Drivers of 4x4 vehicles can continue to use off-road tracks in the Lake District after a judge dismissed a legal challenge from campaigners who argued the vehicles polluted the national park and endangered cyclists and ramblers.
A coalition of ramblers, cyclists and horse riders had appealed to the high court against a decision by the Lake District national park authority (LDNPA) to allow 4x4s and motorbikes to use two old farm and quarry tracks, known as green lanes, in the Langdale and Coniston valleys.
The case was brought by a group calling itself the Green Lanes Environmental Action Movement (Gleam).
The legal action was crowd-funded with more 2,000 people donating a total of £64,000. Over 374,000 people had signed a petition asking LDNPA to stop off-roading on tracks near Little Langdale once owned by Beatrix Potter and handed over to the National Trust in the 1930s and 1940s for future generations.
Commercial firms charge £175 for two-hour “technical” adventures driven in small convoys on the rocky tracks, promising to show drivers the Lake District’s hidden gems.
Campaigners claimed the vehicles were noisy, polluting and spoiled the enjoyment of the lakes by other users, like walkers and cyclists.
But the LDNPA argued that most of the walkers and cyclists using the greenways had driven to the start of their ramble or bike ride, and therefore were contributing to air pollution just as much as the 4x4 drivers.
It also claimed that mountain bikers, together with “a general increase in the severity and frequency of inclement weather”, had contributed to the erosion of Tilberthwaite Road, one of the contested routes. Alfred Wainwright, Britain’s most famous fell walker, once described the view from High Tilberthwaite as “the loveliest in Lakeland”, the quarry-marked scenery “surely one of the most interesting”.
Contrary to claims by the campaigners, the park insisted it had “no actual evidence of any accidents, incidents or injuries to any users of either of these roads”.
Plus, it said, “the use of roads such as this for off-road driving in the Lake District had developed soon after the development of the car”. As such, “it could be argued that the use of roads was part of the cultural history of the Lake District, albeit that was not in and of itself an indication that it was automatically an appropriate activity to continue into the modern era”.
It was using these justifications that the LDNPA rights of way sub-committee refused to ban the vehicles in October last year, prompting a swift legal challenge by the campaigners.
At the court hearing, the campaigners’ barrister, Katherine Barnes, argued the park had violated what is known as the “Sandford principle”.
The Sandford principle is 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 Mr Justice Dove ruled that an assessment report compiled by officers to help the committee make its decision was “a reliable and accurate interpretation” of the law.
Barnes had told the judge Gleam had had hundreds of responses to its survey. Typical responses were: “Pushed off road … Noise and fumes … ruins enjoyment of walking in this lovely area” and “the numbers of 4x4s ruins the enjoyment of walking in otherwise peaceful area”.
But in his 38-page ruling distributed to interested parties on Friday, the judge agreed with the park that it was hard to prove the limited, albeit increased, usage of motor vehicles was making the area less attractive to a degree where it was reducing tourism or outdoor activities in the area.
He dismissed Gleam’s case on all counts.
Gleam’s chairman, Mike Bartholomew, said the group would not give up: “We are very disappointed but the fight will go on.”
The group is hoping that a new consultative group set up by LDNPA, but suspended pending the judicial review, would now meet. They want to persuade the park to agree to traffic regulation orders, which may close the routes periodically, sometimes seasonally, as happens in other national parks.
A spokesperson for LDNPA said it was too soon to comment.
In the Lake District national park, there are 2,038 miles (3,280km) of public unsealed minor roads, byways open to all traffic, restricted byways, bridleways and footpaths. There are legally established, or presumed, motor vehicle rights on 75 miles of these.