Land once owned by Beatrix Potter at the heart of noisy 4x4 row
PUBLISHED: 13:11 06 October 2020
Should off-road vehicles be allowed to access peaceful parts of the Lake District?
For whom do our national parks exist? Are they for everyone to enjoy, whatever their favoured activity? Or are they purely for lovers of peace, tranquillity and the silence of the countryside?
The issue which has polarised opinion is whether 4x4s and motorbikes should be allowed to use a few of the old farm and quarry tracks in the Lake District. It is a debate which will rumble on into 2021, and probably beyond.
In August 2020 a judge ruled that the National Park Authority acted lawfully in allowing the use to continue, but that didn’t bring an end to the controversy.
Campaigners who had taken the authority to court immediately said they would fight on. They claim the passing of time and the tide of public opinion will inevitably result in such activities being banned eventually.
And the LDNPA itself recognised that they would have to do more to reconcile the two sides of the argument. It has promised to set up a new management group to monitor the activities in 2021.
In a sense we have been here before: when the 10mph speed limit was imposed on Windermere. Lovers of noisy machines – in that case jet-skis and motorboats – clashed with those seeking peace and quiet. In that case tranquillity won and the hospitality industry has thrived ever since.
But that debate was like a pebble in a pond compared with the glacial fury and abuse hurled about over allowing 4x4s and motorbikes to use Tilberthwaite Road and High Oxen Fell Road in Little Langdale, including land which was bequeathed to the National Trust by author and environmentalist Beatrix Potter.
The campaign to stop the motorised vehicles reached a crescendo in 2019. Protestors claimed the vehicles were noisy, intrusive and spoiled the enjoyment of Lakeland by other users, like walkers and cyclists.
One farming couple quit their National Trust property saying the vehicles were making it difficult to carry out their work. Other local residents and second-home owners weighed in.
Supporters of the vehicles say campaigners are elitist and only a few tracks are given over to the 4x4s, which give access to the Lake District to people who would not otherwise have the opportunity to enjoy its beauty, including those with restricted mobility.
One of the highest profile 4x4 users is Windermere-based leisure vehicle company Kankku. Their driver/ranger Nick Fieldhouse welcomed the LDNPA’s new committee.
‘When you are dealing with parties with opposing views, it is good to get together and try to understand the others’ views. Hopefully a compromise will mean neither side will get all of what they want, but a middle way can be found,’ he said.
Asked to describe the appeal of the 4x4s, he said: ‘The tracks are public roads and there is greater joy and connection with the landscape if you go onto the roads which aren’t tarred. Travelling around the Lake District by vehicle, the adventure starts when the roads get narrower, and when there is no tar, the public roads feel more natural and embedded in the landscape.’
He pointed out that users of the 4x4s were often walkers who wanted to explore by 4x4s as well. ‘It’s just another way of exploring the national park,’ he added.
When, in October, 2019, the rights of way sub-committee of the Lake District National Park Authority refused to ban the vehicles, campaigners took the case to court.
The case was funded by public donations with more than £64,000 raised. More than 2,000 people made contributions and 360,000 people signed a petition asking the LDNPA to put a stop to off-roading.
The case against the LDNPA was brought by a group calling themselves The Green Lanes Environmental Action Movement (GLEAM), although the two-day hearing in the High Court in Manchester was in the name of Patricia Stubbs, a retired corporate communications director from Sheffield.
In a reserved judgement Mr Justice Dove dismissed their case and ruled in favour of the Lake District National Park Authority.
Much of the debate hinged on the ‘Sandford Principle’, named after Lord Sandford, who chaired a 1974 review of the National Parks. It says that where there is apparent conflict between a national park’s dual functions of conservation and promoting public enjoyment, then greater weight must be given to conservation. The Sandford Principle became law when it was incorporated into the 1995 Environment Act.
But the judgement dismissed the claim on all three grounds; supporting LDNPA’s approach to the Sandford principle, its approach to a survey and consultation, which the campaigners said was selective, and the manner in which the matter was presented to the committee and the decision it reached.
Mr Justice Dove ruled that an Assessment Report compiled by officers to help the committee make its decision was not misleading and therefore the decision was legal.
It may have been legal, but was the LDNPA right?
GLEAM chairman Dr Mike Bartholomew said: ‘It is important to be clear about exactly what the court was considering.
‘It was not deciding, and we did not ask it to decide, whether off-roading on the two tracks should or should not continue, nor whether there should be Traffic Regulation Orders on the two routes. What we asked the court to consider was whether the way in which the LDNPA made its decision not to use its TRO powers was lawful.
‘We are of course disappointed in the judgment, but it does not change the fundamental issue, which is that off-roading in Little Langdale is damaging the natural beauty of this part of the National Park, and that the LDNPA is refusing to stop the damage, even though it has ample powers to do so.
‘GLEAM will continue to support the local campaign to get the LDNPA to make TROs on these two tracks.’
The claimant who took the case on behalf of GLEAM, Patricia Stubbs, said: ‘The legal challenge was about the way the LDNPA made its decision. It was not about whether LDNPA’s decision was the right one. Other National Parks faced with the environmental impact of off-road motor bikes and 4x4s use their legal powers to do something about it.
‘These legal powers were given to all the National Parks by Parliament in 2006 specifically to deal with off-roading. Instead of choosing to use their powers, the LDNPA has decided that protecting off-roading interests is more important than carrying out its primary statutory duty, which is to conserve natural beauty.
‘LDNPA says the park is for everyone. We agree. But it does not follow that every activity must be approved and facilitated. Notably, off-roading should be restricted and off-road motor vehicle users encouraged to enjoy the park in less damaging ways.’
The campaigners decided not to appeal against the judge’s ruling and there may be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
The LDNPA committee meeting agreed that Tilberthwaite Road should be maintained by Cumbria County Council and that a partnership management group of invited key partners and stakeholders be invited to work collaboratively to monitor usage and condition.
For the High Oxen Fell Road, again Cumbria County Council would maintain the road surface and LDNPA would work with them and the National Trust to monitor surface condition.
The forming of this group was put off, first by Covid19 and then by the court case. LDNPA confirms it will now be convened early in 2021.
GLEAM was hoping the new consultative group would be open to persuasion that TROs should be introduced in line with those in the other national parks. It seems unlikely that such an easy resolution will be agreed. So, like the off-road vehicles, the debate threatens to trundle on.