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England Coastal Path

Volume 659: debated on Wednesday 1 May 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effect on landowners of the proposed England Coastal Path.

May I say how nice it is to see you in the Chair, Mr Gapes? I applied for this debate following representations from a number of small landowners in my constituency who face having part of their land expropriated by a Government agency, without compensation and against all their objections. That agency is Natural England, and the land being expropriated is being used as part of the England coastal path, which seeks to ensure that the public have access to England’s beautiful coastline.

While in some quarters that might be seen as a commendable and worthwhile aim, it is worth pointing out straight away that the justification for the original legislation for the coastal path was seriously flawed, because 70% of the coastline was already publicly accessible and an additional 14% was owned by the Government or large industries, with only 16% being in the control of private landowners. In addition, significant areas of that 16% were sites of special scientific interest and so could not be used.

The whole project is several years behind schedule and has put an additional strain on an already stretched public purse. Even if the scheme was good value for money, which is arguable, I believe it is simply wrong to route the path, without consent, through land that has been lawfully owned, kept and maintained by small family farmers and businesses, often for many generations.

Worse still, parts of the proposed route will put at risk not only the safety of grazing animals, but some of the people who will be using the path. The people who have contacted me are not major landowners with thousands of acres, but small-scale owners for whom the businesses they run on their land are their only source of income. They are little people who feel they are up against an overbearing, mighty, all-powerful state, and they are frustrated and angry at their treatment.

Is my hon. Friend saying that small landowners are facing a disproportionate burden that is not being acknowledged by the big industrial owners of some of the land, and that that is affecting their businesses?

My hon. Friend is right. That is exactly what I am saying, and it goes further: Natural England is not showing any common sense but treating everybody the same, and that is simply not right.

To better explain the anger, I will set out some of the complaints that those landowners have relayed to me. I will begin by highlighting what is happening on the Isle of Sheppey, which lies adjacent to the Thames estuary and forms part of the Medway estuary. Parliament has made clear that the coastal path legislation is about access to the coast, not to estuaries, but Natural England is ignoring that guidance and pushing forward its plans for a path around the Isle of Sheppey, including along the island’s northern coastline.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for introducing this timely debate. Is he aware that I promoted a private Member’s Bill, the Coastal Path (Definition) Bill, the main purpose of which was to omit section 301 of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, which deals with river estuaries? In my constituency, the proposal is that the path should go right up into Christchurch and across the River Stour, rather than across from Mudeford to Hengistbury Head, which would be a much more direct coastal route.

I must be honest and say that I was not aware of my hon. Friend’s private Member’s Bill, but since he promotes more private Member’s Bills than all other hon. Members put together, it is hardly surprising that I would not remember that particular one. However, I am delighted to hear that it is not just my constituency that has concerns about the legislation.

Part of the north of Sheppey is given over to farming and holiday-related businesses. One of the families affected by the proposed route is that of Clive, Maria and Gary Phipps, who live on Connetts Farm. To survive financially, they have had to diversify into other activities, including fencing contracting, holiday lets, a farm and forest school and wild camping.

The latter activity, which allows campers to use any suitable land on which to pitch their tents, was last year judged a winner by the camping organisation, with a review score of 9.8 out of 10 for clifftop camping. The biggest appeal for those campers is that they have exclusive use of the land and the peace and quiet it provides. For a few days they are able to experience a simple life, back to nature and away from such things as interlopers, public footpaths, uninvited visitors and dogs.

Hon. Members can imagine the anger felt by the Phipps family that, despite the land’s already being accessible to those paying campers, Natural England wants to include it on the coastal path. One of the problems that poses for the Phipps is that people using the path will be able not simply to walk along the clifftops, but to loiter, picnic, cycle, pitch a tent free of charge and even have a barbecue. If that happens, the whole attraction of wild camping will be lost, which would be a major blow. As Clive Phipps told me:

“Having to accept a public footpath on our land will completely destroy any business we get from the camping facility and will, I’m sure, affect the viability of our holiday lets, because most of the people who come to stay with us, value the privacy and security offered by our little piece of England.”

The irony is that one of the reasons why Natural England wants to run the path through Connetts Farm is that the neighbouring holiday park owner refuses to allow access through his land. He is able to do so because the legislation protects holiday parks and, quite rightly, only allows the path to cut across a park with the owner’s consent. Unfortunately, small businesses such as that run by the Phipps family are not afforded the same protection, and that is simply unfair.

Other family-run farms and businesses sited along the north Sheppey coast are similarly being discriminated against. For instance, the path would run as close as 6 metres away from the house of one of those families. The property cannot be fenced off to protect livestock and the owners have been given no clarity on issues such as liability, should people using the path injure, or be injured by, livestock.

The landowners are also fearful for another reason. The north Sheppey cliffs are unstable and steep, with regular mudslides that see the clifftop disappear. The coastguard helicopter is often called out to rescue people stuck in the mud created by the erosion, yet the proposed path will increase access to that dangerous environment. The risk is even more unacceptable because there are safer and more stable routes for walkers, further away from the cliffs. Yet Natural England refuses to listen to landowners who have witnessed so many near misses, where people straying on to the cliffs have been lucky to escape with their lives.

The danger is summed up by another of my constituents, Susan Goodwin, who told me:

“These cliffs are particularly unstable, and people are constantly getting stuck, requiring rescue by the coastguards. The local council even closed an old footpath to Barrows Brook because of safety issues. Allowing people to wander along the cliff edge is madness”.

Of course, if the cliffs were protected to prevent erosion, the risk would be reduced. Indeed, one of our local farmers put forward a proposal to protect the cliffs by using construction spoil to construct a coastal park in the area. Therein lies another irony: Natural England objected to that plan, because it wants the cliffs to erode. Mr Gapes, you simply could not make it up.

Landowners living on the Isle of Sheppey are not the only constituents who are alarmed at what is happening. Let me give a small example. Lower Halstow is a small village on the mainland that lies on the Medway estuary marshland. The area is popular with walkers, who use the well-established Saxon Shore Way—a path that opened in 1980 and gives fantastic views of the estuary and marshes. However, rather than utilising the Saxon Shore Way, Natural England is insisting on expropriating a farmer’s land to run another coastal path through the farm to the estuary, despite there being no requirement in legislation for the path to continue into an estuary. The landowners believe that that new path will rip the heart out of their farm and have a serious impact on the wildlife habitat that has been carefully nurtured over many years.

Let me quickly explain how that came about. The sea wall that protects the farm was privately funded by the family 60 years ago. That wall has helped to conserve and grow the habitat. The protection of what is an incredible Ramsar wetlands site is the responsibility of the landowners, and they do not begrudge or shirk that responsibility. Now, however, the route of the proposed path will allow free and unfettered public access across a very vulnerable site. One must question the cost implications of creating that section of the path, given that Natural England itself has said that it does not anticipate a great increase in the number of walkers along it, compared with those using the existing Saxon Shore Way.

Let me read out a quote given to me by another landowner:

“The sole benefit of this scheme is that in some areas it has created more comprehensive access for the public, something that could have been achieved with landowners in a much simpler way, using a carrot and stick approach, rather than the mighty sledgehammer of poorly constructed legislation to crack a small nut!”

I could not agree more. Frankly, this is essentially a land grab that totally contradicts Natural England’s claim that it takes into account land management by landowners. Only somebody or some organisation that has never actually farmed could pursue such a policy.

In addition to the anger and frustration, my constituents have followed the process with growing disbelief. They simply cannot understand why their views and local knowledge have continually been ignored by Natural England. It is baffling that such a worthwhile national project is being delivered in such a draconian way, unnecessarily affecting negatively the lives and livelihoods of the long-term custodians of our countryside.

I would therefore like the Government to take the following steps to bring some common sense into implementation of the scheme: first, make it clear to Natural England that coastal access is about access to the coast and not to estuaries, such as the Medway estuary; secondly, make it clear that Natural England is not expected to provide full coastal access around estuaries and that existing paths, such as the Saxon Shore Way, are considered suitable alternative means of circumnavigating an estuary; thirdly, encourage Natural England to signpost existing estuary trails from the new coastal path, so that the public can use them as an alternative route when circumnavigating rivers and estuaries; fourthly, instruct Natural England to extend to all small landowners who offer holiday accommodation the protection given to holiday parks; and fifthly, instruct Natural England to pay greater attention to the dangers presented by cliff erosion when planning the route of the coastal path.

My constituents need help, and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to give them the help and the justice that they deserve.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing the debate and my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) and for Henley (John Howell) on contributing to it. Although Lord Gardiner is the Minister responsible for policy when it comes to the England coast path, I am of course happy to respond to the debate, but I will ensure that a copy of Hansard is given to my noble Friend, so that he can respond to some of the specific queries that my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey has raised.

In relation to delivering the coastal path around England, I believe that the intention of the law is clear. The practice that Natural England is supposed to follow is that the needs of landowners are balanced with the aspiration to create a continuous route around the coast of England that will allow walkers to enjoy our stunning coastline, supporting tourism and the visitor economy in rural areas.

Will the Minister give way on that, because it is a very important statement? She is effectively saying that Natural England should be using common sense and balancing the needs of the landowner with the need for a path. Is that right?

The duty is on Natural England to create this path around the coast of England. It builds somewhat on rights that were given with the right to roam under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. Very specifically, Parliament, in the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, placed a duty on Natural England to identify this route and a margin of land adjacent to the route for people to use for rest and recreation. Yes, this is about getting the balancing element right with the specific design of the path, but there is, as far as I am aware, no exemption for Natural England to ignore parts of the coast of our country in that regard.

England has about 2,700 miles of coastline, and 70% of that already has a legally secure right of access, as my hon. Friend pointed out. However, there is no doubt that in places the continuity of the access is patchy, meaning that walkers may find that they are unable to make further progress, sometimes even after just 1 or 2 miles, which has a detrimental effect on encouraging walking at the coast.

On completion, this coastal path will join the 2,500-mile network of national trails, which are long-distance walking routes that are maintained by trail partnerships to a higher standard than ordinary rights of way, to reflect their status and the popularity of walking in our nation’s finest countryside. On some of the routes, access for horse riders and cyclists is also provided.

There are benefits to bringing the England Coast Path to fruition. My hon. Friend was right to point out that that is behind schedule; I will address that point further in my speech. In essence, access to the natural environment is known to improve our mental and physical health. Access to the coast brings a more diverse range of people together to enjoy that natural heritage than many other accessible parts of our countryside. Studies have demonstrated that improving coastal access also brings with it economic benefits for coastal communities.

Will the Minister accept that the landowners have the right to be protected from the mental stress that has been caused to them in seeing their hard-earned income being stolen from them by what they see as state intervention?

Because this is the first time that I have heard the specifics of the issues relating to land in my hon. Friend’s constituency, I do not feel qualified to provide an individual comment on a particular issue.

But the principle is clear, and Parliament legislated for this coastal path to come into force and Natural England is under a duty to bring that forward. As I have said, the guidance is clear: engaging with stakeholders and landowners is a cornerstone of that approach. Nevertheless, Natural England has a duty under the law to take forward the coastal path.

Consultation and dialogue are supposed to form the cornerstone of the approach. I am conscious that landowners in my hon. Friend’s constituency feel ignored. The process that Natural England must follow when identifying proposed alignments for the path is described in detail in the coastal access scheme, which is the approved statutory methodology for delivering the path.

Understanding the strategic issues present on an individual stretch and working towards solutions to any concerns should be achieved through extensive dialogue with the landowners and occupiers, as well as the local authorities and other local interests. Natural England will also maintain frequent contact with the national stakeholder organisations as it develops its thinking on suitable alignments for each stretch of the path.

I am keenly aware that we have to continue to do as much as we can to ensure that there is meaningful engagement with landowners on the more complex stretches of the path, which are currently in development. Therefore, I expect Natural England to work carefully to identify all the legal interests on any stretch, and ensure that its emerging proposals are communicated to those interested parties early and in an easily understandable way. I also expect Natural England to ensure that adequate time is given to negotiating alignments on those stretches that include particularly complex features.

The 2009 Act requires a fair balance between the public interest in having new access rights over land and the interests of those whose land might be affected by that proposed new access. In preparing its proposals, Natural England should consider all relevant factors along a section of a stretch, and gauge the need for intervention in relation to any particular concerns raised by landowners and occupiers. Where intervention is considered necessary, the principle of the least restrictive option will be applied to the scope of the intervention.

Once Natural England has published its proposals for a stretch in a coastal access report, there will be an eight-week period for owners, occupiers and others to object and make representations about Natural England’s proposals. Any such objections will be independently considered by an inspector from the Planning Inspectorate, who will then make a report, which is presented to the Secretary of State, with recommendations on whether Natural England’s proposals have struck a fair balance.

The final decision on the approval of Natural England’s proposals will be taken by the Secretary of State, who must have regard to the recommendations in the inspector’s report. With that in mind, my hon. Friend will understand why I cannot comment specifically on the local issues that he has raised, given that it is subject to that quasi-judicial process.

In my constituency, I share the challenge of coastal erosion faced by my hon. Friend. We have met before to discuss the particular challenges that he faces. Provisions in the 2009 Act mean that the route can change in response to those challenges—a process known as roll back. When applying roll back to a stretch, Natural England will consult with landowners to ensure a fair balance.

My hon. Friend mentioned a particular part of the northern coast of the Isle of Sheppey. In my consistency there is a similar area with estuaries. I am conscious of the impact of walkers not following the path and getting too close to the cliff, which entails risks, as he highlighted regarding his own constituency, as well as the impact that walkers can have on flood defences and walls, which may become the paths. Therefore, I have taken up this matter as a constituency MP as well as an Environment Minister, to ensure that Natural England considers these matters carefully when looking at both estuaries and areas subject to coastal erosion.

If my hon. Friend believes that Natural England is not considering those issues proactively in the designation of the path, I would be interested to see the details regarding that, to which I would expect Lord Gardiner to respond.

As a constituency MP, I have raised the issue with the Minister. I have to say, her response was very disappointing. At that time I was raising the issue of cliff erosion. This path will go on the edge of the cliff. As I pointed out in my speech, the erosion could be resolved by shoring up the cliffs, but Natural England’s position, supported by the Minister, was that it wants to see the cliffs erode into the sea.

Each year the path will have to be moved further back due to erosion, and eventually it will run through the gardens of some of my constituents. That is lunacy. Is it not better to use the alternative path? The options have been provided to Natural England, but it is ignoring them.

I do not know the detail of the alternative path. I do not know how close it is the coast. Again, I will not comment on specific schemes, because ultimately I am not the decision maker when it comes to that. I will share my hon. Friend’s comments with Lord Gardiner.

One reason for the delay in this process is that a European Court of Justice judgment was handed down in April 2018, known colloquially as “People over wind”. It affects the way Natural England manages the impact of its proposals on sites with nature conservation designations, as my hon. Friend mentioned. That has affected the pace of the path’s delivery, and Natural England has had to consider it carefully. It intends to continue to work towards opening as much of the path as possible by 2020.

I am sure that Lord Gardiner would be interested to understand more about my hon. Friend’s proposals for treating people with holiday accommodation in the same way as the holiday park. I will ensure that that is brought to Lord Gardiner’s attention. I would be surprised if Natural England was not taking the erosion into account, because it has done so in my constituency. If there is a lack of consistency in different parts of the country, Natural England should consider that urgently, especially regarding the proposals in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Does the Minister accept that there is a lack of consistency in the approach to estuaries? Will she explain why the Government have objected to my Coastal Path (Definition) Bill, which would have required this path to go along the coast, rather than into estuary areas? It would be a straightforward change of policy imposed upon Natural England, because it is not prepared to apply common sense itself.

I understand that my hon. Friend is keen to avoid the coastal path deviating from the line of the coast, whether through an estuary or not. It is appropriate to consider that again. Like most MPs, I think of an example from my constituency, where there is a huge detour along the path through an estuary, but in essence it is still a path; otherwise, one would need a boat to cross the estuary in order to continue the walking experience.

It is appropriate for Natural England to consider estuaries but, as with similar issues, they need to be considered on a local basis. It may be appropriate to consider other ways of getting the walker from one side of the coast to the other, depending on the nature of the estuary involved. However, it will vary by area. That is why I do not believe we can take a general, principled approach. Sometimes a detailed design is there to account for the local conditions, which will not be the same on the Isle of Sheppey or in Christchurch as they are in Suffolk Coastal or other parts of the country. Ruling out certain areas is not the right way to proceed on a national basis.

The Government are committed to ensuring that the England coast path happens, but I am conscious of the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey has raised. I have tried to use my constituency experience to inform Natural England, as it progresses the issues of the coastal path, particularly when it comes to erosion and estuaries. I will continue to do that.

I will encourage Lord Gardiner to look carefully at these issues. I expect that it will still not be possible for any letter that my hon. Friend receives to give detailed responses on the courses of action, given that Ministers have to wait for the Planning Inspectorate report, so that the Secretary of State can make a decision on that particular stretch of the coastal path.

I appreciate that some of my comments will not satisfy my hon. Friends. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey was right to bring this matter to the House’s attention. It will receive further detailed consideration.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.