Right-to-roam revolution: More than 1,250 miles opened up

Until now, Britons have had no legal right of access to the entire coast. But that's about to change - thus throwing down the gauntlet to the nation's landowners and privacy-loving celebrities. By Geoffrey Lean
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When the sun comes out - as it has this balmy Easter - Britons head to the sea. But despite being an island people, whose coast helps to define the national psyche, our rights to enjoy it are strictly limited.

Nearly three-quarters of us have visited the coast at some time over the past 12 months. Two-thirds of us have taken a walk, one-third for an hour or more. Walking by the sea, surveys show, is even more popular than sitting on the beach.

We may like to be beside the seaside, but - apart from in Scotland - we have much less right to be there than the people of far less maritime nations. The Danes and the Swedes have complete right of access to beaches, the foreshore, dunes, cliffs and other uncultivated land. In France, Portugal and the Netherlands the foreshores and beaches are in public ownership.

Polls suggest that most English think they have similar rights. But they are wrong. There is a legal right of access only to about half of the English coast. And there is virtually none to beaches.

Even where there are rights of way on the coast, it is often hard to get a long walk, because paths do not join up or abruptly run into private property festooned with Keep Out signs. Ramblers who set out on a seaside stroll have the choice of either retracing their steps or heading inland, often to have to resume their walk along the side of a busy road.

So David Miliband's plan to throw open the coast to the public is a revolution, one of the most radical proposals yet to proceed from what has been an markedly cautious Labour Government. He wants to create a "right to roam" corridor around the entire coast.

The corridor will be erosion proof, automatically shifting landward if the waves wash part of it away or if it collapses with a cliff, so it continues on the new coastline. That is an important safeguard in a country so prone to the forces of the waves; at Sefton, near Formby in Lancashire, for example, a coastal path on National Trust property has had to be moved 250 yards inland over the past 40 years.

The bold plan will do nothing to diminish the speculation that the young Environment Secretary is on his way to the top of the party. It will burnish his green credentials, which have so far been largely confined to a good performance on the admittedly overarching issue of climate change; his record on others, such as nature conservation, London's rubbish, and nuclear waste, has been less impressive.

But, more importantly, it will do wonders for his reputation on the traditional wing of the Labour Party, which has long been suspicious of his closeness to the Prime Minister. Few, if any, issues are more important - or symbolic - to the left than the right to roam, which has been a defining issue for the party from its very start.

The first working-class rambling club was opened in Sheffield in 1900 and, by the 1920s and 1930s, tens of thousands of workers spent their Sundays walking; by 1932, some 15,000 of them headed for the hills from Manchester alone each weekend. But they found their access blocked by rich landowners.

It all came to a head 75 years ago this month when some 600 ramblers carried out a mass trespass, walking from Hayfield in Derbyshire to Kinder Scout, a high plateau in the Peak District. They demanded that landowners should open a public path through Kinder Scout which they could use when the land was not in use.

Scuffles followed and six of the demonstrators were arrested and imprisoned. The Ramblers' Association started its right-to-roam campaign three years later.

In 1945, within days of taking office, the Attlee Labour government set up a series of official committees which recommended establishing a system of national parks and establishing the right to roam across all open and uncultivated land.

Ten national parks were created but the only access improvement achieved was to strengthen the existing system of public footpaths. It was left to Tony Blair's Government, in 2000, finally to legislate for the right to roam over mountain, moorland, heath and downland. It went through, however, in the teeth of opposition from landowners - and from the Prime Minister himself, who backed their calls for setting up voluntary arrangements instead of a public right.

Members of the House of Lords called it "an attack on property and the rights of ownership" and "a travesty of justice", and warned that it would increase "drug parties", "devil worship" and "supermarket trolleys" in Britain's wild places.

None of the worst fears have been realised, and the opening up of vast areas of countryside has passed almost without incident. But similar battle lines are already being drawn up against Mr Miliband's new plans - the biggest extension of the right to roam since its establishment.

David Fursdon, the president of the Country Land and Business Association - which represents landowners - called the Environment Secretary's invocation of access to the coast as a birthright "ideological" and "unnecessary". He added: "It is an important birthright to protect the property rights of people who have purchased land at a full market price. When it is devalued by legislation they should be compensated."

And the National Farmers' Union insisted that access should be provided only by voluntary agreements. It said: "We do not feel the need for a new statutory approach."

This time celebrities are also expected to enlist to fight Mr Miliband on the beaches. Madonna's land agent, Philip Eddell of Knight Frank property agents, who helped many landowners to gain exemption from the the original right to roam - said he would be writing to alert all his clients after Easter.

He called the plans "morally wrong", adding that "anyone famous who cares about their privacy and security is affected". He said that they would attempt to use human rights legislation to defend their property.

The famously private Kate Bush has a home on the Devon coast; Jonathan Ross has one near Swanage, Dorset; and Jamie and Louise Redknapp live in Sandbanks, near Poole, one of the most expensive spots in the country.

Maxine Fox, countrywide director of Sands Home Search, which negotiates the sale of elite homes said: "People who acquire these properties will have paid a huge premium for a private beach, and they expect that beach to remain private. Imagine you had someone who was not very desirable plonking themselves down with a can of beer on the beach when you were entertaining in your garden. It really would be quite awkward."

The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors has warned that the measure would hit property prices, but the National Trust - which owns vast amounts of the coast - warmly welcomed the proposals.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said that earlier fears that wildlife would be harmed had been allayed and it will be applauded by the Ramblers' Association and an alliance of other groups which have long campaigned for it.

Details still have to be worked out. But officials believe that deals can even be made with the ministry of a corridor it when there is no danger to the public. Special provision will also be made to avoid sensitive wildlife areas, but few are likely to contest that.

There will be a row, but there is little doubt that Mr Miliband will win through on a measure that was, after all, in the party's latest manifesto. Tony Blair's rapidly waning powers will provide no obstacle while Mr Cameron's green credentials will be put to the test.

Additional research by Harriet Shawcross, Tom Willetts, Jude Townend and Rob Sharp

Talking about the walk

Views from those who stand to gain - and to lose - from the right-to-roam proposals:

"There could be a partnership that could deliver reasonable access"

Peter Kendall, National Farmers' Union

"It's in line with what we've been advocating but there are details still to be sorted"

Kate Ashbrook, Ramblers' Association

"The coast is so important in the psyche of the British people"

Lord Peter Melchett, Policy Director, The Soil Association

"Each section of coast needs to be judged on its needs ... individually"

Alan Titchmarsh, Gardening Expert

"I rejoice to see ramblers. I'm 100 per cent in favour of this"

Stanley Johnson, Farm owner and father of MP, Boris

"I'd like to see something like they've done with Right to Roam"

Sir Chris Bonington, Explorer

"There should be some common sense applied to this"

Eric Pickles, Shadow Minister for Local Government