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Alun Michael Launches Proposals On Use Of Off-Road Vehicles On Rights Of Way

Proposals to curtail the inappropriate use of mechanically propelled vehicles on countryside rights of way are outlined in a public consultation launched today by Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael.

The consultation responds to widespread concern about problems caused by the use of mechanically propelled vehicles - including motorbikes, quad bikes and 4x4s - whose users can currently claim rights of way for such vehicles on the basis that the routes were historically employed by horse-drawn carriages.

Alun Michael said:

"The way we use our public rights of way has changed dramatically over the past hundred years.

"The use made of them today is often inconsistent with the uses for which they were originally established - in many cases long before the internal combustion engine was invented. Over time, the process for acquiring rights for the use of modern vehicles has also become inappropriate and unsustainable.

"I am acutely aware of the concern shared by members of the public, and from conservation and recreation organisations, about evidence of damage to fragile tracks and other aspects of our natural and cultural heritage.

"These proposals now aim to balance the interests of individuals and organisations with appropriate protection for the tranquility and conservation value of the countryside."

A public right of way can be established through historical documentary sources, on the basis of long public use of a route, or through express dedication. The Road Traffic Act 1930 made it a criminal offence to drive a motor vehicle on a footpath, bridleway, or elsewhere than on a road, which means that while some pre-1930 vehicular rights may have been acquired through motor vehicle use most were acquired through use by horse and cart. Similarly, express dedication of rights of way for vehicles largely arose before mechanically propelled vehicles were in common use.

The consultation focuses on three main areas:

- The better enforcement of existing powers to manage vehicle use;

- A limit to the basis on which new rights of way may be acquired for mechanically propelled vehicles, and

- An end to the situation whereby historic use by horse-drawn vehicles, or dedications made before the existence of the internal combustion engine, can give rise to a right of use by modern mechanically propelled vehicles. This will provide greater certainty about the public vehicular rights that exist.

New legislation would utilise the category of 'restricted byway', introduced by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, to prevent future use by non-mechanically vehicles giving rise to rights for mechanically propelled vehicles.

The legislation would, with some exceptions, also introduce a cut-off date a year from commencement, from when it would no longer be possible to establish a 'byway open to all traffic' on the evidence of past use by non-mechanically propelled vehicles.

Earlier Government action towards addressing these problems has included strengthening section 34 of the Road Traffic Act - so that the burden of proof that vehicular rights exist now rests with the defence, rather than the prosecution - and extending the scope of the Act to include all mechanically propelled vehicles, since the legal
definition of a 'motor vehicle' did not cover some commonly used vehicles including off-road bikes and quad bikes.

The new proposals also take account of the Government's decision not to proceed with implementation of the new section 34A of the Road Traffic Act 1988. This had sought to limit the circumstances in which a defence could be offered against the charge of driving on certain rights of way, but now has been rejected because of its
incompatibility with European human rights legislation.

In its place, the consultation proposals acknowledge this as part of a wider problem and take a more direct approach to the root of the issues.

The consultation will run until 19 March 2004. The full consultation document is published online at

Issued by : DEFRA Press Office
ref :52103 9 December 2003



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