THE future uses of an 800km network of historic lanes across England remains uncertain as an influential body hit deadlock over a proposal to automatically ban non-essential vehicles if they damaged the routes.

Green lanes – unsealed tracks that have never been tarmacadamed throughout their length – are survivors from the horse-drawn age, but have become a focus for controversy as groups representing conservationists, walkers, cyclists and horse riders claim the tracks are unsuitable for 4x4 vehicles and motorbikes.

A meeting of North Yorkshire’s Local Access Forum at County Hall, in Northallerton, heard the public purse was regularly being used to repair damage caused by motor vehicles to the routes, many of which are in the North York Moors and Yorkshire Dales national park.

Members were told £1.85m would be needed to bring the green lanes in up to the standard required for regular use by those entitled to use the network, but the authority had made little funding available for the works.

After highlighting in a report that £37,434 of North Yorkshire County Council staff time had been spent researching a handful of damaged green lanes, forum member Michael Bartholomew said the county’s stage-by-stage policy of dealing with damage to the lanes had led to “ruination of a beautiful feature of the landscape”.

He said: “They are a fabulous, beautiful recreational resource. There are issues where the amenity of one group damages the amenity of other groups. When those conflicts arise a decision has to be taken about whose amenity is primary. In the case of the countryside, our duties are to preserve the landscape and give opportunities for recreation to people. That seems to me to weigh against access by 4x4 vehicles and motorbikes.”

Mr Bartholomew said the council’s “default practice of spending large amounts of money on repair-and-reopen schemes, should be replaced by a policy that considers that whenever the state of a green lane becomes contentious, the first question to be asked is: ‘Is it in the public interest for this lane to remain open to non-essential vehicles?’”.

He said one green lane, Deadman’s Hill, between the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the Yorkshire Dales National Park used to be one of the most beautiful, remote green lanes in the county. But since 4x4 and motorbike use became popular, its condition and ambience had steadily been degraded.

Mr Bartholomew said the latest repairs by the council, which entailed the use of heavy equipment, were unlikely to last, given the impact that 4x4s and motorcycles make and yet the council had no plans to consider whether a permanent ban on non-essential vehicles was needed.

He said: “This undisturbed section, with its flagstones and its grass border is a reminder of what a superb, historic feature of the landscape the entire lane used to be. Deadman’s Hill is now ruined. A beautiful place has been made ugly, with no end in sight.”

However, Doug Cartwright, of the Trail Riders Fellowship, said work was needed on developing compromise solutions, such as getting volunteer groups to carry out repairs, to make the routes sustainable and accessible to all.

He said: “We are a local access forum, not a local prohibition forum. As a minority sport my colleagues will get together and put up £10,000 to challenge it in court.

“Unless we are prepared to compromise on either side it is just a complete and utter waste of time.”

The meeting was told the forum aimed to work alongside the national parks in developing a policy for the management of green lanes and members would be given more time to consider the details of a proposal to the council.