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Coastal Access in England

Volume 738: debated on Thursday 12 July 2012

Question for Short Debate

Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they are making on coastal access in England.

My Lords, I am not sure whether I am an ageing member of the Angry Brigade but, unfortunately, in about a fortnight’s time I will pass the average age of Members of this House. That must be a step too far, I think. I am probably not at the median yet.

I remind the House of my interests in the Open Spaces Society and the British Mountaineering Council. I thank the small group of noble Lords who have agreed to come to take part in the debate; the end of a Thursday afternoon is never the best time to get a full House. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of King’s Heath, who has come in at the last minute as a “gap man”, for which I am very grateful.

The proposals for coastal access in England are derived from Part 9 of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, which some of us have fond memories of dealing with at some length in this House. It is unexpectedly timely that I am asking this Question today—although I tabled it some time ago—because the first stretch of the coastal path was opened for access on 29 June in the Weymouth area of Dorset. I will not say any more about that; the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, may fill us in on some local details. It is very nice to see him here this afternoon.

The press release issued by Natural England referred to,

“the first stretch of the new national Coast Path around the entire English coast”.

That is a matter for rejoicing for those of us who have championed this scheme from the start. It was very nice indeed to see the Minister, Richard Benyon, being so effusive in his congratulatory comments on it, and I congratulate the coalition Government on continuing to promote and carry out the work on coastal access in England. Indeed, Section 296 places a duty on both Natural England and the Secretary of State to do that. Five further projects under way at the moment were initiated under the previous Government but are being continued by the present Government, and we can look forward to Cumbria and Durham probably being the next two to be rolled out, as they say, and to the five that are under way being completed by the end of 2025. Concern was expressed in a lot of quarters that the new Government would drag their feet on this, and I congratulate them on the fact that they are keeping going—right on to the end of the road, one hopes, or at least to the end of the coastal path.

My first question is: what is now the target for completion around England? Originally, it was going to be done in 10 years, although I must say that I always thought that that was ambitious due to the complexity of the scheme. It would be interesting if the Government could give us a target. Wales has completed a path—but it is only one path, and I feel that a lot of people in Wales feel that Wales will have to go back to revisit the whole question of coastal access, as opposed to a path around the coast, and particularly access to the foreshore.

Natural England issued a very welcome proposal in May this year, which was headed England Coast Path Programme Vision—I was not sure about that as a nominal clause, but never mind—Next Stretches and Future Direction. There is a very interesting map on the Natural England website, setting out proposals for another five stretches of coast to be started very soon and then some longer-term ones to be started by 2017. Again, that is very welcome, and the areas that they are choosing are very sensible ones. They are the ones that will be most in demand and where there is most need for the path. That is all very encouraging.

My second question is whether the programme vision of Natural England has the full-hearted support of the Government. The work is directed by the coastal access scheme, which was published in March 2010. Under Section 299 of the Act, the first review has to be completed within three years, and that is due to take place this September. Will the Government confirm that the review will be used to improve and clarify the scheme and not to scale back the proposals? I hope that that is an easy question for them to answer.

After the work on the Dorset stretch, Defra carried out a limited “lessons learnt” exercise, which was a sensible thing to do. The main result is a change in guidance on the so-called spreading room—the access land on the landward side of the path. The whole scheme is based on the designation of new access land under amended provisions of Part 1 of the CROW Act 2000. The path itself is access land, as is the land between the path and the sea, apart from some excepted land, and some land on the landward side of the path where sensible, due to the nature of the land or a sensible boundary.

On the effects of the changes, which involve a more restricted view to declaring the access land the spreading land on the landward side, the Government’s communication to Natural England states:

“The general approach should be that the interests of the public in having access to such landward spreading room are likely to outweigh the interests of the landowner only in exceptional circumstances”—

important words—

“or where in the absence of any more restrictive clear and natural boundaries of the spreading room it is justified by strong convenience in establishing a clear and natural boundary”.

That is a different system from the one that we have had so far; it is not clear what difference it is going to make in practice, in a lot of places, but there are some particular concerns that it will not be used to undermine the status of any existing access land under Section 1 of the CROW Act, which adjoins the path on the landward side; that it will not result in new barriers, such as fences, along the landward side of the path where they do not exist at the moment, so resulting in a deterioration of the local amenity; and that access to crags used for climbing which are on the landward side of the path should not be restricted.

In other words, if there are clear crags used for recreational climbing, they should not be blocked off and that should be regarded as being a matter of convenience. A crag is often a natural boundary, which can sensibly be used, particularly if the boundary is at the top of the crag so that the cliff face itself is within the access. The British Mountaineering Council has produced a list of more than 50 such crags. Will the Minister confirm that serious consideration will be given to such evidence from climbers when making decisions on exceptional circumstances and strong convenience in establishing a clear and natural boundary?

I ask the Minister briefly about the Isle of Wight. Under Section 300 of the Act, the Secretary of State has the ability to specify that an island should be part of the coastal access provision. The Minister will remember that we discussed the Isle of Wight at some length when we were going through the Marine and Coastal Access Act. When will the consultation due on the Isle of Wight start? Do the Government agree with the statement in the frequently asked questions on Natural England’s website that,

“the Isle of Wight is expected to be included”,

or are they completely neutral about it?

My final question is about the recent year-long review of the management of national trails and the recent consultation by Natural England on the review. National trails—I am not talking about coastal trails now, I am talking about all the rest, such as the Pennine Way and the Cleveland Way—consist of 2,500 miles of walking with lots of opportunities for horse-riding and cycling in many places. The review of national trails raises a lot of questions which are not directly relevant to the question of coastal access, but how will the English coastal path be integrated into the plans for national trails, given that the English coastal path will, when complete, double the total length of England’s national trails—a mind-boggling statistic in itself. How will the coastal path be integrated into future systems for management of national trails generally?

I should be grateful to hear the Minister’s answers to these questions. I am sure he will have them all at his fingertips. I repeat that, taken as a whole, this is not a critical Question. I am delighted, as are a lot of people in the country, by the way in which the new Government have come round to support for this extremely important and exciting project.

My Lords, after that extensive debate on the noble Lord’s Question, it is my great pleasure to speak briefly in the gap. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, because, in the many months that we spent debating this Act, he was an assiduous attendee and mover of amendments, for which we were all grateful. My only regret was that for part of the time the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, was involved with a local government Bill in Grand Committee and was not, alas, able to join us. However, when he did he certainly made his presence felt and I thought he made a very persuasive argument today about the benefits of that legislation. He did so in a supporting vein, encouraging the Government to get on with it a little more than they have done previously.

I also recall fondly the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, on the then opposition Front Benches. We always liked to see him on the opposition Front Benches and look forward to that again in the near future. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, made an extremely important contribution to our debates and, if I recollect rightly, he was always suggesting that the Government were not getting a move on and were not making as much progress as possible. I am glad that he is now able to account for his own stewardship in that regard.

I also pay tribute to the support given by the officials at Defra and to the agencies that come under it. I remember the extraordinary experience of having an introductory meeting with the stakeholders in that glorious conference room at Defra. About 70 people turned up and I realised that I was in for a very considerable challenge. I do not think I have ever come across a piece of legislation where so many stakeholders had taken so much interest and worked together to cause considerable challenge to the Government. At the end of the day, I believe that collectively a very good piece of legislation was produced. What is happening in Weymouth is great news, and I hope that my noble friend will give us a little more information.

I wanted to ask three questions of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor. He will know that there is some disappointment. First, we are glad that progress is being made, but my understanding is that there has been some delay in the original timetable for the completion of a coastal path around England. Can the noble Lord now give us an indication of when they think the whole of the English coastal path will be completed? Perhaps he will take from this debate encouragement for the Government to look at that timetable and make sure that it is completed as quickly as possible.

Secondly, can the noble Lord tell me whether the economic benefit of the new pathways, as they are opened, is going to be monitored and recorded, because that would give great encouragement in terms of the economic value of the pathway?

Thirdly, I should like to come back to an issue that we discussed extensively in relation to public transport access. We all had in mind the Cornish pathway and its brilliance, as well as, certainly in the summer months, access to a bus service that meant that people could walk along the pathway, catch a bus back to where they were staying, and then resume their walk later on. Clearly, there is a big issue about public transport in rural areas. It would be very helpful if the noble Lord said a little more about what the Government are going to do to encourage rural public transport to work in conjunction with the pathway.

My Lords, I very much welcome the debate and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for initiating it. It is a subject dear to my heart and I am glad to have the opportunity to talk about it for up to 10 minutes.

As has been trailed, I should like to start on the Jurassic coast. For those who do not know it, it is a one of the very few natural world heritage sites in this country. It covers 95 miles of truly stunning coastline from east Devon to Old Harry Rocks near Swanage in my former constituency in Dorset, with rocks recording 185 million years of the earth’s history. That means that with every mile that you walk westwards, the land you are walking on ages by 2 million years. Just on the section from Lulworth to Portland you can enjoy dinosaur footprints, fossil forest, the extraordinary natural coastal arch of Durdle Door, a pint of Badger ale—if it has not been got rid of by the Government—at the Smugglers Inn, and, from there, with a view across Weymouth Bay, you can proceed to and enjoy Weymouth beach and the historic Georgian seafront where seaside holidays were more or less invented by King George, and from where, in a matter of a few weeks, you will be able to watch Olympic sailing on large screens for free. There is also Nothe Fort, from where you can enjoy watching the Olympic sailing, if you have a ticket. Then there is Chesil beach and the unique natural feature of the lagoon, Portland Castle and what is arguably the best view in the world from the Portland Heights Hotel down over Chesil beach and Weymouth Bay. It is an extraordinary natural jewel and I would recommend that the many Members of your Lordships’ House who are present today go and enjoy it.

We have new rights for people to enjoy these 32 kilometres of coastline around Weymouth Bay, which came into force last month, as the first stretch of the new national coastal path. It is an initiative that I am proud to say I began when I was a Minister. At the first meeting I had with the access officials, they said, “What about a coastal path for England?”. I said, “That sounds like a good idea; why don’t we get on with it?”. They certainly did so.

Natural England in partnership with Dorset County Council has moved the existing south-west coast path from Rufus Castle on Portland to Lulworth Cove closer to the sea in several places. It is important for noble Lords to understand that there is a difference between the coastal path for England and the existing south-west coastal path. For the first time, there are also access rights over beaches, cliffs and other suitable land beside the route, where walkers can leave the path to rest, picnic and admire the view. Crucially, the path will now be able to roll back as the cliffs erode or slip, solving longstanding difficulties which are particularly pronounced as you go along the Jurassic coast towards Devon, closer to Lyme Regis. Cliffs erode and there are landslips, and if a continuous route is to be maintained along the slumping cliffs on this stretch of coast, we need the powers in the Act for the coastal path.

The route opens in time for walkers to enjoy stunning views of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games sailing events. Today, indeed, I am afraid that I am missing the torch relay coming to Weymouth in order to attend to my duties here. I am sure it will be a great celebration and a prelude to a wonderful summer. I hope there will be some decent weather. My house got flooded this weekend, and I certainly hope that that sort of weather desists. It is worth noting that it is not too late to book accommodation and enjoy the free screens on Weymouth beach for one of our most successful Olympic sports, where we are contenders for medals in every category.

I am passionate about my stretch of coast—or rather, the stretch of coast on which I live, as I do not actually own it—as are the general public. Access to our natural heritage for walking, riding, relaxation and inspiration is fundamental for us. However, as the Ramblers say in their briefing, despite this the extent and quality of public access to the coast in England is patchy. Good quality access exists in some areas, but in others is confined to narrow cliff tops, or paths and roads that take visitors far inland, away from the sea. Some areas are simply off limits.

Contrast this with Wales. Its path was officially opened on the 5 May and fulfils a long held ambition of our party in Wales to ensure public access to the whole coastline. The New York Times listed the Welsh path as one of the 45 places to visit in the world in 2012, and it will bring visitors, jobs and a much-needed boost to the rural economy in Wales, in a country where unemployment stands at 9%. The Welsh path was praised by an editorial in the Observer as having

“set a standard in coastal path designation”.

In times of recession, tourism and leisure can bring economic benefits to rural communities facing unemployment, as well as providing a healthy, cheap day out for families.

I would suggest that Wales stands in some contrast to the lack of progress being made on England’s coastal path. The dream of a coastal path around our island has been the dream of ramblers and walkers for generations. In April we marked the 80th anniversary of the mass trespass of Kinder Scout in the Peak District, which in 1932 sparked the movement to open up our countryside for all to enjoy. The Labour Government legislated for the right to roam as part of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. We also passed the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, as we heard from my noble friend Lord Hunt. I pay tribute to the noble Lords who were a part of the debate in improving that legislation, and laid the foundations for a coastal path around our shores. In doing that we were happy to have the support of the Conservative Party in opposition, and the noble Lord, Lord Taylor.

A coastal path would provide a much needed tourism boost to many rural and coastal areas struggling with recession. As the Ramblers say, the south-west coastal path is often taken as the blueprint for the English coastal path, and is estimated to generate £307 million a year for the regional economy. If only half of these benefits were to be gained elsewhere, it could completely rejuvenate the social and economic life of our coastal towns. Yet, the cost of developing the path is put at £4.5 million, plus staff costs for Natural England.

Is this not the sort of investment in growth that we all want to see? Yet progress on the next step for the coastal network is proceeding too slowly. On 10 May the Government finally launched the public consultations for Durham and Cumbria, but there is an insufficient sense of momentum. Work was planned to start on the five new adjoining stretches of coast during this year and next in Cumbria, Dorset, Kent, Norfolk and Hartlepool. These are expected to be open to the public for use by the end of 2016. Natural England has also set out a vision for implementing the path up until 2017.

Therefore, by 2017—in five years’ time—it should be possible to walk from Hull to Dorset as long as you go anti-clockwise and via Wales. However, as Ramblers say:

“It is now clear that implementation will take longer than the initial estimate of ten years … and we still do not know when the entire path will be completed”.

This is reinforced by the fact that Natural England’s budget was cut by 21.5% in the comprehensive spending review, leaving it struggling to promote public access or leisure opportunities. The current Defra consultation on the future management of national trails, which we heard about from the noble Lord, Lord Greaves—for example, the Pennine Way or the Norfolk coastal path—shows a Government who, I would say, would like to offload them on to the big society. I worry that that is how we will end up.

This is part of a pattern which has become worryingly familiar. Last year, the Government tried to raise £100 million by selling off England’s forests but were forced to back down by the huge weight of public outrage. Their plans to sell off the national nature reserve were quietly shelved after that. Next, they began unpicking planning laws that have protected our countryside, casting aside carefully calibrated pages of guidance with a one-size-fits-all document. After more public protests—most notably from the National Trust—plans to place a duty on the national parks to promote sustainable development have also been quietly shelved. Conservationists and campaigners are punch drunk from the constant assault on nature and wildlife, and they wait in fear to see how far the Government will go to divest any strategic vision for the countryside.

Therefore, I look forward to the Minister reassuring me. I look forward to him telling me that I am just an old political cynic and that everything will be okay. As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and my noble friend Lord Hunt asked: when will we see a timetable for the whole thing? When will it be finished, and what are his plans for other users? The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, talked about climbers. Last summer, I had a stunning day climbing on the cliffs of Portland. What about horse and bike riders? The last time I rode a horse was to gallop along the sands at Lindisfarne—a stunning experience, the like of which should be available to more people. I also repeat the question put by my noble friend Lord Hunt regarding transport. On the Jurassic coast we have the brilliant X53 service that runs along the whole coast and is actively used not just by pensioners with their bus passes but by walkers with their dogs. More services like the X53 would be most welcome.

I thank my noble friend for stopping for a moment. We in this part of the Chamber are really intrigued to know how big the horse was that he rode.

Many hands make light work, and that is about as much detail as I shall give.

The Government’s lack of realistic ambition to realise an accessible path around England’s coast speaks volumes about their approach to nature and their understanding of the economic, social, environmental and health benefits of opening up the countryside for the public to enjoy. Ministers would do well to heed the lessons from Wales: green infrastructure could be just the boost that England’s rural economy needs. I look forward to the noble Lord’s response.

My Lords, when I saw the speakers list, I recognised the quality but was rather disappointed by the number of contributors. I suggested to the usual channels that, rather than have this debate, perhaps the three of us could go down to Weymouth and enjoy the torch and indeed have a walk along the new coastal path. Unfortunately, the procedures of the House demand that we are here, but that has encouraged the introducer of the legislation into Parliament, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, to be here with us. We were a very happy band of brothers dealing with that Bill, now the Act on which this debate is founded. We worked together to improve the Bill and there was no lack of enthusiasm from either government or opposition. Indeed, although the discussion was lengthy, it was a good experience for us all.

We have good news to tell on this story. Had the noble Lord, Lord Knight, and I been walking along the coast, he could have vented all this frustration of being in opposition and not engaged in this. I can tell him from our point of view that this is an energising project for the Government. The prospect of a coastal route linking communities, encouraging tourism and drawing people to one of the finest coastlines in the world—wherever you are in this country, it is magnificent—is something that I hope all can agree with and aspire to achieve. Opening up many miles of coastline for the enjoyment of all will help to support local economies. We already make over 70 million trips to the coast each year, spending over £1.4 billion, which helps support myriad small businesses on the coast and, indeed, in many seaside towns. As the noble Lord, Lord Knight, said, all this started with George III going down to Weymouth.

As my noble friend pointed out at the very beginning of his speech, the new right of access was implemented for the first time on 29 June on the lovely stretch of coast between Rufus Castle on the eastern side of Portland and Lulworth Cove. There has been real enthusiasm locally for what has been achieved. It is not surprising that celebratory events have been held by the local authority and the Ramblers to mark the opening of the Weymouth route. The new coastal route will bring a number of key improvements to the existing arrangements for coastal access at Weymouth Bay. The existing south-west coast path will, as the noble Lord, Lord Knight, mentioned, move closer to the sea in several places and away from a road in two places. For the first time, there will be secure statutory rights of public access to world-famous areas of beach, cliff and other coastal land on this magnificent part of the Dorset coast.

It has been a delight to listen to the local knowledge of the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth. He knows and loves that coast—and, indeed, owns it, in the sense that we all own, through public access, the opportunity of sharing in it. Crucially, as the noble Lord pointed out, the new coastal path will be able to roll back as the cliffs erode or slip. This will help to solve long-standing difficulties with maintaining a continuous route around the slumping cliffs between Weymouth and Lulworth Cove. The coastal route will make a huge difference, even in this area, which is served by an existing coastal national trail.

Weymouth is, of course, just the start of an opportunity that we have seized, which I want to emphasise. Natural England is progressing its proposals for the coastal route on a further five stretches of coast, totalling another 190 miles. It has recently issued draft reports with proposals for two new stretches of coast in Cumbria and at Durham, Hartlepool and Sunderland. These draft reports, which are not required by legislation, none the less demonstrate the highly consultative style in which improved coastal access is being delivered. That is a theme of the Government’s approach to their responsibilities under the Act, which will be found throughout this speech.

Next month, draft reports will also be issued by Natural England for the lead stretches of coast in Kent and Norfolk. The draft report for part of the Somerset coast will follow in spring 2013. Natural England has already started preparations, along with local authorities, on a further 190 miles of English coast, building on the existing stretches in Cumbria, Dorset, Kent, Norfolk and Hartlepool.

Over the next five to seven years, Natural England will continue to roll out the implementation programme in a planned and sequential way, providing improved coastal access and linking to some of the existing national trail network—I can reassure my noble friend Lord Greaves on that—and to the Welsh coastal path. By 2016, for example, even if noble Lords have to walk in an anti-clockwise direction, we expect it to be possible to walk on the national trails from the start of the south-west coast path at Poole to the first Severn Bridge, and there join up with the Welsh coast path and the southern end of the Offa’s Dyke path. We congratulate the Welsh Government on what they have achieved in opening that path and we seek to emulate them.

There is no lack of government will to implement the coastal access programme. Clearly, we need to be realistic as to the speed of implementation, alongside available resources. Noble Lords would expect that. Implementation activity must be cost-effective and proportionate to local need and operationally efficient. I am not in a position to give a deadline. Indeed, when the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, was taking the Bill through he was reluctant to give a deadline for this project. But we will achieve our objective to have a coastal path around the coast of England. I believe that our approach needs these requirements, as it must do at a time of scarce resources.

I want to address the concerns that some landowners, coastal businesses and residents have raised about the possible impact on coastal access. It is in our interests to ensure that coastal access proceeds sensitively with care and does not damage livelihoods or businesses. Just as importantly, it should not put at risk or damage nature conservation or heritage interests. Noble Lords have asked a number of points. My noble friend Lord Greaves asked about the cliffs. The British Mountaineering Council, of which he is an active member, has provided quite a lot of information about access to cliffs along the route, and I am sure that it will continue to do so. It is seen as a body that Natural England will consult. My noble friend also asked about the existence of a path on the Isle of Wight. We will be consulting in the next four weeks on the possibility of bringing the Isle of Wight into the scope, so there is an opportunity for it to be equally served by a path.

My noble friend asked if we would review the scheme. I can reassure him that Natural England has written today to key national stakeholders outlining its plan for the review, which will start on 5 September and last for eight weeks. It will look at the implementation that has developed at Weymouth and the stretches that are currently under protection, and it will learn the lessons that there are to be learnt. Indeed, it will be looking at the economic benefits and the issue of transport access. I am sure that because of the involvement of local authorities, transport access will be encouraged so that walkers can make the most of these situations. My noble friend also asked about the linkage with National Trails. I think that I have indicated that they are designed to be incorporated into this great facility.

In many ways consultation is a key element of the process in completing the national route. It is crucial to get the balance right between the new right of coastal access and the needs of those who live or work on coastal land. In the future rollout of the coastal access programme, we will take forward the lessons that we have learnt from our experience at Weymouth. Natural England will look to work even more closely with landowners and occupiers in the future rollout of the programme, recognising the significant knowledge and expertise that they have to offer.

I hope that I have been able to demonstrate the enthusiasm of the Government for this coastal path. We see it as a great asset and amenity for all the citizens of this country. It will improve the nation’s sense of ownership of its beautiful landscape and will provide for the well-being of the citizens of this land. In particular, as we know, the coastal route around the whole English coast is a huge challenge, and we all have to acknowledge that. We intend to show that it is achievable and I assure noble Lords that there will be no dragging of feet.

House adjourned at 5.35 pm.