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Natural England to recommend right of access to England’s coast… and pay for it?

Matthew Chatfield
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It seems remarkable, but just a short while after the end of the seemingly interminable hurly-burly of creating the open access land facilitated by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, Natural England are sticking their heads well and truly above the parapet and recommending that the government

…provide Natural England with the powers to deliver a new right of access to the coast… to create clear and well managed public access along the entire 4000 km length of England’s coast.

This is powerful stuff. The so called ‘right to roam’ proposals stirred up a frenzy of complaining landowners, some with very valid objections. The final legislation, after considerable amendment, fell short of the sweeping rights that were originally envisaged. The introduction of the new rights of access have not led to the predicted catastrophes, either, so perhaps the final result was a good one.

A footpath sign

The new proposals which will be going to government are every inch as controversial, and likely to generate the same amount of acrimony between Natural England and the landowners. Indeed, this new creation will be one which could not have been undertaken before the creation of Natural England, given the extremely high nature conservation value of a large proportion of England’s coastline: the former English Nature would have been a formidable opponent of the proposal. Now incorporated into Natural England, the objections of the conservationists will undoubtedly be more muted than they would otherwise have been. What’s perhaps more amazing still is in the detail of the press release, which continues:

Natural England’s powers would include undertaking any necessary establishment work on the ground, such as installing gates and bridges. Natural England would undertake much of the planning and implementation through access authorities, where they were willing to take it on. [Natural England] would do [the work themselves] where the access authority was unwilling to act. Natural England would fund the necessary work irrespective of who undertook it. There should be a working presumption against paying compensation for public access along the undeveloped coast.

Either Natural England have really got their gander up for a fight or they don’t know what they are letting themselves in for. Powers to install furniture, and if the local authority won’t do it, they will do it themselves. No compensation for landowners, and they are suggesting that all this work will be funded! If so, it will be a far cry from the creation of the new access land, where if any money was allocated to it, none of it ever reached The Ranger or his colleagues. Perhaps most remarkable of all is the statement:

The access corridor would include new areas of spreading room along the coast

This seems innocuous, even cryptic, in itself, but any landowner or access manager on a soft coastal area, will know exactly what this is about. There is a constant battle to keep footpaths open in areas, such as the Isle of Wight, where the land is eroding into the sea. Landowners are reluctant to give up more land for the footpaths, which get squeezed into smaller and smaller strips. This ‘spreading room’ refers to the idea of identifying strips of land on the landward side of the coast into which people and wildlife can ‘spread’. It’s highly controversial with some landowners as it uses relatively large amounts of land compared to the typical tiny strips. However it could provide a more sustainable solution than the present system of constant negotiation and attrition. These proposals are surprisingly robust. Perhaps the authors assume that by the time they reach ground level they will have been diluted. Certainly past experience suggests that this may be so. Nevertheless, coastal access is a big issue with wider implications, for example within tourism and agriculture. It will need big solutions and strong direction, and that does seem to be the way in which this proposal is set out. If Natural England are genuine about facing up to the issues of coastal access with statutory solutions then this Ranger applauds them for their courage. But he also questions whether they can be truly ready for the long and bitter fight that will inevitably ensue.

Matthew Chatfield

Uncooperative crusty. Unofficial Isle of Wight cultural ambassador. Conservation, countryside and the environment, with extra stuff about spiders.

2 thoughts on “Natural England to recommend right of access to England’s coast… and pay for it?

  • antonia willis

    Ranger implies that Natural England has a worthy objective. Landowners (and yes, I am one) are very, very angry at Natural England’s ignorance of the economic consequences of these proposals. To give just one example: here in Cornwall, where fishing, farming and mining are dying or dead, tourism matters desperately. One business I’m involved with – a coastal family holiday park – relies on private beach access as a selling point. But because we like to share the area as much as possible, we allow access by licence almost all year round. If we remove the controls, what happens in the summer months is NOT that a load of happy, nature-loving walkers descends on the area, but rather that the drunken teenagers from the campsite up the road without sea access comes and sets up bonfires and lager-rinking patches on our beach. Our security costs are already high – high enough to start seriously eroding profit margins. No way can the local police deal with sort of problem – there aren’t enough men/women on the ground here.

    I could give you 100s of other examples. On the whole, we ALL want people to enjoy the coast where this is feasible, but landowners who are actually working these areas, whether as farmers or tourism operators, cannot possibly be expected to be pleased at the thought of having our working environments jeopardised by holiday-making ramblers or people fighting the ideological battles of the 1930s. Here in Cornwall, llivelihoods are pretty marginal. Come and see and judge for yourself and I hope that you will please tell English Nature to get real and get off our backs. And by the way, the guys working for that Quango get paid a hell of a lot more than I do….

  • Western Morning News (Somerset, Devon and Cornwall daily paper)

    Date : 15.02.08

    Occasionally we ask sea anglers to stop climbing down a part of the North Cornwall coastal cliff we own and return to the South West Coast Path that dissects our land. A few try to use some worn footholds created by Napoleonic era antimony miners and people have lost their lives along this stretch of coast over the years.”I’ve got a right to roam, mate – Natural England says I can fish wherever I like,” was the most recent response. Well, hooray for the Government’s wildlife quango, which is charged with the task of giving everyone a right to swim, paddle, climb, rock scramble and presumably fish all round the coast, and whose boss, Sir Martin Doughty, is apparently about to let me off a large hook.

    When we see them we’re supposed to warn anglers of the danger and ask them to stop their trespass. In future when we’re woken in the early hours by the alarmed cries of nesting guillemots, razorbills and rock pipits protesting at an angler stamping his wellies on their eggs, we won’t lie awake wondering whether to get up, or straining to hear a plaintive shout for help. We can go back to sleep knowing that Sir Martin is on the case – he let them in, he can call out the Coastguard cliff rescue team.

    But I am curious why the RSPB has said so little about the risk to hitherto private and protected shoreline bird habitats posed by the new public access. If Port Isaac is typical, many people who holiday in the UK are accompanied by the family dog which, off the lead, as many are, will clear out ground-nesting bird habitats in minutes.

    The New Forest National Park response to Defra’s public consultation last September warned of the protection given to EU-designated habitats and questioned whether the Government was entitled to grant public coastal access.

    Instead of whingeing about compensation, which assumes a depreciation in land value that may be difficult to quantify, why doesn’t the Country Landowners and Business Association hire sharp lawyers to find out if Defra has complied with EU environmental impact statement and habitat regulations, with the aim of torpedoing the whole shebang?

    I wouldn’t mind betting that senior Defra officials, who have set new standards in bungling incompetence over farm payments, foot and mouth and just about everything else they touch, cocked this up as well.

    Martin Bell

    Port Isaac


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