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Coastal Areas (Public Access)

Volume 473: debated on Thursday 13 March 2008

We have regular meetings with Natural England, and we have done since it reported in February 2007 on ways to improve access to the English coast. The Government propose to publish legislation to improve access to the English coast in draft for pre-legislative scrutiny.

Why does the Minister not get two manifesto pledges for the price of one by including access to the coast in the draft marine Bill, which has been anticipated eagerly by the House for a long time? When is that Bill going to be published?

Setting aside the Minister’s comment about early spring—it seems to me that we are indeed already in early spring—does he not agree with me that using a rather blunt instrument such as legislation to achieve an end that we all want—greater access to the countryside and the coast—might be a rather clumsy way of doing it? The better way would be by negotiation with individual farmers, such as, leading by example, the owners of the Blackwater estate, in Essex, one mile of which is closed to the public at the moment, with signs up stating, “No access”, “Private gardens: go round”—a long way round. The estate is owned, of course, by none other than the Minister’s right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

The hon. Gentleman talks about access to the coast and the countryside. Of course, we brought in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which was not necessarily welcomed at the time by the Opposition, but it certainly has been a great success. We will use legislation to ensure that people have far more access to our wonderful and beautiful coastline. We estimate that some 30 per cent. of the coastline does not have secure access. The hon. Gentleman talks about a voluntary arrangement. There is a wonderful path round the south-west that he will know, which brings in millions of pounds to the local economy and is enjoyed by thousands of people each year. However, it took 40 years of voluntary arrangements to bring that into position. We think that, using the legislation, we can ensure that things happen a bit more quickly.

There is of course still the unresolved issue of small boat access to inland waterways, which the Minister is rightly approaching on a voluntary, rather than statutory, basis. However, that too has been going on for some years. Can he give us a progress report?

We want to bring these measures forward, and as I said, we will publish the marine Bill and the coastal access Bill in tandem in early spring of this year. We will ensure that there is access to as much of our country as possible. We know that people enjoy walking in the countryside, and it is absolutely essential that they be able to roam where they want to—within, obviously, certain constraints. I will write to the hon. Gentleman on the point that he raises.