CONCERNS have been raised for the future of a green belt site as the British Horse Society is set to go head-to-head with Essex County Council over plans for a new route between Benfleet and Bowers Gifford.

The group has appealed to the Secretary of State for Environment and Rural Affairs Owen Paterson to transform a footpath from Jotmans Lane, in Benfleet, to Church Road, in Bowers Gifford, into a fully-fledged byway open to all traffic.

It would mean vehicles and horse riders could use the paths, which run under A130 Canvey Way and across the c2c rail line.

The secretary of state has ordered County Hall to approve the new traffic order, but the council will be contesting it at a public inquiry next week.

A county council spokesman said: “If the order is confirmed, the route will be a ‘byway open to all traffic’, which is a right of way for vehicular traffic, but one used mainly for the purposes for which footpaths and bridleways are used.

“It will not involve the laying out of a road, although this may be wider than the existing footpath and will involve opening part of the route which is currently inaccessible.”

However, green belt campaigners fear it could pave the way for development of land south of Jotmans Lane, which is being sought by Persimmon Homes. Although its application for 265 homes was refused last year, residents are worried the new byway would strengthen its case if the decision was appealed.

Sharon Knight, from the Save Jotmans Farm action group said: “While the British Horse Society is doing this with the best of intentions, to open it up to riders, I don’t think it realises the implications it could have for us trying to save the green belt.

“This will lead the way for the development because it will create the first real link between Benfleet and Bowers Gifford. We fought this years ago, when the council wanted to create a bus route through there and a railway.”

A spokesman from the British Horse Society said: “The route has been shown on maps since 1777 and the user evidence in support dates back to 1947.

“The depiction of the route as a footpath on the definitive route does not permit use by horse riders, whereas its depiction as a byway would. In Essex, horse riders have access to only 12.35% of the public rights of way network, compared to a national average of 22%.”

The inquiry is at the Essex Record Office, in Chelmsford.