19 February 2020 - Article
The new Marine and Coastal Access Act (the ‘Act’) became law in November 2009. It provides for the creation of over 900 miles of public coastal paths over private land (the remaining 1800 miles of the English coastline are already open to the public via existing roads, bridleways and paths). As well as opening many new paths, the Act also allows existing public access routes to be relocated or ‘rolled back’ from the coast where there is the threat of erosion.
The first step towards the new ‘English coastal route’ was the publication of Natural England’s draft scheme for coastal access. The proposed scheme involves:
- a coastal access path approximately four metres wide, with a sea view where feasible. Estuaries and rivers may be included as part of the coastline, up to the first public foot crossing;
- public ‘spreading room’ between the path and the foreshore; and
- further spreading room on the landward side of the path, at Natural England’s discretion, up to a recognisable physical feature such as a woodland edge or fence.
Some types of property will be excepted from forming the route of the path or spreading room. These include buildings and their curtilage (not including slipways or quays), gardens, parks, school playing fields, quarries, temporary livestock pens, railways, aerodromes and land in the process of being developed or that is required for military use. Further land is recognised as being unsuitable for use as spreading room, although it will still be crossed by the access path. This includes: land ploughed within the past 12 months for the purpose of planting crops or trees, golf courses, and licensed or annually certified camping and caravan sites.
Under the proposed scheme, all dogs must either be on a lead (mandatory in the vicinity of livestock) or, where the dog is off the lead, within sight of the owner who must remain confident that the dog will return promptly if called. Unlike the Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act 2000, there is no specific provision for preventing access at certain times of year to members of the public with dogs. The scheme merely gives Natural England discretion to restrict public access for either land management purposes (e.g. disturbance to ground nesting birds) or for reasons of public safety.
Consultation on the draft scheme closed in early February. The next stage in the process is the production of reports by Natural England showing the proposed routes and spreading room and setting out any access restrictions. In preparing the reports, Natural England is obliged to consult anyone who has a relevant interest in the land, which would include both freehold owners and their tenants. There will also be a 12-week public consultation period once the draft reports have been published on the internet with a further opportunity for making representations and objections once the final version of each report is published.
The CROW Act became law in November 2000, but the first public access to land was not granted until September 2004. It is likely that coastal access under the 2009 Act will follow a similar timetable. Natural England itself has suggested that the whole process may take around 10 years to complete.