If the government thought it was getting an easy quick win on coastal access an apparently perfect flagship project for the newly created Natural England (NE) then perhaps it should now think again. There is no public demand for this type of proposal; NE itself acknowledges that there is “no groundswell of concern”. Its own research shows that at least 70 per cent of the coastline is already accessible, with development, MOD land and unsafe or environmentally sensitive areas such as mudflats accounting for much of the remainder. Even if there were to be a complete access corridor, something which their own proposals tacitly acknowledge as unachievable, more than 90 per cent of people said it wouldn’t encourage greater use. Yet a mere few weeks ago DEFRA chose the White Cliffs of Dover an area of very good public access to launch the public consultation on its proposals for a “coastal access corridor”, proposals that appear to ride roughshod over issues such as nature conservation, safety, land management and private property rights.
As with many areas around the coast where there is currently a limit on public access, it is often down to environmental sensitivity. The Holker estate, in Cumbria, was recently accused of preventing public access. This is just one example. Parts of the estate have Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) status and are bounded by important geomorphic sites of limestone pavement and include areas of National Nature Reserve. Access to these areas is not prohibited, but controlled through a permit system in order to protect these fragile and important areas, part of which is, ironically, leased to NE.
These accusations of blatant prevention of public access are a classic example of the type of misinformation that seems to pepper discussions about access. In point of fact, the coastal route follows existing public rights of way and the estate has provided a permissive route to enable two otherwise separate sections of path to be linked. That it did not follow the coast owes much to environmental as well as safety considerations.
The hazardous tides and shifting sands of the Morecombe Bay area mean that any form of unrestricted access is inadvisable for safety reasons. There are other equally good reasons why access may not be possible, however. In Devon, the Clovelly estate, responsible for the picturesque village of Clovelly inaccessible by motor vehicle and clinging to a 400ft cliff runs a commercial pheasant shoot. The estate has extensive woodland along the coast, which, with the strong westerly winds, produces challenging birds. Teams of Guns come from around the world to take part in the shoot. Two gamekeepers are employed and together with beaters and pickers-up, some 15 full-time jobs are sustained by the enterprise in an area of traditionally low and often seasonal summer employment. Shoot income contributes towards the costs of maintaining the large areas of ancient semi-natural woodland.
The concept of unrestricted coastal access could have serious impacts not only on the shoot which would be impossible to run if the public had general access to the woodland coastal areas where co-ordinated teamwork by beaters and gamekeeper
is essential but also on the estate’s ability to maintain the village houses, social structure and tourist facilities if it were to lose the essential visitor admission income to the village. How sad if coastal access were to result in losses not just to the estate, but to the community that lives there.
There are already many other examples such as tourism or fishing businesses that rely on exclusive access to a small part of the coast, who believe their businesses would be made unviable were a general right of access to be introduced. The loss to just one business in the south west alone has already been costed at well into six figures, which rather shoots a hole in NE’s contention that costs for the whole of the coastline, involving, potentially, many thousands of landowners, will only amount to some £8million. That NE has suggested these losses should not be compensated only adds fuel to the fire and in the process sets a dangerous precedent for other situations where “public good” is deemed to reign supreme. Property owners everywhere should not be complacent.
It is perplexing as to why NE has recommended such an approach. The CLA believes that, given the evidence, NE should have advised Government that there was generally little difficulty in accessing the coast, except in localised areas. Consequently it should have recommended a focused, localised approach that linked local priorities identified through rights of way improvement plans with existing legislation available for rights of way creation and permissive access. That these local priorities have not been funded, but the showpiece of coastal access apparently will be, says much about the Government. A willingness to back down from its preferred option of a coastal corridor and implement local solutions would say a great deal more. We will wait and see.