The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast, the light
Gleams, and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
If only the creation of coastal access could be as calm as these lines from Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach.
So much of our history and culture is bound to the sea, it is only natural that we should want to walk along our coast. The coastal-access programme will enable us to do that—provided that the government does not bring the work to an untimely halt as part of the spending cuts this week.
And there is a risk that it will be cut. In Farmers’ Weekly on 14 June, the environment minister Richard Benyon is reported as saying at the Royal Cornwall Show that plans to extend coastal access could be abandoned.
Yet only a year ago, in an article in the Ramblers’ magazine walk (spring 2012), Richard Benyon wrote some fine words: ‘There is no lack of government will to implement the coastal access programme’ and ‘we are setting about this project as much for future generations as for ourselves.’
Now he appears to have changed his tune. According to Farmers’ Weekly, he said ‘the Coastal Access Bill was a sledgehammer to miss a nut’. Not only is that a fatuous metaphor, but there is no ‘Coastal Access Bill’. There is an Act of Parliament, the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, which decrees that coastal access will be delivered.
Mr Benyon goes on to say that ‘only a tiny percentage of people would actually use [the coastal access] for long treks’. How can he know? And in any case, it’s irrelevant whether it is used for long treks or shorter walks. Many people get huge enjoyment from a leisurely stroll, birdwatching and enjoying the views. The important thing about coastal access is that it guarantees a route near the sea, whether on clifftop or beach, rather than a deviation far inland on busy roads, or on mediocre routes.
Natural England is slowly but deliberately identifying the path and adjoining access land around the English coast. The stretch from Rufus Castle to Lulworth in Dorset was opened a year ago and NE is working on a further ten sections now. Having spent a long time developing the process it can now move more quickly. By 2017, there will be access from Hull to Dorset (via Hadrian’s Wall and the Welsh coast).
Coastal access will be good for the economy. There are many studies which show that seaside towns suffer from deprivation; coastal walkers will help them. And coastal access is good for the health and wellbeing of our population and our visitors. It’s time the government recognised the financial benefits of outdoor recreation and its savings to the health service.
The Wales Coast Path opened in May 2012 and in the first year 2.8 million people walked it, and more than 800,000 visitors stayed the night in one of the guesthouses, bed and breakfasts or hotels along the way. They contributed £16 million to the Welsh economy. About £7 million has been made available for the creation of the route over four years—I can’t think of any other investment which gives such a return.
If government has the gall to cut the programme this week I trust there will be an outcry similar to that against the sale of the forests, to force a U-turn. If we must talk money, the amazing return on an investment in access should surely be irresistible.