Busybodies on the Solent coast

Some unwelcome news, which I fear will have implications for the project to create an England Coast Path, which is meant to be complete in around 2020.

Some new EU laws drempt up by bureaucrats in Brussels have some concerning implications for coastal access. New European Habitat Regulation has been written into the EU law and as a result the UK must comply.

To quote from the FAQ on the official website (I have added bold where I thought it relevant):-

The Solent coast is internationally important for its wildlife, with 90,000 waders and over 10 per cent of the global population of Brent Geese. The three Special Protection Areas – Chichester & Langstone Harbours SPA, Portsmouth Harbour SPA, and Solent & Southampton Water SPA – were designated primarily to protect these waders and wildfowl, many of which travel thousands of miles to over-winter on the Solent. The additional population from the building of new homes will mean an increase in recreational activity at the coast. Recreational activity such as people walking, cycling and jogging, and the presence of dogs, often disturbs the birds. Disturbance reduces the birds’ opportunities to feed which can mean they have insufficient energy to survive the winter or to complete their migratory journey to their breeding sites, leading to a reduction in the bird population.

The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010 (known as the ‘Habitats Regulations’) set out how Local Planning Authorities must deal with planning applications that have potential to impact on Special Protection Areas and other European protected sites. The legislation says that local planning authorities must not grant consent for a development that would, either alone or in-combination with other developments, have a likely significant effect on a European protected site, unless full mitigation is provided. Over 2,400 new homes are planned to be built each year around the Solent – cumulatively these could have a considerable impact on the three Special Protection Areas, with each new home contributing to that cumulative impact. One of these potential impacts is increased recreational activity at the coast resulting from population increases associated with the new homes.

Research has confirmed that any new residential development around the three Solent Special Protection Areas is likely to have a significant effect on the SPAs due to the additional coastal recreation which will result from the new housing.

You would think therefore that not adding ever more houses to an already densley populated area might be the answer. But sadly this is not the approach being taken.

Instead what is going to happen is that for every new dwelling within 5.6KM of the coast in the area (including holiday accommodation, student accommodation or sub-dividing existing properties) a contribution of £174 is required (As an aside I’m glad I didn’t have to sit in the meeting where the 5.6KM figure was arrived at!)

One of the things this is going to pay for is “a team of rangers who will work on the ground to reduce disturbance by influencing the behaviour of visitors”. To quote from a news release by the partnership today:-

People who are walking along the shore can, often unintentionally, disturb the birds. So local authorities and conservation bodies are working together – through the recently formed Solent Recreation Mitigation Partnership – to prevent that disturbance.

Through funding from developers in association with planning permissions for new housing, the Partnership has established a team of rangers who will talk to visitors at the coast to help them understand how they can enjoy their walk without disturbing the birds.

Each day the rangers will be at different sections of the Solent coast – between Hurst Castle near Lymington and West Wittering, including Chichester, Portsmouth and Langstone Harbours, and on the Isle of Wight coast between Colwell (near Freshwater) and Bembridge.

Whilst this is likely good news for the birds it does mean these rangers are going to be employed to discourage the public from walking on the areas frequented by birds, which are generally those away from urban areas, which has the potential to impact on people walking the coast and therefore the England coast path. At the moment I do not believe they have any legal powers to prevent you from walking on the coast – but that might change if disturbance to the birds increases (though quite how that is measured I’ve no idea).

The problem is that without any legal powers I would question the effectiveness of the rangers. People do not like being told they should not go to places they have been going to for years. Even if they do work there is a question mark over funding. If each additional property adds to the disturbance, but the rangers that are meant to mitigate it are funded from a one-off (rather than annual) fee on new developments this means funding for them is dependent on building more new dwellings every year. And presumably as the numbers of homes rise, so to do does the population and therefore the risk of disturbance and hence presumably the number of rangers needed. So I suspect the cost of these rangers is likely to be funded in other ways in future. I suspect therefore we will see this cost picked up by increases in taxation (perhaps only locally) or other measures such as new or higher parking charges. If that doesn’t work we might then see the closure of car parks in remoter parts of the coast, making coastal access more difficult or perhaps road tolls or permit schemes, which are not likely to be popular.

In addition without any legal powers if the rangers are not effective, we are again likely to see other mesasures designed to reduce the numbers of people visiting and walking along the coast, because I suspect the laws will be backed up by fines from the EU. This could lead to more (mandatory) restrictuons on access to the coast. For example making access more difficult by closing car parks, introudcing or increasing parking charges, seasonal restrictions, closing roads and footpaths, requiring visitors apply for permits etc. None of which is something I would welcome.

I think though there is another impact. Much of the coast along the Solent and in the New Forest in particular has very poor access with no paths or roads along the coast, making public access impossible other than by boat. The England Coast Path is meant to improve access to the coast by creating a new coastal path. I had hoped therefore that this would lead to an improved route through the New Forest, particularly the coast between Lymington and Calshot which has no footpath or even road access along almost all of it’s length. The same is true of much of the northern coast of the Isle of Wight, where the existing coast path is actually some distance inland for much of it’s length.But a new coast path encourages more people to the coast and hence causes more disturbance to the birds. The EU has deeemed this is not allowed. So in my opinion this new EU law has likely put an end to the possibility of a new coastal path through the New Forest and along the northern coast of the Isle of Wight. It perhaps also puts at risk some existing coastal paths (such as the Solent Way to Hurst castle or around Keyhaven marshes). The same could also happen in other areas of the coast.

The Solent Way already provides a coastal path for much of the mainland Solent coast, but there are a lot of areas where it heads some distance inland, particularly in the New Forest where the stretch between Lymington and Hythe heads miles inland via Beaulieu and baffingly (to me, anyway) has been routed along the busy B3054 for much of it’s length despite most of the land alongside the road being open access heathland. The risk now is that the powers that be simply re-name this existing and rather poor path route the England Coast Path and can handily pass the blame for not getting any better access onto the EU. I hope that I am proved wrong. Time will tell.

There are other daft laws the EU is pushing for including changes to the copyright law relating to photography, specificually standardising the law across the EU member states. This could mean it would be illegal to publish photos of buildings which are subject to copyright (so called Freedom of Panorama). As that article shows, this would cover much of the London skyline. This copyright does not currently apply in in the UK, but does in other countries such as France. As the article shows the law in the UK is already more liberal than the vast majority of EU member states, so any attempt to harmonise the laws would likely mean more restrictions in the UK. That could mean for example if a building subject to copyright was built on the coast, it would be illegal to publish photos that included that building. As you have seen I take an awful lot of photographs so I don’t welcome anything that means I might end up getting sued or asked to delete photos simply because a copyrighted building is in the picture. Can these EU bureaucrats not leave us along for a minute?

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