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Council insists that issue of proesecuting child would not have been raised, but story highlights continued tension

The mother of a five-year-old boy cycling on Weymouth promenade last Saturday has described her shock at being told by one of the local council’s beach enforcement officers that her son would need to get off his bike or face being prosecuted, although a council official has put forward a different version of events.

The Dorset Echo reports that Harry Besant of Weymouth, whom his mother says enjoys cycling to school as well as at weekends while she walks alongside him, was among the cyclists warned for riding on the prom last weekend.

The incident happened close to the Jubilee Clock, and Mrs Besant described how she had seen a Beach Patrol Officer tell an adult cyclist to get off their bike.

“The man headed towards us and said: ‘He needs to get off his bike.’ “I was in a bit of shock. I said: ‘He is only five.’ His reply was: ‘It doesn’t matter. If he continues he will be prosecuted like anyone else.’ I was just like: ‘I can’t believe it.’ I was so cross.”

Legally, a child under ten cannot be prosecuted in England, and a spokesman for the council denied that the Beach Patrol Officer had threatened the youngster with prosecution.

Mrs Besant revealed that her son had been “quite upset” at receiving the warning and that he had not wanted to cycle “for the rest of the day,” including when they returned along the prom later in the evening when it was quieter, since he was afraid he would get into trouble.

While she accepted that the Beach Patrol Officer was carrying out his job, she maintained that steps should be taken to ensure that the promenade could be enjoyed by all.

“I just feel it’s unfair,” she explained. “Don’t get me wrong, there are irresponsible cyclists as well as responsible ones, but I think it’s unfair that there is a land train, which has a motorised engine that can go on the promenade but a child can’t ride a bike.”

She pointed out that while there is a cycle path on Preston Beach Road away from the town centre, there was no provision for cyclists closer to town.

“There’s a massive Olympic campaign to get people walking and cycling,” she said, adding: “I don’t think we are catering to people on bikes or children to be able to get into town on bike.”

“I really feel it’s an unfair bylaw,” concluded Mrs Besant.

In 2009, the council revealed that following consultation with parties including local residents, it planned to work with Dorset Police to take action against anyone found cycling along the prom, saying in a written statement: “We are trying to make it absolutely clear. Cycling on the seafront is banned and anyone caught after August 1 will be prosecuted.”

It subsequently backed down from that hardline stance, but not before the issue had hit headlines locally after 29-year-old Lucy Horwood, a coach for the Great Britain windsurfing team, described how police had threatened her with prosecution and a £500 fine for riding along a near-deserted prom at 7.30am.

Local cycle campaigners had warned that continuing to ban cyclists from the prom meant that they had to ride along roads with busy traffic instead, but the council has continued to enforce the ban, mainly through warnings although it has said that it will seek to prosecute those who are riding in such as way that they may endanger others.

Weymouth and Portland Borough Council’s spokesman for Leisure and Tourism, Andy Blackwood, apologised for any distress the incident may have caused but pointed out that the council had a duty to enforce rules regarding cycling on the prom.

“The Esplanade is enjoyed by thousands of people every year including pedestrians and those using the land train,” he said.

“We do our best, working in partnership with Dorset Police, to make the Esplanade a safe and pleasant place for all to enjoy.

“We certainly do not want to upset children or their parents whilst carrying out our duties and, if this has happened in this particular case, we would like to apologise.

“However, we have a statutory responsibility to administer the by-laws governing cycling along the Esplanade,” he continued.

“Whilst we have no formal record of this event, we would like to point out that our beach patrol officers face many situations where they may exercise discretion, and whilst it is possible one of them may have been over zealous, generally they do try very hard to do their job in a responsible and proportionate way for the safety of all who use the Esplanade.”

The story appeared on the Dorset Echo’s front page, with the online version prompting dozen of comments and causing Councillor Blackwood to write to the newspaper to provide further clarification.

In that letter, which also appears as a comment to the online story, he said: “At no stage in dealing with the case of a child riding along the promenade would any kind of prosecution have been mentioned or “threatened”. The beach attendant’s role is to advise members of the public about the byelaws relating to the seafront.

“A common sense attitude is taken when dealing with young children both by the police and ourselves,” he went on.

“The cycling issue is a very contentious one within the local community which is why a complete review of the relevant byelaw was undertaken throughout 2005 (including widespread consultation with the community) with full council debating the matter in 2008 resulting in relaxing the byelaw along Preston Beach but voting to retain and enforce the no cycling byelaw along Weymouth and Greenhill Promenades.

Councillor Blackwood pointed out that both the council and the police had “been under constant pressure from the community and some sections of the media to enforce the no cycling byelaw,” highlighting an incident last year that left a pensioner with a broken leg after he was hit by a cyclist on the prom.

“At no time would the prospect of prosecuting a 5 year old child have been mentioned – my understanding is that the mother asked the attendant if we would prosecute a 5 year old child and the attendant said “no – only adults are considered for prosecution,” he added.

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.