrow gauge railway, golf course and Go Ape activities including zip-wires and Segway rides. Moors Valley doesn't charge entry, but four hours' parking costs £7.80 in the summer peak.
NFNPA intends to give £300,000 of the DfT's money to Moors Valley to develop its Family Cycling Centre. The authority says this "would provide higher quality experiences for a wide range of cyclists. Moors Valley intend to upgrade and expand their on-site cycle centre; improve their range of specialised routes for mountain bikers of all abilities; expand their inclusive cycling offer; and increase cycling education/taster opportunities for children and novices.
"While this is not within the National Park it is immediately adjacent and has good cycling and public transport links."
New Forest Cyclist disagrees. He says: "Moors Valley plays a role in keeping cyclists out of the National Park, but the DfT guidance's for this grant was all about increasing cycling within the park."
He also questions whether Moors Valley even needs the money. "Moors Valley is a commercially viable visitor attraction, operated by East Dorset Council and the Forestry Commission, funded almost entirely through car parking charges," he says.
He also questions the NFNPA's mention of Moors Valley's "links". "Nearly 100% of visitors drive there," he says. "It has no cycling links to the New Forest whatsoever."
Unlike the original plan for a hire bike system and the Brockenhurst Family Cycling Centre, the NFNPA's 'Plan B' proposals have not been subjected to any public consultation, and even a cursory glance at the proposal for those schemes and NFNPA's Plan B shows the latter to be half-baked at best.
New Forest Cyclist tweeted this morning that he had just attended a NFNPA meeting to discuss Plan B. There were, he says "constant member referrals to their parish/district/county council roles."
This failure of NFNPA members to understand their role is to manage a national asset and not pander to the objections of a small number of vociferous locals seems to be at the heart of the New Forest National Park's issues with cyclists.
New Forest Cyclist says: "As a local cyclist I'm quite simply sick to my stomach that a clearly 'anti cycling' local authority is now seeking to spend valuable cycling funding on schemes that will either only benefit motorists via resurfacing or will actually remove cyclists from the New Forest."
Plan B now awaits approval from the Department for Transport.
Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.
Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.
Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.
The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.