The North East is making excellent progress in the creation of its share of a 4,500km coastal path around England.
Today sees the official opening ceremony in Seaham in County Durham of the first stretch of the coastal path since a one-off length in Weymouth in 2012 to coincide with Olympic sailing events.
The 55km County Durham route connects Hartlepool and Sunderland, and is being opened in conjunction with a 36km length from Whitehaven to Allonby in Cumbria.
It is hoped that the Natural England costal path in the North East will be completed in the next six years.
For County Durham, the path is the latest piece in the jigsaw to reclaim its coast which began with the Turning the Tide project in 1996.
That tackled a century of tipping coal waste from coastal collieries onto the beaches and improvements to access to the shore.
It is estimated that the Turning the Tide coastal improvements support 1,200 jobs in the visitor economy, while 130,000 walkers a year now use a 15km coast path from Seaham to Crimdon.
A total of 18km of the County Durham shore is now designated as Heritage Coastline and other parts are cared for by the National Trust.
Andrew Best, Natural England senior coastal path adviser for the North of England, said: “The attitude of the local authorities we have worked with – Hartlepool, Durham County Council and Sunderland – has been fantastic.
“The coastal path links two important maritime centres in Hartlepool and Sunderland and will help to regenerate areas which have suffered from a loss of industry over decades.
“While this has caused economic hardship, it has allowed the area to reinvent itself as a visitor attraction. This is something to which the England coastal path can contribute by bringing in walkers and visitors.
“I think it will make a big difference to the area and will also link communities along the coast.”
The coastal path is a national trail with the same status as routes such as the Pennine Way.
There is a right of access to the sea from the path except where there are barriers such as railways docks or housing.
Although Natural England has a statutory duty to create the path, Andrew said: “Nine times out of 10 there is a happy compromise reached with landowners.”
It is expected that work will start at the end of next year on the stretch from Sunderland to Amble in Northumberland.
Niall Benson, Durham Heritage Coast officer, says that the coastal path will at last replace a route between Seaham and Hendon which was washed away years ago.
It will reconnect communities at Hendon, Grangetown and Ryhope to the sea.
“It is one more step forward for the County Durham coast. I have to thank all the farmers, landowners and managers along the route for the use of their land for the course of the path. This is a key contribution and much appreciated,” said Niall.
Jim Smyllie, Natural England’s executive director, said: “This path will provide permanent, secure and improved rights for walkers and other users to enjoy some of the most fascinating and striking coastline in England.”
Landowers slam coastal path plan
The Country Land and Business Association in the North is accusing Natural England of wasting taxpayers’ money in the run-up to the opening of the first North East section of the coastal path.
The CLA claims that not only is there adequate access to the coast already provided between Allonby and Whitehaven in Cumbria and Hartlepool and Sunderland in the North East, but the Government agency has also mishandled the management of the scheme.
CLA North regional director Dorothy Fairburn said: “Natural England’s own figures state that more than four fifths of the coast is already accessible to the public.
“Of the remaining 16%, only half could be accessed, because ports, harbours, military bases or sites of crucial conservation cover the other half.
“In these straitened times when the Government is trying to cut public expenditure, it is misguided to spend millions of pounds replicating access that already exists.
“If the Government wants to spend money on the coast, then it would be better spent on improving the facilities already on the established coastal paths such as maintenance, signs, toilets and car parks.”
The CLA says that if the Government was concerned about saving taxpayers’ money it could have used existing legislation to create the path, rather than use what it says are overly complex new laws under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009.
Miss Fairburn said: “So far, Natural England has delivered just 20 miles of English coastal path at a cost in excess of £5m, whereas the Welsh government achieved an 870-mile complete coast path in a shorter timescale and at a cost of less than £10m to the taxpayer.
“This is because instead of using the new complicated legislation, it used existing laws for creating public rights of way under the Highways Act 1980.”