Save Hexham Lane

What happens when a small group of committed individuals decide to stand up against the weight of an unjust decision made by the authorities? Can they convince others to get behind them? Will they win?

Hexham Lane in the north of England has become the latest battleground in the fight for access to Green Roads in the UK. Recently closed, Tony Huntrod and Greg Villalobos (Northumbria TRF) teamed up with John Vannuffel (TRF Conservation Officer) to instigate the clubs first ever Crowdfunding campaign. They had 31 days to raise £10k. If they were a penny short they wouldn't get a thing. We caught up with them to find out how it all panned out...

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TRF:

Tony, there's been quite a lot of energy around the TRF this last month and it all seems to be down to Hexham Lane, a green road that we have actually lost. What's going on?
Tony:

Hexham Lane is an important green road in County Durham. It links the network of green roads in Northumberland with the lanes further south down to North Yorkshire. It was one of the first lanes that I rode when I started trail riding. Earlier this year a temporary TRO that had been in place for repairs was turned into a permanent TRO by Durham County Council. The positive energy has come from a campaign that Northumbria TRF have run to raise mount to take DCC to court and attempt to get the lane reopened.
TRF:

OK. Lets get onto the campaign in a moment, but first, can you give a little background as to how and why the lane was closed.
Tony:

Sure. About 3 years ago, after a particularly bad winter, Hexham Lane suffered damage through vehicular use. It looked like a minority of irresponsible 4x4 use in adverse weather had chewed up the track. In response, the landowner worked with DCC to get the lane closed while drainage was installed. A TRO was placed for a year, and extended by another year. A consultation was then run as to whether the lane should permanently be closed to vehicles. At this point we knew something was up and that the lane was under threat. We mounted a solid response with hundreds of TRF members writing in to object to the closure.

I went to the public hearing with the aim to speak on behalf of the TRF along with a GLASS representative. Unbelievably we were given a mere 2 1/2 minutes each to speak, and no opportunity to ask or answer questions! This in contrast to the one hour that DCC had to put their case forwards. It certainly wasn't democracy as I understand it. Surprise surprise, the objections were ignored and the lane was closed.

Fortunately, the situation was picked up by John Vannuffel, the TRF's Conservation Office, and the TRF legal team. They looked into the situation and discovered that the process that was followed was not up to scratch and that there were good grounds to challenge the decision.

TRF:

And that's when the Crowdfunding Campaign started? It's been a leap forwards for TRF fundraising. How did it happen?
Greg:

The idea came from John Vannuffel. He realised that this could be a great opportunity to rally support from all green road users around the unjustness of the situation and importantly, the real impact that the TRF can have in these situations. I looked into how crowd funding works, submitted the project and crossed my fingers. Fortunately the project was in line with the Just Giving guidelines and we were approved. 31 days to raise £10,000!

TRF:

So how did you reach your target? Was it easy?
Greg:

Not only did we reach our target, we smashed it! Was it easy? Well there were a few moments that I was pretty nervous.

When I started the project I knew that social media would be the key to success. The TRF has about 3,500 members and beyond that there are far more trail riders that use green roads, maybe 10,000. My aim was to get 1,000 people to donate £10. Out of 13,500 people that doesn't sound so hard does it?

We made a short snappy film to get the ball rolling and help people understand the situation and what we are trying to do. It was purposefully emotive as we wanted it to be shared on Facebook. This really helped, it's very difficult to get people do part with cash. The donations started to come it, it was exciting to see the figure going up, from £10, to £150 to £1500. I think I had hoped that we would reach our target on our first few days with is pretty unrealistic really, we rounded off at about £3000ish. At this point I realised that we were going to have to try a lot harder. I put a plan in place to create new media every week to help keep attention on the campaign and inspire people to get involved.

One of the most surprising elements was that all of a sudden we had non-TRF members donating. Trail riders, ex trail riders and 4x4 users seemed to latch on to the idea that Hexham Lane was worth making a stand over, not just against DCC but all authorities.

I think this has been one of the biggest successes of the project so far, that the TRF is spearheading a campaign to save a lane but all of a sudden we have the weight of a far wider user group behind us. The Just Giving site encourages you to leave a message to go with your donation - how much value can you put on this? It's massive!

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TRF:

So, considering that the problem in the first place was partly 4x4 related, how is it going to work with donations coming from that group?
Greg:

Quite early on in the campaign we talked with Dale Wyatt from GLASS. He was very much behind what we are trying to do. At the end of the day we both want the same thing, for lanes to remain open. The TRF exists to conserve green roads. That conservation message is important and GLASS understand that sometimes 4x4's are not appropriate on lanes, just as sometimes trail bikes are not appropriate. Once we get the lane reopened the challenge will be to keep it open. If that means some weight or seasonal restrictions then that's what we will explore with DCC.

I think, and this is just a personal opinion, that it can be too easy for trail riders to just blame the 4x4s as the reason for lanes being closed. Yes a 4x4 has more impact on soft ground than a trail bike, and therefore drivers should be mindful of where and when they drive. But at the same time, trail riders can have negative perceived impact on rural life in terms of how we look, behave, speed and noise. We both have a responsibility to adjust our behaviour and make sure that we are part of the 'conservation' message.

At the end of the day, this campaign is bigger than Hexham Lane, it's about saying that all green road users will stand up and be counted.

TRF:

And the 'Green Running' film, how did that come about?
Greg:

Ha! That was fun. I realised about half way through the month that we needed another standout bit of media to motivate people to help reach our target. I just came up with the idea of running the lane in all my gear, pretty simple really. If we can't ride or drive it, then that's all that is left. Tony and I headed down one Saturday and just did it. I actually really enjoyed it. There has been a TRO in place all the time I've been in the TRF so it was my first time on the lane. There are some cracking views! We used 'Facebook Boost' to push the film out to more people. It's like advertising, you can select who you want to reach so in this case I narrowed it down by age, sex, interests etc and put it out into the world. In the end I think that film reached about 40,000 people. The powerful part of that figure is that it's 40,000 people who have an interest in bikes, countryside, green lanes, adventure, land access etc. You can be very specific. All for the princely sum of £40.

TRF:

And so you hit your goal. Where did the money come from?
Greg:

As mentioned, it was very diverse. We had a lot of £10 and £20 donations which is what I hoped and expected. But we also had a number of larger individual donations, £100 - £200 which is pretty impressive when you think about how much engine oil or tyres you could buy for that. These guys must really care about the cause. This was strengthened by even larger donations from Green Road user groups such as TRF regional groups and GLASS.

I don't want to single out any one large donation as at the end of the day every penny is hugely appreciated. If someone who is out of work and can't afford to ride as much as they like puts in £10, that's just as much of a sacrifice as a group with a healthy bank balance. We are equally appreciative.

TRF:

So what's next?
Tony:

The money will be transferred to our club account. The total will be minus the Just Giving fee of 5% which we believe is a fair commission for the service we have received. Unfortunately it looks like there's a few bank details that have expired or were wrong so the total is a little less than the final figure - if you donated please check your emails to see if your transaction has gone through!

We will be handing a cheque over at the next TRF AGM. The money goes to the fighting fund and the £10k will be used towards the legal costs of this challenge. We expect the case to cost far more than the £10k. Any remainder money will be used for this and other challenges where needed, as you would expect with the fighting fund.

We can't go into too much detail about the court case itself, but we have the best TRF heads on this. If we win we will be using it as a message to all authorities that green road users can't be walked all over and that we will stand up and fight for what we believe in. The next stage of the legal process is scheduled for December.

On behalf of everyone at Northumbria TRF, Greg and I want to send a huge THANK YOU to everyone who got behind this campaign. You have all helped to inject not only money but energy and hope into the TRF. It's been a while since we had something to feel good about and that's down to you and your generosity. You have entrusted us with your hard earned money, we will be doing everything we can to make it count. And when we finally get Hexham Lane re-opened, I hope you pay us a visit and let us show you around. Though maybe not all at once...

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TRF:

John, I heard that this whole Crowdfunding idea was your idea. Why this approach for the TRF?
John:

Not everybody wants to become a TRF member. By utilising Crowdfunding it gives those non-members the opportunity to support TRF’s work to conserve green roads.
TRF:

Some people have asked why ask for more funding if TRF membership money already goes into the fighting fund. What would you say to this?
John:

The TRF would have challenged this order without the Crowdfunding campaign, as we have successfully done on many previous orders in the past.

Bringing in the Crowdfunding element has allowed members to put in extra on a specific case basis, which has proven very popular. To put that into perspective the original order to close the lane from Durham County Council attracted 203 objections, whilst more than double that number have made a donation of £10 or more through the Crowdfunding campaign. That would indicate that people find it easier to object with cash than to write objection letters.

It is more of a case of TRF providing members with the facility to fight harder if they wish to. I’m pleased to find that TRF members have plenty of fight in them

TRF:

So how will the money be spent? Will the whole amount be used on the legal case or just £10k? What happens to the rest?

John:

Win or lose, this case will cost TRF at least £10k. It costs £500+ just to walk up the court steps and knock on the door. If you want a solicitor and barrister to walk up the steps and knock with you, this will cost a few thousand more. If there is any left over, then it will go into TRF’s fighting fund, which is used to fight for the publics’ right to enjoy green roads.

TRF:

Should we be expecting more crowdfunding campaigns or is it a one off?
John:

I would like to see more Crowdfunding in the future and preferably not for legal battles. The relatively minor issues on Hexham Lane could have been resolved for half the amount the campaign raised, whilst still retaining sustainable access for 4x4 and motorbikes.

Legal challenges are a last resort for the TRF and we work exhaustively to avoid them. It’s an avoidable and regrettable scenario in which there are no winners, least of all the public.

TRF:

Will the TRF be working more closely with the 4x4 groups now?
John:

It’s a myth that TRF doesn’t work closely with 4x4 groups.
TRF:

And of course, the whole point of the campaign is to get Hexham Lane reopened. What is the process for achieving this? I'm guessing that just because we have raised the money doesn't guarantee success?
John:

The next stage is to go to the court hearing on the 1st December. Assuming that DCC decide that they still want to walk up the court steps, the case will be heard and then the court will decide whether to quash DCC’s TRO or not.

If the court does quash the order, then the next stage for me will be to ride Hexham Lane!

The TRF will also continue to work to ensure that Hexham Lane remains open for all responsible and sustainable users. In particular we will continue to work with GLASS to seek effective and proportionate measures that address the problems caused by a few irresponsible users.

TRF:

Who is the “TRF’s Legal Team”?
John:

The TRF’s legal team consists of every single member that has engaged with the legal process. That includes all of the TRF members that originally worked to ensure the lane was properly recorded as a Byway in 1999, the 200+ that submitted an objection to the TRO, those that attended DCC’s committee meetings, the TRF’s contractors that specialise in highway law, the solicitor and the barrister.

That’s around 300 people, 98% of which are volunteers.

Backing that team up are 3500 TRF members contributing to the fighting fund, all the non-TRF members, the Bexleyheath and District Motorcycle Club, GLASS, 4x4 users and everyone else who donated to the crowdfunding campaign, for which we are very grateful.

The TRF exists to conserve Green Roads in the UK. If you believe in what we do, why not join today and make sure you can ride tomorrow.

Members get a whole host of benefits, including the ability to take part in TRF events such as the Hadrian Adventure Weekend. See you there?

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