Our North England team were delighted to win the Open Country Good Access Scheme award for three Yorkshire projects on the National Cycle Network. Open Country Chief Officer, David Shaftoe explains why we need to keep removing and redesigning barriers so that everyone can enjoy the Network.
Open Country is a Yorkshire-based charity helping disabled people to access and enjoy the countryside. The charity also provides landowners and countryside sites with advice on making the outdoors more accessible.
There is much to be gained from encouraging inclusive access in our countryside, as disabled people are a powerful force for good in the outdoors.
Improving access for people with a disability benefits all visitors.
Although the UK has a long way to go, it is important to celebrate those projects which are embracing this.
We started the Good Access Scheme award in 2015 to recognise good practice throughout Yorkshire.
This year we were delighted to see that Sustrans had completed three fantastic projects on our patch and were leading the way in access for all.
Sustrans’ team in Yorkshire completed an extension of the cycle path from Thorp Arch to Newton Kyme.
And this created a 6km traffic-free route linking Wetherby and Newton Kyme.
Their project on Route 69 of the National Cycle Network has also connected Castleford and Wakefield Greenway.
And this link provides cyclists and walkers with 16km of accessible paths.
Their recent resurfacing work at the Yorkshire Showground has improved a popular walking and cycling route linking the town and surrounding countryside.
The work is part of an exciting vision to create a UK-wide network of safe and accessible paths for everyone, removing 16,000 barriers.
Better access to the countryside for thousands of more people
All the projects feature sealed tarmac surfaces and were fully compliant with access design standards.
The three routes in question are all on the urban fringe, which means that thousands of people are benefitting from them.
These schemes don’t just help people with disabilities. Everyone experiences health and wellbeing benefits from easier access to the outdoors.
Every barrier, however well designed, will disenfranchise someone - it’s like taking a sledge hammer to crack a nut.
Value of the Network
The National Cycle Network has never been more valuable than it is now.
During the pandemic, we have been encouraged not to travel and stay close to home, but at least people can get out and visit their local path.
At Open Country we often find that the best routes are on the National Cycle Network.
Every year our tandem club chooses a route from the Network to cycle cross-country with our volunteers and disabled members.
Routes we've completed so far included the Transpennine Trail, the C2C and the Way of the Roses.
Route improvements to the Network locally mean that our members who use scooters and larger wheelchairs can also benefit.
Yet accessible paths are still fairly fragmented in Yorkshire, as in most of the country.
If we want an accessible route for our groups we will often need to travel for it.
That may mean transporting bikes and wheelchairs in minibuses.
There are forward-thinking councils and landowners who are making progress in this area, while in some other areas the reverse is true.
For example, Bridlington converted the seafront and made it accessible for all.
Bolton Abbey estate has also done good work creating accessible paths and striving to improve their infrastructure.
‘Build it and they will come’ often applies here - disabled people will love to visit places with good, inclusive access - with all the socio-economic benefits their presence will bring.
But there is still so much more that could be done.
And it's not just about physical access.
Other barriers to welcoming disabled people into the countryside can include a lack of accessible information, lack of support, lack of accessible transport and lack of financial resources.
Thus it is important to think widely.
A countryside manager could foreseeably have the most physically accessible site in the land and yet still have few disabled visitors if other access factors have not been considered.
There are 14 million disabled people in the UK - that’s 20% of the population.
Any manager who did not consider a fifth of their potential clientele must surely be deemed a failure?
It’s like taking a sledge hammer to crack a nut
We need to change the mindset that the way to stop anti-social behaviour is to create a 'Fort Knox' style barrier.
In my experience, you wouldn’t expect to see a barrier on a cycle route in the Netherlands.
Every barrier, however well designed, will disenfranchise someone - it’s like taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
Motorbikers can easily find a gap in the hedge somewhere further down.
But disabled people and people with pushchairs, larger bicycles and so on will not be able to pass through the barrier.
Better to do something than nothing
As an organisation, we prefer to work with landowners rather than berate them.
We advocate taking the ‘Least Restrictive Option’ as it’s better to do what you can rather than do nothing at all.
To illustrate, start by clearing overhanging branches or painting obtrusive tree roots white so that visually impaired people can see them.
If you have inaccessible stiles between nothing but fields of turnips, can they be quietly removed without impacting on livestock management?
Any access improvements will help until you can do more in the long term.
There is no room for complacency.
Improving access should be an ongoing concern for all of us.
And our Good Access Scheme award will continue to recognise and celebrate those going the extra mile to make access a priority in the countryside.
About Open Country
Open Country is a Yorkshire-based charity helping disabled people to access and enjoy the countryside.
The charity also provides landowners and countryside sites with advice on making the outdoors more accessible.
About the author of this blog
David Shaftoe has been Chief Officer for Open Country since 1998.
He oversees the day to day running of the charity and previously worked as a Countryside Ranger for Ipswich and Wakefield councils and as a Youth Development Worker for Bradford Environmental Education Service.