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As we have heard this evening, two thirds of the coastline is already open to walkers. Hundreds of miles of coastline are perfectly open to walkers. That has
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been done by mutual consent and traditional rights of way, and large parts of the coastline are available. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough argued that the average length of coast available is only 2.5 miles. How she came to that average, I am not at all sure, because large parts of the coast offer hundreds of miles of walks without walkers’ having to leave the main part of the coast. Of course, when one comes to estuaries, towns, yacht basins and caravan sites, there will be parts where one cannot continue along the edge of the coast, and it is only reasonable that one should then move slightly inland.

I am by no means convinced that thousands of people in our towns and cities are desperate to go for a walk along our coastline and cannot find one to walk along. I simply do not believe that that is the case. Indeed, I have spent most of my summer holidays for the past 25 years at a house high on the cliffs in Cornwall, on the coast path. I tend to be there for the first two weeks in August, which is the high point of the holiday season. In my 25 years at that house, on that cliff, on the very best part of the coastal path in Cornwall, I suspect that I have seen no more than 10 or 20 walkers. That is the best stretch of coastal path. I do not believe that tens of thousands of people around the nation desperately want coastal paths. The polls demonstrate that most people want to walk for between half an hour and an hour before returning to the car park that they started from. I am not certain that there is a huge demand for allowing people to walk all the way from Newcastle to Carlisle via the coastline, and Land’s End. Anyone who wanted to do that walk would probably go along Hadrian’s wall instead. I respect and admire committed long-distance walkers, but I am not convinced that there are an awful lot of them.

With that as background, I turn now to the fact that the Bill proposes spending a minimum of £50 million on opening the remainder of one third of the coastline to walkers. Some of the money would be spent on employing full-time coastal access monitors in each region. Knowing Government estimates, I suspect that the cost would be very much higher over the 10 years for which the scheme is proposed. At a time like this, can we really justify spending tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on something that only the dedicated few want?

Andrew George: It is important to put the matter in the current economic context. Does the hon. Gentleman therefore accept that the South West Coast Paths Association has estimated—I am sure that its estimates are right—that the south-west coastal path alone is worth £300 million per annum to the area’s economy?

Mr. Gray: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and he is of course right. I shall say more about the south-west coastal path in a moment, and in particular the economic advantages that come from it. It is a wonderful path, and I have walked many parts of it. It was established not by Government diktat but by voluntary agreement between local authorities and the landowners to whom the patches of land involved belonged. The path goes most of the way round Devon and Cornwall and, although some sections remain incomplete, it owes its existence to entirely voluntary arrangements. I am very strongly in favour of that.

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It is also true that those landowners who did not want the path were persuaded to accept it by the large sums of money that local authorities were willing to pay them. That is perfectly legitimate: if a local authority wants a patch of land, or the use of it, why should it not be encouraged to pay large sums of money? However, the Bill does not provide that encouragement. It says that the Government will not pay large sums of money to landlords, but that they will simply drive their plans through.

I very much welcome the improvements to the Bill achieved in the other place, and especially the introduction of a right of appeal. That is very important, and it is something for which the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee called. I hope that the Government will allow that provision to remain.

Other aspects of detail need to be improved, and the hon. Member for Reading, West raised a most interesting point about the definition of “landowner”. Moreover, the Bill simply ignores the question of sporting rights, but that is also something that needs to be looked at. Members of local wildfowling or angling clubs do not necessarily want walkers right beside them, and I am sure it must be possible to find ways to push them further away.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Given that the Bill on heritage protection is not being brought forward, does the hon. Gentleman accept that one of the lacunae in this Bill is the issue of inter-tidal wrecks? These are vessels that have been tied up along our coastline. In my constituency, the now-famous Purton hulks are not subject to any protection and are consequently being vandalised, even though they are a very important historic site. Does he agree that the Bill could be extended to protect such sites?

Mr. Gray: The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. He serves with me on the Select Committee and came along on our visit to the Essex coast. We saw a number of cases where, for various reasons, the simplistic notion of driving the path around the entire coast will not work. Marine archaeology may well be one of those reasons.

I am glad that, after some discussion, the Government exempted parks and gardens from the provisions of the Bill. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough, who is sadly not in her place, said that she did not like that exemption. She thought that parks and gardens should be included in the Bill, but the fact is that 47,000 people could be affected. We are not talking about landlords or dukes; we are talking about the 47,000 ordinary people whose parks and gardens lie along the coast. I very much welcome the fact that the Government exempted parks and gardens and that the exemption was maintained by the House of Lords.

I am, however, concerned by the fact that Natural England has argued throughout in favour of the inclusion of parks and gardens. In the briefing sent to us today, Natural England says:

In other words, Natural England seems to imply that the parks and gardens exemptions might be waived. It must not be waived; 47,000 very ordinary people living
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on the coast of England are watching what happens in the House today and in Committee to make sure that their privacy and right of ownership is protected. An Englishman’s home is his castle, and the right of ownership is an important part of what we stand for in the House. Those people are watching the debate carefully to make sure that the legislation does not cut across their rights.

The same points apply to spreading room. Of course, I believe in headlands and beaches being available to people walking the coastal path, but the Government have introduced the rather bizarre notion of spreading room—a large area, often inland from the path, which will allow people to do all sorts of things, irrespective of what might be happening on the land, most of which is grazing land. There are cows, sheep, horses and—to a lesser extent—pigs on much of that land, but the spreading room provisions take no account of that fact. That, too, seems an unreasonable invasion of the right of the farmer to make use of his land.

The whole question of farmers’ liability is not properly addressed in the Bill. What if horses, or cows, grazing on the land attack the walker—as may occasionally happen? It appears that the landowner may have some residual liability under the Bill, which seems quite wrong to me.

There are many similar things. The question of dogs has not really been addressed. I have four of them. Of course we want to take our dogs for walks along the coast and in the countryside, but those of us who take things seriously know that we must keep the dogs under close control anywhere near livestock. If the Government are indeed right in thinking that tens of thousands of people from Sheffield, Hillsborough will be walking along the coastal path, will they keep their dogs under close control, as those of us who are used to the countryside do naturally?

Martin Salter: I agree with the hon. Gentleman about parks and gardens, but does he see the contradiction in his argument? He fought the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000—the right to roam Act—tooth and nail on the grounds that thousands of people would be wandering willy-nilly over the countryside. Now he says that will not happen.

Mr. Gray: The hon. Gentleman is of course quite wrong. I opposed the Act simply because I believed there was no need for it, and I have been proved absolutely right. Since it was passed, the number of walkers has collapsed; far fewer people go into the countryside than before the CROW Act was passed, and I am using precisely the same argument about the Bill.

I am strongly in favour of encouraging people into the countryside and on to the coastal paths. Two thirds of our coast is already satisfactorily pathed and people are making significant use of it. I do not believe the Bill does enough to encourage that use with regard to business. It could do more to help walkers reach the seaside businesses that would benefit. Islands were mentioned earlier, but the Government have not given enough thought to estuaries and precisely where the path will go. A whole variety of detailed matters could result in an extremely good idea being brought into some disrepute. I hope that in Committee the Government will think carefully about those aspects of the Bill and allow us all to be proud of the end product.

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8.43 pm

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): People listening to the debate cannot fail to notice the disproportionate number of Members from Wales who have spoken. We have heard contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Gower (Mr. Caton) and for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger) and the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams). I apologise for mistaking a Liberal Democrat for a Plaid Cymru Member—it can happen in Wales. We have also heard from the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) and I am from Bridgend.

Although it may seem ironic, more than 50 per cent. of Wales has a boundary with the sea, so the Bill is highly important to us. It is of course even more ironic that one of the few completely landlocked constituencies—Ogmore to my north—is the home of the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), who is partly responsible for the Bill. I can, however, advise the House that he regularly swoops down to Porthcawl from his eyrie at the top of the Llynfi valley, so he has wide understanding of coastal access issues.

Several hon. Members have said that the Bill is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to protect our marine environment for future generations. It is a good Bill, largely because the Government have been open to discussion with NGOs and colleagues, but it is still possible to make it a great Bill. Like other Members, I must declare an interest, having been a long-term member of the RSPB. I would like to thank the NGOs that have worked closely with Members, such as the RSPB, the WWF, the wildlife trusts, which had a wonderful scheme for collecting petitions on a petition fish, the Marine Conservation Society, and the Porthcawl Environment Trust.

As has been said, the UK’s seas are among the richest in the world—26 species of sea birds nest around the UK coastline, and 15 of those species, including guillemots, puffins and razor-bills, nest in greater numbers in the UK than in any other European country. Six per cent. of the Welsh work force is employed in work closely related to the coast and marine environment. A healthy maritime economy, whether it is fishing, tourism or catering, relies on a healthy sea. Thirty per cent. of Welsh waters are of European importance. To protect this heritage, we need the right tools for the job.

As an island nation, we have a vast sea area, three times larger than our land area, and it harbours an amazing wealth of wildlife. Only 2.2 per cent. of our sea is protected, and that cannot be acceptable. I am pleased that in Wales the marine conservation areas around the islands of Skomer and Lundy set an example of what can be achieved. It is frightening to think that our nature reserves at sea are the equivalent of having in the UK a single nature reserve the size of Kensington gardens.

Without protection of our seas, activity by the fishing industry and climate change are having a devastating cumulative effect on the marine ecosystem, causing some of our marine wildlife to decline, sometimes irrevocably.

Mr. Drew: I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene in her excellent speech. Does she accept that one of the problems is not what is in the Bill, but what
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will happen outside it? There must be conflict between employment opportunities—whether through wind turbines or the Severn barrage, which we both oppose—and conservation. We cannot ignore that, which is why that debate must be brought forward as a result of the Bill, even if not through the Bill.

Mrs. Moon: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I intend to mention the subject briefly later in my speech.

The marine management organisation should be the true marine champion, fully and equally engaged with all marine sectors and interests. Its role must be a proactive one as a statutory adviser to the Infrastructure Planning Commission, with a remit to further sustainable development. We must accept that we can no longer push the marine environment beyond its limits or capacity to absorb man’s abuses and exploitation of the sea.

The proposed IPC must have a statutory duty to seek and take account of the advice of the MMO on all applications for nationally significant infrastructure projects that are likely to impact upon the marine environment. An obvious example is the Severn barrage mentioned by my hon. Friend. That would cause a fundamental change to the unique nature of the Severn estuary and the wildlife there. The IPC must be required to give details of the reasons for decisions made and specify how the advice provided by the MMO has influenced its decisions. Only then can there be the transparency that we need.

I have a number of concerns relating to marine conservation zones. The priority of the Bill is that it should deliver a better framework for marine nature conservation which, as everyone has agreed, currently lags behind land-based conservation. The Government have a commitment under the world summit on sustainable development to establish a representative network of marine protection areas by 2012, and they have the same commitment under the OSPAR convention to do so by 2010. The proposals for the main conservation zones are welcome steps towards achieving that commitment, but there is a clear need to create an ecologically coherent network of such zones. I welcome the addition of clause 123(6) to (8), requiring Ministers both to prepare a statement setting out the principles that they will follow when developing the UK network of marine protection areas, and to lay that statement before the appropriate legislature, along with further details on the principles of ecological coherence in the explanatory notes to the Bill as published in the Commons.

If we are to tackle the threats to marine biodiversity, marine plans covering all UK waters must be developed and based on ecosystems, not on administrative boundaries. That is clearly a role for the statutory nature conservation bodies, but steps can be taken to strengthen the marine conservation zones so that the Bill delivers the most robust protection for UK sea life and sea birds. Like other speakers, I am concerned that the social and economic consequences of designating a site can be taken into account when making a decision about whether to designate. Many speakers have made that point, and I shall not take it further, but regional or even local socio-economic considerations must not be allowed to override national and international conservation objectives.

Marine conservation zones must be identified using sound scientific and ecological criteria alone. If a site is important to biodiversity, it should be recognised and
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designated. If we do not make that change, we will find it almost impossible to designate a coherent and comprehensive network of protected areas. If we keep the measure in the Bill, we are likely to end up with a few sparse conservation zones in leftover areas of the sea to which no other social or economic interest group has laid claim. That will not be sufficient to protect our marine wildlife. My right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) talked about socio-economic interests having a place, and I agree, but they should be considered in the latter stages when developing site management. That is how the process works for protected sites on land.

Many organisations are concerned that the Bill does not mention highly protected sites. My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that in Wales, the Welsh Assembly Government have announced their intention to designate highly protected marine reserves to improve marine protection in territorial waters. I am hopeful that the UK Government will make the same commitment. A clear reference in the Bill to the network of marine protected areas, including some highly protected sites, would make stakeholders aware that the sites were a protection measure for marine wildlife and habitats, and, equally importantly, ensure that future Governments were not able to step back from the great intentions of this Government.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has produced a report highlighting more than 70 sites of national importance—around the UK and in the waters adjacent to breeding seabird colonies—that should be designated as conservation zones. These include the waters around Flat Holm in the Bristol channel, which are important for lesser black-backed gulls. I should welcome an assurance from the Minister that such sites will be provided with full protection.

Research by Bangor university, which is renowned for its department of marine biology, suggests that anywhere between 14 and 20 per cent. of our seas must be protected to ensure that the UK meets its biodiversity targets. It may not be suitable to stipulate a specific figure in the Bill, but I should welcome the Minister’s confirmation of how he plans to ensure that we do not simply aim for, or end up with, the minimum protection required.

It is a matter of great concern that the Bill does not provide any duty towards sustainable inshore fisheries management in Wales—in contrast to the detailed provisions set out for England, where inshore fisheries and conservation authorities will be the new management bodies. A specific responsibility for sustainable fisheries management and the promotion of marine conservation zones should be placed on Welsh Ministers, along with a commitment to report to the National Assembly in order to create long-lasting certainty and a trail of accountability. The Bill presents the one opportunity for such a legal and lasting commitment, as the National Assembly has no power to lay down such duties. Wales must not be left with a lower standard of certainty and accountability for fisheries management than England.

I am fortunate in that my constituency contains the Glamorgan heritage coast and the Newton dunes local nature reserve to the east of the coastal resort of Porthcawl, where I live, Locks Common local nature reserve in the heart of the resort, and Kenfig national nature reserve and the European Union special area for conservation
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to the west. Along our coast, the public can watch thousands of Manx shearwaters, fulmars and gannets, as well as seals and harbour porpoises. We must ensure that that coast is accessible to people with disabilities as well as the able-bodied, so that they too are allowed to enjoy the new opportunities for exploration.

The waters around Wales and the rest of Britain are a unique and special environment, hosting internationally important populations of species of seabird and other marine wildlife. It is therefore essential for the Bill to deliver not just adequate protection, but the best protection possible.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. As is clear to the House, a number of Members are still trying to catch my eye, and there are only about 35 minutes left before the winding-up speeches. I hope that Members will confine their speeches to 10 minutes, or perhaps even a little less.

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