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General Committee Debates
Marine and Coastal Access Bill [Lords]

Marine and Coastal Access Bill [Lords]

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Roger Gale, † Mr. Greg Pope
Ainger, Nick (Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire) (Lab)
Benyon, Mr. Richard (Newbury) (Con)
Brown, Mr. Russell (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab)
George, Andrew (St. Ives) (LD)
Gilroy, Linda (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op)
Irranca-Davies, Huw (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)
Jones, Mr. David (Clwyd, West) (Con)
Kumar, Dr. Ashok (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab)
McKechin, Ann (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland)
Salter, Martin (Reading, West) (Lab)
Swire, Mr. Hugo (East Devon) (Con)
Walker, Mr. Charles (Broxbourne) (Con)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Whitehead, Dr. Alan (Southampton, Test) (Lab)
Williams, Mr. Roger (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD)
Wright, David (Telford) (Lab)
Chris Shaw, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 9 July 2009


[Mr. Greg Pope in the Chair]

Marine and Coastal Access Bill [Lords]

Clause 296

Long-distance routes
1 pm
Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): I beg to move amendment 44, in clause 296, page 192, line 21, at end insert—
‘(3A) Where a person with a relevant interest in affected land has requested Natural England to provide a map showing the landward boundary of the relevant coastal margin, but the report contains a description of that boundary pursuant to subsection (3)(b) instead of a map, the report must also contain a statement of Natural England’s reasons for declining to comply with the person’s request for a map.’.
The amendment would provide for owners and occupiers of land to make a formal request to Natural England for a map. It would require Natural England, if it declined such a request, to state its reasons for doing so in its report to the Secretary of State. That would discourage vexatious requests and encourage close co-operation between the owner or occupier of land and Natural England to identify the most appropriate method of defining the extent of the coastal margin.
As the Bill stands, unlike the coastal route itself, the spreading room associated with it is not automatically subject to a mapping requirement. Instead, we are to rely primarily on the descriptions in the reports made by Natural England to the Secretary of State. Given that a reduced liability will be associated with spreading room, it is all the more important that there be clarity on legal responsibility, to protect the landowner or occupier of the land and the user. A textual description alone, especially in respect of complicated areas, may result in considerable confusion in the minds of all users: the landowners, occupiers and walkers.
Some progress was made on the issue in another place. An amendment to clause 296 has given owners and occupiers the right to request a map if one has been produced to show the extent of any spreading room on their land. However, that amendment does not adequately deal with the problem, as it remains the case that Natural England is not committed to produce a map in the first place. That is an essential difference with the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.
This simple amendment would deal with a problem that is likely to arise, without individuals having to invoke the appeals process. It would be absurd for owners and occupiers to have to invoke the new objection procedure merely to obtain a map to clarify the boundaries of spreading room on their land. If genuine doubts are expressed by owners and occupiers about the clarity of any description of the boundaries of spreading room, Natural England should consult them closely and look favourably on any reasonable request for mapping.
Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I support the amendment. I cannot see how any progress could be made in any consultation regarding a proposal for a coastal route, particularly in relation to spreading room, unless it was made clear where the spreading room would extend. At many places along the coast, there is no obvious physical boundary to any potential spreading room. If the spreading room were to spread inland as well as in a seaward direction, because of the physical constraint created by a path that would need to be very close to a cliff line or to the coast to achieve the spreading room required, there would often be no clear visual or physical boundary to guide anyone on their access rights.
The amendment is important, because the uncertainty created by the lack of a clear mapping exercise could result in confusion and dispute, which would be left to the landowner to resolve on each and every occasion when a user of that coastal access demonstrated their lack of clarity and certainty about the extent of the spreading room. So I hope that the Minister reflects carefully on the proposal and considers its reasonableness.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): I think that I can provide reassurance. I take seriously the concerns of the hon. Members for Newbury and for St. Ives. I agree with the comment made by the hon. Member for Newbury about the need to avoid confusion. We need to avoid confusion, but we also need to avoid mapping for mapping’s sake, with all the resource and funding implications, particularly if there are other ways in which that clarity can be given and where absolute mapping can be avoided.
Let me try to explain how that might work. Natural England will be required to describe the route in reports proposed under section 51 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. The boundaries of the coastal margin must be clear in the report, so that those with the relevant interest can make representations and objections and the Secretary of State is sufficiently informed to be able to make a determination on the report. In light of the concerns that were expressed in the other place, and recognising that the clarity of the location of the route and coastal margin is an important issue to both landowners and users alike, we introduced an amendment to require Natural England to include in its coastal access report, under clause 296, a map to show a landward boundary of the relevant coastal land where it was unable to provide a description of the boundary sufficient to identify the relevant coastal margin. Let me just repeat that Natural England must include such a map when it is unable to provide a description of a boundary, which the hon. Member for St. Ives was talking about, that is sufficient to identify the relevant coastal margin.
We talked earlier about descriptions of physical features. We have all been out walking along the coastline and in other areas. We said that traditional stone walls, trenches or ditches are highly unlikely to be easily shiftable or mutable overnight. On one of my favourite walks, I go along the outer limit of a hill fort near a cliff within that sort of spreading room area where there is access. I walk there with my children, and it is enjoyable to go into the hill fort and tell them about its history. We could define its area by the outer limit of the ditches and its raised enclosures, hedgerows and so on. Those sorts of things are pretty clearly identifiable, but the amendment that we introduced in the other place dealt with circumstances where Natural England could not provide a description of the boundary with sufficient clarity to determine the relevant coastal margin.
We have made it clear that we do not believe that maps will be necessary for clarity about where the coastal margin lies in most situations. We expect that the vast majority of Natural England’s descriptions of the margin will be sufficient to suit all parties, but I acknowledge that it may be necessary for it to provide a map to help to clarify certain situations—for example, where the coastal landscape is complex or difficult to describe in words.
In addition, a map may also be useful where Natural England uses its discretion for the margin on the landward side of the route to extend to a physical feature, as set out in section 55D(2) of the 1949 Act, where the feature is not immediately apparent to the eye. The hill fort that I mentioned is pretty darn clear and has been there for a few thousand years. It would be pretty hard to miss those humps and ditches. However, if an archaeological feature or something else is referred to that cannot be seen by the untrained eye, it makes sense to produce a map. It would not be sensible or appropriate for Natural England to be required to engage in what would be—if it was done on every occasion, let us be frank—an expensive mapping process, when the money could be better spent on matters such as better interpretation facilities of the coast, better signage or work to facilitate good access.
Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): I am surprised to hear the Minister say how expensive it would be to provide the maps, given that it is pretty easy to map nowadays with satellite usage. Google Maps, for example, does quite a good job. What sort of figure does he have in mind to produce a comprehensive map?
Huw Irranca-Davies: We do not have a figure, which is one of the amendment’s problems. The funding that we have suggested for the coastal path and the coastal margin over the 10-year period is adequate and has an element of mapping within it. To do that universally would require additional resources. However, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that one of the commercial providers, such as Ordnance Survey, will undertake to do it in detail. The coastal margin beyond the coastal path, which may be a path with a couple of metres either side, will not always be massive. It may be quite narrow and may not be mappable by Ordnance Survey.
Mr. Swire: The Minister has said on several occasions during the past few minutes that a substantial cost would be unjustifiable. His Department must have made a stab at what the cost will be.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I will try to return to that. I do not think that we have an accurate figure, but it is reasonable to say that the cost of mapping, in terms of its resource implications, will be a burden for Natural England that could be put into other important parts of the coastal network, not least the aspects that we have already described, such as interpretation for visitors and tourists, signage, seasonal variations and so on. There will be a resource implication one way or the other.
As I have said—I will go into some more detail—it is perfectly within Natural England’s remit to produce maps where they are needed. It should be for Natural England to decide whether a map is required, because it will be best placed to do that. I would also expect that the question of a map will be raised during any early discussions with a route’s landowner. A conversation should be held between the relevant parties about the best approach to the circumstances surrounding that stretch of coast. I would also expect Natural England to deal sympathetically with landowners’ concerns. Should there be a reasonable expectation to produce a map and Natural England decide that it is not required, I would expect it to explain in writing why it made that decision. I do not believe that that needs to be covered by the Bill, because I firmly believe that the system will work well in practice.
However, recognising the genuine concerns of landowners, I am happy to keep the system under review and ask Natural England to report back within five years. That will provide an incentive if it is needed—I do not think that it is—to Natural England to act reasonably, as I strongly expect it to in any case. If there are problems in practice, we will find a way to deal with them. In light of that, as well as the available flexibility to introduce mapping and the fact that, in most cases, that will be agreed, the amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Newbury does not need to be included in the Bill. I am convinced that the amendments that we have already included to assure landowners and members of the Committee will be sufficient.
Mr. Swire: Can the Minister assure the Committee that, if there is a dispute between the landowner and Natural England about the route or the spreading room and a map is produced at the insistence of the landowner, none of the expense would fall on the landowner?
Huw Irranca-Davies: The expense of mapping would fall on Natural England, which is the converse of the point that we were just discussing. It is ready to do that, so that is not a problem. The issue is whether Natural England should have to map every single part, because the matters under discussion are coastal margins and aspects of spreading room. Most of that will be done via the process that we have described through genuine consultation with landowners. When features such as a wall or the edge of a hill fort cannot clearly be identified, we would expect Natural England to introduce mapping for the benefit of the landowner. With those strong reassurances, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.
1.15 pm
Mr. Benyon: The main plank of the Minister’s argument seems to be cost. He might have given us more detail on the costs. I notice that in Natural England’s draft scheme, which I seem to be quoting from the whole time, there are some excellent maps, lifted—if the small print is to be believed—from Ordnance Survey. I suspect that they were a desktop operation. What they try to achieve and to show is clear, and so I suspect that the cost is not massive.
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