A LOCAL farmer has hit out at Hampshire County Council for putting cost above safety in its bid to create a section of the National Cycle Network (NCN) through the middle of what is a busy working farmyard.

Regarded as a key link in the Alton-to-Alresford part of the network, the proposed route, along an already established bridleway, would pass straight through the centre of Chawton Park Farm, encouraging a potentially hazardous mix of horse riders, walkers, cyclists and heavy farm machinery for which landowner Ken Robertson would be wholly responsible.

Furthermore, the aim would be to put down a harder, more durable surface which would not only enable cyclists to ride faster through the farmyard but would, it is feared, encourage undesirable use by motorcyclists.

While not opposed to the idea of a National Cycle Network, Mr Robertson is angry because he believes HCC is seeking to ride rough-shod over what he sees as very real safety issues.

ÒAs the person with the right to work the land and live on it I am responsible under the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act for ensuring the safety of those working on the farm and also persons affected by its operations. That covers cyclists, walkers, horse riders and even trespassers,Ó pointed out Mr Robertson.

ÒIt is a huge responsibility and I condemn the attitude of HCC whose officers seem set on ignoring the warnings of those of us who are closely involved with the risks, by taking the cheapest option regardless of the consequences. Ò

So concerned is Mr Robertson about the affect of introducing yet more cyclists on to the bridleway he has even offered land for two alternative routes, but these have been turned down on grounds of cost.

During a debate on the issue at East Hampshire District CouncilÕs north west area community committee, Mr Robertson spoke of an existing off-road cycle route which passes through Chawton Park Wood along its southern bridleway/byeway. While badly rutted and waterlogged in parts, due to use by 4x4 vehicles, if improved it would keep the cyclists away from the actual farmyard.

In addition, the Alton farmer has offered to donate a strip of land along the southern boundary of his estate which could be used as a designated cycleway, free of horses, which could be opened up also to wheelchair users.

The offers, however, met with a negative response from HCC recreational cycling officer Chris Gregory, who pointed out that the cost of bringing both routes up to a standard suitable for cyclists would be prohibitive.

A joint project involving Hampshire County Council, SUSTRANS, East Hampshire District Council and Forest Enterprise who own most of Chawton Park Wood, the proposal is to resurface the existing bridleway which runs through the farmyard and is already used by cyclists. The bridleway would be treated with limestone scalpings to form a solid yet unbound surface, considered in keeping with the surrounding environment.

The concern among horse riders, present at the meeting, was that horses and cycles do not mix. The hard surface, they felt, would encourage cyclists to speed along the track which could cause problems for those animals frightened of coming into close contact with bicycles. Worse still, the surface could encourage use by motorcyclists.

As well as the safety aspect, horse riders were angry because while they have to pay to ride in Chawton Park Woods, it is not proposed to charge cyclists.

Chris Gregory told the meeting that to charge could act as a deterrent to cyclists and as such Forest Enterprise had agreed to wave the fee. It was an issue, he said, that user groups would have to take up with Forest Enterprise.

The off-road route which would run from the Alton Sports Centre end of Chawton Park Wood through to Boyneswood Road at Medstead would, said Mr Gregory, enable additional sections of the National Cycle Network to be opened up between Basingstoke through to Alresford. More than 7,000 miles of NCN already exist nationwide and an additional 3,000 miles of network will be opened by 2005.

While councillors supported the idea of an off-road recreational cycle link through Chawton Park Wood, they expressed concern over the safety issues which could arise from mixing cycles with horses and heavy farm machinery and of a route which would run through the centre of a busy farmyard.

l Chris Gregory also confirmed that Hampshire County Council was hoping eventually to construct a wider utility cycle link which would run along the verge of the A31 to link Alton and Four Marks. Due to the potential high cost of this route, it is likely, said Mr Gregory, to be a longer term option.