Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Ninth Report

3  Is new legislation the most appropriate method by which to create coastal access?

17.  Most individuals and organisations submitting evidence to our inquiry supported the principle of creating more coastal access. There was some disagreement, however, about whether the Government's decision to introduce new legislation to create a coastal corridor around the whole English coast was the best way to achieve this. The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) said new legislation was "unnecessary" because increased access to the coast could be delivered through existing mechanisms, either by voluntary agri-environment schemes such as Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) or by creating new routes through the Highways Act 1980.[28] It said the South West Coast Path was "a very good example" of using the Highways Act successfully to create coastal access, through consensual negotiations between local authorities and landowners.[29] This reflects a very different method from the Bill, in terms of its voluntary nature and because compensation was often paid. The National Farmers' Union (NFU) told us the Government's approach was not cost-effective and lacked public support.[30] It also preferred the use of existing voluntary agri-environment schemes, such as the Countryside Stewardship Scheme and HLS, as these schemes were "a good deal for all"—they created access, improved the environment, and recompensed owners for land lost or taken out of production.[31] The NFU said 578 of the 2,349 HLS agreements (about a quarter) had included access options, 30 of which were on or adjacent to the coast. These 30 agreements had provided 31 km of linear access and 35 hectares of open access.[32]

18.  The Local Government Association was doubtful about the desirability of a long-distance route around the English coast. It said work undertaken by local authorities showed the majority of pedestrian countryside users found easy-to-follow short circular routes most attractive; long distance walking routes, on the other hand, had "limited appeal".[33] Norfolk County Council made a similar point.[34]

19.  Other witnesses, however, supported the Government's new legislation policy option and raised doubts about the effectiveness of existing measures in creating coastal access. The Ramblers' Association told us the Government's vision could never solely be achieved by voluntary measures, which were "expensive" and "ineffective", or by improvements to the public path network under the Highways Act.[35] The RSPB said voluntary measures were "insecure" and creating new rights of way through the Highways Act was "difficult and inflexible in the face of sea-level rise".[36] Devon County Council told us it faced difficulties joining up nine "significant gaps" in the South West Coast Path—mainly due to issues of compensation—and it welcomed the new legislation as being "a very positive move to help us fill in these missing gaps".[37] The Minister pointed out that the overwhelming majority of respondents to Defra's consultation paper said the Government should legislate.[38]

20.  We note that Defra's own Impact Assessment (cost-benefit analysis) of Natural England's four coastal access policy options—based on a Regulatory Impact Assessment carried out by consultants Asken Ltd in June 2007—only gave the new legislation "coastal corridor" policy option[39] the third highest benefit:cost ratio. Both options 1 (using the Highways Act) and 2 (using the CROW Act) had higher benefit:cost ratios, with option 4 (voluntary mechanisms, such as agri-environment schemes) having the lowest.[40] When asked why the Government had chosen the policy option with the third highest benefit:cost ratio, the Minister said the analysis had not taken account of the benefits associated with spreading room and the ability to re-align the route in the case of coastal erosion.[41] The CLA pointed out to us, however, that no assessment at all had been made about the apparent public benefits from spreading room.[42] Lord Montagu and Ralph Montagu, owners of the Beaulieu Estate in the New Forest National Park, believed that Natural England attached "too much importance to the concept of spreading room within the framework of the legislation".[43]

Our views

21.  There are likely to be economic, health and social benefits from more people visiting, and enjoying, the coast. The South West Coast Path is a very good example of the benefits increased coastal access can bring, and we hope this can be replicated elsewhere in England. We recognise the benefits which arise from good quality coastal access.

22.  It is clear that creating coastal access on a large scale solely through existing mechanisms would be a lengthy process. The new legislation proposed by Government is imaginative in its use of existing mechanisms and could be a quicker, and more consistent, way to create access. The Government's proposals to create "spreading room" alongside a coastal trail would, in effect, create a linear park around the English coast. This could provide an additional attraction to visitors. However, the draft legislation requires amendment and modification before we can be satisfied it is sensible and fair.

23.  The evidence we received indicated a difference of opinion as to whether there was sufficient public demand for these proposals. The Government should take due note of this difference of opinion.

24.  We acknowledge that the CROW Act implementation has demonstrated that access imposed by legislation can work and believe this will be the most effective way of securing coastal access.

28   Ev 27, para 1.3 Back

29   Q 102 Back

30   The NFU said research generally showed that people preferred circular routes when going for walks, and that Ipsos MORI polling undertaken on behalf of Natural England showed "the majority are happy with the existing access they have to the coast" (Ev 33-34, paras 2, 7-8).  Back

31   Q 105 Back

32   Ev 52, para 5 Back

33   Ev 142, para 3  Back

34   Ev 164, para 3 Back

35   Ev 74, paras 2.5, 3.4 Back

36   Ev 63, para 15 Back

37   Ev 92, para 2; Qq 311, 317. Back

38   Q 372 Back

39   Closest to final proposal. Back

40   Draft Marine Bill [Impact Assessment], Defra, April 2008, pp 99, 115 Back

41   Q 374. Although we note that Defra judged that no change was required to revise its Impact Assessment following Asken's work last year (Ev 124 [Defra]). Back

42   Ev 29, para 6.3 Back

43   Ev 164 Back

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