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.
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.