DEFRA Consultation On Access To The Coast SPS Response

Posted on 20 Sep 2007

The response by the Solent Protection Society:

1. The Solent Protection Society is a registered charity, formed in 1956 with the purpose of seeking to ensure that the Solent retains its unsurpassed historic and natural resources for our own and future generations. It is funded by its membership, individual and corporate, and is led by an elected Council representing geographic and specialised interests. In its regular monitoring of changes and proposed developments it maintains contact with statutory authorities, commercial organisations, landowners and voluntary organisations, and especially with the Solent Forum on whose Steering Committee the Society is represented.

2. In forming our response we have consulted several organisations in the Solent coastal area, including some major landowners in Hampshire and on the Island.

3. We note the vision of Natural England for a coastal environment with ‘rights to walk the length of the English coast within a landscape and wildlife corridor’ and we are aware of the research, especially the opinion surveys carried out by them and the National Trust into the need for coastal access. There is no doubt that this need is very considerable, especially for quiet recreations such as walking, bird-watching, or simply admiring the view, and it not only applies in rural parts of the coast. We expect that the vision, especially its proposal for suitable legislation, has gained support from a number of consultees. Even so, coastal access does and will increasingly pose serious environmental impacts in certain areas of wildlife importance in lowland England.

4. In the Solent area access to the coast for these purposes (as indeed for more active recreations such as yachting, which is a major use of the Solent waters) is well provided for. On the mainland the Solent Way extends from Milford-on-Sea to Emsworth, and on the Island there are the footpaths from Yarmouth to Cowes, Cowes to Ryde, and Ryde to Sandown. In parts these routes pass through extensive urban areas in which much has been done to open up opportunities, but also through industrial sites (eg Fawley Refinery), port and defence lands with access rightly restricted. Where, in rural areas, these ways divert inland from the immediate coast, there are nevertheless shorter additional routes such as along the estuaries, for example the Beaulieu and Medina rivers, and there are popular coastal country parks such as Lepe in Hampshire.

5. The Solent coast includes many areas of international wildlife importance where access is, however, limited and there are European legal responsibilities to be upheld. This is partly due to the nature of the terrain but also to sensitivity to disturbance. Access to these areas is on the whole well managed, with carefully sited locations open to the public, such as at Newtown Creek on the Island, owned by the National Trust, and in the large estates in the south-east part of the New Forest Coast, Beaulieu and Cadland being good examples.

6. Having regard to the situation in the Solent briefly described above, our response to the ideas in the consultation document are:

(a) We agree in principle with the general objectives of encouraging and facilitating coastal access, both in rural and urban areas (to which more attention might usefully have been given in the consultation paper).

(b) We nevertheless entirely support the logic of the view that we understand Hampshire County Council (HCC), one major authority of several in the area, is taking, namely to give priority to existing improvement plans for rights of way, rather than to provide access where it does not exist. They rightly fear that the proposed new legislation would divert attention and resources from active improvement programmes being done under existing powers, especially with the very unrealistic budget figure proposed in the consultation. This estimate seems to apply to the promotion of new access rather than also cover its maintenance and wardening.

(c) We also support the views of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) on these points and on their very justified concern that compensation would not normally be paid for new access. They are rightly worried, too, about the impact of liability resulting from increased access. These points are also highlighted in other responses that we have seen, for example from the English National Parks Authorities Association (ENPAA).

(d) We think that improvements should essentially be in the hands of local authorities, acting in response to assessments of need. Local authorities are elected bodies with a strong sense of accountability, and we therefore agree with the great caution expressed by the National Trust over the proposal that Natural England should step in where these authorities might be considered to have failed to act.

(e) We support the views of major landowners at Beaulieu and Cadland on the New Forest coast who have given us practical examples to illustrate the views expressed by CLA and HCC. They have impressed upon us the very real problems of topography, wildlife conservation and land management that would follow from extensive access in the manner suggested by NE. This coast includes a main estuary (the Beaulieu River) and other waters flowing from the New Forest; deep creeks, marshes, mudflats and eroding cliffs, providing nesting, feeding and roosting areas for shorebirds, which should not be disturbed and cannot be relocated inland. (We note, also, the views of the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust in their response, when speaking of estuaries, that there are some coastal habitats and species assemblies that are fundamentally incompatible with access.) The wildlife areas of this part of the coast include key National Nature Reserve land which is protected in part with no-go areas even for the owners. The owners also mentioned problems of privacy to houses with curtilages directly on the foreshore, land management requirements such as the need to avoid disturbance to widespread field and marsh grazing customs, and safety risks with wildfowling. Their policies have been to provide access, in addition to the very extensive open land available in the New Forest itself, at attractive viewpoints and beaches with recreational and educational value. This includes the leasing of land for the major Lepe Country Park mentioned above and lengthy access at Calshot, and encouraging circular, rather than linear routes wherever these can be satisfactorily managed.

The owners emphasise that, far from being much of a local economic benefit, access in this type of area is costly in terms of maintenance, wardening and interpretation, (a point also made by ENPAA, see above).

In at least one case a system of charging for access permits helps to recoup some of these costs. They see further possibilities for ‘add-ons’ connected to the Solent Way without serious environmental consequences, negotiated with the local authority as need arises and money can be provided. In the light of their experience they agree entirely with CLA that existing powers are well proven and adequate, with priority for voluntary agreements rather than new legislation, but with a more promising budget that suggested in the consultation paper.

We note the caution expressed by the New Forest National Park Authority, in the context of their response, that the proposals are likely to have most impact on the character of this quiet and unspoilt stretch of coast which provides a contrast with other access opportunities available, particularly given the nature conservation interests. We have the impression they would find it difficult to accept that such an impact could be satisfactorily reconciled with conservation.

7. To summarise: We expect that the consultation will result in conflicting and controversial views on Natural England’s proposals, especially for new legislation. We hope that our response, while we agree entirely with the importance of improving coastal access and also applaud the excellent provision that has been created around the Solent (see para 4 above), may help to identify some of the very serious practical difficulties that access rights over the entire length of the coast may cause as in parts of this uniquely estuarial area.

We are concerned about the likelihood that new legislation will divert attention and resources from active improvement programmes for which existing powers have been and are adequate (para 6(b)), and we fear that a reluctance to provide compensation will discourage the cooperation of landowners in such programmes (para 6(c)). In our view the local authorities around the Solent have done a very good job, strategic and detailed, in access provision; the prime responsibility should remain in local hands here, and also elsewhere in England, to a far greater extent than envisaged (para 6(b) and (d)). We need, too, to stress the importance of funding, including for maintenance and facilities, to a far greater extent than envisaged.

Our discussions with landowners, including the National Trust on the Island, have convinced us that there would be serious disadvantages if the corridor idea were to be applied comprehensively in parts of the Solent area where some coastal locations should remain substantially protected from greatly increased access, primarily for wildlife conservation reasons (para 6 (e)). We believe there are lessons to be learnt from this for several other estuarine parts of the English coast.

Prepared on behalf of the Society by Prof Gerald Smart CBE MA