They involve a public body’s decision not to make an investment that could have saved lives, and one of the region’s largest landowners claiming huge tax relief for allowing additional public access to his land, and then restricting it.
The Bolton Abbey estate in Wharfedale is owned by the Duke of Devonshire and made the news in April when cyclists reported that security guards were stopping them from crossing a bridge many had used for decades to access a popular cafe, the Cavendish Pavilion.
But the cafe and the bridge weren’t the real story, which is that the Duke has an exemption from inheritance and capital gains tax known as a conditional exemption. That’s a promise to provide a public benefit in return for a tax exemption, in the Duke’s case, an undertaking to the taxman to allow the public additional access to his 30,000- acre estate.
There’s over 80 miles of moorland track across the estate, and the Duke’s undertaking to HMRC promises access to permissive bridleways, which can be used by cyclists and horse riders, except there don’t appear to be any.
On the ground, the tracks are covered with no cycling signs, and the access for people on foot is only what they’re legally entitled to anyway, as much of the land is designated as open access land.
Incredibly, finding out exactly what additional access the Duke has agreed with the taxman to secure a tax break is almost impossible, because HMRC won’t disclose the heritage management plan the estate had to produce, claiming it’s confidential.
So, the Duke commits to allow access to his land, but there’s no public record of exactly what, for whom and where, HMRC won’t say how it ensures that what’s been promised is being delivered, and the public don’t know whether they’re entitled to cycle over the Duke’s estate. I think they are, and if the Duke or HMRC disagree, they can disclose what’s been agreed and explain how the public benefit from the tax relief given, because I can’t see any.
To the east of Bolton Abbey, the Humber Bridge Board embarked on another bike ban in April, in this case preventing both pedestrians and cyclists from crossing the bridge for several weeks.
The background to this decision is tragic, and the board was rightly facing calls to take action to reduce the suicide risk from the bridge. Every loss of life though suicide is horrific. However, this is not a problem unique to the board and the Humber Bridge.
It’s an awful fact, but suicides at major bridges have been a global tragedy for decades, but I’m not aware of anyone else trying to solve this by banning people from walking or cycling across a bridge. That’s because the answer lies in fixing the infrastructure, but that costs money.
The board has known this for years. The parapet height across the bridge along the walkways is less than minimum design standards and Public Health England guidance. It has seen the published research showing that increasing barrier height along walkways reduces deaths by nearly 69 per cent. The board trialled increasing the barrier height on one section 12 years ago, and its own minutes and reports showed that at that time the estimated cost of raising the barrier height across the entire bridge was £4m, but it didn’t action this.
Two bridges and two bike bans. One about personal rather than public benefit, the other concerning a public body wanting to be seen to be doing something because it hadn’t done what was needed.
I saw a poll a couple of months ago asking whether people agreed that the Humber Bridge should be closed to cyclists and pedestrians.
We often see polls when there’s a story about cycling, and sadly they tend to polarise opinion. But with the Duke and the board, the cyclists were merely pawns in a tale of greed and incompetence.
My question to the board is when it intends to fix the infrastructure, and to the Duke when will he clarify what additional access he’s allowing to his estate in return for a tax exemption.
My plea to both is to stop banning people from a healthy activity and means of travel and look for more intelligent solutions.
Duncan Dollimore is head of campaigns at Cycling UK.
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