Helen Phillips' Speech - All Party Wildlife and Conservation Group: Coastal Access
As you will know, Natural England has just published its advice to Government on improving public access to the English coast. We are very proud of this piece of work. It is pragmatic and focused. It is well researched and soundly evidence-based. It draws on our huge legacy of experience and knowledge from across all the different aspects of our business. And above all, its bold vision sums up very neatly for me what Natural England is all about:
- Big ideas, and the capacity and expertise to deliver them.
- Delivering better access for people to the natural environment.
- And a better environment for them to enjoy and appreciate.
- Working with land managers, local authorities and others to achieve these outcomes in the most workable way.
- And making our achievements sustainable, even within a rapidly changing environment such as the coast.
We are determined to use this kind of joined-up approach throughout our work. We want to do justice to the spirit as well as the letter of our broad statutory remit. We want to be a truly integrated organisation that makes a real difference to people’s lives, and that turns people on to the environment as a source of daily pleasure and inspiration.
This objective is important enough in its own right. But it also brings major benefits for us all here today as conservationists. It helps ensure that the voter and the taxpayer and the individual citizen increasingly support the work that is in hand to address some of the key environmental challenges, such as achieving real reform of the agricultural subsidy system, a major switch to healthier lifestyles, and personal engagement with issues like climate change.
Of course, many of Natural England’s programmes of work are driven by on one particular aspect of our functions. That is as it should be. But I would hate to see any of our 2,500 staff pursuing one Natural England function without proper regard for the rest. If we are seeking to improve wildlife or landscape interest, for example, we should be doing that increasingly in ways that people can experience and enjoy at first hand. And the other side of the same coin is that in taking forward a major access-driven programme such as this one on the coast, we should be building in environmental improvement right from the design phase – both for its own sake, and for the additional enjoyment it will bring to people visiting the coast. And that is what we are going to do.
We are looking to roll back intensive farming increasingly from the cliff edge. Of course many coastal arable farmers already leave a decent uncultivated margin on the clifftop, for practical reasons or to help protect the cliff from erosion. Where they don’t, we think the Single Farm Payment, while it remains unreformed, should require such a margin to be left, as it does now beside hedges and watercourses.
But we also see excellent scope for a more ambitious win over time. We want to use targeted incentive payments to take the intensive farming a field or more back, so that over several decades there could be an exponential increase in the environmental quality of the immediate coastal corridor. We want to build on the excellent work of Environmental Stewardship and its predecessor schemes in order to accelerate and add value to the existing programme of environmental improvement on the coast.
We want to do this in an imaginative and proactive way, piloting in coastal areas some new approaches to achieving more lasting forms of public benefit from the input of public funds. For example, we want to look at using one-off bonus payments to ensure that where we revert land to permanent grassland, this means what it says on the tin. So the ecological value of the land could steadily grow over time, together with the enjoyment that the change in management brings to those whose taxes paid the bill for it.
We are at an early stage in planning all of this. It could hardly be otherwise: Government has only just launched its consultation paper. If it accepts our recommended approach for improving coastal access, much will remain to be done before we can set to work on the ground. There will need to be legislation to create the flexible powers we need to improve access along the coast in a context-sensitive way.
Once we have the powers – which we have advised that the Marine Bill should deliver - we foresee a ten-year implementation programme to deliver the access and the initial environmental benefits that go with it. We plan to spend some £5 million a year over each of these ten years to get the job done – concentrating on those areas where our input can make most difference. We will work with and through access authorities (county councils and the like) to plan what needs to be done – but Natural England will remain responsible for the outcome. This means there will be national momentum, but local delivery and design. Wherever possible we will walk the course with affected land managers to ensure we have their take on how improved access is best implemented on their patch. And we will do our best to listen to their concerns and to minimise any adverse impacts on their operations and interests.
We may be advocating significant environmental improvement on the coast but there will always be people who worry about the impact of improved access on existing wildlife. My short answer to them is that Natural England has an inherent interest in protecting key habitats and populations. We have legal obligations towards them and besides, it is in everyone’s interests that they should thrive. In designing our approach to aligning the new coastal access we will build on the processes developed for CROW access implementation, to ensure that we build in the necessary protection at the heart of our approach.
What would this mean in practice? Well, one of the strengths of the approach we have recommended to Government is that Natural England would be able to design the access arrangements for each section of coast around the local circumstances. In places the access would simply be a relatively narrow way through, in others it would incorporate spreading room such as beaches and dunes. But in looking at such options we would have a range of choices from the one extreme of omitting land completely from the arrangements, through to the other of opening land up legally because we have no concerns about it.
In between, we would have a series of hybrid options, such as using positive management techniques to channel people’s access; creating seasonal diversions at nesting time; or putting specific conditions on how people use a particular stretch of the coast – for example insisting that dogs are kept on leads. In short, we take our responsbilities seriously, and we will do what it takes to provide the necessary protection for key habitats and populations.
I could go on and give you the fine detail. I could tell you at length about the extensive research and factfinding we undertook to inform our advice to Government. The detailed analysis we did of existing mechanisms, and why we concluded that what was actually required was a hybrid approach to combine all their best features. The section-by-section alignment process we plan to undertake on the ground - and the statutory Methodology that will underpin it. The way the new rights will roll back automatically as and when erosion takes its toll, instead of being lost to the sea as they are now. The ability for us to learn from experience or change and revisit the alignment, or the conditions we impose on the new rights, as necessary in the future.
But all of this is explained fully in our advice to Government – so I will draw this to a close and we can begin our discussion. I will simply share with you the story we have uncovered about what happened in the year of Napoleon’s death – the year the High Court was invited to conclude that the English have a legal right to access their own coastline. The court recoiled in horror from the suggestion. It was so alarmed at the prospect of men and women bathing in uncontrolled proximity to each other that it ruled that no such legal right had been established by the centuries of human use that had actually taken place. That ruling continues to bind our law today. The time has come for society to reject that logic – or lack of it - so that an island race can finally have confidence and certainty in accessing its own coastline.
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