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Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000

Volume 689: debated on Thursday 22 February 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What progress is being made on the implementation of Section 3 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.

My Lords, Natural England is due to report on ways of improving access to the English coast by the end of February, including the use of Section 3 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. Once Natural England has provided its advice, the Government intend publicly to consult on options for improving coastal access and the costs and benefits of these.

My Lords, I welcome that factual Answer. I also welcome the decision of the board of Natural England, which met yesterday afternoon, to put to the Government what I consider to be very sensible proposals, and I look forward to their response.

This was a Labour Party manifesto commitment at the last election. Will the Minister confirm that the Government have a commitment to legislate for coastal access during the current Parliament? Will he confirm that they are looking at the concept of a corridor or a zone between the edges of the sea, farmland on cliff tops and marshes, to allow people to go down to the sea, to walk along the coasts, and to benefit from the tremendous experience in the natural landscapes and wildlife that they offer?

My Lords, I am sorry, but I cannot confirm anything other than the Answer I gave and the fact that it was a manifesto commitment. The other questions go way beyond what I am able to commit to today.

My Lords, will the Minister clarify issues arising from recommendations made at the meeting yesterday? First, it was presumed that no compensation would be paid for the compulsory take-over of land. Secondly, although the CROW Act stated that access to the countryside should be opened up, it also stated that we should protect and conserve wildlife and the environment. The RSPB, for one, is very concerned that this corridor will be opened up willy-nilly, without considering certain exemptions.

My Lords, with due respect to the noble Baroness, we have not had the report of the meeting yesterday. The Government will receive it from Natural England by the end of this month. There have been press reports about what occurred, but I am not in a position to say that the Government have received the report. Whatever view is taken, there will be a consultation and there will be no attempt at confiscation. There must be a reasonable way of dealing with people who have private land on the coast, whether it is hotels or people owning beaches rather than the foreshore. Compensation is therefore some way down the road. We have got to look at the costs and the benefits of this proposal. One should not take literally the report by the excellent journalist Valerie Elliott in the Times today about an attempt to rush a Bill through Parliament “within a year”. I can assure the House, no way.

My Lords, no doubt the Minister is aware that Section 3 allows the Secretary of State to include coastal land for access by order. Does the approach of Natural England to look for further primary legislation have the Government’s approval?

My Lords, Section 3 is the power to extend to coastal land. In my original Answer, I said that Natural England was due to report on ways of improving access, including the use of Section 3, but Section 3 may not be the option taken to deal with this issue. As I understand it, there will be other options. It is just one of the options; it will not necessarily be the way forward.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that walking is a growing and popular pastime in this country? Will the Government assure us that they will try to open up as much of the coastline as possible by whatever means possible?

Yes, my Lords, that is absolutely the case. It is our intention to have as much land available to people as possible, whether countryside or costal access, other areas such as inland waterways, or along the Thames, as has happened in recent years. That, in principle, is that way to do it. However, one has to be practical and do it with consultation and in partnership in a way that allows you to get maximum benefit for everyone, and not go around deliberately trying to upset people.

My Lords, the noble Baroness suggested that there would be the compulsory take-over of land. Will the Minister confirm that under none of the proposals that has been put forward, or is being considered, will there be any compulsory take-over or confiscation of land? More than half of England’s coastline on the edge of farmland is already open to access and it works perfectly well. That kind of reasonable and sensible arrangement is being suggested for the rest of it.

My Lords, I look forward to receiving the report. The Government will take a view on it and then put out options for consultation, together with the benefits and the costs of each option. However, I agree with the noble Lord in principle.