Coastal Access in Devon
PUBLISHED: 12:37 16 November 2010 | UPDATED: 11:56 28 February 2013
Should we have the right to roam freely along our Devon coastline, whether it's on private land or not? Jeremy Miles speaks to two leading figures involved with this issue to hear their arguments 'for' and 'against'
If you reckon that enjoying a cliff-top walk is a simple pleasure, think again. When the last Labour Government pushed through legislation to provide a round-England coast path it set the scene for some spectacular arguments.
Walkers and ramblers were delighted with the scheme, claiming that the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, which paves the way for opening up 2,500 miles of coastal trails, can do nothing but good. It was, they said, a blow for freedom and the foundation of a magnificent leisure facility that would boost the nations health and economy.
Many landowners and businesses are not so sure. More than 4,000 homes and 700 estates and parks stand on the route of the proposed coastal corridor. Their owners fear that rights of way might be driven through their properties without recourse to compensation and that any effective control over the paths that cross their land will be snatched from them.
The project is already faltering. A 5% budget cut imposed on Natural England, the conservation agency charged with making the path happen, means that the original timescale of ten years is now up in the air.
We already have the South West Coast Path, one of the finest coast paths in the country. It runs for 650 miles from Poole Harbour in Dorset to Minehead in Somerset and encompasses the whole coastline of Devon and Cornwall. It works like a dream too, without any apparent problems, attracts walkers from all over the world and injects more than 300 million a year into the regional economy.
Yet the plan for a round-England coast path remains contentious, creating issues for local landowners, while pressure groups representing walkers see it as a reason for celebration.
Justin Cooke, senior policy officer for The Ramblers, believes an English Coast Path would play a major factor in attracting visitors and boosting both tourism and the economy. He says the benefits of walking trails to rural and coastal economies have been clearly shown by the success of the South West Coast Path, which generates an estimated 307 million for the regional economy annually. A coast path right around England, he argues, would completely rejuvenate the social and economic life of our coastal towns.
In many ways the South West Coast Path is seen as the blueprint for what The Ramblers would like to see around the entire English coastline. The South West has some of the best access to the coast anywhere in the country, says Justin.
Figures show that residents of Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset spend around 116 million whilst using the South West Coast Path. Nearly 75% of accommodation providers within one mile of the path consider it to be an important selling point for their business. Its also a key attraction for day visitors to the region, who account for 40% of the annual tourism spend.
Justin claims that any work to improve access to the coast has been shown to more than pay for itself through wider benefits to the rural economy. No one is going to walk across peoples privately owned land unless there is a right of way there thats already in use. Walkers dont want to walk across peoples property if theres an alternative, says Justin.
The cut-backs faced by Natural England are, he says, a minor hindrance to the long-term plan. They have been asked to cut 5% from their total budget, not just the coast path project. And as for businesses being in limbo, thats absolute rubbish. A coast path brings prosperity. People who own properties and businesses rely on visitors to survive.
The effect of discouraging walkers from the countryside was, Justin continues, amply demonstrated during the foot and mouth crisis. The countryside was effectively closed and a lot of businesses went under. Its not only hoteliers, campsite owners and B&B proprietors, but farmers too. Opening up the coast path will generate visitors and can do nothing but good.
John Mortimer, the director of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) in the South West, is no fan of proposals to throw a 4m-wide footpath around the entire coast of England. He claims that the pledge to open up more than 2,500 miles of coastal walkway will damage businesses and the interests of landowners.
Opponents of the Marine and Coastal Access Bill say that to embark on the 50m project in the middle of a serious recession is financially inept. John Mortimer is furious about Natural Englands budget cut, saying that the partial shelving of the scheme and news that the work is unlikely to be completed within its original ten-year time frame, leaves landowners and businesses in a state of limbo.
Every coastal homeowner, farmer and business in England will have their land blighted because of the uncertainty which will remain as long as the legislation is in force, he says.
At the forefront of the fight are Deborah Clark and Tony Orchard, owners of Burgh Island Hotel at Bigbury-on-Sea on the South Devon coast. Deborah Clark believes that privacy is a unique selling point and in 2003 she made headlines by obtaining an exemption from the publics right to roam the islands footpaths.
But the ban was overturned, except for the routes closest to the hotel, in 2006. She is livid about the new freedoms for walkers contained in the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, saying that they fail to address the needs of local businesses.
Another Devon-based opponent of the Act, Sir Geoffrey Newman, who owns Blackpool Sands near Dartmouth, takes a more moderate stance. Sir Geoffrey, whose family have owned land on the South Devon coast since the late 17th century, stresses that he has no problem with the concept of access to a coast path around England. He is, however, concerned about how it is financed and managed.
It is hugely important for people to have access so that they can enjoy our beautiful, pristine coastline, says Sir Geoffrey, a keen environmentalist. My family have ensured that this coastline is not overdeveloped, but to achieve that it needs to be incredibly well looked after and managed. He is concerned that Natural England is taking over the management and maintenance without sufficient funds or resources to carry out the necessary work.
As both a walk leader and a previous chairman of the Marine Conservation Society, Sir Geoffrey knows only too well how fragile the coastal cliff habitats are for wildlife. There are certain birds and insects that are clinging to a small fragile area for survival. Over-exploitation and wider access could be hugely dangerous to the future of our coastal wildlife.