Coastal Access for All

Now, lets be legal

Proposed rules mean we may soon be able to walk the whole outline of the British Isle unimpeded by pesky keep out signs the historic right to roam that Labour traditionalists have been pushing for since the 1940s. But landowners, who won’t be compensated for opening up their land, have vowed to launch legal battles using human rights legislation in a bid to protect their privacy if the legislation goes through.

Off-Grid strongly supports the proposal and urges readers to write to DEFRA with a positive response. Currently, the public has access to only half of the country’s coastline, and despite a popular misconception – none at all to most beaches.

Currently, the public has a right of access to only about half of the country’s coastline, mainly along paths, and – despite a popular misconception – none at all to most beaches. Even where there are paths with rights of way, they often do not join up, or are blocked by private property, forcing walkers to make long detours inland.

Historically, landowners had and still have a very strong position regarding their property rights. Even uncultivated land has been heavily protected mostly to preserve the land owner’s hunting or fishing rights, and they have often charged a fee for public access.

The measures were proposed in February by Natural England, the new official wildlife and countryside watchdog to “formalise” access to “the vast majority” of beaches, and to widen the corridor to take in headlands and other uncultivated land. The corridor would take 10 years to create and cost about 50m.

“England’s coastline is a national treasure,” Mr Miliband told The Independent last week. “It should be the birth-right of every citizen. Many parts of the coast are already accessible but some are not. We want to create an access corridor so that people can walk the entire length of the English coast.”

This corridor would automatically shift landwards if it was eroded away, allowing access to continue.

Off-Grid gives its full support to government plans to open up the whole of Britain’s coast to walkers. There will be a public consultation this spring, and we encourage readers to write in and show their full support.

The controversial move has stirred bitterness among landowners who paid good money for coastal properties with private beaches but won’t be compensated.

In 2000, Tony Blair’s government legislated for the right to roam over mountain, moorland, heath and downland. It went through, however, in the teeth of opposition from landowners – and from the Prime Minister himself, who backed their calls for setting up voluntary arrangements instead of a public right.

Members of the House of Lords called it “an attack on property and the rights of ownership” and “a travesty of justice”, and warned that it would increase “drug parties”, “devil worship” and “supermarket trolleys” in Britain’s wild places.

David Fursdon, the president of the Country Land and Business Association – which represents landowners – called the Environment Secretary’s invocation of access to the coast as a birthright “ideological” and “unnecessary”. He added: “It is an important birthright to protect the property rights of people who have purchased land at a full market price. When it is devalued by legislation they should be compensated.”

And the National Farmers’ Union insisted that access should be provided only by voluntary agreements. It said: “We do not feel the need for a new statutory approach.”

The celebrities are expected to come out in full force this time to fight Mr Miliband on the beaches. Madonna’s land agent, Philip Eddell of Knight Frank property agents, has helped many landowners to gain exemption from the original right to roam.

He called the plans “morally wrong”, adding that “anyone famous who cares about their privacy and security is affected”. He said that they would attempt to use human rights legislation to defend their property.

The famously private Kate Bush has a home on the Devon coast; Jonathan Ross has one near Swanage, Dorset; and Jamie and Louise Redknapp live in Sandbanks, near Poole, one of the most expensive spots in the country.

Maxine Fox, countrywide director of Sands Home Search, which negotiates the sale of elite homes said: “People who acquire these properties will have paid a huge premium for a private beach, and they expect that beach to remain private. Imagine you had someone who was not very desirable plonking themselves down with a can of beer on the beach when you were entertaining in your garden. It really would be quite awkward.”

The move by Mr Miliband is seen by many as an attempt to earn favour with Labour’s leftist elements, which have been pushing for an extension of the right to roam for decades. At the same time, it might distance him from perceived Blair-likeness, while still contributing to speculation that the young Environment Secretary is on his way to the top of the party.

It will certainly improve his green credentials which have, so far, been largely confined to a good performance on the admittedly overarching issue of climate change; while his record on others, such as nature conservation, London’s rubbish, and nuclear waste, has been less impressive.

Mr Miliband is only doing what was promised in Labour’s last manifesto, but there is certainly a storm brewing. Landowners aren’t going to give up without a fight. And it will be interesting to see David Cameron’s response as his green credentials are put to the test, too.

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