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Session 2008 - 09
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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

Tuesday 14 July 2009


[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Marine and Coastal Access Bill [Lords]

10.30 am
Clause 298 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 20

Establishment and maintenance of the English coastal route etc
Question proposed, That the schedule be the Twentieth schedule to the Bill.
Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): Good morning, Mr. Gale. I suspect that this may be the final sitting of this glee club, and it falls to me to tidy up various points that have been raised. My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon tabled some amendments that are due to be debated today, but he has fallen prey to the lurgy; we hope that he has not been in close association with a Mexican pig farmer. He is unable to be with us today, but I think that I know the intention behind his amendments, so I want to probe the Minister on various points in relation to the impact that the coastal path will have on landowners or people with an interest in land.
I will start by painting a picture of a particular case that has been put to me. I have had informal discussions about the issue with some of the Minister’s officials, but it is important to put on record how the Government believe Natural England and local authorities should treat the legislation. My example relates to a privately owned, semi-permanent caravan park on the coast. The landowner, at his own expense, has created a footpath along the coast. The footpath goes to the rear of the caravan park and up a cliff, and it affords walkers a safe path and enhanced views compared with those from sea level. It is a better option in every sense—from the public’s point of view, as well as from that of the landowner’s business. If the letter of the law were followed by the local authority and Natural England, they might state that the footpath must be driven across the front of the caravans in the park. That would impact on the landowner’s business; there would be potential safety consequences for some of the caravans’ owners; and there would be a diminished amenity value. I hope that the Minister will say that, in such circumstances, it is right and proper that the footpath goes along the existing route. It is the logical and best route; it has been enhanced and paid for by the landowner; and it affords a better option for every conceivable interest in the proposal.
Another south-west business is a hotel that is also dependent on coastal access. The business contributes £1.5 million per annum to the local economy and preserves a key landmark in the form of the hotel. The business believes that the loss of its unique selling point—privacy—would result in the depreciation in the capital value of least £3 million. Those figures could be tested, but half that figure would still be a substantial impact. We talk about the value of the coastal path in terms of tourism—people wanting to walk a coastal path—and its many benefits to local communities and local businesses, which I entirely accept, but we must also accept that there is already a lot of activity in coastal Britain today. There are many companies providing jobs and enormous benefit to those communities, and sometimes those businesses will be at odds with what is proposed in this part of the Bill.
Another business that drew my attention is in Northumberland, where the landowner owns a large area of coast well known for its bird life. Much of the area consists of vegetated dunes and is a site of special scientific interest. The business has always permitted public access to the beach. Its focus is on holiday cottages. It had planned to expand by developing wildlife safaris, with hides and other facilities, along the coast, but those plans have now been put on hold until the coastal access situation is clear. I hope that the Minister’s remarks will provide that clarity.
The business believes that, with a lack of compensation, the changes will have an impact on nesting birds, safety and management issues. Natural England notices ask people not to pass due to nesting birds, obviously at a particular time of year. The sign states:
“Ground-nesting birds, including terns and ringed plover breed here. Disturbance from people walking with or without dogs can cause nesting birds to abandon their nests and expose eggs or young birds to predators. To protect wildlife on this site there is currently no access beyond here. It is illegal to disturb schedule 1 breeding birds.”
There is a potential conflict between what Natural England wants to see in certain areas of our coast and the coastal access we demand that it delivers. It would be very helpful if the Minister were to address some of those concerns in his remarks, particularly regarding the potential impact on a number of existing rural businesses that provide great benefit to the economy of local areas.
Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): As the hon. Member for Newbury has said, I suspect we are in our final sitting. It is a great pity that the hon. Member for East Devon is not here. The hon. Member for Newbury has done a good job of setting out the basis for what I am sure that the Minister will acknowledge is a substantial issue. However, I had hoped that the hon. Member for East Devon would set out the argument with examples from his constituency and add to some of the scenarios painted by the hon. Member for Newbury.
Even after the coastal path has been identified and agreed, coastal erosion will inevitably result in a further requirement to decide its route in coming decades. The implication for landowners—in my constituency, for example, there is a non-profit distributing trust that runs a recreational facility, including a golf club—is that where there will be a substantial amount of coastal erosion over the next 20 or 30 years, the coastal path will inevitably take up sections of what is currently well-used land. That may result in significant compromises to the facilities that the golf club can offer. Clearly that issue needs to be considered further.
This debate on compensation is needed fully to understand the consequences for businesses whose viability will be adversely affected by the coastal path. Where the issue of compensation is raised, it may help the process of negotiation. Natural England might be prepared to compromise a little more reasonably over a reasonable request for a diversion in an area where a business would be significantly affected by a coastal path driving its way through an area of quiet tranquillity, where people could otherwise enjoy a private holiday experience. The spectre of compensation itself may ensure that Natural England is prepared to make a reasonable compromise in those circumstances. If compensation were not available I suspect that Natural England might not be prepared to do that. I shall certainly be interested to hear what the Minister has to say.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): It may be helpful if as well as responding to the stand part debate, I also respond to the substance of the amendments, which were not moved but which are pertinent to the schedule. I appreciate the concerns that the hon. Members for Newbury and for St. Ives have raised. We have articulated them on several occasions in Committee. I make it clear once again that I fully expect that in its determination of the route, Natural England will engage fully with all landowners, businesses, the national parks authorities, local authorities and local access forums to make sure that it is the right route and that local sensitivities are taken into account.
I am very familiar with the caravan park issues, both from my visits around the coast of the east of England and from back home, where I live on the Gower. The Gower was the first designated area of outstanding natural beauty, and there are also caravan parks right on the beach and on the cliff heads. How do we reconcile that? The way to do it is through proper local engagement, taking into account local concerns. The hon. Member for Newbury described a case where an existing path goes slightly inland and up on to the headland, where greater views are afforded of the spectacular coast. It might well be that in discussion with the landowner, Natural England said, “That’s a darn fine route. Let’s keep it as that.” On the other hand, there might be a significant amount of shore frontage or spreading room at the front. I know of caravan parks where there is less than a metre between the caravan and the shoreline. There are others with immense spreading room out to the front. It comes to down to very good local engagement and input, and discussions with the landowners to find the most appropriate route. That is what I expect to see happening.
The hon. Gentleman talked about restrictions in relation to nesting birds. Again, the flexibility that is provided in the Bill means that the best solution can be found. He is right to say, curiously, that it might be an occasion where a local business will say that it does not want the area closed, because it wants the public to come along and spend money in, for example, a cafĂ(c) or a bed and breakfast. That is where the environmental aspect comes in. We do not want to see nesting grounds of birds disturbed.
10.45 am
That is why the Bill’s approach of local determination and flexibility is right, rather than having the man in Whitehall or even the Natural England adviser sitting in London making a determination. That is not the way it should work. It should be about walking the route and engaging with landowners, conservation groups and shooting and angling interests that say they must have protection for a nesting ground during certain months. That is where this approach can really work. The hon. Member for St. Ives is right to say that if the hon. Member for East Devon had been here he would have painted lots of pictures of his local examples. Local examples can include the exceptions where difficulties have to be worked through, or the numerous cases where the process already works successfully. They paint a picture of how it can work and where the difficulties can be overcome.
I think I know the local golf club mentioned by the hon. Member for St. Ives. I am not a golfer but I have visited his constituency on holiday and I am pretty sure I know the one he referred to. That will undoubtedly be in one of those areas where these challenges are most acute, where there is coastal squeeze—not only from a coastal path but from coastal erosion, increased storminess, floods and rising sea levels. At the same time there are restrictions causing coastal squeeze on the other side, such as highways and the location of roads. When dealing with these issues, there is an ask, as I have said before, for local authorities to engage their planning powers to ensure that the caravan park, golf course or anything else has a valuable future when confronted with the coastal path and other pressures, both seaward and landward.
Mr. Benyon: Will the Minister address the concerns of some coastal businesses about liability? For example, I have heard of a landholding where, for a variety of geomorphological reasons, there are quickly shifting dunes. The landholder has been able to restrict access on the basis of safety concerns. Other coastal areas also pose a risk of accidents on rocks and cliffs. Will the Minister say a little more about how liability issues will be raised? I hope he will say that he understands the concerns of businesses that are important to the local economy but stand to lose considerable percentages of capital value.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I will turn to liability, as it is an important issue. Landowners’ liability for people on their ground was significantly reduced by CROW legislation following the articulation of the same concerns. When the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 introduced a right of access to open country and registered common land mapped as access land, provision was made about occupiers’ liability under the Occupiers’ Liability Acts 1957 and 1984. That has reduced the liability of occupiers, such as landowners, towards members of the public who are exercising the right of access on CROW access land. For example, if someone sustains an injury on CROW land due to a natural feature of the landscape, reduced liability means that there will be no scope to sue the occupier. In addition, if someone sustains an injury climbing over a wall or fence, reduced liability means that there will be no scope to sue the occupier unless the injury was sustained through the proper use of the gate or stile—if it was dangerous through the direct fault of the landowner. I declare an interest here, although not in respect of coastal access; I have rights of way and stiles on my property in the upper Swansea valley. They have been well installed, and were paid for by the Countryside Council for Wales and others. I thank them for that because they installed proper ones, which are not like my makeshift ones. I take part in ensuring that the stiles are adequately maintained.
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Landowners’ reduced liability on CROW land was welcomed by my constituents and landowners throughout the country. Does the Minister agree that there is a difference between the CROW right to roam on mountain, moor and heath, where people can choose where to go and keep away from dangerous areas, and the right to roam on coastal access paths, where the routes are laid down? There is a huge duty on everybody to ensure that the route is safe to begin with.
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