Saturday, 16 October 2010

A coastal footpath for England

The previous Labour Government pushed a bill through Parliament enabling the creation of a coastal path in England. When implemented, this will allow access to large parts of the coastline that are currently inaccessible. The scheme is estimated to cost £50 million, with the first stretch opening in 2012. Unfortunately it looks as though this scheme will be amongst the current Government's cuts. Yet I am not too bothered.

Why? Firstly, the £50 million would not be spent all at one time; perhaps the project can be put on the back-burner for a couple of years, with minimal spending. Negotiations with landowners could be going on in the meantime.

Secondly, the Labour Government hardly acted speedily in implementing the act. In comparison, the Welsh and Scottish governments have made rapid progress with their less ambitious scheme.

Thirdly, I believe that the focus of the act is all wrong. There are many sections of coast that deserve better access - one of my favourites would be from Watchet to East Quantoxhead in Somerset, which would connect the South West Coast Path with the paths leading east to Highbridge. Another would be the spectacular stretch of coast south from Berwick towards Bamburgh. There is no coastal access in these areas.

Instead, the first section is planned to be the 'Olympic Way' in Weymouth, which is scheduled to open in time for the Olympics in 2012 (see the Natural England website). The stretch will run from Portland to Lulworth, which already has a very good coastal path. So instead of picking a useful section that would allow brand new access to the coast, they decide to upgrade an existing path. It was truly a terrible decision.

Fourthly, I am concerned about the costings. Remember Right-to-roam? It was scheduled to cost only £28 million, but the eventual costs came out at £69 million. The National Audit Office (NAO) criticised the organisations responsible. It looks as though there will not be a pilot coastal scheme, which was one of the NAO's main complaints about Right to Roam. Whilst there is an obvious conflict between pilot schemes and speedy work, I do not trust the current £50 million costing.

Compare this with the Welsh Government's speedy (and relatively cheap) work on their path.

The English bill allows a movable corridor to be created around the coast meaning that as erosion occurs, the path automatically moves. This is in contrast to Wales and Scotland who have gone for a much more ordinary scheme. In this, erosion will be dealt with when and if it occurs. It strikes me that negotiating a simple path with landowners is far simpler than trying to negotiate a movable margin.

As someone who has walked the coast, I am guardedly in favour of the new legislation. Right-to-roam has been a success from walkers' points of view. However, I am concerned about both the cost and implementation of the coastal scheme.

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