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Minister promises action and cash for equestrian access

On 11 October, the British Horse Society's Legal and Technical Officer, John Hall, with representatives of the Byways & Bridleways Trust and the National Federation of Bridleways Associations, met Minister of State for the Environment, Michael Meacher, to push home the need for better equestrian access. It was a positive meeting and the BHS welcomes Mr. Meacher's interest and support.

The BHS welcomed assurances from the Minister that the government would make £2m available annually to the voluntary sector to assist with researching evidence and claiming new rights of way. The Minister also agreed to give serious consideration to the BHS suggestion that the Countryside Agency should regulate and administer local authority rights of way funds, to ensure they weren't spent propping up shortfalls in local authorities' highways budgets.

The proposed closure of the definitive map was a major issue. The BHS has lobbied hard to prevent the cut off date being reduced. During the Lords' debate, Lord Whitty pushed our case. He said: "We believe that 25 years is the target we should work to. The task is achievable in that time, provided that priority is given to it and provided that resources are allocated to it. That has not been the case in the past."

The BHS gave the Minister examples of claims taking 12 years or more to determine and Mr Meacher assured us that there would be a 'saving' measure to ensure that undetermined applications at the cut-off date would not be lost.

The Minister confirmed that the new crime-related diversion and extinguishments provisions were aimed mainly at urban areas. The BHS cited examples of many Metropolitan Boroughs that were actually 80% rural areas. The Minister understood our concerns and agreed that the crime provisions were not to be an excuse for closing a public right of way by the 'back door', and would be closely controlled by government guidance.

A number of other issues were discussed and the Minister promised to consider the points we had raised and to write to us within two weeks. It was a very useful and positive meeting, and those present were able to convey to the Minister some of the problems faced by bridleways officers. We now await Mr Meacher's response.

Stephanie Wheeler, Chairman of the BHS Access and Rights of Way Advisory Group said: "We are delighted that hard work and intense lobbying is showing positive results, but the process is far from over and we must keep up the pressure to ensure riders' access needs stay high on the government's agenda. The promise of funds to assist the efforts of access volunteers is particularly welcomed. The BHS is extremely grateful to all those who have worked with us to ensure our voice is heard: our members, who have lobbied their own MPs and Members of the Lords so effectively, and particularly Alan Kind of the Byways & Bridleways Trust, and Robert Halstead and Susan Carter of the National Federation of Bridleways Associations for their support, expertise and not inconsiderable efforts in putting a successful presentation of our case to the Minister."

The Countryside and Rights of Way Bill completed its committee stage in the House of Lords and was reported, with amendments, on October 16. Intense lobbying by horse riders has had a beneficial effect. Many detrimental amendments have been defeated, and firm commitments have been made that further beneficial amendments will be made when the Bill returns to the Commons at the end of this month.

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