I heard a couple of things recently that have got me thinking again. Firstly news of the Wales Coast Path, a continuous 850-mile path that runs right round the coastline of Wales (including Anglesey) that links with the Offa’s Dyke Path on the eastern side to make a complete circuit of the country. It takes a number of existing routes, such as the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, and stitches them together with newly created sections to make the whole continuous route. The official opening appears to be scheduled for May 2012, although sections are already open and I think someone is already underway with walking it as we speak.
The second thing that happened was that I was flicking through an old copy of Walk (the magazine of The Ramblers) and saw a small piece on the progress of a new National Trail – the England Coast Path – the first stretch of which will be opened in time for the Olympic Games.
Created by the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, people will eventually be able to walk round all England’s open coast, with improved access to parts of the coastline currently off-limits and “spreading room” to protect this access and quickly re-establish the route in case of serious erosion. In many cases new paths will need to be installed, and lengthy negotiations with the many landowners involved mean this will necessarily take effect at different times in different places, and the planned full route is many years away from completion.
Now I’m usually the first to argue the case for improved access, whether coastal or otherwise, and I have always felt that large swathes of the countryside have been closed to walkers for far too long. So, in that respect, I think the opening up of thousands of square miles of upland Open Access Land in England and Wales through the Countryside and Rights Of Way Act 2000 (CRoW) has been an absolute triumph for campaigners and a huge victory for the wider walking public. True, making full use of this new access has got off to a slow start, and the full benefit might not be felt for a generation or two as new routes get established and more and more walkers are brought up in this Brave New World, but it has had the effect of laying to rest the lie spread by some disingenuous landowners that “their” land would be immediately overrun by thousands of havoc-wreaking litter louts with nothing but disrespect for the countryside.
Buoyed by the success of CRoW, the Ramblers then swung their campaign efforts behind the debate that has culminated in the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, another victory in the battle to allow us the public access to it’s own countryside. Of course quite a substantial proportion of the coastline is already accessible – the South West Coast Path, the Norfolk Coast Path and around half of the Cleveland Way, for example, are National Trails with a significant coastal presence, and there are hundreds and hundreds of miles of other equally renowned if less celebrated routes. However, this Act paves the way for gaps between these existing paths to be infilled, connecting into one continuous route.
The arguments for the creation of the England Coast Path – indeed any major new route – are well known. Every £1 invested in their creation brings back several times that amount in tourist spending, boosting local businesses and providing work in areas often devoid of other income opportunities. That’s before considering the benefits to the economy to be gained from a healthier population, incoming tourism and the increased opportunity for cash-strapped families to enjoy a damned good, low cost holiday.
On the face of it, this all seems wonderful. However, those of you who know me know there’s a “but” coming, don’t you?
But – and for me, it’s a big “but” – in all my time chatting with fellow hikers, reading blogs and posting on forums, I haven’t once come across anyone really gunning for this route. In fact I’ll go even further than that – I haven’t heard a single comment in support of the project at all.
Now that’s not to say there’s been a slew of negative criticism, there hasn’t. But despite all the positive benefits of the scheme outlined above, overt support across the walking fraternity seems somewhat underwhelming. Admittedly that is often the case with anything new. Even so, there is usually a small but vocal contingent to be found relishing the prospect of a new opportunity; one not in evidence here as far as I can see.
At a time when money for the ROW network is in short supply and many authorities are facing cutbacks to staffing and funding levels, is it right that significant sums are directed at a project with – I suspect – limited real support amongst walkers?
When our ROW network is increasingly under threat from militant landowners trying to overturn hard-won access rights, and when the Government is potentially undermining existing protection of the network in their so-called “war on red tape,” is it right to be looking to a major new project like this, and all that it entails, instead of ensuring that which we already have is properly protected and walkable?
With the huge pressure currently being applied from all quarters to the valuable resource that is our countryside from the planners – new housing stock, wind farms, transport infrastructure, etc – would that financial resource be better utilised preserving those under threat areas we already have?
At a time when the bodies on which we rely to look after the outdoor Crown Jewels are being seriously under funded and under resourced, I feel these are genuine concerns, and there is a real risk that if we as a walking community take our eye off the ball too much all we will be doing is creating a new prospect at the expense of the old. Are you really prepared to swap proper protection of the Peak District (such as the proposed sell-off of The Roaches by the impecunious PDNP, for example) for the creation of a bit of coastal path between a chemical plant and an oil refinery that few, if any, will ever use? Is that a call you want to make? I’m not trying to be over-dramatic here, just that it might actually come to that.
Don’t get me wrong; I think that an England Coast Path is an admirable objective that will add much to the cache of the National Trail network and, eventually, massively improve access to the coast for everyone. And I’m not saying that the Ramblers are misguided in any way – after all, they do a lot hard work maintaining paths, working for the good walkers and campaigning on important issues. I’m just saying, in this case, I am not a supporter of this particular profligate project at a time of hardship for the network and those that protect our special places, although I understand the political expediency of the situation.
What I am questioning, though, is whether it is the right thing at the right time?