A green boost for England
On Monday, along with Huw Irranca-Davies MP, I visited the new Welsh Coastal Path near Cardiff to meet with former Welsh environment minister Jane Davidson and the Tiger Bay Ramblers. The path was officially opened on 5 May and fulfils a long-held ambition of Welsh Labour to ensure public access to the whole coastline.
The New York Times listed the Welsh path as one of the 45 places in the world to visit in 2012 and it will bring visitors, jobs and a much-needed boost to the rural economy in Wales, in a country where unemployment stands at nine per cent. The Observer described it as ‘setting a standard in coastal path designation.’ In times of recession, tourism and leisure can bring economic benefits to rural communities facing unemployment, as well as providing a healthy, cheap day out for families.
Wales’ success stands in stark contrast to the lack of progress being made on England’s coastal path. The dream of a coastal path around our island has been the goal of ramblers and walkers for generations. In April, we marked the 80th anniversary of the mass trespass of Kinder Scout in the Peak District which, in 1932, sparked the movement to open up our countryside for all to enjoy. The Labour government legislated for the ‘right to roam’ as part of the Countryside & Rights of Way Act (2000). The Labour government passed the Marine and Coastal Access Act (2009) which laid the foundations for a coastal path around England’s shores – and in opposition the Conservatives supported the idea.
A coastal path would provide a much-needed tourism boost to many rural and coastal areas struggling with recession. Since the election, however, the Tory-led government have dragged their feet. The first 32km stretch of the coastal path in Weymouth will be open in time for the Olympics this summer. It will be a major tourist attraction and will showcase the best of British countryside for visitors to Dorset. Natural England has already identified the next five areas to develop: in Cumbria, Kent, Somerset, Norfolk and Durham.
Yet progress on the next steps for the coastal network is proceeding at a snail’s pace. On 10 May, the government finally launched the public consultations for Durham and Cumbria but there is no sense of momentum. Natural England’s budget was cut by 21.5 per cent in the Comprehensive Spending Review leaving it with no role to promote public access or leisure opportunities. The current Defra consultation on the future management of National Trails (e.g. the Pennine Way, Norfolk Coast Path) shows a government who would like to offload them onto the ‘big society.’
This is part of a pattern which has become wearyingly familiar. Last year the government tried to raise £100 million by selling off England’s forests but were forced to back down by the huge weight of public outrage. Their plans to sell off the National Nature Reserves were quietly shelved after that. Next, they began unpicking planning laws that have protected our countryside, casting aside carefully calibrated pages of guidance with a one-size-fits-all document. After more public protests, most notably from the National Trust, plans to place a duty on the National Parks to promote sustainable development have been quietly shelved. Conservationists and campaigners are punch-drunk from this constant assault on nature and wildlife, and wait in fear to see how the government will go to divest any strategic vision for the countryside.
The government’s lack of ambition to realise an accessible path around England’s coast speaks volumes about its approach to nature, and its understanding of the economic, social, environmental and health benefits of opening up the countryside for the public to enjoy. Ministers would do well to heed the lessons from Wales: green infrastructure could be just the boost that England’s rural economy needs.
Mary Creagh MP is Labour’s shadow environment secretary
England, environment and climate change, Mary Creagh, Wales