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Coast to Coast Walk

Volume 622: debated on Tuesday 7 March 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Coast to Coast Walk.

It is a pleasure to move this motion for debate today. In 1973 the legendary fell walker Alf Wainwright set out from St Bees in Cumbria on a walk he called the Coast to Coast. Stretching 190 miles from the North sea to the Irish sea, his route took him through no less than three national parks: Cumbria’s Lake District, my constituency’s Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors. In the 40 years since, not a day has gone by when those footsteps have gone unfollowed.

In Yorkshire, we are perhaps not renowned for our generosity, but when it comes to our nation’s most precious treasure of all, there is surely nowhere on Earth that is more giving. With polls regularly naming the Coast to Coast walk one of the world’s greatest, I would venture to say that there is no better showcase of Britain’s peerless natural beauty.

We all know that our new Prime Minister is a great walker and, in yet another sign of her excellent judgment, on her visit to Germany last year she chose to present Chancellor Merkel with a copy of Alf Wainwright’s Coast to Coast book. I understand that Chancellor Merkel is herself a keen hiker, so although Tony Blair and President Bush may have preferred the golf cart in Camp David, surely it is only a matter of time before Chancellor Merkel and the Prime Minister negotiate while strolling together on the Coast to Coast. I would recommend that when they do, they take to heart Wainwright’s very wise advice:

“There is no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.”

With all the fame and prestige, it might seem self-evident that the Coast to Coast walk would be one of Britain’s 15 official national trails. However, it is with regret that I report that this remarkable route is yet to be officially recognised and has not taken its rightful place alongside what are, in many cases, far less celebrated walks. Despite its renown and the thousands who walk it every year, the Coast to Coast does not even appear on Ordnance Survey maps. That means that as popular as the walk is, attracting the visitors that it does, there is much less opportunity to promote it and attract even more visitors, which the rural economy needs. More concerning still, its lack of official status means that none of the official funding provided to national trails such as the Pennine Way and Offa’s Dyke is available to the Coast to Coast. That is why in April last year I met members of the Wainwright Society at Surrender bridge in Swaledale, to launch the Coast to Coast “Make it National” campaign.

I am privileged to say that since that day, the campaign has garnered a coalition of formal support from no fewer than 53 local, district and county councils along the route, the national parks and, of course, members of the Wainwright Society, custodians of the legendary walker’s legacy. The Minister will no doubt be excited to learn that the campaign has also attracted two celebrity backers, in the form of Julia Bradbury from “Countryfile” and Eric Robson, host of the BBC’s “Gardeners’ Question Time”. I am also privileged and thrilled to have received the support of colleagues here in Westminster—indeed, from every Member of Parliament along the route, including the hon. Members for Workington (Sue Hayman) and for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), my hon. Friends the Members for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill) and for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) and my hon. Friend the newly elected Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison). I am delighted that three of my colleagues are here today.

My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border is a particularly keen user of the Coast to Coast, so I can only hope that his famous two-year trek across Afghanistan and Pakistan has provided him with the necessary skills to deal with the more cantankerous locals he might encounter. I understand that the Coast to Coast even has its friends in the Cabinet. The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), makes regular use of his SAS training and walks the 190-mile path in just eight days.

Our campaign has three simple aims: first, to preserve one of our best-loved national treasures; secondly, to help more people discover this iconic walk; and lastly, to give a helping hand to the north’s rural economy. I will speak first about preservation. As I mentioned, national trail status comes with a modest amount of public funding of about £100,000 a year. That may not be much in the budget of a country or even a county council, but for the Coast to Coast, that sum could make the difference between the slow erosion of rain, wind and bracken and an iconic walk that is preserved for the next generation.

The money could be used to signpost the route, keep bogs off the path and check the creeping advance of hawthorn, making the path easier for walkers to follow. To the credit of the local authorities, the route has been relatively well maintained and is mostly in great condition, but as the years go by, more and more issues arise that they do not have the resources to fix. The crossing point at the A19 dual carriageway at Ingleby Arncliffe is one example. At the end of a hard day’s trek, carrying a heavy pack, walkers have to dodge traffic travelling up to 70 mph to get across. With national trail status, we could make a strong case for a footbridge to be built.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on his tremendous campaign, which I and many colleagues are very happy to support. Does he agree that, as tourism is so critical in both our constituencies these days, and as the route passes over the North York Moors and through Rosedale, which is the most beautiful part of the North York Moors, it is critical to the public houses and restaurants in those areas that we get designation as a national trail?

I thank my hon. Friend for his support. He is absolutely right: the rural economy is vital. As I will touch on later in my speech, it is worth billions and billions of pounds to constituencies such as his and mine. If we want to make sure that the countryside is not just a museum but a living, breathing place where people can live and have jobs, we need to ensure that businesses can thrive. National trail status would help with that.

At Nine Standards Rigg in Cumbria, the bog has become so bad that areas of the path have become virtually unwalkable. With national trail status, we can ensure that the Coast to Coast is kept as safe as possible, giving people the confidence to undertake one of Britain’s most magnificent journeys.

That leads me to the second objective of our campaign, which is to help more people discover the Coast to Coast. Funding would help keep the path accessible to everyone from fell walking fanatics to young families such as my own, but national trail status would also be an enormous asset in promoting the Coast to Coast in the UK and abroad. Indeed, for proof of the impact that official status and well organised promotion can have in rural areas, we need only look to our national parks. Since their creation in the 1950s, they have boomed. Receiving about 100 million visitors a year, national parks sustain 68,000 jobs while generating more than £10 billion for the economy.

That brings me to the final objective of our campaign, which my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton mentioned: supporting rural prosperity. In constituencies such as ours, the Coast to Coast is more than an institution that is close our hearts. It is one of the most vital arteries of our rural economy. Lining the path’s 190 miles are not only spectacular views but hundreds of communities and businesses. Texas has oil, Australia has gold mines and north Yorkshire has its countryside.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this really good debate. Of course, north Yorkshire, the Esk valley and East Cleveland had ironstone and alum mines. Part of the Coast to Coast route includes historic sites such as Kildale and Rosedale. It also goes through my constituency from Guisborough all the way to Eston. Westminster also has a local link, because, of course, the ironstone in Big Ben more than likely came from those mines. In my constituency, we have the Cleveland Ironstone Mining Museum. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the Cleveland Way and the Coast to Coast walk received funds and recognition, that would boost tourism to that mining museum, which is a crucial link to our historical lineage as a North Yorkshire community?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for informing us of that wonderful link between the ironstone mines in his constituency and Big Ben. I did not know about that museum, and I would be delighted to visit it with him. I agree wholeheartedly that promoting the walk would have many knock-on benefits and bring people to our areas to enjoy all the things that we know about and take for granted, and which we would like to open up to the rest of the country and the world. I hope that will be the case.

VisitEngland estimates that those who go on walking holidays spend about £2 billion annually. For businesses in our constituencies, that makes the iconic status of the Coast to Coast a vital source of custom. During the election campaign I called into one such business—a local pub like only Yorkshire makes—in the village of Danby Wiske near Northallerton. The landlord told me just how important the walk is to the prosperity of his business. The hundreds of walkers who stop by for a well earned pork pie and a cold pint of Yorkshire bitter in the summer months are the difference between a loss and a profit for his business. He is not alone. Coast to Coast Packhorse in Kirkby Stephen is a successful local start-up that transports walkers’ luggage to their next stop. Businesses along the Coast to Coast, perhaps including the museum that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, tell the same story.

When we talk about infrastructure investment in this House, as the Government rightly do, we all have a similar image in our minds—gigantic bridges, high-speed railway and motorways—but for rural areas, infrastructure such as the Coast to Coast can be just as vital because it allows communities to capitalise effectively on their national assets. I know public money is tight, but national trail funding is an investment that would be repaid many times over, both in the long-term economic benefits it would generate and in the communities it would help to sustain—communities whose hands repair our dry stone walls, tend our forests and keep our fields green and lush. If they were to disappear because of a lack of jobs of investment, every one of us would be poorer.

Natural England is currently focused on its coastal path project, due to open in 2020—an ambitious national trail that showcases the best of our coastal areas. As that programme moves towards completion over the coming years, I urge Natural England to look closely at finally giving the Coast to Coast the recognition it deserves. For now, a feasibility study would reflect the widespread support that the campaign has received and support the message of so many businesses from St Bees to Robin Hood’s Bay. Officially promoting and protecting the route would do so much for their prosperity.

The Coast to Coast route is part of the legacy of a unique man whose contribution to the natural world is unparalleled. Across mountains and fells, wandering through valleys and villages, it is an inspirational crossing of the north of England. In the words of Alf Wainwright himself:

“Surely there cannot be a finer itinerary for a long-distance walk!”

I hope the Minister will consider the case that the “Make it National” campaign has put forward and do all he can to encourage Natural England to launch a feasibility study as soon as possible. The Coast to Coast is already a national treasure. It is time to recognise it as a national trail.

Before I call the Minister, let me take the opportunity to welcome the hon. Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) to her first excursion into of the joys of Westminster Hall. Sadly, as she knows, she is bound by parliamentary convention and will not be able to intervene until she has made her maiden speech, but we look forward to her doing so in the near future. It is a pleasure to see her here.

May I also say that it is a pleasure to see my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison) attending this debate, which is obviously of great importance to her constituency as the Coast to Coast walk starts there? I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak) on securing this debate to highlight his long-running campaign for the well known Coast to Coast path. As he explained, the path was set out by the pioneering fell walker and author Alfred Wainwright in 1973, and my hon. Friend made a very strong case for it to become a national trail.

All hon. Members agree on the importance of the existing family of national trails in England, which were designated as such under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. They are long-distance routes that are maintained to a higher standard than other public rights of way, and they cover more than 2,000 miles in England. All have rights for walkers, and some are also open to horse riders and cyclists. I know that people care a lot about our national trails, and I recognise the value and the range of benefits that they bring. There can be no doubt that they are an important means of connecting people with nature. They are popular: there are at least 70 million visits each year to places that a national trail passes through. Visitors include local people, day visitors and international visitors to England. People come to enjoy some of our finest landscape and scenery, to get fresh air and hopefully to enjoy our finest weather. National trails are important to walkers and users, as they provide health and exercise benefits. They are also major tourism assets and attract a variety of visitors, who spend money that makes a significant contribution to local economies and rural regeneration.

My hon. Friend spoke of his campaign for the designation of the Coast to Coast path as a national trail. The path goes from St Bees to Robin Hood’s bay—a length of just over 190 miles. I am told it can be walked in about 11 to 15 days, although I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) might do it slightly faster, given his enthusiasm for walking. It takes walkers from the north-west coast, through the Lake District and parts of the Yorkshire dales, and then finally through the North York Moors before finishing on the east coast. About 70 miles of the total 190 miles is within the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks), which highlights its importance for him.

My hon. Friend said that local people have a long-standing interest in the designation of the path. I congratulate him on the local support he has obtained for his campaign and on the enthusiastic responses received from various local authorities whose areas the path crosses. He has also made it clear that every hon. Member representing a constituency along the route of the path supports his campaign.

As my hon. Friend is aware, the key responsibility for making any proposals to designate the Coast to Coast path as a national trail lies with Natural England, which is responsible for the provisions of the 1949 Act. Under section 51 of the Act, Natural England has a power to propose new national trails to the Secretary of State. To make such a designation, all the local authorities, including any national park authorities, within whose boundaries the route will pass have to be consulted. Natural England must then prepare a report setting out various matters such as the route, maintenance costs and likely capital outlay for creating a trail. The report is submitted to the Secretary of State, who may approve, modify or reject Natural England’s proposals.

My hon. Friend has been in contact with officials at Natural England since late 2015 or early last year, and he has met Natural England’s chairman, Andrew Sells, to discuss the matter further. Natural England has provided my hon. Friend with information about its powers under the 1949 Act with respect to national trails and the process for designating a path. Natural England has said that any proposal for a path to be designated as a national trail would need to secure a considerable amount of local support from all of the access authorities through which the new national trail would pass, as well as from landowners and land users.

As is often the case, and as my hon. Friend mentioned, money is the issue with the designation of new national trails. Natural England has indicated to him that while it supports the idea of designating the Coast to Coast path as a national trail, it has no plans to designate any new national trails. At the moment the Government’s priority is to develop coastal access proposals under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 for the England Coast path, which is to become a national trail as each stretch of the coastal walk is completed. Resources are now focused therefore on the delivery of the England Coast path, which we are committed to completing by 2020. To date, we have opened up public access along 338 miles of the English coast, along with additional spreading room for people to use for recreation and enjoyment. Once complete, the England Coast path will double the total length of national trails in England. Recently, I met local representatives of Natural England to discuss proposals to complete the coastal path around Cornwall.

My hon. Friend asked whether Natural England, working alongside the relevant authorities, would undertake a feasibility study to scope out the actual route of the Coast to Coast path and to see what is required for it to be designated as a national trail. As I have said, Natural England has no plans to designate any new national trails other than the England Coast path, and any such feasibility study might divert Natural England’s existing resources away from its work on that path. Once a decision is taken to designate, there is under the process provided for by the 1949 Act something akin to a feasibility study, including, for example, exhaustive consultation with local authorities and an assessment of the required maintenance costs. That is what I believe my hon. Friend is asking for, which would be the first stage of designation, rather than a separate feasibility study.

Once the England Coast path has been implemented in 2020, Natural England might be able to look at options for the Coast to Coast walk. I am sure that hon. Members with an interest in that will want to look at whether future party manifestos might include issues of this sort. In the meantime, I point out that other funds are available, such as those to promote tourism in rural communities. Perhaps alternative sources of funding can help to raise the profile of the Coast to Coast path in preparation for possible designation. It should also be remembered that nothing prevents local authorities along the path from increasing either their level of support for it or the amount they are willing to spend on its maintenance. There is no requirement to leave such activity to Natural England; in the interim, local authorities may invest in the path.

I recognise the value that users place on the experience of the Coast to Coast walk and the tourism value that it can bring to local communities. As I have pointed out, many other long-distance regional and trans-regional paths in England have the support of local communities and access authorities along their route in recognition of their value, although not all of them are national trails. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) for his lively campaign, however and for setting out so ably the case for the walk to become a national trail. I hope that he understands that limitations on our budget mean that we cannot consider that yet, but I encourage him and other colleagues to maintain pressure on local authorities and perhaps, in a few years’ time, once we have completed the England Coast path, to revisit the issue with Ministers.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.