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"The first objective is that there is a route for the whole of the English coast which...consists of one or more long-distance routes along which the public are enabled to make recreational journeys on foot or by ferry".
Although it is true that most people will access only a part of that coast, the fact that a continuous path is aimed for underpins the whole nature of the access provided. The Bill sets out that ambition well-which, of course, the public understand cannot be fully achieved in all circumstances. In my area of the country, the public do not expect coastal access to mean that they can charge through berths 101, 102 and 103 of Southampton port, then transfer across to the car-handling facilities on the eastern docks, and then take a detour along the gravel extraction wharves further up the river. Nor do they expect to tramp through people's gardens and private property in the way that has been outlined in Committee and elsewhere. However, they have a reasonable expectation that the aim to ensure a continuous path will be achieved as far as is reasonably possible. That will be done, in the first instance, largely through negotiation and discussion and on a voluntary basis, and that is right.
Mr. Benyon: The hon. Gentleman was a thoughtful member of the Public Bill Committee, and I respect his views. When the matter was raised in Committee, the Minister said that he would much prefer to see how things progressed, and he issued a challenge to any areas that were holding out against greater public access. In my tours around coastal Britain, the message has got home. If the hon. Gentleman were able to trust elements of rural Britain in coastal areas to pursue the matter, he might get what he wants without this rather top-down proposal. I was working on voluntary access agreements long before anyone thought of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, and I know that they can be made to work best when they are agreed locally. Is that not the best way forward? Can we not work in that way first before trying to impose a measure from above?
Dr. Whitehead: The hon. Gentleman makes a strong case, with which I wholeheartedly agree, that the best way to achieve a continuous path with sensible and reasonable exceptions has to be negotiation and discussion. The purpose of amendment 40 is to act on the basis of trust with a purpose. It is clear from our discussions in Committee that Natural England, landowners and various other people will need to get together to ensure that there is a voluntary agreement. That is important and I welcome it, but that is in the context of a Bill that states that as far as possible, there should be a continuous coastal path.
We hope and believe that those negotiations will work, and I am reassured that most people have a clear understanding of what voluntary agreement means and what arrangements can be reached to ensure coastal access. However, if those negotiations do not work, the amendment says not that there should be top-down legislation but that the House ought to know about it. The House should know what has gone well and what has gone badly, which voluntary agreements have worked and which have not and whether there are serious
shortcomings compared with the ambition behind the Bill and our discussions in Committee. If there are, the Secretary of State's report may need to point out what remedies are available.
In some instances remedies may be available by order and, in others, more detailed remedies may be necessary, but I am not saying that an enormous 16-tonne weight should come down upon the heads of all those who have not conformed to the extent that we might like. Instead, a measured response and a consideration of how well we have done with voluntary agreements should be brought to the attention of the House, and there should be measured thought about what remedies are necessary. If the voluntary arrangements work as well as I hope and believe they will, the report may well be literally about three lines long. However, we must respect the ultimate aim of the Bill and consider how it should be achieved.
I set out in amendment 40 a number of things on which the report might concentrate. The "voluntary inclusion of parkland", as we all know from the CROW Act 2000, is a difficult matter, because of the difficulty of easily conceding unimpeded access across any area of inland parkland to ramblers when that may cause a problem with a number of functions of that parkland. However, that is not an exact parallel with the question of coastal access, when access would necessarily be along the fringes of parkland. Provided one has a clear definition of privacy and proper safeguards for access, the problem should be resolvable.
The Isle of Wight, which is not included in the arrangements, is accessed by ferry, which goes from the doorstep of my constituency on a regular and reliable basis all year round-people can get to the island without any problem at all. In previous years, there was, I believe, a party called the Vectis Nationalist party, which was in favour of independence for the Isle of Wight, but everyone else will agree that the island is very much an essential and beautiful part of the English coastline. The fact that it is an island accessible by ferries should make its inclusion by order in the provisions a reasonably straightforward thing to achieve.
That leads to the question whether further islands that are accessible reliably and regularly by ferry ought to be included in the scope of the legislation and the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) has already asked-namely, what happens when seasonal ferries do not run? Does plan B come into operation in that situation, or does plan A mean that access would be possible only during certain times of the year and not at others?
Those issues can all be resolved within the overall aim of the legislation by negotiation, but I do not want to face, in several years' time, a similar situation to that in, for example, the New Forest, where the Solent way, parts of which are 6 miles from the coast, continues to be called a coastal path.
Andrew George: I shall take the hon. Gentleman back slightly to when he mentioned the accessibility of island communities by ferry. Would he apply the same principle to clause 302, which provides for a very specific exemption for the Isles of Scilly? I must inform him, as I did in Committee, that the council of the Isles of Scilly is very content with the arrangements because there is full coastal access throughout the islands, and it fears the consequences of formalising that.
Dr. Whitehead: Having walked around almost the entire coastline of the Isles of Scilly and some of the uninhabited coastline that can be reached by arrangements with people who are not related to the families who run the main boats on the Scilly Isles, I can confirm that there is superb coastal access there. Indeed, one might say that, in any event, ferry access to the Scilly Isles is not exactly the same as jumping on the Isle of Wight ferry. I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but there are other islands around the English coast.
Ms Angela C. Smith: Having used the Scillonian on more than one occasion, I entirely concur that it is not the same as using a ferry to the Isle of Wight. Is it not also the case that the Isles of Scilly have their own government to some extent? The Isles of Scilly and the Isle of Man are different from the Isle of Wight in terms of governance.
Dr. Whitehead: I agree. The fact that the Bill already includes a note about the Isles of Scilly should underline the point, and it is not my intention to ask the Secretary of State for a report in two years on why the Isles of Scilly are not included under provisions for access by ferry to the English coastline.
I would like a clear understanding that progress will be made on the points that I have mentioned. They are not major points in relation to the development of the coastal path. They are about a minority of coastal paths-8 or 10 per cent. of the length, but we should not deceive ourselves that coastal paths that do not look like coastal paths in certain parts of the country are really coastal paths and therefore can be disregarded. A coastal path is a coastal path, and we should get as close as we can to that definition in reality as soon as possible after the passing of this legislation. I would welcome assurances from the Minister that progress will be made and that he will be vigilant in ensuring that if progress is slow, he will have the remedies in place so that the aim of the Bill is not overthrown.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I thank hon. Members for a good debate on this group of amendments. I was especially keen to hear the views of Members on these amendments, and I was reassured by the general welcome on both sides for the coastal path and spreading room provision. The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) understandably voiced his general concerns, as he and others did in Committee, about the process and the final outcome. He suggested that he was broadly in sympathy with our aims, but he is rightly testing us on how our thinking has progressed since Committee stage.
As well as the hon. Gentleman, we had contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Reading, West (Martin Salter), for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) and for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), and the hon. Members for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) and for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), which were all different but illuminating in the detail that they tried to tease out.
It is worth remembering at the outset of discussion of this batch of amendments exactly why we are here today. Some hon. Members referred to the article by Charles Clover, whom I have come to know through his work on bluefin tuna. I commend him on his work and leadership in the public domain on that issue, and the
Government were pleased to subscribe to that work and to help to push the boat far on it. However, I take issue with him on some of the detail in the article published at the weekend.
The point has been made that people already have great access, so why do we need to improve it. The hon. Member for Newbury mentioned the issue of statistics, and I shall come to that in a moment, but whether we are talking about 8 per cent. or 30 per cent., I remind him that the 8 per cent. in the middle of a jam doughnut is probably the nicest 8 per cent.-it is the sweet, juicy bit in the middle. We know that the coast is very popular with people for beach activities and wider forms of recreation. The evidence shows that walking is the single most popular activity on the coast, and all Members will be increasingly aware that access to good walking in the countryside brings not only physical health benefits, but mental health benefits. Improving access will give people not just the confidence but, to pick up on my hon. Friends' point, the certainty that wherever they arrive at the coast, other than on excepted land, there will be clear, well managed access in either direction and that they will be able to enjoy a rich and varied environment.
Let me turn to the Natural England report that underpins the background to the amendments. Natural England conducted a study of access to England's coastline. Its report, which was published in July, revealed that almost 1,000 miles of England's coastline is either inaccessible or lacks secure access-the pertinent point is about the confidence and clarity that there will be secure access. The findings did not come out of the blue, but arose from an extensive audit that Natural England conducted in partnership with 53 local access authorities.
The results of that study have been published in the form of maps and they show that there is no satisfactory or legally secure access to 34 per cent. of the English coast. That is bigger than the centre of the doughnut; indeed, we are missing a heck of a big chunk. In the north-west that figure rises to 56 per cent.-more than half the coast. I have remarked in the Chamber, in Committee and elsewhere that one of the best areas for progress is the south-west, where full, secure public access extends to 76 per cent. of the coast. However, I would not want to say that there were no areas in the south-west where we did not want to get our teeth into the jam in the middle of the doughnut as well, where that could be done.
Ms Angela C. Smith: My hon. Friend's references to the jam doughnut and the work of Natural England lead me to ask an important question. The late Sir Martin Doughty, who at his death was the chairman of Natural England, was a huge supporter of the coastal access provisions in the Bill. Will the Government think seriously about ensuring that a part of our coastal access provision is named after that much missed champion of access rights?
Although I would not want to prescribe it myself, that is an admirable idea for a part or all of the provision. My hon. Friend and other hon. Members have advocated the idea of remembering Sir Martin Doughty, who passed away only this year, in that way, as having a genuine coastal path and spreading
room was a major aspiration of his. If we succeed in introducing the Bill with cross-party support, the idea of recognising his contribution would have my personal support. Many of the organisations out there-whether the Ramblers Association, the British Mountaineering Council or others-would also welcome marking his contribution in some way.
Mr. Benyon: Talk of jam doughnuts has excited me and inspired me to see whether I can get a couple of points on the record. Does the Minister agree that we want to go to the best bits-that is, to the jam-first? Natural England should be looking at prioritising areas that will enhance tourism-areas where the path is needed and asked for by local organisations, pubs, village shops and others who will benefit from the tourism that it will bring. Will he also confirm, as I think he did in Committee, that the way Natural England approaches the issue is vital? It needs to understand, for example, that in parts of the south-west there is an existing path, maintained in some cases by landowners at their personal expense and liability, that may not go exactly along the coast. However, if the route takes people across a cliff top, the walker gets a better view. The path will already be there, but it will not be driving the route across the front of a caravan park that is actually on the coast. That flexibility needs to be reflected in how the Bill progresses.
Huw Irranca-Davies: Yes, indeed. The hon. Gentleman recognises the nature of the Bill and how the coastal path provisions have been made, in that it starts from the walking of the route. The Bill leads from there to the engagement needed with the various landowners and those who are interested in the coastal path to ensure, very much with local determination, that the best route is picked. The work of the south-west access forums has been a good model of how that approach works. We want it to be rolled out further. I will return to that issue in a moment, but, where possible, we also want access to parks and gardens to be opened up.
The hon. Gentleman's amendment 35 seeks to change one of the fundamental principles underpinning part 9 of the Bill, namely the coastal access duty in clause 291. Here we come to the meat of the issue. I understand why he is probing, but I hope that he might consider withdrawing the amendment once I have explained my reasons. The coastal access duty requires the Secretary of State and Natural England to secure two prime objectives. The first objective, as my hon. Friends have remarked, is to have a long-distance route or routes for the whole of the English coast that is accessible to the public for journeys on foot, including by ferry if appropriate, which is an issue that my hon. Friends mentioned to which I shall return. The second objective, which is associated with the route or routes, is to have a wider margin of recreational land available for the public on foot for enjoyment in conjunction with the route.
Amendment 35 seeks to amend the second objective and would make the coastal access duty much weaker than the Government propose. It would thereby inhibit the delivery of the Government's commitment to providing access to the whole of our wonderful coastline. The effect of the amendment would be to make the requirement
to establish the coastal margin not absolute, but discretionary. I therefore cannot support the amendment. It strikes at the very heart of the Government's vision of allowing people access to the coastline so that they can play, paddle, explore and gain an understanding of the wealth of our coastal environment. Realising that vision requires a route around the whole of the English coast that is accessible by members of the public for recreational journeys on foot as well as a margin of land accessible to the public for the purposes of its enjoyment by them in conjunction with that route or otherwise.
Agreeing to the amendment would curtail that vision to a route with much more limited access. It would also frustrate user groups and members of the public alike, including many user groups that have campaigned ardently for that coastal access provision. We have always made it clear that at the heart of our proposals for improving access to the English coast under the Bill is, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the extensive consultation process that Natural England will be required to undertake with local interests in proposing the coastal route. Land managers, local access forums and local authorities, both of which I have met repeatedly on the issue, as well as representatives of recreational interest, wildlife and other interest groups will all be a key part of the approach adopted in designing the access corridor.
As with open access, I recognise that there may be occasions where access to the coast might cause a problem. Natural England will have to consider the need for restrictions and exclusions. We debated that extensively in Committee, and it has been debated in the other place too. Those restrictions and exclusions will be considered as part of Natural England's coastal report for each stretch of coast that must be approved by the Secretary of State. After the initial alignment process, landowners and those with an interest in land will be able to apply for further restrictions if circumstances change and they will have a right of appeal if these are not agreed.
The Bill also requires Natural England to prepare a scheme setting out the approach that it will take in discharging its coastal access duty that must be approved by the Secretary of State. A draft of that scheme has already been published and, once again, Natural England will consult shortly on a further draft for improvements. Indeed, Natural England has invited representatives from a number of our key stakeholders to a meeting next week to discuss the draft scheme.
Mr. Benyon: The Minister mentioned local access forums. They are feeling a little unloved at the moment, so will he give his leadership and ensure that they are genuinely consulted? Local access forums have a wealth of experience and understand what is required in delivering greater access, and they do that for next to nothing. They are a cheap and welcome addition to the expertise that already exists, but the Minister might like to put his weight behind ensuring that they feel part of the process.
Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I met the local access forums two weeks ago, and they want to play a pivotal role in the coastal routes' development. Their members have expertise, they are volunteers, and they know the routes and the lie of the land. I cannot conceive how local access forums would not be part and parcel of the coastal routes' development.
The ethos of the Bill is to use local knowledge from walking the routes to devise the proposal that will go to the Secretary of State. If the hon. Gentleman wants leadership in saying that local access forums, in all different shapes and sizes throughout the country, should be part and parcel of the scheme, I give him that categorical assurance.
Mr. Jenkin: I do not know whether the Minister will return to the question of Mistley quay, but does the Secretary of State or Natural England have any discretion under the Bill if access is denied and included in the "relevant excepted land"? Is there any discretion or power that the Secretary of State could use to resolve a dispute such as that at Mistley quay?
We have recently published a consultation paper on the contents of the order required under section 3A of the CROW Act, as inserted by clause 298 of the Bill. Through that order, the rights for open-air recreation will be created on the coastal margin and the route. Among other things, we have proposed that the description of land that will be specified in the order and to which the new right of access will apply includes the foreshore and any cliff, whether sloping or sheer, adjacent to the foreshore. The interests of walkers and climbers, and of the organisations that represent the interests of those who walk or climb-for example, the Ramblers Association and the British Mountaineering Council-will be fully taken into account before any proposals for the route are finalised. Owners' interests will be taken into account in the consultation process, and in their ability to make objections under new schedule 1A to the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 as inserted by schedule 19 to the Bill.
We aim to achieve a route around the whole English coast, and access to a wider margin of land wherever possible, while fairly balancing landowners' and users' interests. That has been the Bill's trajectory throughout. We discussed it ad nauseam in Committee, and that is where we are now. The word "balance" is vital and, as hon. Members know, clause 292 places a duty on the Secretary of State and Natural England to strike a balance between the interests of the public in having a right of access over land, and the interests of any person with a relevant interest in the land. I urge the hon. Gentleman to consider withdrawing the amendment.
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