– in the House of Commons at 9:40 pm on 9th July 2007.
I am extremely grateful for the chance to debate this matter, albeit briefly. I see that Barry Gardiner—who, as the former Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is responsible for much of the legislation to which I shall refer—is now leaving the Chamber.
I represent a constituency with a stunning coastline. We have rocks, cliff faces, secluded coves, sandy beaches and a whole lot of history. There are breathtaking views and wildlife galore. On the coastline of Bridgwater and west Somerset, it is possible to marvel at all the greater wonders of nature. It is no accident that Samuel Taylor Coleridge chose the little port of Watchet in west Somerset from which to gaze out at the wider reaches of the Bristol channel and compose these famous lines: "I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky, And all I need is a tall ship and a star to steer her by." But if poor old Coleridge were alive today he might have found it a little more difficult, with the whole effort riddled with mindless political correctness. The result would also have been rather harder to scan: "And all I need is a five-year strategy, a report from Natural England, and a huge consultation document to steer her by." I am afraid that that does not have quite the same ring to it.
Coleridge, as a great man, did not have all this trouble with coastal access. In truth, very few people do. It is not an issue that exercises the hearts and minds of my constituents—it never has—and I doubt that the Minister's postbag is crammed with letters about it either. Yes, there are probably a handful of super-keen explorers who want to leg it up every cliff and sniff every bit of fresh air, but the fact is that there is no overwhelming demand for unrestricted coastal access. That is because there is already plenty of access, as the Minister is well aware: 70 per cent. of the coastline of Great Britain is open, with unrestricted access owing to some form of legal right or formal agreement. Of the remainder, 10 per cent. is owned by the Ministry of Defence, which likes to let off rather large rockets and test things that go bang. I suggest that only masochists of a certain kind would want to have access to an MOD site—as someone who used to be in the MOD, I certainly would not want to walk on the wrong end of such a rocket. Therefore, discussions about extending coastline access would concern only a small proportion of coastal land.
We must not ignore the views of the people who want complete access to everything—access to everywhere at all times. If they hold that view, that is fine. However, my argument is that we must examine and take into account the genuine extent of the pressure for change. How much real demand is there for coastal access? The available evidence suggests that there is no great demand. The Government asked Natural England to examine the case in detail, and it commissioned in-depth independent research. The Minister knows that we have been in this situation before in respect of the original proposals. The Government rightly withdrew them and proposed that there should be a consultation period, and I accept that. Most people questioned believed that there were automatic rights to coastal access. Interestingly, most people did not therefore regard access as an issue because there was thought to be such an automatic right.
The Country Land and Business Association ordered research of its own, and 74 per cent. of those interviewed thought that there was already enough access to the coastline. I suspect that that is a lower proportion than it should be, but I am prepared to take that up with the association. However, it is a fact that trips to the English seaside have declined by almost a half within a few years, partly because of the delights of easyJet and cheap flights overseas. My point is not partisan; it is that the nature of democracy is that public pressure—the voice of the people—helps to dictate change. There is a big coastline in my constituency, and I am unconvinced that the clamour for change in this case is sufficiently loud.
There was a small pledge in the Labour manifesto to give
"early priority to take action to improve access to the coast".
I do not intend to disrespect anyone, but apart from anoraks, who reads our party manifestos? That was not much of a commitment in any case; it was carefully worded and it did not promise specific legislation—it was an aspiration. It did not say that a Labour Government would fix things fast—and credit is due to the Government as that has not been done quickly—and it did not say how and when it would be fixed. The former Prime Minister and right hon. Member for Sedgefield did not go around the nation crying, "Coastal access, coastal access, coastal access." So how did this situation come about?
Seven years ago, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 was passed under the guidance of the current Minister for the South West, Mr. Bradshaw. It was a political minefield at the time, and the Government recognised that dealing with the coast would probably prove to be particularly difficult because of vested interests. The organisations involved would include the MOD and nuclear power stations.
When someone does not know what to do, they ask someone else to tell them. The Government asked Natural England to examine the arguments and make recommendations. The beauty of asking someone else to look at such a situation first is that the person who asks can say that they have done exactly what they said they would do without actually doing anything—it kicks the issue into the long grass for a long time.
Natural England eventually concluded that coastal access was a complicated matter that might require another chunk—horrible word—of law. A problem therefore arises. Does DEFRA want a new slice of legislation on its plate? I would like to think not, and I will explain why. Where should the law fit?
A maritime Bill has also been proposed. That is great; I have no problems with that. Presumably, that would deal with the beaches, mudflats and estuaries. Or would it? I would be fascinated to hear the Minister's opinion on that because it is an area that will impinge on our approach to the issue. I suspect that we should all be very cautious. It is a perfect approach to a political problem: if Ministers do not like the solution provided by the very people they asked to find one in the first place, the classic method of delay is to put the whole thing out for consultation again. That is what has been done. I am not saying that that is wrong, but that is what has happened.
One produces, hey presto, a huge consultation document and seeks the opinions of the world and his wife. That is exactly what has happened in the past month. Right now, we are in the middle of an exhaustive programme of consultation and people have until
However, the Minister will not be short of opinions because the consultation process deliberately included every Tom, Dick and Harry that could be thought of. I dread to think what this rather large and woolly-minded piece of buck-passing will cost us. I also have some concerns about the vast list of organisations that have been consulted by DEFRA as part of the consultation. I see that the Minister smiles wryly—I certainly did when I read the list. Why, for example, does the Bracknell district branch of Friends of the Earth get a mention? My geography is fairly bad—I failed it at A- level—but I was under the impression that Bracknell in Berkshire is landlocked. Why have all the London councils been specifically consulted? No doubt Comrade Ken likes to dangle his left toe in the sea at Southend from time to time, but so what? Why does the Minister want to hear from the National Council for Metal Detecting or the Kaolin and Ball Clay Association? Perhaps the kaolin and morphine association, if it existed, would have been more appropriate. No doubt the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild has a valid point of view, although I doubt that it devotes very much time to debating coastal access. Nor does the Kennel Club, yet it too is on the list of 3,000 official consultees. It is woofers to me!
I have no desire to labour the point, but my two district councils of Somerset and Sedgemore do not get an individual mention in the list, but the Gay Outdoor Club has been consulted. I am not saying that there is anything wrong with that, but why is it so? The Cruising Association has also been consulted—I trust that the two are not connected.
Consultation is a wonderful idea, but it is pointless if we go out of our way to ask every single pressure group for its input. It may generate lots of summer reading for hundreds of DEFRA civil servants, but they should have better things to do, such as sorting out the Rural Payments Agency, which we have just debated. It will certainly involve the destruction of forests of trees to produce the paper on which the submissions are made.
Most of all, I question whether the consultation is relevant. It could become, in my humble opinion, a cop-out. Governments get elected to make decisions. This is a potential decision that has not been demanded by a vast groundswell of public opinion. In fact and in truth, the contrary is probably true. After the battles of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, does it make sense to have legislation for a national scheme when the best answer is sensible local agreements?
I see that my hon. Friend Mr. Holloway is in his place. Dare I say that he may be another member of the Cruising Association?
I have been discussing these matters with responsible Ministers since 2001. I have been impressed by assurances that ministerial minds are not set on new law just for the sake of it, so I want to underline a few real local concerns that affect my bit of coastline. My coastline is open, except for one or two points, but who will maintain the paths when they have been built? Who will maintain the fences and the gates? Who will be responsible should a walker's dog leave the path and kill a sheep? If it happens at present, there is a set procedure; but if there is new legislation, I presume that it will be the responsibility of the Government.
There is a beautiful site of special scientific interest—or SSSI—in my constituency called Steart point, and I commend a visit to the Minister; I know that many of his predecessors visited. But it would be in the middle of a coastal access point, and that debate has been had with Natural England. There is no clear way around that. Somebody needs to make a decision.
I have a nuclear power station at Hinckley Point. The Government are debating building perhaps one or two new power stations there. It is slap-bang on the coast, for obvious reasons, and nobody—especially in these days of terrorist threats—wants to provide unrestricted access. We cannot and must not do it. There have to be exceptions, and the best thing is to let the locals make the decisions.
There is a steep hill by Minehead called North hill. It is not cordoned off; there is no barbed wire. West Somerset district council does not actively encourage people to go climbing. But with unrestricted access, the council might have to fence off a special walkway and then would become legally liable for every tiny tumble. It is a long drop to the beach, hundreds of feet. I do not want Minehead to turn into Beachy head, thank you very much. I do not want accidents, incidents or stupid decisions.
What do we do about estuaries? The Minister will know that I have a strangely named river that runs through Bridgwater in the heart of my constituency, the Parrett; nothing to do with "Monty Python". But if the Government allow access, one will be able to walk from Steer point into Bridgwater; it is an estuary, tidal and open. But that is not the way to have coastal access. We would have to demand access to areas that, at the moment, are flood defences, or part of a canal system, or part of a dock system, or have industrial sites on both sides.
Unrestricted access looks good on paper. A law covering the whole coastline may seem like a simple solution, but the moment we centralise the process and put it on the statute book, we lose the one thing we need: the common sense to make decisions locally. Common sense must surely dictate the exceptions to coastal access.
We cannot have well-meaning ramblers—I am talking about ramblers in the loosest sense—clambering right next to power stations, especially nuclear ones. We do not want people drowning themselves in dangerous tidal estuaries; I have the second-highest tidal flow in the world. We need to keep people and vulnerable birds or wildlife apart; they do not always mix. We should not disrupt the delicate cycle of agriculture either, especially after what we have heard in the previous debate.
The answer to all these problems lies not in new law, but in sensible local agreements, brokered and managed preferably by responsible district councils or unitaries. I hope that the Minister has listened with care to my speech. I welcome him to his post and I will listen carefully to his response.
Mr. Liddell-Grainger presents his arguments in his usual way, with grace and unique humour. It is nice to see my neighbour, Mr. Holloway here. I do not know whether he is cruising behind the hon. Member for Bridgwater or woofing behind him—but I am sure that he is just supporting him.
I would like to answer some of the important points that the hon. Gentleman has made, which are particularly relevant to his part of the world. It is quite right for him to present his arguments as he does. He has been consistent on this subject, and has tabled many parliamentary questions of which I have had sight.
Estuaries are very important. Natural England's report noted that estuaries within the English coast range in size from the Severn, the Humber and the Thames down to small tidal rivers only a few metres wide. People in counties with a lot of estuary environment, such as Suffolk, regard them as an integral part of the coastal experience. Under Natural England's recommendations, access probably would extend to the first permanent crossing point on foot, which is taken to include bridges and year-round ferries, as the most appropriate place to define the extent of the estuary.
I recognise that estuaries throw up particular challenges, and the hon. Gentleman raised some earlier. They include the importance of wildlife habitats and nature conservation. We shall welcome views about estuaries as part of our consultation exercise.
The hon. Gentleman asked who would maintain access structures, such as gates and fences. Natural England will provide funding to maintain structures required for access. He also asked why the Kennel Club, the Cruising Association and all sorts of other people, including my friend the esteemed Mayor of London, were consulted. The answer is that we were following the rules: Cabinet Office guidance was that the consultation information should be sent to those who asked to be included. I hope that that answer is satisfactory to the hon. Gentleman: "It's the rules, sir."
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concerns about the coastal access proposals. I know that he has seen the recommendations, so I hope that his earlier concerns have been allayed. He knows of the importance of the south-west coast path, especially the recently opened west Somerset coast path, for his constituents and the local community in terms of recreation and business. He described the wonderful views from the path. I am sure they are indeed wonderful, and I thank him for his generous invitation to visit his part of the world. I hope that I can manage to do so. Research in 2005 indicated that the path generated about £307 million a year—an enormous sum, which is important for the regional economy.
Before I talk about coastal access, I shall look back at the major successes of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which are relevant to the debate. The Act gave a right of access to 750,000 hectares of mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land that had not previously been open to the public. The Government are proud of that achievement.
The proposals were in our manifesto. It is not just anoraks who read about access to the countryside and to our coastal paths. Ramblers and non-governmental organisations constantly scrutinise the manifestos that Governments have to implement when elected. Access to the countryside is in the very marrow of my being as a member of the Labour party: a Labour Government created the national parks, and I am honoured to be the Minister for them. We wear anoraks when we go into the countryside in inclement weather, but we are not anoraks in the sense that the hon. Gentleman describes. I realise that he was joking, but I wanted to make the point that we had achieved an important piece of social legislation, which ensures that more of the country's most beautiful landscapes can now be enjoyed by the many rather than remaining the preserve of the few.
The Act balances the interests of users and landowners while ensuring that wildlife and the environment are protected. When we introduced the Bill, there were of course all manner of dire prophecies about how life as we knew it would come to an end. As Private Fraser of "Dad's Army" would have said, "We're all doomed." I was reminded of those prophets of doom when I read an article in The Independent, which noted that in another place the Act was called an
"attack on property and rights of ownership".—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 26 June 2000; Vol. 614, c. 724.]
There were warnings that it would increase drug parties, devil worship and supermarket trolleys in the wild parts of Britain—the hon. Gentleman will note that I am adding to the colour and flavour of his speech.
Happily, and not surprisingly, none of those fears was realised. In fact, access has worked out rather well on the ground. People want to access the countryside, secure in the knowledge that they have a clear right to use those areas. They have shown that they can exercise those rights responsibly. Landowners have had to resort to formal restrictions in far fewer cases than expected, and have simply relied on informal management techniques.
The desire to create clear public rights over land has been a strong political and social theme in the past century, as is shown in my party's belief in access to the countryside. The recent successful celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the Kinder Scout trespass indicate that access is wanted and can be introduced for the benefit of all. So to those, such as the hon. Gentleman, who approach this debate about coastal access with questions such as, "Where's the public demand for it?" or, "How can it be right to impose public rights over people's land?", I suggest politely that that is missing the point: it is not unreasonable for an island race to have access to its own coastline.
The coast is enormously popular—for beach activities and wider forms of recreation, for enjoying nature or scenery and for walking. In 2005 there were 72 million trips to the undeveloped coast and 174 million to seaside towns. Natural England has estimated that 30 per cent. of the English coast lacks any secure access rights for the public, and a further 20 per cent. has a jumble of different access rights that fail to join up properly. That can create an unpleasant, and indeed unsafe, experience. There are places that are physically unsuitable because of erosion, slumping ground or a lack of infrastructure, such as bridges or steps.
People do not have the right to go along the whole coast. We must change that; we made a manifesto commitment to do so, and it is something that we will tackle. The Government have already set out a vision of a coastal environment where rights to walk along the length of the English coast lie within a wildlife and landscape corridor that offers enjoyment, an understanding of the natural environment and a high-quality experience managed sustainably in the context of a changing coastline.
We want to secure three complementary outcomes: first, secure access along the length of the English coastline, accepting that that might be subject to some exceptions, a point that I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome; secondly, a more accessible coastline, by creating physical routes to access the coast from inland and by encouraging more people to enjoy the coast; and thirdly, improvements for coastal wildlife and the landscape, as well as encouraging people to enjoy and understand that environment.
In 2005, the Government asked the Countryside Agency, together with English Nature and the Rural Development Service, to consider how best to improve access to the English coast. In October 2006, those bodies came together to form Natural England, and at the end of February this year, Natural England provided advice to the Government.
Natural England has undertaken a thorough programme of research and investigation into the situation on the coast. That has included the collection and analysis of coastal data, and an investigation into coastal land types and the way to deliver access. It has investigated access in four different study areas, one of which included the hon. Gentleman's constituency.
Natural England initially considered three options, but as we know, it has moved to a fourth legislative option. It has recommended that the Government introduce such legislation, and we shall consider that as we go forward. Natural England's detailed recommendations are set out in its report and reproduced again in our consultation paper. If they were adopted, what would that mean? Local authorities would be fully involved in the process of identifying coastal access land. Local circumstances would be a key consideration, and local interests, including land managers and the local access forums, would be involved.
It would be Natural England's intention to concentrate its efforts on fixing what is broken. Where existing access is secure and works well, with appropriate spreading room along the way, there would be nothing to fix. The whole process would be conducted in accordance with a statutory methodology approved for the purpose by the Secretary of State. The methodology would set out in more detail the approach to be taken in identifying access land around the coast.
Where particular sections of access corridor are prone to erosion, it is proposed that the legislation would enable the rights to be rolled back automatically with any erosion that occurred in the future. Through consultation, it would be possible to provide appropriate detours to avoid obstacles such as coastal developments and to ensure that there is no adverse impact on key nature sites—another issue that the hon. Gentleman raised. I am confident that the needs of wildlife can be fully taken into account within the process.
We have said that we are particularly interested in Natural England's recommendation about creating in new legislation a coastal access corridor. We are having a detailed look at how that option might work, but we are interested in views on all the options before us. It is vital that we get the right approach to coastal access—one that balances the interests of users and landowners in the same way as the right of access to open countryside, and one that protects the rich and unique landscape and wildlife of our beautiful coastline, but allows people to get involved. If people share their expertise with us, it will help us to shape the way forward. The English coast provides an ideal place for people to engage with the natural world and the marvels and wonders of the marine environment, in the colourful way that the hon. Gentleman described in the context of his constituency. That is true the length and breadth of England. We have a commitment to improve access and a vision of how we wish to achieve that—and we intend to meet those aims.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.