My Lords, work is well under way on all 66 stretches of the path. By June, all Natural England’s route proposals will have been published. The original target was to open the path this year. The delay has been caused by a European court case which required Natural England to reassess the impact of its proposals. I expect the whole path to be open, or to have establishment works under way, by the end of 2021.
It is absolutely true—I was at the meetings. Thanks to that, the Deputy Prime Minister was able to announce in 2015 that the path would be open by 2020. Does the Minister agree that only about a third of the path has so far been opened? Is he certain that the whole path will be open by the end of 2021, and is that a firm commitment?
My Lords, just to be clear, the first stretch of the path opened in 2012. I am in dialogue with senior officials at Natural England because, obviously, we wanted it to be finished this year. The Government granted a further £25 million to advance completion from 2030 to 2020. We want to keep up the pressure. I have set out very clearly the reasons for this delay; there is about an 18-month delay because of the court case and its implications for nature conservation designations. I am as confident as I can be, subject to any planning matters, that we will complete this.
My Lords, this is a fantastic initiative, started by the Labour Government and due to be completed by this Government in 2020. Does the Minister share my dismay that the deadline is slipping, and can he confirm that, despite the severe cuts that Natural England has suffered, it still has the resources to drive this project through to completion and deal with the outstanding legal cases it is now having to face?
Clearly, I am disappointed that we have not been able to complete it, but the truth is that there was nothing we could do about the People Over Wind case in Europe. It was legally court-required of Natural England to reassess those areas of the path that have European conservation designations. Nothing could be done about that. I am confident, having spoken to the chief executive and working with her officials, that everything is being done. The £25 million is there for them; they have spent about £22 million already and are within budget.
My Lords, while I welcome this Government’s approach to the coastal paths and the progress we have made, would my noble friend not agree that coastal erosion in a number of parts of the country, particularly on the east coast, is denying us some of the opportunities we have to complete the paths? What is his comment on coastal erosion generally?
This is precisely part of the work because 85% of the coast is already accessible. The point about the coastal path is to have a rollback, absolutely in response to coastal erosion. That is why a key part of the work of Natural England is to accommodate coastal erosion.
I may have to write to the noble Baroness on that precise stretch. I have not walked it yet; I have walked some of them. There are certainly advantages in terms of physical well-being and for local economies. I hope that farmers in rural areas will find this a useful part of diversification. There is a lot to be said for walking, which is why the new national trail pledged in the Conservative manifesto—the Coast to Coast trail in the north—is a very good part of that project.
My Lords, as the deputy chair of Natural England, I support what my noble friend said. The money for this is ring-fenced. We were delayed slightly for 18 months because of the court case—that is the only reason why the path has not been completed according to the regional schedule—but we are on schedule to complete it properly and we look forward to more stretches being opened this year.
I am most grateful for my noble friend’s confirmation from Natural England. I want to confirm the enthusiasm within Natural England to secure this path and all that it represents: 2,711 miles.
My Lords, the Minister correctly mentioned the effect of the path on economic development. What effect have the Government found it has on remote rural areas, not just on farmers but all the local economy?
My Lords, the figures I have for 2017-18 state that £350 million is spent in local coastal economies; that is with what we have already. It is estimated that it directly supports 5,900 full-time equivalent jobs in local coastal economies.
My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that this is a footpath and that, therefore, these pernicious and dreadful scooters, trolleys and other things—other than wheelchairs for disabled persons—will be kept off it?
I can confirm that it is a footpath. However, having walked some of the stretch at Great Yarmouth, I know that parts of it absolutely are designed to enable disabled people to enjoy the wonders of the coastline.
I very much look forward to the noble Lord, who I know will be walking for many years to come, doing so. It is not my hope that this is finished; it is my intention. That is what Natural England is working on. The only thing that could hold this up would be objections to any parts of the remaining route being rightly raised through the Planning Inspectorate; they would therefore have to go through the planning process.