Richard Benyon: England’s coastal path is no quick fix
In an exclusive article for walk, Environment Minister Richard Benyon explains the Government’s plans for the all-England Coast Path and the need for realistic expectations
I want to see more people accessing and walking in our wonderful countryside. I know the value such activity has for our health, for our economy and for the spiritual uplift and well-being that come from being out in our countryside. I have walked parts of the South West Coast Path and Norfolk Coast Path and marvelled at the spectacular landscape and wonderful wildlife. As the Opposition Spokesman at the time the Marine and Coastal Access Act was going through Parliament, I supported the ambition of the coastal access provision but worried that the legislative path might trample (forgive the pun) over current or future cooperation between landowners and walkers. However, I was excited by the prospect of a coastal path that linked communities, encouraged tourism and drew people to one of the finest – and often unseen – coastlines in the world.
In June of last year the Government published its Natural Environment White Paper. It set out a clear view of the value of nature. Of course, you can’t put a value on a view, but you can understand its value to the local economy and the many financial benefits it brings to our society. However much we may admire those who walk large swathes of the coast in one go, for most of us a coastal walk is a day trip or just part of a day. So that is the group we should be prioritising as we set about designating sections of the new path.
The vast majority of walkers want access that links certain points and places, and where thought is given to how the path itself is accessed. This is either a car park or a point we can get to by public transport. My priority in overseeing the roll-out of the coastal path has been to start with those areas where there is a clear and present demand and from which there will be a benefit to local businesses. We want coastal access to be part of the way we strengthen connections between people and the natural environment. Throughout the debates in Parliament I sought to reassure farmers, landowners, coastal businesses and local residents that the way this path would be implemented on my watch would be with care not to damage their livelihoods or to see an invasion of their private space. So consultation will be a key element of the process in completing the coastal path. It is crucial that we get the balance right between the new right of coastal access and the needs of those who live or work on coastal land.
So where are we today? Natural England has submitted its first coastal access report for a 31km stretch of the coast between Rufus Castle on the eastern side of Portland and Lulworth Cove. This was a major milestone in the programme. Natural England’s work with Dorset County Council has been recognised by the award of the 2012 Games ‘Inspire Mark’ for this stretch of coast. We are committed to opening this up in time for the 2012 Games and it is a deadline that, for obvious reasons, we cannot miss.
We are also committed to opening a further five areas around the English coast by 2014/15 and Natural England’s work is progressing well, with public consultation on its draft proposals for Durham starting in January and for Cumbria and Kent in March.
But I know that the Ramblers and other user groups want to be walking and using the coastal path sooner rather than later. There is no lack of Government will to implement the coastal access programme but we need to be realistic about speed and available resources. Implementation must be cost-effective and targeted. Taking forward a national programme is not going to be a quick fix, but I’m sure all concerned would be happier if it was achieved in a way that was sustainable and effective in the long term. We are setting about this project as much for future generations as ourselves.
Firstly, particular attention needs to be given to filling gaps between existing paths rather than tinkering unnecessarily with existing path alignments. Secondly, we will look at the extent of the ‘coastal margin’ – or ‘spreading room’ – where concerns have been raised with me, particularly about the extent of the additional areas of access land lying landward of the coastal path itself.
Whatever its merits, we must not allow the coastal path to soak up all our efforts or resources. We have allocated £2 million as part of the Rural Economy Growth Review to our Paths for Communities scheme. It’s just one example of how our rural access ambition is spread inland as well as along the coast.