Seen from the west, the Wight is beautiful beyond all laws of beauty. It is as if a fragment of England floated forward to greet the foreigner—chalk of our chalk, turf of our turf, epitome of what will follow.
E M Forster, who wrote so eloquently about the Isle of Wight in Howard’s End, would surely have been appalled to learn that the Island is to be the only coastal county in England which is excluded from the coastal-access scheme in the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009.
The act introduces a new right of access to the English coast, consisting of a long-distance path with adjoining access-land. The access is being implemented by Natural England in a staged approach. However, the act excluded islands unless they are ‘an accessible island’ (ie accessible from the mainland on foot) or an island specified by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs by order. The SoS may make an order if he is satisfied ‘that the coast of the island is of sufficient length to enable the establishment of one or more long-distance routes along its length capable of affording the public an extensive journey on foot’. He was satisfied that the Island, with its 70-mile coastline, qualified, and last year consulted on whether to make an order.
The response was magnificent: 2,400 in favour with only 42 against, and the yes vote came not only from walkers but from the tourist board, a variety of businesses and councillors. They all recognise the value of coastal access to the public and the Island’s failing economy.
You’d have thought it would be a no-brainer for ministers. Nevertheless, there followed a year’s silence from government.
Then, at just about the time that parliament escaped for the summer holidays, environment minister Richard Benyon announced that ‘the government has decided that it will not make an order for the Isle of Wight as it is not a priority for the coastal access programme’. (See here, where paradoxically the news is given under the heading ‘Protecting and improving people’s enjoyment of the countryside’.)
The announcement was made with minimum publicity—there is nothing on the Defra announcements webpage for instance—and it is shameful. Even if the government does not think that access around the Isle of Wight is a priority, it should not close the door on there ever being coastal access. No one asked for it to be done tomorrow, we just wanted a commitment that it would be done some time during the mapping process for England.
This decision is despite a brilliant campaign by the Isle of Wight Ramblers, who have published an excellent report on the need for legal access to the coast. They have surveyed the coastline and note that 35 miles, or 50 per cent, of the existing ‘coastal path’ follows tarmac highways or is based on inland paths. Of these 35 miles, 21 could be established with a footpath running close to the sea. The remaining 14 miles largely represent sections which follow roads passing through urban areas or paths diverted inland.
The two most significant sections which the coastal access would provide are between East Cowes and Ryde (six miles) where at present people must follow the busy inland A3021 and other roads, and between Newtown and Thorness Bay (4.5 miles) where negotiations are needed with the Ministry of Defence to avoid a busy inland road. There are 20 other path interruptions which the coastal access provisions would resolve.
With secure coastal access around the Island, Wight could market itself much more effectively as a tourist destination. The 870-mile Wales Coast Path, which was opened a year ago, has already generated £16 million for the Welsh economy, with 1.6 million day visitors and 835,000 overnight stays. If the Isle of Wight’s coastal access only produced a fraction of that income, it would make a huge difference to the Island’s economy.
The government has been incredibly short-sighted in ruling out coastal access for the Isle of Wight but we must find a way of helping the minister to change his mind without losing face. The campaign continues, and, in my role as Ramblers’ president, I look forward to joining the Isle of Wight Ramblers on a walk in September to highlight one of the worst stretches of the coast path, at Osborne House near East Cowes.
Yes, the Isle of Wight is beautiful beyond all laws of beauty—and everyone should be able to enjoy that beauty by walking around the Island’s coast, close to the sea.