Natural England’s Playbook for Coastal Access has problems. The least of which is its ignorance of National Parks.
The Coastal Access Scheme 2010 / 2013
This guidance document was mandated under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 Section 298 The coastal access scheme. The first version of the Scheme (NE268) was approved on 23rd March 2010. Section 298(2) of the 2009 Act. Section 299(2) of the Act required Natural England to complete an initial review of the Scheme within three years, which they did, publishing that result 11th July 2013 (NE446). It sets out all the procedures and rules for creating, consulting and implementing the England Coast Path and related Coastal Margin.
By the time they performed the first and only review to date on the guidance, Natural England had only had three stretches published [*], and only one of those approved. None of these stretches were in or adjacent to National Parks [†], the first relevant stretch coming on line over 2 years after the guidance was revised. None of the three stretches had had a full Habitats Regulation Assessment, none of them had exclusion directions from Natural England under either S25a Salt marsh and Flats or S26 Habitat Conservation. Only two had notable conservation issues of any kind. The first had an important site for Natterjack Toads, whose breeding cycle can be severely impacted by as little as one dog in their ponds, “breaking up spawn strings, flattening emergent vegetation and muddying the water” (Hesketh Ecology, 2013); Natural England’s solution: An Interpretation Panel, asking owners to put dogs on lead (just imagine how effective that would be). The second had one specific measure to avoid impact on a colony of little terns, instead of using an existing public footpath near the colony, the route briefly diverted landward the other side of a sand dune, at the same time including the lot in Coastal Margin and leaving the public foot path open. The rest of management measures on the three stretches included keeping people off a wind farm, portions of a camping park, away from boat cranes, and away from temporary events, including areas used for the 2012 Olympics.
The guidance generally favours recreation including principles such as “the least restrictive option” (pg 46) wherever public access may be curtailed. Within a National Park this flies in the face of the Sandford Principle. Although the guidance suggests that NE may hand over responsibilities for the route, and local exclusions to relevant National Park Authorities “once rights have been established”, there is no mention of either the park’s special qualities or of Sandford. It is unclear whether Natural England have ever exercised the option to make a National Park the “relevant authority” for the route beyond the expectation that the Park will become responsible for the maintenance of their portion of the stretch which falls under their separate duty as “access authority”.
Only two of the eight worked examples illustrated in Chapter 9 of the guidance imagine scenarios with sensitive wildlife, neither especially large. The first (Figure 28, pg 160) suggests the S25a Public Safety exclusion for Salt Marsh and Mudflats, yet offers “small areas of spreading room on flats and rock at either end of the section, which local people traditionally use as a beach and which are suitable for access.” without any concern over the effects of increased use as part of a section of a National Trail. The second (Figure 29 pg 161, and here on the right) shows a route around a wetland to prevent disturbance to birds, yet offers as an alternative a seaward section of shingle beach as allowable with small sections fenced for nesting birds, but no obstruction to anyone walking past. If the area were comparable to the wetlands and shingle beaches designated within this Park, this would not be advisable on our undisturbed shingle.
Sensitive Features Appraisal
A full Habitats Regulation Assessment should be carried out as a matter of course where new Rights of Way are proposed that lie adjacent or through designated habitats, with similar evaluation to existing ROW on the route where a National Trail is likely to increase traffic.
This appraisal, which includes heritage and other designations along those of habitat, potentially would include a Habitats Regulation Assessment, however, the guidance creates a loophole. Natural England (4.9.12. pg 45) self-determine whether their proposal including planned mitigation “is not likely to have a significant effect,” and then “this concludes the necessary Habitat Regulations tests”. This sort of self-determination of the effects of proposed mitigation at the screening stage has just been ruled against in the European Court. [‡]
Although the Making Space For Nature 2010 “Lawton” report was issued before the 2013 revision of guidance, it’s respect and concepts for nature conservation do not seem to have been inculcated appropriately in the first review. In particular, the very relevant concept of “coastal squeeze” where sea rise may force marshland inland has not been added to “Roll Back Provision” (Although NE Report Coastal squeeze, saltmarsh loss and Special Protection Areas (ENRR710) was published in 2006). Roll Back applies almost entirely to cliff edge erosion and coastal landslip, but should include other scenarios of sea rise and climate change which would squeeze habitats between advancing sea and an inland route.
The 25 Year Environment Plan (A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment), which promises greater protection for both designated and un-designated sites. These initiatives, along with the recent case which will effect Sensitive Features Appraisal (above), taken together, indicate that the slimmer or absent protections offered in the guidance should be reviewed and appropriately updated.
We’ll examine the deficits of the Sensitive Features Appraisal in more detail in:
[†] National Park included or adjacent stretches of the England Coast Path:
25 September 2015 both Hopton-on-Sea to Sea Palling (adjacent to the Broads) and Whitehaven to Silecroft (Lake District) were Approved, but only the first is fully open, the other pending new river crossings for the Irt and the Esk and approval of nearby sections. Filey Brigg to Newport Bridge (North York Moors) was approved 15th Jan 2016 and is fully open. Minehead to Combe Martin (Exmoor) closed consultation 15th Aug 2017, approval pending. Highcliffe-Calshot (New Forest) will currently have consultation closing 9th May 2018, should requests to extend go unanswered. Silecroft to Silverdale (Lake District) and Shoreham-by-Sea to Eastbourne (South Downs) are still having their proposals developed (currently mooted 2018).]
[‡] “European court upholds claims of Laois wind farm objectors – Irish Times” https://www.irishtimes.com/news/environment/european-court-upholds-claims-of-laois-wind-farm-objectors-1.3465503
“Opponents to Laois windfarm receive boost with EU court ruling – Irish Examiner” https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/ireland/opponents-to-laois-windfarm-receive-boost-with-eu-court-ruling-837809.html
“Court Ruling 12 April 2018 ECLI:EU:C:2018:244” http://curia.europa.eu/juris/document/document.jsf?text=&docid=200970&pageIndex=0&doclang=en&mode=req&dir=&occ=first&part=1&cid=619449