rose to ask Her Majesty’s Government what are the main issues under consideration in relation to the provision of coastal access.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I welcome the small but distinguished group of people who have indicated that they will speak in this short debate. I should declare an interest as a somewhat inactive member of the access and conservation committee of the British Mountaineering Council. When I put this Question down, I hoped that, when it came up, it would be topical because we would be half way through the Government’s three-month consultation period on costal access. That is, regrettably, not the case because the consultation has been delayed a few times. I understand that it will now be launched on 19 June; perhaps the Minister will confirm that. The good news—if the rumours are true—is that it will be launched by the Secretary of State, David Miliband, which is a cause for optimism. I asked for this debate in order to be helpful and constructive and to urge the Government along in what could be a very exciting venture.
I was fascinated by what David Miliband said at the celebrations, almost a month ago, for the 75th anniversary of the Kinder Scout trespass. He said that land, even private land, is a public good and that we should assert our right to enjoy it. He said:
“It should be accessible to all”.
I entirely agree with his sentiments. On 21 April, in an interview with the Grough website—many people who go walking or tramping about mountains will be familiar with it and, no doubt, with the groughs on Kinder Scout and Bleaklow—the Secretary of State said:
“I’m here today because I want to honour the rebels with a big cause … I think that it’s important to say that we honour their memory with the way we support national parks, with the way that we implement the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act but also from the next steps that we have with respect to coastal access”.
It gets better. As part of the celebrations of that historic trespass, he posed in front of a big sign that said, “Trespassers will be celebrated”. I thought that, if this goes on, I will start to find some good things to say about this Government after all.
The background to this is Section 3 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act—the CROW Act—which allows the Secretary of State to introduce by order the application of CROW to coastal land. We have moved on from that, and everybody now accepts that simply doing that is not the answer to better access to the coastal areas. However, I shall quote Section 3(3), because the definition is important:
“In this section ‘coastal land’ means—(a) the foreshore, and (b) land adjacent to the foreshore (including in particular any cliff, bank, barrier, dune, beach or flat which is adjacent to the foreshore)”.
The noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, will remember discussing those words however long ago it was—six or seven years.
More than a year ago, the Government asked what has now become Natural England to look at ways and means of introducing costal access and the options for it. In doing do, Defra set out its vision:
“A coastal environment where rights to walk along the length of the English coast lie within a wildlife and landscape corridor that offers enjoyment, understanding of the natural environment and a high quality experience; and which is managed sustainably in the context of a changing coastline”.
Concern has been expressed by organisations representing recreational users of the coast—they represent everybody from the toddlers who go for a paddle right through to rock climbers and such people—that the word “access” does not appear in that vision, although “enjoyment” does. Will the Minister confirm that access to the coast is crucial to the whole business? We are talking not just about access along the coast or to the coast from places inland but about access within the coastal zone or corridor, in exactly the same way as with access land under the CROW Act.
I pay tribute to Natural England for its thorough, interesting and extremely useful work. It has managed to come up with a different option from those that we thought were available at the beginning. It looked at, analysed and assessed four different options. The first was a voluntary or temporary approach, perhaps relying on agri-environmental schemes. The second was a purely linear route—the creation of new footpaths. That could be very expensive if they involved rights-of-way creation orders. Moreover, they would provide inadequate access to the rest of the coast, notably the beach and the cliffs, and are subject to change if a cliff-top path is eroded—and the chances of that may increase with global warming. Change is a feature of the coast and always has been, but if the land erodes and disappears there is a problem.
The third option was of mapping, as under CROW. I think that everybody instinctively recoiled from that, as it would be very bureaucratic and expensive. It might have been the right way to go for CROW, but there is a general view that it is not the right way to go for the coast. Mapping does not react to change. Finally, there was the innovative and exciting option that Natural England came up with of a coastal corridor or zone between perhaps the mean low-tide mark and an appropriate boundary with developed land or improved farmland inland.
The Government have now said that they will consult on all these options. Will Natural England’s preferred option get some sort of lead status in the consultation? Is it being put forward as the preferred option? Will it cover a broad zone that extends down to the sea, which I believe is necessary? In particular, are the Government committed to enabling movement along the coast so that people can walk right around the coast of England? Are they committed to access within the corridor, whether for wildlife purposes, for recreation, for just admiring and enjoying the landscape, or for getting down to the sea to paddle canoes, to go swimming or just to paddle?
Is there a commitment to a corridor for protection and enhancement of wildlife and landscape as well as informal outdoor recreation—what might be called the “quiet enjoyment of the coast”? I wondered whether to write down the words “quiet enjoyment”, since there have been occasions in the past when perched half way up a steep cliff face on the coast—whether or not I was enjoying myself tackling the crux of a climb that was probably too hard for me to tackle anyway—I may not have been very quiet about it. Nevertheless, is there a commitment for quiet enjoyment of the coast, as opposed to enjoyment with mechanical contraptions such as cars, buggies or whatever? Will all that be within a framework of a code of practice that is sensibly worked out between the different bodies, which the Government would no doubt call stakeholders but I would probably not?
Is the Government’s view that any restrictions should be based on common sense and negotiated locally between the different interests, based on much of the experience of access lands under CROW and particularly of the very successful voluntary restrictions that climbers have on cliffs all over the place? Do the Government intend to provide sufficient resources for Natural England and local authorities to provide the infrastructure and the management arrangements—the signs, gates, routes around obstacles and new paths to the coast? Finally, if this issue needs primary legislation, have the Government yet reached a view on whether the marine Bill would be an appropriate vehicle to include such legislation?
These are all key questions. The Minister may say that it is too early to answer them because we have not entered the consultation, but some indication that the Government have taken these matters seriously would be extremely valuable. I look forward to the Government introducing coastal access that fulfils the very real vision that David Miliband has been talking about.
My Lords, the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is very important, but it is not without difficulty. Perhaps it is more difficult than one might suppose from listening to his opening remarks. I live on the coast of East Anglia in Suffolk. Walking along the coastal path is a favourite activity. In this case, the path is on a river bank on a tidal estuary of the River Alde, which is known as the River Ore closer to the mouth.
The banks were created when the monks of a nearby monastery in the Middle Ages drained the marshes, thereby creating fertile land, which has, incidentally, produced valuable foodstuffs ever since. The path separates the river from the drained marshlands. The bank requires regular, routine maintenance. For some years, until recently, the Government have helped to finance this work with a small annual grant. Recently, in the lifetime of this Government, the funding was taken away, and the funds so liberated have been given to local authorities, which have mistakenly allowed housing to be built on local flood plains. I add that I am a member of an important local society, the Alde and Ore Association, which my wife and I helped to establish, and for which I have served as an unpaid officer in the past. Our local Member of Parliament, John Gummer, is an active supporter of it.
In the context of the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, the important point is that in this case there is a coastal path, which is widely used by local inhabitants and visitors. There are active plans, supported by our association, to extend it by creating a new ferry at the northern end near Aldeburgh so that there will be access to the river bank from the other side of the river, and, at the southern end over the Butley River, a tributary of the River Ore, by establishing a ferry to permit access on foot to the outflow of the river at Shingle Street—a fascinating place that would welcome some more visitors.
We need to re-establish funding for the maintenance of the river banks, principally to prevent damage on the ebb tide, which, with the growth in global warming, can be expected to be very strong. Without this funding there would be no path to walk on. So the Government have a role to play here.
I am not opposed to the general drift of the noble Lord’s remarks. The whole subject needs careful study and proper funding. We should not repeat the unfortunate errors made over the designation of open countryside in the CROW Act, when zones were designated simply by examining maps indoors. Careful study on the ground is essential if these ideas are to be brought to a successful conclusion.
I shall be interested to hear the other speakers. I am interested in improving access to the coast. A lot of unpaid local work goes on to produce the results in which the noble Lord is interested, but we need some more help from the Government.
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for once again asking a Question on this issue to keep the House on its toes on future policy.
As the House will have expected, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has for some time been anxious to know when the Government will produce their proposals for consultation on this matter. He has now managed to get the answer, which is very useful for all of us. One can see from the policy paper prepared by the Natural England board that a great deal of preparation has been going on both by and for Natural England—with Defra’s coastal land advisory group, the RPA consultancy on the costs, Peter Scott Planning Services Limited and even a MORI poll, along with Defra’s regulatory impact assessment.
One of the first considerations that I need to address is whether the measure is intended to alter the present legal rights to the foreshore, which I understand to be the land below mean high tide, especially when it is Crown land. I understand that that is reliant largely on a de facto presumption of access, unless the right has been dedicated expressly or by presumption. There is always the possibility that that can, in certain circumstances, be taken away, and even then it does not provide a path of continuous access of the type that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, was looking for.
It appears from the paper produced for Natural England that the favoured approach is that there should be a statutory methodology which will be applied to specific areas. Can the Minister give us a list of what he expects the elements of that methodology to be? If the final agreements are to be tailored individually, does that not suggest that the Government should begin by identifying and addressing the areas where there is the greatest demand? Given that an estimated 86 per cent of demand is for linear or circular routes of three hours or less, that statutory methodology should be applied, taking into account local consultation with access groups and land managers. Much of that will work best if it can be achieved on a voluntary basis. Are the Government prepared to enter negotiations on that basis and bring in statutory requirements only if all else fails? To progress on that basis might have another advantage, in that the cost would become more transparent as the agreements are rolled out.
It is interesting to read studies undertaken to evaluate access provision in other countries. The countries chosen by Natural England will remind noble Lords of discussion that we had when the House was considering the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. Our dilemma is that we live on a heavily populated island. Figures that I obtained then showed that 77 per cent of the UK's surface area is managed either by farming or forestry, whereas, in some other countries, the proportion is nowhere near that amount. In Norway, the figure is 26.5 per cent. Denmark is a bit closer to our situation at 72 per cent, so the impact of access can be felt by more individuals. The current legislation in Scotland is still sufficiently new that lessons still have to be resolved, so our consideration of all those experiences needs to be tempered by an understanding of the differences.
The proposals take into consideration that an exception from access provision should be made to land subject to development. That is obviously important in urban or industrial areas, but an area that has been subject to development which will not be excepted is agricultural land.
In the list of the Government's outcomes and assessment criteria, it is intended that there be,
“softening of intensive agriculture along the coastline”.
Almost by definition, there will be no intensive arable agriculture anywhere near a cliff face, as there will be thin soil and a danger from any machinery going too near the edge. So one can only assume that the Government are referring to intensive livestock production. If the current rules that apply to access routes are to be implemented, does that mean that those access routes will have to be fenced off from livestock, especially from cattle? Will that not raise the question of compensation for the fact that an area of land will be completely removed from grazing production?
The Countryside and Rights of Way Act contained certain powers for the owner or occupier to restrict access at certain times and seasons for reasons of land management. That was enlarged on by the Access to the Countryside (Exclusions and Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2003, presumably to ensure that interested parties did not try to use those powers irresponsibly.
A briefing that I have received from the National Farmers’ Union once again raises the question of access with dogs—not, this time, on the always tricky issue of livestock with young, which can be considered on a seasonal basis, but for the growers of salad crops and vegetables. In that case, if there is any chance of contamination, there is a good chance of losing the whole contract. That was not the sort of issue that would come up when we were considering mountain, moorland, heath and down, and there cannot be too many areas where vegetables are growing right down to the shoreline, but the fact that a dog could get loose and roam across tens of hectares raises an issue. Any question of making it impossible for dogs to have access could be achieved only at exorbitant expense. We may need to consider a permanent restriction.
Local negotiation will be very important where there is housing with gardens that run down to the shore. It is a great relief to see in some of the current papers that the concept of curtilage is being considered. Ideally there will always be an area between the curtilage and the beach along which a path can run, but especially in areas experiencing erosion it may become necessary to divert the access to a more inland route if the situation is tending to become dangerous.
The outcome of the legislation will be an interesting test for Natural England, as our coastline contains some of the richest and most exotic sites for wildlife. An assessment was made by the Ramblers Association when we last debated the issue that there were 2,733 miles of coastline and estuaries. Can the Minister tell us whether an estimate has been made of how much of the coastline and estuaries contain areas designated with a classification of SSSI or higher rate of conservation?
With the demise of English Nature, Natural England will now have both to decide how to achieve the access desired and to avoid compromising conservation value. Who do the Government expect to monitor whether that has been achieved? I am sure that when the Government finalise their consultation we shall have a chance to air any of those issues. Let us hope that we can come up with practical rather than triumphalist solutions.
My Lords, I am very grateful, as the House will be, to the noble Lord for securing the debate. It is very useful to have a run around the course, if I may put it that way, prior to the publication of the consultation. I am in no position either to confirm or deny any dates. All I can say is that the consultation will appear shortly. That is meant in the most sincere and positive form, believe you me.
To be honest, many of the questions that I have been asked will be answered in the consultation. I have to be careful, because I do not want to prejudge the consultation. There is no secret about what is promised at present, but I hope that I will cover the points raised. Others will be left to consultation.
Before I talk about coastal access, it may be useful to look back, as the noble Lord did, on the major success of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. It gave access to about three-quarters of a million hectares of mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land that had not previously been open to the public. We have every right to be proud of the Government’s achievement in introducing the legislation and getting Parliament to approve it. As was implied by what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said, it was a piece of social legislation in the fullest sense of the words. I was not in the department at the time, but I remember reading many of the reports of the debates, and the House was certainly instrumental in ensuring that the right of access is a responsible right that balances the interests of users and landowners—this is important, and has proved to be successful in practice—and in ensuring that wildlife and the environment are also protected. That legislation showed what can be achieved when all the interested parties work together.
People are enjoying their access rights responsibly, with absolutely minimal disruption to landowners. When the legislation was first mooted, the forecasts of what would happen as a result of it were a bit like the forecasts for the minimum wage legislation; they did not manifest in reality. That legislation was the result of good discussion in both Houses to try to achieve a practical solution to these problems. The Government had made it clear that we were going to legislate. It set a good precedent for thinking about coastal access, which we need to continue in this process.
It is our belief that people want and should have uninterrupted, safe and secure access to the English coast, whether to enjoy a walk along the rocky headlands and secluded coves of the south-west or to experience the ever-stretching sandy beaches of Northumberland. There are people in some parts of the country who have said, “We have a real secret here. We would rather that the rest of the country did not know about it”. I can fully understand why people have said that about certain parts of Northumberland. I have paid only one visit to the coast of Northumberland, and thought it was absolutely striking. It was a wonderful experience. It is certainly a big secret of the north.
As has been stated, the Government have already set out a vision of a coastal environment where the right to walk along the length of the English coast lies within a wildlife and landscape corridor that offers enjoyment, an understanding of the natural environment and a high-quality experience, and is managed sustainably in the context of a changing coastline. We are investigating the best way to deliver that vision, which is what this is all about. In 2005, we asked the Countryside Agency, English Nature and the Rural Development Service to consider how best to improve access to the English coast. Last October, these bodies came together to form Natural England, which, at the end of February this year, provided advice to the Government. That advice was based on detailed research, which included market research to assess current public knowledge and the use of and demand for coastal access; the collection and analysis of spatial coastal data; an investigation into coastal access in selected European countries; an assessment of the best way to integrate and maximise the landscape, the historic environment and wildlife benefits with access provision; and detailed investigation of study areas believed to be representative of different coastal land types. The study areas, which I believe are well known, were County Durham and the Hartlepool coast; the north Devon, Exmoor and west Somerset coast; the southern Cumbrian coast and Morecambe Bay; and parts of the Suffolk coast, which I particularly enjoyed in the Easter break.
Natural England considered four options for improving coastal access. The first would use the Highways Act 1980 to create new rights of way around the coast. The second would use the power in Section 3 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, mentioned, to include coastal land in the definition of open country, to which the right of access applies under that Act. The third would use voluntary measures to create more permissive access. The fourth would be new legislation to create a coastal access corridor. When the Natural England board met to finalise its advice to the Government, it also issued a press release setting out the main thrust of that advice. It will therefore be no surprise to anyone when I say that Natural England has recommended the fourth option—new legislation to create a coastal corridor—as the way forward.
The Government now intend to get the views of the public on all four options for improving access to the English coast that Natural England considered, and we will shortly launch a full public consultation process to do this. On the same day on which our public consultation document and partial regulatory impact assessment are published, Natural England will make public its research studies and its full advice to the Government. The whole package will be available for everyone, so we can have full consultation. We want an approach to coastal access that balances the interests of users and landowners in that same way in which the right of access to open country does that protects the rich and unique landscape and wildlife of our beautiful coastline. Involvement is the key to getting this right.
The consultation will seek opinions on the four possible ways to improve coastal access. Each one has its own strengths, but they will not all deliver the same results. Natural England has concluded from its work that none of the three existing options could fully achieve at a national level the vision that I have set out. Its view is that none of these options can create the right mix of national momentum and local delivery and design, and future-proof coastal access against coastal change. Its recommendation is that the creation of a coastal access corridor through new legislation would combine the best features of existing options, and would give it the powers to make sense of the unique coastal situation and to ensure the necessary flexibility to take account of the circumstances on each section of the English coast.
We have said that we are particularly interested in Natural England’s recommendation to create a coastal access corridor in new legislation, and we are looking in detail at how this option might work. We are, however, genuinely interested in views on all the options. It is a genuine consultation. The consultation will be an opportunity for individual users and landowners, as well as local access forums and the many people and groups who promote and manage the marine and coastal environment, to share their expertise with us and to help us shape the way forward. They will do this with the benefit of the detailed background work carried out by Natural England and my department. I cannot say at this stage whether it will be possible to deal with the fourth option, if it is chosen, in the context of the Marine Bill. Obviously I cannot say whether the two pieces of legislation can be matched at the same time when I cannot give the House a date for the consultation. By definition, any consultation that starts next month, or at least as soon as possible, will cover the summer period. First, there will be complaints about it over the holiday period, so we will need longer consultation. Obviously we will want to follow the Cabinet Office rule of a minimum of 12 weeks, but there might be pressure to extend that. The minute that starts to happen, there could be difficulties because of the marine legislation. It is a question of balance. We are very hopeful that we can deliver on this manifesto commitment in as practical a way as possible.
As I have indicated, some of the points that have been made in the debate this evening will be covered in the consultation, but I am not in a position to deal with them at this point. As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said, when he first secured the debate, he thought that he might be able to take tonight as part of the consultation. I fully assure him that the points made in the debate tonight will certainly be taken on board as part of the consultation. It is quite important that Parliament has a role. We may not have actually launched the consultation yet, but the points made will certainly be taken on board by officials at Defra. We have had an early debate. The Government had an exchange on this issue in response to a recent Parliamentary Question about the noble Lord’s initiative, and I have no doubt that there will be others. It is only through that informed debate that we will reach a solution in what will be a really exciting initiative.
I end with the caveat that this is a question for England. I have spoken particularly about the English coast tonight; indeed, I have mentioned it more than once. We are an island, but the island is not England, so there will be issues. I understand that the law is different in Scotland, so this is not an issue for Scotland. So far as Wales is concerned, this matter will have to be dealt with at some point, but it will be a matter for the Welsh Assembly. We will be dealing only with the English aspect when we draw up the legislation. I cannot answer all the questions simply because we have not yet had the consultation. To give any greater or lesser emphasis than I have already given would make it look as though we were prejudging the consultation. I have said that the fourth option is an interesting way forward, and we will give it due weight, but we will look for views and consult on the practicalities or otherwise of all the four options that were originally considered. As I have said, people will have the benefit of the full research, which will be published on the same day, so they will have the same information that the Government will have.
My Lords, I am grateful for what the Minister has said. On the question of legislation, my understanding is that the Welsh Assembly can go ahead under existing legislation only where it exercises the powers that the Secretary of State exercises here, subject to parliamentary approval. If the Government are minded to introduce primary legislation to do something different—perhaps built around the fourth option or whatever—would that not have to encompass Wales as well as England?
My Lords, I do not think that that is necessarily the case, although it is possible. I am speaking without advice. However, if we legislate under the process of devolution, it will be possible for the Welsh Assembly to introduce mirror image secondary legislation if it agrees with what is in the primary legislation. That is the whole point of devolution. The Welsh Assembly has no power of primary legislation but it can introduce secondary legislation. It would have to have the necessary power to put through the secondary legislation if it chose to go down that route. It will be a decision of the Welsh Assembly, not the Westminster Parliament. That is the whole point of devolution. The Assembly needs to be given the legislative wherewithal to achieve the outcome that it desires, and obviously that is the way it will be done. But I cannot say what form it would take in the legislation.