The New Forest National Park Authority (NFNPA) has defended its record on cycling, saying it has invested more than £2m on improving cycle facilities, reports The Daily Echo. The comments come in response to a suggestion from Cycling UK that local opposition to cycling has often been “entirely irrational.”
Earlier this month, the NFPNA’s head of recreation management and learning reported that the New Forest Cycle Event Organisers’ Charter "seems to have stood the test of time" following its introduction in 2015.
The charter came about following sabotage of sportives, reports of bad behaviour by some participants and problems caused by date clashes with pony drifts.
Citing reasons such as improved communication between organisers and the local community, Nigel Matthews wrote that, “for the majority of the year (as in 2015), cycle events seemed to take place more peacefully than in the past.”
Nevertheless, the New Forest’s cycling reputation remains poor. In 2014, the NFNPA was told to hand back £1.5 million of government money allocated for cycling after the Department for Transport (DfT) rejected two schemes it had planned to spend the money on. One of those, accounting for £1.25 million, was criticised for being more focused on road maintenance than on cycling.
Cycling UK has previously contrasted the attitude to cycling in the New Forest with that in the Yorkshire Dales, suggesting that opposition to cycling events is often “entirely irrational.”
In its September 2016 response to the inquiry by the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the charity recommended that the duty to promote opportunities for outdoor recreation should be enshrined within National Parks’ legislation.
"For years increased access for walkers was opposed on the basis it would lead to devastation in the countryside. Sadly the same arguments are still being trotted out to oppose improved access for cyclists.
"While one national park (the Yorkshire Dales) has recently welcomed the Tour de France, broadcasting 'God's own country' globally, another (the New Forest) has been forced to hand back grant funding to the government after cancelling a public hire bike scheme due to anti-cycling sentiment among local decision-makers.
"This opposition to cycling is often entirely irrational. Extensive research into issues such as wildlife disturbance, erosion and perceptions of conflict has repeatedly disproved the relevant arguments."
Responding this week, the NFNPA's head of recreation, Nigel Matthews, said:
"The Forest’s extensive network of waymarked gravel tracks and superb natural environment make it a great place for a leisurely bike ride.
"Since 2013 we have invested over £2 million to improve the national park for cyclists, including improved cycle hire facilities, miles of new and improved off-road cycle paths and improved infrastructure for storing bikes.
"As a result of our work on the Cycle Event Organisers’ Charter the management of on-road cycle sportive events is also much improved. We remain fully committed to protecting and enhancing the local environment and promoting opportunities for public enjoyment."
Sam Jones, Campaigns coordinator at Cycling UK said that currently cyclists can only legally access less than 100 miles of over 300 miles of the New Forest’s network of off-road gravel tracks, while logging trucks and horse and carts are free to use them.
“That simply doesn’t make sense. If the New Forest is serious about encouraging cycling while minimising conflict, then these unnecessary and unjustified restrictions should be lifted.”
On the issue of conflict, he added: “Unfortunately with any group, whether driving, cycling, walking or horse riding, there will always be the potential for individuals to behave irresponsibly. Such behaviour should never be endorsed, but nor should it be used to tarnish a whole.
“Recently Cycling UK, together with the Ramblers and the British Horse Society, gave evidence to Parliament, where the agreement between all our organisations is that there is no evidence of systematic conflict between our groups.
“It is the perception of conflict which is getting in the way of progress, and we would urge the New Forest National Park Authority not to be swayed by “anecdata” but to emulate other national parks by promoting opportunities for outdoor recreation.”