Coasting along to nowhere


With the Government now wavering over its commitment to an England Coast Path, the Ramblers has issued a new report reasserting the case for everyone to be able to access our coastline. The report’s author, Julian Rollins, examines the Environment Minister’s recent comments and the economic argument for completing the project...

It was billed as a potential ‘hottest day of the year’, though others have turned out to be hotter. But it was certainly warm enough to leave me torn: start work on the fresh-in assignment or head for the beach?

The beach won: sometimes the call of the sea drowns out the call of duty. Happily, on this occasion, playing hooky could be excused as ‘research’ (honest, Ed). That’s because the assignment had sand between its toes, too. I was to carry out a series of interviews about coastal access for a new Ramblers report that reasserts the case for an all-England coastal path.

Procrastinating at my local beach – Newport Sands, one of North Pembrokeshire’s best – the view could have been one of any British beach on a hot day. All human life was there: locals and visitors, old and young, from all sorts of backgrounds. A day at the seaside is one of the things that we share as a nation. Britain is Shakespeare’s ‘precious stone set in the silver sea’ and we all share a surprisingly long (and beautiful) coastline.

But one thing Newport is fortunate to have that other seaside towns don’t is a coastal path. Throughout most of the year, someone is walking on through here because it’s on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. Many thousands of long-distance walkers have passed that way since the path was opened in 1970, and since 2012 it has itself been part of a greater whole – the 870-mile Wales Coast Path. The path has just won the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) award for planning excellence, a recognition of the vision that went into making it happen. It “demonstrates what can be done elsewhere”, the RTPI says.

Coasting along to nowhere

For “elsewhere” read England. What has happened to its coastal path? One of the Labour Government’s last bits of legislative business was the Marine and Coastal Access Act of 2009, which promised a continuous path around the whole of England’s coastline. But there’s little to show for the Act’s promise except a 20-mile stretch at Weymouth in Dorset. It opened last year in time for London 2012’s Olympic sailing events, with locals turning out to see the Environment Minister Richard Benyon cut the ribbon.

He told them: “I want to see more people walking in and accessing our countryside as I know the value such activity has for our health, for our economy and for the spiritual uplift and well-being that comes from being out and about.”

That sounded encouraging, but since then the Government has gone very quiet. It didn’t help that Richard Benyon’s only recent public comment on the coastal path was to say that the Coalition Government had inherited legacies that would be extremely expensive to deliver, and that the England coastal access project was “a sledgehammer to miss a nut”.

One interpretation of that statement was that he now sees the coastal path as a legacy that’s simply too expensive to bother with. It prompted Ramblers Chief Executive Benedict Southworth to ask the minister for an update. The reply took some time to come, and when the letter from Defra finally turned up three weeks later, it was – like the curate’s egg – no more than good in parts.

Richard Benyon said that he has approved Natural England’s proposals for two more new sections of the England Coast Path – in County Durham and Cumbria – which will open early next year. But there was bad news for the Isle of Wight, which he said won’t be included in the project. Despite campaigning for many years and gaining the backing of the island’s council and chamber of commerce, the Isle of Wight Ramblers has been told to work with landowners to see what they can achieve by voluntary agreements instead.

Coasting along to nowhere

Not beside the seaside – yet

Overall, the tone of the letter suggests that we shouldn’t hold our breath for an all-England coastal path to happen any time soon: Richard Benyon states, rather vaguely, that the Act allows Defra to fulfil its coastal access duty ‘over a number of years’.

With that in mind, it’s worth re-visiting both nut and hammer. The nut is definitely there to be cracked. When Natural England took a look at coastal access region by region it found that it was poor and patchy. Roughly a third of the coasts of both the East of England (32%) and the North East (33%) were classed as having ‘no satisfactory, legally secure path’. Things were a little worse in the South East (37%) and East Midlands (39%). The stand-out region from the survey was the North West. The researchers classed 56% of the North West’s long coastline as having no satisfactory path, which adds up to 237 miles of seaside that’s a no-go for visitors.

In contrast, the best region was the South West. It has the very popular South West Coast Path, which does all those things that Richard Benyon enthused about in Dorset – health, well-being, spiritual uplift and tourism spend.

Interviewing local business owners, residents and officials in various English seaside towns for the Ramblers report, I’ve heard soMark Owen 1 cropped many good reasons for the coastal path to be an urgent priority. But if I had to pick one it’s that it would be a job creator. To get an idea of how a coastal path can serve local economies I went to the South West Coast Path Association and spoke with Path Officer Mark Owen (right), who looks after the 630-mile trail from an office in Exeter. He recently commissioned a study of his path’s role in the regional economy and found that it brought in a hefty £389m to the South West in 2011, supporting an estimated 9,000 jobs.

“It’s wrong to think of the path in terms of just walkers,” he says. “Yes, some people come to walk the path, but many more come to see the beauty of our coast and the path just makes it possible for them to do that.”

It’s part of the tourism infrastructure, he says. Whether visitors stride from headland to headland or just toddle the length of a car park, they spend money. “They stay in B&Bs, go to cafés and tea shops and drink in our pubs. It’s money that goes to small businesses and that means it mostly stays in the local area,” he says.

Coasting along to nowhere

Boosting ailing seaside towns

Could an all-England coastal path do something similar for other regions too? Its supporters, the Ramblers included, think that it could, offering a welcome boost to many ailing seaside towns and villages. Take a look at any shaded map of England’s richest and poorest wards and you’ll see the shadow of deprivation at its deepest and darkest in the big cities – as you’d expect. But, surprisingly, the same shading also snakes its way around most of the coast, too.

July 13 016Many seaside communities are in trouble and a coastal path could help turn things around, says Niall Benson (left), of the award-winning Durham Heritage Coast Partnership – another of my interviewees for the Ramblers report. Until fairly recently, Durham’s coast was a coalfield and its foreshore badly polluted with mine spoil. But over the past decade it’s been transformed by a major clean-up. It means that local people are rediscovering their coastline and people from further afield are beginning to visit, too. Based on ticket sales from coastal car parks, visitor numbers are on the up.

It’s too soon to say the area has a tourism sector, Niall says, but a visitor economy is beginning to emerge. What doesn’t help, though, is the patchiness of coastal access; some of the county’s villages have no access at all to their nearest beach. So he’s delighted that Richard Benyon has confirmed his coastline will soon have an unbroken path all the way from North Gare to South Bents. It will mean that locals and visitors will be able to enjoy all that Durham has to offer. Investment in coastal access and an England Coast Path is a “no-brainer”, Niall says. “We need to spread the benefit we’ve seen of an improved local coastline, and that’s going to come with the coastal path.”

So what would it cost to give all coastal communities their fair share? Five summers ago the project was looking a lot more expensive, Natural England costing it at £50m. Those funds would be spread over five years and a quarter of it spent on staff costs. At the time, the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee noted that many councils and other public bodies thought the budget was an “absolute shoestring”.

By last year, that price tag had been slimmed to something more appropriate in an age of austerity. Natural England now estimates total capital costs to be £4.5m, but gives no figure for any staff costs involved. A Parliamentary written answer from Richard Benyon has given an insight into just how modest spending has become. Between 2012–15, the cost of work at Weymouth and on other active stretches will be just £239,000 – just £1 per metre of path.

“In the broad scheme of things, the coast path looks like a bargain,” says Ramblers senior policy officer Kate Conto. “For example, it’s a small sum when compared with the £28bn over six years that the Government has earmarked for England’s roads.”

Certainly, it’s small change when set against the money that goes into sport – a category that the Government only seems to include walking under when it suits them. Through Sport England, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport has earmarked £1bn in public and National Lottery funding between 2012 and 2017. Walking is ignored by Sport England and its money, but things are different when they’re discussing the Olympic legacy. It’s proud of the fact that in the year that ended in April, 15.3m adults were devoting at least 30 minutes a week to some sort of sport – 1.4m more than in 2006. But that statistic includes ramblers engaged in ‘intense/strenuous walking activities’.

It’s clear that while the Government is keen on recognising the benefits of walking, it’s not so keen on funding it. From the time I’ve spent researching and interviewing people for the Ramblers report, any cuts to the England Coast Path project would be a massive false economy, whether on the grounds of tourism, health or the environment.

“Far from talking in terms of years, the Government should be making the England Coast Path an urgent priority,” Kate Conto says. “It’s the sort of low-cost, environmentally sound infrastructure project that should be a priority for an administration that promised to be the ‘greenest Government ever’. It would do so much for struggling coastal communities, but most importantly it would help local economies.”

Newport Sands image by Henry Burrows
Path images via
Sign image by Steve Morgan