Better transport in “The People’s Forest”

On Wednesday, Epping Forest Transport Action Group representative George Lund joined the Epping Forest Consultative Committee for the first time. We’re delighted to be able to offer our advice and opinions on how better transport can improve access to and through the ancient forest.

Managing a diverse and nationally-important landscape like Epping Forest is no small undertaking, and the papers presented to the Consultative Committee reflect that complexity. In our bundle of 244 pages were an update from the superintendent, a new site plan for the Chingford section of the forest, a management plan for the Copped Hall estate, and a welcome proposal to allow cycling on more paths in Wanstead Park.

[Photo of trees in Epping Forest]
Irid Escent, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As well as the officials responsible for running everything, including the elected Verderers, there are representatives on the committee for horse riding interests, for conservation, for archaeology and history, for recreation including rambling and cycling, and for sports like golf. Throughout the meeting it was clear that EFTAG’s interest in the Forest aligns really well with the interests of all these groups.

Our discussion on the Chingford plan covered some important points about anti-social behaviour. As Francis Baker, the cycling groups’ representative, made clear to the Committee, it’s so important that people on bikes generally don’t get blamed for the actions of a small minority, and he gently reminded the committee of the need to make decisions based on objective evidence rather than anecdotes.

There was positive discussion about sympathetic ways to improve signage in the Forest, to help cyclists keep clear of sensitive areas, to find the most suitable routes, and (in this specific case) to avoid the Easy Access Path around Connaught Water (which gets very busy with pedestrians and is intended to be kept available for people with mobility issues).

We also discussed the pressures on the forest from visitor numbers: while Chingford is quite accessible by public transport, hugely popular destinations like High Beech don’t have a bus service, and previous attempts to introduce one have failed. We mentioned our hope that the economics of this might change, as local and central government realise the importance of transport to climate change, and as experiments with new approaches like Demand Responsive Transport play out.

The Copped Hall estate plans provoked an interesting discussion, and again a great deal of time was spent talking about transport. We, and it turned out the whole committee, have serious reservations about the suggestion that the estate can in any way substitute for green space in and around towns like Harlow being lost to development.

The plan to accommodate more visitors, which is a fantastic opportunity in principle, so far seems to rest on an assumption that people will drive there (2 new car parks are proposed). Not only does this directly contradict the main aims of the plan (which is to combat climate change, for example by planting trees), it’s not at all an inclusive approach that would let the widest range of visitors get to see this special place.

There’s an interesting debate about whether people driving to Copped Hall might be visiting there instead of another forest destination like High Beech, or whether in fact new destinations (and vast new car parking if that’s what’s offered!) can simply attract and accommodate more visitors. More evidence will be needed to resolve that one, but in an area with a growing population, close to London and within easy reach of a great many towns, I know I’d argue for a precautionary approach. It’s much safer to assume that opening up Copped Hall won’t help places like High Beech much at all, and extra cars heading there via the main roads is exactly what the special area of conservation doesn’t need!

We did get to propose an alternative suggestion, which is that the Copped Hall estate could be opened up as a walking and cycling route from Epping to Upshire (and on to Waltham Abbey). It’s absurd to think that Epping residents might have to drive all the way into the forest to visit the parkland, when there’s an entrance to the estate within an easy walk of the town. The officers pointed out that this is in private hands and some negotiation would be required, but it’s great that they’re thinking about the possibilities here.

We also discussed the various locations where bus services might stop to give access to Copped Hall – including of course that vital entrance at the Epping end of the estate.

Finally, and as mentioned above, the changes planned for Wanstead Park sound excellent. It was great to hear about the huge support for cycling that came out of the public consultation, and to hear the comments from families that would now officially be allowed to use the paths across the park to get to school without worrying that someone would tell them to stop.

We hope that Epping Forest District Council and parish councils across the district will also notice how parks and recreation grounds can be vital links that enable residents to make healthy choices on trips like the school run.

Please let us know what you think about transport to (and through) the Forest: we’d love to bring more ideas to the table in time for the next meeting in the Autumn.

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