The Coastal Access Debate - we want your thoughts!
PUBLISHED: 10:54 19 November 2010 | UPDATED: 17:55 20 February 2013
Should we have the right to roam freely along our coastline, whether it's private land or not? Jeremy Miles speaks to leading figures involved in this issue
Should we have the right to roam freely along our coastline, whether its private land or not? Jeremy Miles speaks to leading figures involved in this issue
A cliff-top walk should be a simple pleasure but when the last Labour Government pushed through legislation to provide a round-England coast path it set the scene for some spectacular arguments.
Walkers were delighted with the scheme, claiming that the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, which paves the way for opening up 2,500 miles of coastal trails, can do nothing but good. It was, they said, a blow for freedom and the foundation of a magnificent leisure facility that would boost the nations health and economy.
However, many landowners and businesses are not so sure. More than 4,000 homes and 700 estates and parks stand on the route of the proposed coastal corridor. Their owners fear that rights of way might be driven through their properties without recourse to compensation and that any effective control over the paths that cross their land will be snatched from them.
The project is already faltering. A 5% budget cut imposed on Natural England, the conservation agency charged with making the path happen, means that the original timescale of 10 years is now up in the air. Indeed, the only section of path guaranteed to go ahead is a 12-mile trail around Weymouth Bay which will be completed in time for the 2012 Olympics.
In the South West we already have one of the finest coast paths in the country, which runs for 650 miles from Poole Harbour round the entire south and north coasts of Devon and Cornwall to Minehead in Somerset. It works like a dream too, without any apparent problems, attracts walkers from all over the world and injects more than 300 million a year into the regional economy. Yet the plan for a round-England coast path remains contentious.
Justin Cooke, Senior Policy Officer for The Ramblers, the national walkers charity, believes an English Coast Path would play a major factor in attracting visitors and boosting both tourism and the economy. He says the benefits have clearly been shown by the success of the South West Coast Path (SWCP) which annually generates an estimated 307 million for the regional economy. A coast path right around England, he argues, would completely rejuvenate the social and economic life of our coastal towns.
In many ways the SWCP is seen as the blueprint for what The Ramblers would like to see around the entire English coastline. Your region has some of the best access to the coast anywhere in the country, says Justin. It would be brilliant if we could achieve that level of access around the rest of the country.
Figures show that residents of Dorset, Devon, Cornwall and Somerset spend around 116 million whilst using the Coast Path and nearly 75% of accommodation providers within one mile of the path consider it to be an important selling point for their business. It is also a key attraction for day visitors to the region, which accounts for 40% of the annual tourism spend.
Opening up the coast path will generate visitors
Justin claims that any work to improve access to the coast has been shown to more than pay for itself through wider benefits to the rural economy. He dismisses the concerns expressed by landowners as nonsense, adding, No one is going to walk across peoples privately owned land unless there is a right of way.
The cut-backs faced by Natural England, the conservation agency charged with building the coastal path, are, he says, a minor hindrance to the long-term plan. They have been asked to cut 5% from their total budget, not just the coast path project. As for businesses being in limbo, thats absolute rubbish. A coast path brings prosperity. People who own properties and businesses rely on visitors to survive.
The effect of discouraging walkers from the countryside was, he says, demonstrated during the foot and mouth crisis. The countryside was effectively closed and a lot of businesses went under. Its not only hoteliers, campsite owners and B&B proprietors, but farmers too. Even businesses that arent directly affected suffered from the knock-on that was created. Opening up the coast path will generate visitors and can do nothing but good.
John Mortimer, the outspoken Director of the Country Land and Business Association in the South West, is no fan of proposals to throw a 4-metre-wide footpath around the entire coast of England. He claims the pledge to open up more than 2,500 miles of coastal walkway is a political move that could damage businesses and the interests of landowners.
Opponents of the Marine and Coastal Access Bill say that to embark on the 50 million project in the middle of a serious recession is financially inept. John is furious about Natural Englands budget cut, saying that the partial shelving of the scheme and news that the work is unlikely to be completed within its original 10-year time-frame leaves landowners and businesses in a state of limbo.
Every coastal homeowner, farmer and business in England will have their land blighted because of the uncertainty which will remain as long as the legislation is in force. He argues that the Act is surplus to requirements because 84% of the coast is already accessible to the public and half of the remainder will have to remain out of bounds because it is covered by ports and military bases. Spending 50 million of public money on a scheme to provide access to a mere 8% of the coast in this time of austerity is surely unjustified, he says.
84% of the coast is already accessible to the public
In Dorset, James Weld, whose family have owned the Lulworth Estate since the early 17th century, says he has no problem with the concept of a round-England coast path. However, he is concerned that Natural England will take over the management and maintenance of the five miles of coastal footpaths at Lulworth without sufficient funds or resources to carry out the necessary work. Paths are eroded and depending on how rough the winter has been, steps get washed away. At present we take care of our own maintenance and spend between 7,000 and 10,000 per kilometre. Repairs cannot wait for when budget is available and Natural England will not have the resources to do that.
As manager of the estate hes also worried about safety issues, saying that with half-a-million visitors a year there are inevitably a few who are tempted to climb the cliffs or indulge in tombstoning high-diving into the sea. At present the estate works hard to prevent such practices and head off any resulting accidents or damage to flora and fauna but, according to James, the Coastal Access Act allows people to climb.
Weve been told we can put up warning notices but in practical terms nobody is going to pay much attention to that. He says he was also originally assured by the Chairman of Natural England that Lulworth wouldnt be affected by the Act. He said we wouldnt be touched because we provide good access and are an exemplar of how to do it. But now we are one of the first places they have gone for.
He also argues that the footpath around Weymouth Bay is unnecessary. Theres a path there already. The only place where theres an issue is on the causeway between Weymouth and Portland.
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