Lines in the sand: The right to roam on British beaches

Surely everyone should have the right to paddle on England's beaches and stroll its sandy shores? That's the intention behind new government legislation. But as Guy Adams reports, not everyone agrees
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The Independent Online

When Kate Bush spent £2.5m on 17 acres of Devon coastline, the reclusive star bought into the celebrity dream: a lifestyle of picturesque seclusion, complete with a 1920s cliff-top villa, and private beach.

Today, the view from Bush's seaside hideaway doesn't look quite so rosy.

The Government is proposing to extend its "right to roam" legislation to the English coast. Her exclusive golden sands, and others like them, will become a playground for the great unwashed.

The publicity-shy singer, who has owned the property near Kingsbridge for less than year, is entitled to feel concerned. She won't be alone.

The great and good in charge of England's 2,000 private beaches intend to fight this proletarian invasion all the way. Battle-lines are being drawn in the sand.

On one side of the great seaside divide will stand the Ramblers' Association, the Countryside Agency and the Government, whose last rural manifesto made a firm commitment to improving public access to the coast.

On the other, there will gather an unlikely collection of the celebrities, homeowners and businessmen, who own small and often highly-valuable parcels of the country's 2,300 miles of coast. Leading their protest will be the Country Landowners Association (CLA), a lobby group more accustomed to speaking-out for the tweedy land-owning classes.

In recent weeks, the CLA has been quietly getting its house in order. It has alerted the owners of some of England's most idyllic seaside properties about the threat to their future privacy. The lobby group is preparing for a long and expensive PR battle - and its potential new recruits include several household names.

From its headquarters in Belgravia, contact has been made with the land agents and representatives of a host of beach-loving media figures. They are understood to include Kate Bush, Jonathan Ross, who has a home near Swanage, Dorset, and Jamie and Louise Redknapp, who live in the exclusive Sandbanks area outside Poole.

Other names said to figure on the CLA's hit list are the singer Damon Albarn (believed to have a weekend pad in Devon) and the DJ Norman Cook and his wife Zoë Ball, who live on a private stretch of Brighton beach.

David Fursdon, the organisation's president, claims the proposed "right to roam" is unnecessary and draconian. It will, he says, damage a host of seaside businesses, and wipe hundreds of thousands off the values of some beachfront properties.

"We never reveal who our members are, or who we are speaking to, but I would say that it will affect a great many people and yes, we are speaking to a lot of individuals who may now decide to join us because of this," he says.

"It's August now and people are heading off to the coast and using beaches perfectly freely, and you don't hear them coming back saying we couldn't go here or there and therefore didn't enjoy ourselves. We cannot see what the need for this is in the first place."

The CLA is also concerned that landowners who see the capital value of their properties hit by any changes will not be liable for compensation. "This seems to be an incredibly draconian step to take, particularly in this day and age," Mr Fursdon said. "There are people whose livelihoods will depend on this, particularly if they own businesses like hotels or golf courses."

Their opponents may fight dirty in the battle ahead. In some places, they already have. Last month, Jeremy Clarkson became involved in a dispute on the Isle of Man, after fencing off a 150-yard stretch of path that crossed his holiday property on the Langness peninsula.

Local people, who had been allowed to walk the coastal path for many years, nicknamed the new barbed-wire fence "Stalag Clarkson," and formed a noisy pressure group seeking to have it torn down.

Newspapers were alerted to the campaign, and juicy criticisms of the Top Gear host were aired in their pages. In one instance, Clarkson's decision to close the footpath was blamed for preventing a bereaved man from scattering his dead father's ashes.

Such flashpoints are rooted in the fact that despite being an island nation, Britain has never really got round to sorting out who owns its coastline. The Crown Estate controls about 45 per cent of England's foreshore; the remaining beaches are in a variety of hands, from the National Trust and Ministry of Defence, to local authorities and, of course, private individuals.

The Government will outline how it intends to overhaul this system early next year, before inviting lobby groups and individuals to voice their concerns. Briefings suggest that the subsequent Defra legislation will either create a coastal footpath around the whole of England, or impose a blanket "right of access" to all parts of the coast.

Those in favour of widening access say a solution is needed.

The Ramblers' Association, which boasts 138,000 members, says the current system is an outdated mess. They say there are 10 "problem areas" where the public has difficulty accessing beauty spots. These range from Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, to the Beaulieu Estate in Hampshire. The Isle of Sheppey, famed for its maritime history, boasts no coastal footpath on its northern shore. On the Wash in Norfolk, it is impossible to walk the coast between King's Lynn and Hunstanton without trespassing.

In Cumbria, Lord Cavendish's Holker Hall estate has no public access along a section of coast it owns overlooking Morecambe Bay. As a result, the Cumbria coastal path is forced to take a four-mile detour inland to bypass the gap.

In fact, the public does not have a legal right of access to any of England's beaches. At present, they are allowed to visit the seaside by a system of often confusing ad-hoc arrangements.

"When they go on a beach, people are technically trespassing," says an Ramblers' Association spokesman. "This isn't a problem in tourist areas, where the rules aren't enforced, but there are many other areas where it creates confusion."

The Ramblers' Association says that a "right to roam" would actually benefit local landowners and businessmen, who would then be able to charge for amenities such as car-parking and lavatory facilities. They hope eventually to create a coastal footpath around the whole of England and say talk of invasion of privacy is scaremongering.

"The CLA said exactly the same thing before the original Right-to-Roam Act was passed, and since it has taken effect they've been proven wrong. There have been very few places where invasion of privacy has been an issue, or where property prices have been hit."

Experts, though, aren't so sure. Philip Eddell, of Knight Frank - who is Madonna's land agent - helped dozens of rural landowners gain exemption from the last batch of legislation.

He is expecting a busy couple of years. "Far more residential property is going to be affected by this, and that has huge financial implications. With the previous legislation, places affected tended to be relatively remote, with small land values. But with the coast it's completely different.

"If you are Kate Bush and you have bought a lovely house, and it's suddenly no longer private, then a huge value is immediately gone from it. OK, for one person privacy may be a bigger issue than for another, but a large aspect of the way that house was originally marketed was its private nature."

Mr Eddell estimates that in some cases, as much as 20 per cent of the capital value of a property may be lost. "With a £1m house that makes £200,000, and that is worth fighting for. There are many ways it can be opposed, but I would expect to see a test case - which you may well find famous people secretly funding - based around the Human Rights Act."

On the front line feelings have already run high. At Burgh Island in Devon, an art deco hotel, once frequented by Noel Coward and Agatha Christie, provides a pertinent example of the potential for resentment between rambling interests and owners of expensive seaside property.

The Burgh Island Hotel is a popular celebrity haunt, and is the location for the Christie film And Then There Were None. It owes much of its appeal to the fact that the island is entirely private, connected to the mainland by a causeway that disappears at high tide.

At present, the owner Deborah Clark allows public access to 60 per cent of Burgh Island. The remainder - most of the island's coast provides landscaped gardens and a natural bathing pool for the hotel's guests. Under any right-to-roam legislation, this will, in effect, be opened to the public.

"We are a good strong local business, and put £2m each year into the economy," she says. "We employ 40 people and keep the local post office and shop in business. This right-to-roam would ruin us. At present, the hotel is an amazingly peaceful and tranquil place, and people pay to come here because of that."

Yet Burgh Island is among the 10 "problem areas" named by the Ramblers' Association where walkers would most like access to the seaside.

"Unfortunately, this has put us at the unpleasant and fanatical end of this access debate," Ms Clark said. "We have suffered antagonism and harassment.

"There is a genuinely nasty and militant element in the rambling lobby that is driven by ideology rather than practicality.

"What is being proposed is confiscation without compensation, the sort of thing that happens in Zimbabwe, not Devon. But if they think we'll give in without a fight, they've got another think coming."

For Clark, Clarkson and Bush, and other English seaside property owners, it may soon be time to man the sandy barricades.