This week, it seems likely, finally, that the House of Lords will discuss the coastal access provisions in the Marine and Coastal Access Bill. The proposals, which could have been simple and straightforward, are contentious and controversial.

Not only is a round-England path, some 4m wide, proposed, but also a margin of land, of varying width, within which the general public can “spread”. It is the provision of this “spreading room” that is of enormous concern to landowners and rural businesses. The Bill proposes that spreading room should automatically apply on the seaward side of the coastal path, and that the spreading area may extend, at Natural England’s discretion (Natural England being the body charged with implementing coastal access in England) to a fixed boundary on the landward side. Not content with annexing a great swathe of land around the English coast, the Bill also proposes to take in estuaries, potentially up to the first crossing point.

Few people would have expected that a commitment to extend access to the coast would include estuaries. When we talk about “going to the beach”, we don’t mean taking a boat ride up the Exe estuary. Our language has evolved to differentiate the two. Not so with the Government’s proposals for coastal access, which, in its confusion, seeks to bring rivers within the ambit of the coastal access proposals.

“Not content with annexing a great swathe of land around the English coast, the Bill also proposes to take in estuaries.”

Estuaries are home to large numbers of internationally important environmental sites, where access is frequently restricted and where owners are not permitted to undertake any potentially damaging operation. The majority of wildfowling in England takes place within SSSIs and Natura 2000 sites and wildfowlers have to seek formal consent from Natural England to make use of these areas. It would be quite extraordinary if other recreational users were able to access these areas without having similar consent, particularly as a number of studies have shown that there is significant disturbance to wildlife due to the presence of walkers, especially those with dogs.

There are many examples of woodland used as part of a shoot or for rearing which extend down to the banks of an estuary. One such shoot, on a Sussex estuary, would cease completely if access were granted, because of the impact on rearing operations. Shooting or wildfowling, whether on estuary or coast, are activities which cannot easily be managed by way of informal lanagement restrictions (such as signs or paths). Natural England suggests that where woodland would be included as “spreading area”, signs can be used to keep walkers away from rearing areas. The CLA members’ experiences of user co-operation with signs on existing open access land suggests that shoots would be right to be concerned at how effective they might be.

In cases where the character and landscape of an estuary is that of a river rather than of a coast, then it should not meet the criteria for coastal access and should be excluded from the provisions. There is no guarantee that Natural England will reach that same conclusion, however. The uncertainty about where coastal access will go, how the restrictions and exclusions will be applied and the impact that it will have on existing land use is at the heart of concerns about coastal access. Natural England assures us that it can be trusted, yet it has lobbied consistently for the right to take coastal access through areas such as parks and gardens, which are prolifi c on estuaries as well as coastal areas and which most people believe should be sacrosanct.

“The CLA remains fundamentally opposed to the coastal access provisions of the Marine and Coastal Access Bill.”

The CLA is concerned that estuaries are included at all within the proposals for coastal access. At the very least there should be consideration given to determine if the recreational benefit to the public outweighs other concerns, such as the impact on businesses, wildlife and existing land use along estuaries. There should also be an explicit commitment to consider environmental interests, including the impact that might occur, not only on high-level European designations but on local sites, too.

We believe that the presumption of spreading area on the seaward side of any coastal trail is wrong. In practice, there will be large numbers of exceptions and it would be a better refl ection of reality, and therefore result in better management of user expectations, if the Bill simply stated that there will be some areas of spreading room (for example, beaches), which will be identifi ed on the ground. The concept of “right to roam” has shown how dangerous inaccurate soundbites can be, and the problems of managing those enhanced, but inaccurate, perceptions in reality falls to the hard-pressed land manager.

The CLA remains fundamentally opposed to the coastal access provisions of the Marine and Coastal Access Bill. The Bill itself provides extraordinarily wide powers with very few safeguards. If the legitimate interests of coastal land and businesses are to be properly recognised, there need to be some significant amendments — including a right of appeal, compensation for proven loss and restrictions on the scope of spreading area. All eyes are on the House of Lords to ensure that these principles of fairness and justice are included.