Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Ninth Report


4  The role of Natural England

DISCRETION GIVEN TO NATURAL ENGLAND

25.  The coastal access provisions set out in Part 9 of the Draft Marine Bill are only a framework for how the policy will be implemented. Natural England would be given considerable discretion to determine, at a later date, the alignment of the English coastal route and spreading room, albeit in accordance with the Coastal Access Scheme's guidelines and in consultation with "persons with a relevant interest in the land" and other specified organisations.[44] Apart from the inclusion in the Bill of a duty for Natural England and the Secretary of State to "aim to strike a fair balance between the interests of the public in having right of access over land and the interests of any person with a relevant interest in the land" (a duty that some witnesses described as vague and lacking in specificity),[45] very few other formal safeguards to protect landowners and occupiers are included in the Bill. When we asked Natural England whether landowners were simply required to trust the organisation (regarding the possible review of previous CROW Act exclusions and restrictions), Natural England agreed, saying that was "a good starting point for this whole initiative".[46]

26.  We were interested to hear whether witnesses were content with Natural England being given so much discretion to implement the proposals, or whether the Bill could be more prescriptive in some regards. Views were mixed. The NFU told the Committee it had "real concerns" about the discretionary powers given to Natural England.[47] It wanted further detail in the Bill to spell out exactly how Natural England should aim to achieve a fair balance between public and private interests—for example, the inclusion of a provision that "coastal businesses will suffer no significant loss of income from the introduction of coastal access rights".[48] The CLA told us it was doubtful about Natural England's ability in this area:

Natural England are not practitioners; they do not manage land. In nature conservation they have strong knowledge but in terms of managing land, and managing access in particular, physically, they do not have to do it.[49]

27.  Other witnesses were more positive. The Ramblers' Association was confident Natural England could "get it right" provided it undertook full consultation at the local level. It believed it necessary for Natural England to have so much flexibility in its powers because each section of the coastline was different.[50] The National Trust also believed Natural England would, on the whole, be able to implement the proposals successfully, although the Trust was concerned Natural England could take too many decisions "behind closed doors".[51] The RSPB said it was inevitable that a more flexible system would grant Natural England greater power, although it noted that two checks and balances were included in the proposals: the Coastal Access Scheme and the reports Natural England had to produce for each section of the coast, both of which were subject to consultation and approval by the Secretary of State.[52]

28.  The Minister told us he was comfortable about giving Natural England such powers. It already designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest, managed areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and took important decisions about the natural environment. He believed Natural England would adopt a "commonsense approach" in implementing the coastal access proposals.[53]

29.  As part of our visit to the north Essex coast near Walton-on-the-Naze, we saw first-hand specific examples of some of the complexities Natural England will face, including agricultural land, private dwellings, factories, marinas, boat yards, campsites, commercial premises and sporting interests.

Our views

30.  Natural England will have a difficult task in determining the alignment of the trail and spreading room, in consultation with local interests, along the whole English coast. We have no doubt that Natural England will do its utmost to minimise the impacts of alignment on landowners and occupiers, wildlife, and sites of environmental importance. Some conflict, however, is inevitable. In light of this, we are uneasy that the Bill places so much emphasis on simply trusting Natural England to "get it right". We believe landowners and occupiers, in particular, are entitled to more concrete safeguards—especially as the Government intends to strike a "fair balance" between public and private interests. We believe that adoption of the recommendations we make later in this Report would provide some safeguards.

31.  It was clear from our inquiry that many of the concerns expressed by witnesses—whether in relation to route alignment, spreading room, habitat conservation, dog management or others—partly stemmed from a fear of the unknown about how Natural England would implement the policy on the ground. Whilst we acknowledge that Natural England will require some flexibility because every stretch of the coast is different, we believe that the more detail Natural England can provide early on about how it intends to implement the policy in common coastal scenarios, the less such concerns will be expressed. We are not convinced that the 21-page Outline Scheme provides enough detail of this kind.

32.  We note that the Outline Scheme contains helpful diagrams of how Natural England would realign the route in a typical coastal erosion scenario. Natural England should include more of these types of examples in its final Scheme. These principles would guide Natural England during the implementation stage and, importantly, give stakeholders a clearer idea about the likely impact of the proposals.

33.  Natural England's Scheme should include clear explanations and diagrams about how it intends to align the route, and determine the extent of spreading room, for each "common" coastal scenario—such as coastal landowner, arable land, Site of Special Scientific Interest, and so on. Some complex examples should be included as well. Natural England should also produce a detailed draft of its Scheme before the final version of the Bill is published, taking into account some of these scenarios. This scheme should also specify the size of each stretch of the coast on which Natural England will be reporting, and provide further detail about what approach Natural England will take when it intends to change the alignment of an existing coastal path.

34.  The provisions about estuaries are very vague and leave excessive authority to Natural England. The Bill should include a clear specification about where the trail should cross estuaries.

35.  Natural England will inevitably learn a great deal from implementing the route and spreading room on the stretches of the coast it concentrates on first. Natural England should have a statutory requirement written into the Bill to conduct a review of the lessons it has learned from early implementation of the route and spreading room. We recommend this review take place one year after establishment works have started on the ground.

36.  After 10 years, Natural England, or its successor, should report to Parliament about the progress it has made with the implementation of the proposals and when it expects work will be completed.

PARLIAMENTARY SCRUTINY

37.  Much of the actual detail of the coastal access proposals will not be subject to any form of parliamentary scrutiny. Natural England's Coastal Access Scheme will undergo consultation with key stakeholders before being finalised, and is then submitted to the Secretary of State for approval, rejection or modification. Defra told us it did not consider it appropriate for the scheme to be subject to parliamentary scrutiny because it was a "document of some generality" which "operates at a very preliminary stage".[54]

38.  The proposed level of parliamentary scrutiny of the real detail of these proposals is poor, especially when compared to the powers given to the Secretary of State. We are not convinced by the argument that the generality of Natural England's final Scheme precludes it from being subject to parliamentary scrutiny. This will be an important document and Members of Parliament should be allowed to give their views about it in debate. The Bill should provide that the Secretary of State can only approve the Scheme after Parliament has given its approval via the affirmative resolution procedure.


44   Draft Marine Bill, April 2008, clause 277 Back

45   Draft Marine Bill, April 2008, clause 273 (3). The NFU said the statement "must be supported by adequate provision within the Bill in order to be meaningful" (Ev 35, para 16). The CLA told us there was "no indication within the draft Bill or the Outline Scheme as to how the interests of the business will, in practice, be balanced against the public interest" (Ev 26, Executive Summary). Back

46   Q 67 Back

47   Q 104 Back

48   Ev 35, para 16 Back

49   Q 103  Back

50   Qq 220, 223.  Back

51   Qq 156, 161 Back

52   Q 163 Back

53   Qq 372, 404-405 Back

54   Ev 104, Q 1 Back


 
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