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The Countryside Alliance pointed out that owning a property next to the coast can

especially for many businesses and that the path

Countless organisations told the Select Committee that businesses and home owners should receive compensation. The National Farmers Union said that there were “many examples” of where a proposed coastal route would cause

and that “adequate compensation” would be required. Even the Ramblers said that it would

It would be a gross injustice if the Government were to continue to maintain that they would not provide that in implementing their policy proposals. DEFRA’s own impact assessment stated that it would be likely that some residential properties would command a lower value were public access rights to be created on, or across part of, a property and that there may be a negative impact on businesses that derive competitive benefit from the availability of exclusive access.

I believe that this sets a very bad precedent indeed. Natural England’s plans will affect all the non-exempt land around the coastline that does not already have decent access. In some sections of the pathway, it will be possible to make use of existing trails that are in place, but this still leaves up to a quarter of the coastline that will need a route to be created from scratch. Thousands of properties will be affected. The Secretary of State has said that

I find that simply unacceptable. It is not the right of anybody, least of all Government, to come swooping into somebody’s private home to disrupt their enjoyment of it. As David Fursdon, president of the Country Land and Business Association, said:

Labour Members have said that it is an extremely popular provision. It may be popular, but it is still possible for it to be wrong. It would be even more unacceptable if, having brought about a reduction in the value of a business or property—having swooped in on it—the Government were to fail to offer anything in the way of compensation.

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I therefore appeal to the Secretary of State to consider again the issue of compensation and to listen to the voices that have all been raised—some supportive of the Bill’s proposed powers—to urge that progress can be made through voluntary means and to resist what one of my colleagues muttered earlier was the Stalinist tendency of believing that we should bully and push people into doing things that we can eventually bring most people to do through patient negotiation, and thereby provide the access to the coast that my constituents and others throughout the country would find fully acceptable.

7.52 pm

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): This Bill presents us with a great opportunity to protect and improve our natural heritage. It is apt that we are considering it 60 years after the establishment of our first national parks through the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. We must use this opportunity to get the management and conservation of our marine heritage absolutely right. It is a fantastic opportunity and the public are behind us on this.

Earlier, an Opposition Front-Bench Member ably pointed to the statistics on this matter, but the Co-op has also undertaken an innovative customer vote on it, and 363,000 customers responded, 83 per cent. of whom were in favour of the introduction of marine reserves. In my constituency, many more than 350 Co-op customers voted in favour of marine reserves. That demonstrates that the people of this island nation of ours remain proud of their coastline and marine heritage.

I am very glad that there is so much cross-party support for the Bill, and I hope that neither political side will fall back behind the traditional dividing lines in this Chamber. In that respect, I am very sorry that there was an attack earlier from someone on the Opposition Front Bench about the length of time that it took to get this Bill on to the Floor of the House. That was unnecessary.

Anne Milton: Will the hon. Lady join me in explicitly thanking all our constituents? My constituency is quite a long way from the sea, but I have nevertheless been contacted by many constituents, and also by non-governmental organisations and bodies such as the WWF. They have all made this the significant occasion that it is, and caused us all to join together to seek to bring about the successful conclusion of a Bill that will really work.

Ms Smith: I absolutely agree. That is why I thought the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman’s comments were unnecessary. They were also unwise. The parliamentary candidate who will stand against me in my new constituency attacked my question to the Prime Minister of last autumn about the marine Bill on the grounds of its irrelevance to my constituents, because, like the hon. Lady, I represent a landlocked constituency. It is, however, the headquarters of Natural England, which makes it clear that the whole of this House and this country have an interest in the provisions of this Bill. That attack did not go down well with my constituents, and it did not reflect well on the individual concerned. Any attempt to chip away at the consensus that has built up on this Bill is unnecessary and unhelpful. I therefore welcome the hon. Lady’s comments.

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The provisions in the Bill relating to the marine environment are broadly to be welcomed, as they are intended to balance the sometimes very different interests that relate to that environment, and the establishment of a marine planning system is one of the central aspects of the Bill. The potential for the development of an ecologically coherent network of marine conservation zones has also been broadly welcomed by many environmental charities. However, some small amendments could still be implemented to make this not just a good Bill, but one to be truly proud of. We need to make sure, for instance, that the Lords amendment to clause 51 is maintained in the Bill, as it requires Ministers to seek to ensure that plans are prepared to cover all UK waters. That is very important if we are to cover both inshore and offshore marine interests.

We need to make sure, too, that the marine management organisation is given an advisory role in decisions made by the Infrastructure Planning Commission. The Planning Act 2008 gave local authorities a special role in decisions made by the IPC for inland infrastructure projects. The MMO ought to be given the same rights in relation to the IPC as those enjoyed by local authorities under the 2008 Act.

We also need to strengthen the clauses relating to the offences of reckless or intentional damage within a marine conservation zone. In particular, the blanket defence against damaging an MCZ by those who are carrying out fishing activities must be removed in the context of those activities that take place within 6 nautical miles of the coast—outside that 6 nautical mile-limit, that is not possible because EU legislation becomes relevant.

Perhaps the biggest change we need to make to the Bill relates to clause 117, which requires a consideration of socio-economic factors when designating MCZs. My view—which has also been expressed across the Chamber and is shared by NGOs such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the wildlife trusts—is that although socio-economic issues are important, they should not be considered until the later management phase of developing an MCZ has been reached.

In support of this view, I wish to refer to the part of the country where I grew up: the Humber estuary. The Humber is the UK’s largest port complex, handling 14 per cent. of our international trade. It has an average of 40,000 ship movements per year. Industrial interests alongside the estuary include not only chemical works such as ICI—and Courtaulds and Titan, as were—but the now infamous oil refineries of Lindsey and Conoco. My family has made much of its living over the past 40 years through deep-sea fishing and working in the chemical factories and refineries. I therefore completely understand the importance of socio-economic factors in the marine environment.

The Humber also supports a rich variety of habitats and species. Because the estuary is so industrial, it is often not understood that it is also very important in terms of conservation. It is recognised as one of the most important estuaries in Europe for over-wintering birds, and it supports nine species of international importance. It is designated as a special area of conservation under the EU habitats directive and a special protection area under the EU birds directive. The area also
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encompasses numerous nationally important sites of special scientific interest as designated under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. As we know, SSSIs are determined purely on a scientific and conservation basis; no other factors, including socio-economic, are allowed to be considered when SSSIs are so designated. If areas as important as the Humber estuary can on numerous occasions enjoy protection through all the directives I have mentioned and SSSI status and those protections can co-exist alongside the industrial activity that we know is critical to the economy not just of the Humber but of the whole of the north, surely we can put together a Bill that considers only the scientific evidence when it comes to designating marine conservation zones.

Mr. Roger Williams: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Smith: No, I am going to move on; I have got only 12 minutes.

The provisions before us on coastal access are long overdue, and the Government are to be congratulated on introducing proposals that will complete the work started in the 1949 Act. As was pointed out, 72 million leisure visits are made to the coast each year, and coastal walking is more popular than visiting the beach, which is not surprising, given how cold our climate is, yet there is satisfactory access to only 50 per cent. of our coast. I correct what I said earlier: the average length of continuous access to the coast is 2.5 miles, but the longest point of access is not that much greater. In any case, the argument stands: one reason why people do not enjoy the coast as much as they should is the very limited access to it.

The coastal access duty set out in clause 290 and the establishment of an all-England coastal route are therefore broadly to be welcomed. Again, however, small amendments could be made to improve the Bill. As it stands, it places a duty of fair balance on Natural England in establishing coastal access. The rights of landowners and occupiers need to be balanced with the rights of those who wish to access the coast—nobody is ever going to deny that—and yet no requirement will be placed on Natural England to consult, or consider representations from, bodies representing user groups and the public. That means that implementation of coastal access could—not necessarily will, but could—unduly favour the interests of landowners and occupiers.

I understand that the Minister in the other place gave a commitment to look at this issue and the regulations governing consultation, but I doubt whether the majority of Members of this House will rest until we can be sure that a fair balance has been properly achieved in establishing coastal access. I would also argue that, as is suggested, if objections are made to coastal access proposals and referred to a planning inspector, they should be assessed using the same criteria as used by Natural England and the Secretary of State.

There are also concerns about considering the use of seasonal ferries as part of coastal routes, not because they are unsuitable but because access potentially grinds to a halt when the ferries are not operating. The Bill must allow Natural England to set alternative routes for periods of non-operation. Equally, we need the Bill to set out clearly the right of coastal access on islands that are connected by ferry to the mainland. What, after all, is the difference between accessing Holy Island on foot
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over the causeway—when the tide is out, of course—and accessing the Isle of Wight by ferry? Both are regularly accessible, yet the Isle of Wight is not included in the Bill. That is wrong. The Isle of Wight is internationally known for its beauty; it has been written about by numerous writers. We need to correct this anomaly in the legislation.

Finally, the Bill needs amending to recognise the difference between parks and gardens. At present, both are exempt from access provisions, yet it must be recognised that a walking route can pass through a large park—particularly one in which no building or dwelling is on site—without compromising privacy. Excluding parkland could lead to large inland detours similar to that found on the Solent way. The detour on the Solent way is 15 miles long, and something therefore needs to be done about this broad-brush exemption, which runs the risk of compromising far too deeply the principle of coastal access. Further consultation was promised in the Lords, but it has not been forthcoming so far. We need to separate the definitions of parks and gardens in the Bill, and to reduce the exemption to gardens only.

I wish the Bill well as it goes into Committee. I cannot serve on the Committee, unfortunately, due to a summons for jury service back in Sheffield; but while I am doing my duty as a citizen in the Crown court and focusing on the task in hand, I will sit comfortable in the knowledge that the Bill is in the capable hands of the ministerial team, whom I know are listening intently to the debate. I hope that they will take seriously the amendments that have been consistently suggested throughout today’s debate.

8.5 pm

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I, too, welcome this popular, long-awaited and much-needed Bill. During my last four years in this place, there has been a growing sense of frustration among my constituents at the fact that, despite perceived infringements in Cardigan bay, the protection promised by status such as “special area of conservation” has meant very little.

Ceredigion adjoins Cardigan bay, which is an extremely important marine site. It is home to populations of bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoises, and is designated as a special area of conservation under the EC habitats directive. I want to focus on two concerns that have arisen in the past two years, and I hope that the Bill, through marine conservation zones and other such provisions, will give my constituents the guarantees that are required.

In 2006, two unnamed companies applied for licences for exploratory oil and gas drilling for three blocks inside or adjacent to the SAC. I do not want to go too deeply into the evidence of the harm that such drilling would cause—my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) mentioned the disturbance to marine mammals—but concern was expressed by many organisations, such as the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, Friends of the Earth, Friends of Cardigan Bay, George Monbiot and, eventually, the Countryside Council for Wales. A local group, “Save our Sea”, was formed to fight the plan to drill. I pay tribute not just to its work on that campaign, but on its continuing work to preserve Cardigan bay’s marine environment.

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After an extremely hard fight—letters flowed back and forth, petitions were presented in this House and there were ministerial meetings—the then Department of Trade and Industry opted not to grant licences because not enough was known about the impact on the dolphin population. What astonished me then, and still does to this day, is how little SAC status seemed to mean in protecting the bay. However, I emphasise that I welcome the Bill and look forward to the protection that I hope it will afford to areas such as mine.

The blocks in Cardigan bay were delayed so that appropriate assessments could be carried out and the environmental issues examined further, but there was no certain presumption against drilling and very little attention seemed to be paid to the strictures of the habitats directive. I am concerned that the position regarding oil and gas licensing remains unclear in the Bill, and I ask the Minister to reflect on how the principle of conservation can be equated with the economic benefits of oil and gas. That is an important point. As is clear from the speeches of Members throughout the House today, we are still looking for that balance between socio-economic demands and legitimate conservation demands.

My second concern regarding the lack of protection in Cardigan bay has grown in the past year as a result of the difficulties we have faced in attempting to curtail large-scale industrial scallop dredging. I should state right away that there is no issue with small-scale scallop fishing. There is still a small functioning fleet in Cardigan bay, and it is local fishermen who are among the worst affected as the dredgers churn up the sea bed, damaging local habitats and biodiversity, which in the long term could have a devastating effect on sustainable fishing in the bay.

Things have got out of hand, and existing mechanisms seem unable to deal with the problem. A colleague of mine on Ceredigion county council was told by local fishermen that out on the bay, before the season was closed, there were some 70 dredgers. That is many more than the number of licences issued by the “local”—I use the word loosely—sea fisheries committee, the North Western and North Wales sea fisheries committee. There is a perception that as legitimate action has been taken in Lyme bay, and in the Isles of Scilly in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives, the problem has been shunted around the coast of the United Kingdom.

We have had some difficulty pursuing the matter, as responsibilities are divided between the UK Government and the Welsh Assembly Government, so I very much welcome the devolution of all fisheries responsibilities to Wales under the Bill. However, I echo the concerns raised by the hon. Members for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), and for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger), about resourcing.

I welcome the fact that sea fisheries committees will be abolished. I regret to say that I do not feel that sustainability and environmental concerns were always at the forefront of their deliberations. That has not always been the fault of individual members; it is more to do with how committees were constituted and the fact that immediate fishing activities were the focus of their decisions, rather than long-term goals on sustainability. As the power is to be devolved to the Assembly Government, I will confine my concerns to the new fisheries regime for Wales.

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