Giving everyone the right to roam along England’s coastline might sound admirable in principle, but this notion, proposed in the Government’s draft Marine and Coastal Access Bill, is proving unpopular with homeowners with private beaches, who would have to open up their shorelines to ramblers and day trippers, as well as the plain nosy (Town and Country, June 18).

The idea of granting more access to parts of the countryside is not new. In 2000, the Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act was introduced to allow the public to walk on open country (mainly mountains, moors, heath and downland), and the Government is still mapping relevant areas for a new Rights of Way Act. Landowners can deny access in certain circumstances, such as when land is designated a nature preserve or there are safety issues, points out Saskia Arthur from law firm Boodle Hatfield.

A high-profile case involved Madonna objecting to the public wandering on her 1,200-acre Wiltshire estate. But extending the right to roam along our coastline, including beaches, cliffs, rocks and dunes, might be a step too far. ‘With 70% of the coastline already accessible, do we really need improved access to the other 30%?’ asks Mrs Arthur. ‘It will be very upsetting if you own a lovely coastal property and you’re forced to allow strangers onto your land. You could be liable for their safety.’

Being sued if your over-friendly pet bounds up to a nervous uninvited rambler is only one problem in a Bill that hasn’t been thought through, argues Michael Bapty, who runs Knight Frank’s marine-consultancy department. ‘Natural England, which is carrying out consultation for the Government, has suggested landowners should be offered aid rather than the usual direct compensation under the 1961 and 1973 Land Compensation Acts. Failure to make adequate provision for landowners smacks of land seize and could even be breaching property law.’

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee, an independent watchdog, believes the Marine Bill should ‘strike a fair balance’ between public-access rights and those of landowners. In addition, a recent report from EFRA sees the lack of formal appeal for landowners as a ‘fundamental weakness’. In the event that compensation is awarded to affected homeowners, according to the recent agreement by a Parliamentary committee, the question arises of how to estimate its loss in value.

The likely onus is on the owner. Mr Bapty says the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (www.rics.org) suggests property could lose 20% of its worth, ‘but it’s difficult to put a finger on it without precendents. A really beautiful £5-million beachside house could drop by £1 million.’ Architectural designer John Fell-Clark, owner of a 19th-century Martello tower in Bawdsey, Suffolk, for the past 23 years, is caught between clashing Government policies.

His coastal tower is beside a badly eroded shoreline that was damaged by gales in 1997. He finds it paradoxical that one Government department wants to open up coastal areas, but another is leaving the crumbling coast to fall into the sea rather than spending money on sea defences. ‘Our shingle beach has been completely destroyed, and the exposed clay cliffs are extremely vulnerable. If a 10m strip is required for a path, this makes a nonsense of the Bill. The public would be better served if alternative inland routes were explored.’ Concerned owners should check their boundaries.

‘There might be an old hedge bank on the edge of the property. If you put a fence up, there will be no argument,’ says Mike Pennington, an associate director with Savills in Exeter. ‘If you have informal gardens with no definitive boundaries, they could be included as part of the coastal strip.’ Make your voice heard, says Sarah Lee, the Countryside Alliance’s head of policy. She wants anxious homeowners to register their concerns with their MPs and contact the CA
(www.countryside-alliance.org).Also, they can post their comments on the Government’s website(www.countrysideaccess.gov.uk).

Perhaps the English Government could learn from the Coastal Access Improvement Programme funded by the Welsh National Assembly, in which local authorities are already negotiating with individual landowners and offering them compensation when necessary. ‘It’s based on land values, and will be a rate per metre,’ explains Sarah Andrews of the CLA (www.cla.org.uk).