HAMPSHIRE County Council has responded to a legal challenge over a new bridge that stops ponies crossing a stream, The New Forest Equestrian Association, which represents horse riders in the New Forest, is questioning the legal status of a new footbridge leading to Ibsley Common near Linwood as they say ponies should be allowed to cross it, but gates have been installed at either end and a sign has been put up banning them from using it.

They also say the bridge is made from a tropical hardwood rather than the indigenous wood they would have expected.

And they say the new bridge is disturbing the riverbed.

But the county council’s executive member for culture and recreation councillor Keith Chapman said: “Following public safety concerns about the previous pedestrian bridge in this location, we inspected the bridge and found there were significant issues with its structural integrity.

“Because it was so low, the bridge was also disrupting the watercourse, and as a result, damage was being caused to the banks and approaches to the fording point.

“As the Highway Authority, we have a responsibility to maintain the bridge as a structure on the public footpath, and so a replacement was considered necessary.

“In consultation with the National Trust (the landowners), Environment Agency, Natural England, The National Park Authority and the Verderer’s Office, the current improved bridge was approved for installation.

“Improving the structure has also helped to reduce disruption to the watercourse and, throughout the process, care was taken to ensure the bridge continued to protect access to the adjacent fording point.

“Overall, the actions taken by the county council have improved access for people on foot, as well as offering improved approaches to the ford for all users.”

This area is within the New Forest, and is owned by the National Trust, but the county council is responsible for the footpath, which crosses the Dockens Water Stream to the common.

The New Forest Equestrian Association’s chairman Dr Tony Hockley said: “The bridge was replaced without consultation with its users.

“For the first time in living memory a bridge here has been blocked to riders, who must now make a big detour by road when the stream is in flood.

“At times of major flood as seen recently the new, much larger bridge has a greater effect on the watercourse than the old one, causing great turbulence and damage to the stability of the stream bed, making the ford unsafe for riders.

“Furthermore, the length of the bridge has narrowed the approaches to the ford. At the moment the gates to the bridge have been removed, presumably by a very angry local person.

“By impeding riders’ access to the ford and bridge that serve National Trust land with common rights, Hampshire County Council has committed a very clear breach of Section 23 of the National Trust Act. The NFEA has demanded that, at the very least, the gates must not be replaced until the council has followed the full legal process of consultation and an application to the Planning Inspectorate required by law.”