Guarding England’s coast path
The first stretch of the all-England Coast Path opens in Weymouth next year in time for the Olympics, but what’s happening around the rest of the country? Andrew McCloy meets the Ramblers’ volunteers who are helping to map the next five sections of the path, and asks if the Government is still committed to completing the project
If you want to know what a future all-England coast path might look like, and how it might be perceived, then head to Devon and Cornwall. The South West Coast Path National Trail is estimated to generate more than £300 million annually for the regional economy; it’s a selling point for more than three-quarters of accommodation providers on or near the coast; and around 40% of all visitors say it’s a factor in their holiday plans. Plus it’s a terrific walk, as well.
Two years ago, the principle of a public right of access on foot around the entire English coast was finally established when the Marine and Coastal Access Act passed into law. It set out the aim of a continuous coastal path with ‘spreading room’ alongside to allow for exploration and the odd picnic. The first stretch of the route, at Weymouth Bay in Dorset, is due to open in time for the Olympic and Paralympic sailing events in July 2012. Work on the next five sections, in Cumbria, Durham, Norfolk, Kent and Somerset, began this spring, with a new right of access supposed to be completed within four years.
As expected, it’s proving to be a major undertaking, but one in which Ramblers volunteers around the country are already playing a pivotal role. So what exactly are they doing and how did they approach it?
Plotting the ‘optimum’ route
One of the fundamental tasks has been to map existing public access to the coast. In Kent, Ian Wild of Canterbury Ramblers has surveyed the county’s entire 345km/214-mile coastline on foot (see his report at www.kentramblers.org.uk). He describes, stage by stage, the current extent of coastal access, and pinpoints not just localised problems but also opportunities for improvement – such as on the east bank of the Stour, near Ramsgate. As well as digital photos, Ian also made full use of modern technology, including Kent County Council’s online Definitive Map, GPS, Memory Map and Google Earth to plot precise positions.
Another section in the first wave of coastal access is in Cumbria, between Whitehaven and Allonby. Like his Kent counterpart, Ian Brodie of Lake District Ramblers (right) has walked every foot of this shore and recalls a clear methodology for coming up with a suggested route for the coast path: “Make sure you go for the optimum line – the most desirable rambling route. Don’t be sidelined at this stage by issues such as conservation, since the spreading room that follows may well accommodate that later. Just concentrate on identifying the very best walking route that can be achieved.”
Ian also built relationships with key partners, such as Natural England, gaining their trust and showing them the opportunities and benefits of enhanced coastal access. “I’ve also met all the local authority planning officers that cover the coast,” says Ian, “encouraging them to include the all-England Coast Path in their strategic documents, such as the Local Development Framework. Most of them have actually been very sympathetic.”
Ramblers central office is organising training sessions for coastal access volunteers, with one key volunteer looking after each of Natural England’s stretches of coast, and up to 20 surveying volunteers helping to find the optimum route and locations of possible spreading room in order to produce a detailed and accurate report. The training includes a mapping exercise that looks at how to plot the best access route in the face of both natural and man-made obstacles – from sand dunes and mud flats to holiday parks and military establishments.
Sometimes, though, the major access problems are clear for all to see. A survey by Dorset Ramblers has highlighted three cases around Lyme Regis and Charmouth where landslips and cliff falls have blocked the South West Coast Path, resulting in long and unsatisfactory diversions away from the shore involving roads. However, Brian Panton of Dorset Ramblers says that one of the reasons for this is, rather ironically, the very likelihood of new coastal access.
“Since discussions about coastal access began some years ago, resulting in the Marine and Coastal Access Act, there has been a reluctance by the highway authority and Natural England to take any action that might involve compensation to landowners, because of the possibility that a new route could be created under coastal access legislation without such payments,” says Brian. And yet, despite this perceived attitude, Dorset Ramblers found out almost too late that the authorities were quietly going about surveying the coastline themselves and drawing up draft access proposals. “A lesson we have learnt from all this is to be ahead of the game,” says Brian. “That is: get out there, survey the coast and prepare your report, then submit it via Ramblers central office – before Natural England and the highway authority start walking the route. That way you’ll have a better chance of influencing the eventual outcome.”
A clearer picture of the coast
Like Dorset Ramblers, Kent Ramblers’ meticulous survey work has meant that they now have a clearer picture of their coast and often find that they know more about their seaboard than others. Ian Wild also has some useful practical tips to pass on for would-be coastal access surveyors: “Examine the stretch in both directions, preferably at different times of the year. Some lengths can be overgrown and inaccessible in the summer but walkable in the winter. Some may be inaccessible from one direction but accessible from the other. And, as it is linear walking, use public transport where possible – I saved the Ramblers a fortune by using a bus pass and senior rail card!”
With all this positive work and so much early promise, the prospects for permanently improved access to the English coast should be rosy. But there appear to be some dark clouds massing off the shore. Back in March of last year, Natural England unveiled its government-approved Coastal Access Scheme, which set out its methodology for creating the all-England Coast Path. The new Act required Natural England to explain how and who it would consult and the criteria it would use to ensure that a ‘fair balance’ was struck between allowing the public genuine new access and respecting the interests of landowners, as well as issues such as protecting the natural environment.
“The publication of this scheme is an important step in making clear, secure and consistent coastal access a reality for England,” said Poul Christensen, chair of Natural England. Fifteen months and a new government later, it’s all gone ominously quiet. The Natural Environment White Paper, published in June, failed to make any specific commitment to furthering coastal access by implementing the all-England Coast Path. As Ramblers CEO Tom Franklin pointed out at the time in this blog post, a key paragraph seemed to be missing.
It’s a silence that the Ramblers is pressing the Government to break. “At the same time as getting on with the detailed planning in these six stretches, we need ministers at some point to give Natural England the nod to allow it to announce more,” says Justin Cooke, the Ramblers’ senior policy officer. “Six sections do not an all-coast path make!”
Whether as a result of hesitancy or procrastination, shifting priorities or a change of heart, the question marks over access to the English coast are in stark contrast to the situation in Wales. Next May, the new Wales Coast Path is due to be launched and will provide a continuous 1,367km/850-mile walking route around the country’s entire seaboard. The difference between the approach and attitudes of the two governments towards coastal access is all too clear. Of course, at more than three times as long, its English counterpart was always going to be a challenging project, especially when around 34% or 1,481km/921 miles of it currently contains no satisfactory, legally secure path.
But politicians at Westminster are under pressure not just over a slipping timetable, but to close a loop-hole that excluded the Isle of Wight (above) from the coast-path plans, too. Through their local MP, the Isle of Wight Ramblers is lobbying Defra minister Richard Benyon to have the island included in the coastal access provisions of the Marine and Coastal Access Act. “The Isle of Wight’s economy relies on tourism,” says their chairman, David Howarth. “And with a stunning coastline, we’re justly popular with visiting walkers. But more than half of our existing so-called coastal path doesn’t even follow the shore, so we’re asking the Secretary of State to use their powers under the 2009 Act and include the Isle of Wight as well.”
In practical terms, designating the Isle of Wight coast is relatively straightforward, and symbolically it would affirm the Government’s continued commitment to wider coastal access throughout England. However, the concern is that the Government will scale back Natural England’s programme beyond the first six sections, leaving a piecemeal approach dependent upon the goodwill of local authorities, which already lack the resources. If this happened, the chances of realising a continuous, high-quality and lasting walking route would in all likelihood be lost.
The danger for the Government in all this is that, by not honouring its coastal-access commitments, it will simply repeat the mistakes of the forestry debacle. Underestimating the access and recreational value of woodland was one thing, but surely the public’s affinity for its coastline is even greater?