The challenge of ownership of a place by the sea

People who have property or land on or near the coast, as well as professionals, e.g. land agents who have clients who have (or desire) land by the coast, should be aware of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 and the impact it may well have on their property.

The Act provides, among other things, for coastal access and the creation of a continuous route around the English and Welsh coastline. This will include areas of spreading room seaward of the path (and maybe landward as well).

The challenge for Natural England (NE) – the body responsible for implementing the new coastal path provisions – is to strike a fair balance between the need to satisfy the criteria of the Act on the one hand, and the interests of land management, property ownership, and privacy, on the other. Anyone who has coastal property will be given notice by NE and a date for a site meeting. It is essential to attend the meeting and to discuss with NE the likely options for the route of the new path.

Landowners will wish to avoid the path going through their property if at all possible, but it may not be possible to avoid this. The temptation might be to seek to put the path more inland. However, that may not be wise in view of the provisions about spreading room. Effectively, everything seaward of the path will be spreading room, save for Excepted Land, so the further inland the path, the more potential spreading room there will be. The Excepted Land list is important, and needs to be looked at in detail.

Various works may need to be installed, such as proper signage, handrails, provisions to prevent erosion, and you should negotiate these with NE if you can. It will also be important to discuss the practical implications of potential public liability. There is statutory protection for occupiers in these circumstances to limit liability, including liability arising from all physical features of the landscape. What will not be covered by these exceptions is where the danger is due to something done by the occupier with the intention of creating the risk or being reckless as to whether the risk is created. A wise land manager should take sensible steps to warn walkers of potential risks. You should also check your public liability insurance cover.

As in many other things, prudence, forethought and vigilance are of paramount importance, as is a sensible dialogue with NE with a view to negotiating a mutually agreeable solution, and the need to take specialist advice.

West Country solicitor Jonathan Cheal is a public rights of way specialist whose services are in demand across the country on topics which can be a minefield for farmers and landowners alike. Jonathan works with Mogers Drewett which has offices in Bath, Sherborne and Wells. He also regularly attends market days at Frome Livestock Market.

Mogers Drewett

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