Marine and Coastal Access Bill [ Lords]

Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 8:29 pm on 23rd June 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire 8:29 pm, 23rd June 2009

We are a pair of hoary old guerrillas, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and we stand guilty as charged. We remove those dreadful notices and will continue to do so. Once he has left this place—it will be a poorer place once he has gone, although of course he will always be welcome to come down to Malmesbury in my constituency to go fishing, as he does at the moment—I pledge to him that I shall continue to remove those dreadful little notices until I am even older than he currently is.

Most of the people who have spoken in the debate have said, perfectly correctly, that the principle behind the Bill is outstandingly good. I certainly would agree with that. It has been a long time coming, as my hon. Friend Nick Herbert said. There has been pre-legislative scrutiny over the past year, but that is no excuse. The Government have been 12 years in post, and the fact that we have spent six months looking at the Bill does not excuse the fact that it has been so long in coming. Nor do I believe that the fact that there has been pre-legislative scrutiny is a good excuse for curtailing the Committee stage, as has been proposed in the programme motion. It seems to me that many of the things proposed by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, on which I serve, have been entirely ignored in the drafting of the Bill. An opportunity to re-discuss those matters in Committee would be useful.

Overall, most people who have spoken in the debate so far have agreed that the marine conservation aspect of the Bill is a long time coming, is entirely to be welcomed and will be of great benefit to those of us who love the sea and the seaside, which most people in the United Kingdom do. Incidentally, Ms Smith, who is not here, rather apologised for being from an entirely inland constituency. North Wiltshire is one of the most inland areas that there is, but I am proud of the fact that the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society is based in Chippenham, in my constituency, and it does a good job in preserving whales and dolphins despite the fact that it is hundreds of miles from the nearest whales and dolphins. It does a fine job, and we need feel no embarrassment about that.

In that context, I would prefer to leave the outstandingly good marine conservation aspects of the Bill to one side and to focus on an aspect that has not been given sufficient consideration in the debate but that is an important central part of the Bill—that is, the coastal access provisions.

Perhaps I should start by saying that I am a strong supporter of rambling, walking, getting into the countryside, cycling and riding horses. The more we can encourage people to do that, the better. We are very strong supporters of that. The Labour party acknowledged that in its manifesto by saying that it intended to improve access to the coast. That manifesto did not say that it would create a coastal access path, but made a commitment to improve access to the coast. I strongly support that. The more we can do to encourage people to go to the coast and to go into the countryside, the better it will be. That is not the issue. The issue is the means by which we do that.

As we have heard this evening, two thirds of the coastline is already open to walkers. Hundreds of miles of coastline are perfectly open to walkers. That has been done by mutual consent and traditional rights of way, and large parts of the coastline are available. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough argued that the average length of coast available is only 2.5 miles. How she came to that average, I am not at all sure, because large parts of the coast offer hundreds of miles of walks without walkers' having to leave the main part of the coast. Of course, when one comes to estuaries, towns, yacht basins and caravan sites, there will be parts where one cannot continue along the edge of the coast, and it is only reasonable that one should then move slightly inland.

I am by no means convinced that thousands of people in our towns and cities are desperate to go for a walk along our coastline and cannot find one to walk along. I simply do not believe that that is the case. Indeed, I have spent most of my summer holidays for the past 25 years at a house high on the cliffs in Cornwall, on the coast path. I tend to be there for the first two weeks in August, which is the high point of the holiday season. In my 25 years at that house, on that cliff, on the very best part of the coastal path in Cornwall, I suspect that I have seen no more than 10 or 20 walkers. That is the best stretch of coastal path. I do not believe that tens of thousands of people around the nation desperately want coastal paths. The polls demonstrate that most people want to walk for between half an hour and an hour before returning to the car park that they started from. I am not certain that there is a huge demand for allowing people to walk all the way from Newcastle to Carlisle via the coastline, and Land's End. Anyone who wanted to do that walk would probably go along Hadrian's wall instead. I respect and admire committed long-distance walkers, but I am not convinced that there are an awful lot of them.

With that as background, I turn now to the fact that the Bill proposes spending a minimum of £50 million on opening the remainder of one third of the coastline to walkers. Some of the money would be spent on employing full-time coastal access monitors in each region. Knowing Government estimates, I suspect that the cost would be very much higher over the 10 years for which the scheme is proposed. At a time like this, can we really justify spending tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money on something that only the dedicated few want?

Embed this video

Copy and paste this code on your website