The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 was one of the less advertised measures introduced by the last Labour Government ultimately receiving the Royal Assent in November 2009.
Amongst the various other measures it heralded in the establishment of the Marine Management Organisation, and so created, arguably for the first time, a single entity responsible for the development of policy and marine planning issues both regarding open water and coastal areas of the country.
One of the less highlighted provisions of the Act was the introduction of Legislation enabling the construction of a coastal path intended to run around the coastline of the UK, enabling members of the public to enjoy access to what is undoubtedly some of the most attractive, and on occasion wild, parts of the country.
After a slow start (due in part to funding issues) the coastal path initiative has increasingly begun to gather momentum and teams from Natural England (to whom the establishment of the path has been delegated by Government) are increasingly making their presence felt along the South Coast where much of the present work is being undertaken. Working in teams appointed to consult with property owners and others affected along the particular stretch of coastline falling within their given remit, Natural England are slowly piecing together a patchwork of sections of the path, with the intention of submitting the whole final offering to the Secretary of State for approval and adoption later this year.
There appears to have thus far been a limited embracement of the idea by those property owners affected. The Legislation is truly unique in that the process imposes an absolute obligation on those affected to allow a public right of access across the land, whilst at the same time providing no entitlement to compensation or to oppose the proposal save on a relatively narrow basis.
The Legislation provides for the path to be diverted inland in certain limited circumstances but otherwise and in absence of compelling reasons otherwise, the path will essentially follow the high water mark across the land affected. Once delegated as coastal path, a strip of land of up to 5m in width will be thereafter permanently subjected to public right of access, and with that right of access the owners of the property will acquire public liability for the safety of those using the path.
Whilst the original plans anticipated the path being constructed from a suitable material, with all necessary bridges and raised sections and other physical features as necessary, the original intention that the Local Authority would fund the initial construction and thereafter maintain the path as proven to be politically unacceptable, as a consequence of which Natural England have been able to secure a modest measure of financial support for the construction of the necessary physical features to facilitate the path, but on the clear premise that Natural English will thereafter have no obligation for its maintenance or upkeep, which presumably will thereafter either vest in the Local Authority or upon the hapless land owner affected by it.
The initial Legislation specifically contemplated that the underlying purpose of the Legislation being to protect wildlife and conservation issues, the path will follow the foreshore unless conservation and public safety issues dictate otherwise, and the Legislation specifically provides for the use of alternative inland routes where the path is likely to be subject to regular inundation by tides.
Even so, the creation of the path is proving to be a very real matter of concern in some more sensitive coastal areas, notably within Chichester Harbour where a substantial number of private houses were likely to be adversely affected by the measure. Unsurprising therefore that Natural England have been involved in very substantial reassure measures intended to get those affected on board with the idea.
The result is that thus far the original timescale envisaged for the selection of the route and approval of the arrangements by the Secretary of State has rather been allowed to slide.
Further, land owners concerned by the possible consequences of claims arising from the public using the path have found that sums made available to create a safe and obstruction-free location for the path have become in increasingly right, greatly restricting Natural England’s ability to agree to meet the costs involved.
Despite starting off with laudable aims, there is already concern that those landowners with sufficient money and connection to stymie the Acts intentions will have successfully been able to do so, whilst other individuals and communities, with less resource and with less shrill voices, will be those most burdened particularly as Natural England has significantly failed to accept any ongoing responsibility for maintenance and upkeep or supervision of the path once they have constructed it and moved on elsewhere. Canny Local Authorities, well aware that use of limited Council Tax funds to fill the vacuum will not go down well with their communities, are equally declining to step up to the mark, and local residents are rightly therefore concerned as to who is going to meet the true costs in terms of rubbish, car parking facilities, and the undoubted threat to natural habitats that will present if this laudable aim backfires.
As with so many other splendid causes, reality may well prove to be a pale shadow of the inspiration.