Durdle Door closure puts coastal right to roam in tatters
Durdle Door is at the centre of row over public access on the Dorset Jurassic Coast.
The government 'right to roam' agreement has fallen apart within months and sparked an acrimonious row between one of the region’s major landowners and the Government agency responsible.
The dispute centres around the main route to one of the region’s most iconic landmarks – Durdle Door on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset – which has now been closed off for the first time in living memory in a row over rights, responsibility, insurance and cash.
The beach, cliffs, the arch itself and large parts of nearby Lulworth and its famous cove are owned by the Weld family at the Lulworth Estate. Last year the estate was one of the signatories to the first Coastal Access agreement in the country as part of the new 2009 Coastal Access law, which sought to open up the nation’s coastline to the public in the same way as the even more controversial Labour Government’s ‘right to roam’ Act did in the early 2000s.
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Lulworth Estate and the Government agency responsible, Natural England, agreed on an area to be designated as part of the Coastal Access law that centres on the existing South West Coast Path, which runs at the top of the cliffs.
But now James Weld says the steps from the path down to the beach at Durdle Door will not be repaired this winter and will be closed off because he claims the change in the law means the estate will be liable for any accidents that take place.
Mr Weld said: “We’ve always maintained the steps. We have half a million visitors a year, and we’ve always been responsible. But the difference now is that Natural England have imposed on this area that we have to open it, but are not willing to put their money where their mouth is.”
Mr Weld said that even though the Lulworth Estate has always opened the area before, it was their choice to do so. Now they have been ordered to do so by the Access Act, they feel Natural England should contribute to the maintenance.
“They have taken on all this responsibility but don’t have the resources to do the job,” he added. “The consequence of the introduction of the Coastal Access Scheme at Lulworth and other places like Lulworth will be to significantly reduce the quality of access, particularly because Natural England do not have the resources, experience or ability to effectively manage popular and much visited sites such as Lulworth; sadly, within the few short months since confirmation of the scheme at Lulworth, this has been proven to be the case.
“So while safe access to the beaches is still possible it is unlikely to be as convenient as before as I cannot see that Natural England have the resources or the willingness to continue the level of management and maintenance that the estate has striven to provide up to now.”
The Lulworth Estate has ‘offered’ the services of its three wardens, who repair paths and steps right across the estate, but Natural England’s budget of just £17,000 to cover maintenance of a bigger stretch of coastline compares with the £45,000 the Lulworth Estates pays every year to maintain its part.
A spokesman for Natural England said the Lulworth Estate still had responsibility and management for the land it owned, and the Coastal Access Act had not changed anything. “Natural England and the Lulworth Estate have been in close and regular contact over implementation of coastal access in this area. Contrary to Mr Weld’s statement, the legislation does not take land away from landowners or interfere with their freedom to manage it. Durdle Door beach still belongs to the Lulworth Estate, and is managed alongside the estate’s nearby holiday park, generating revenue from visitors to the park and more widely. The estate has always maintained the steps down onto the beach and remains able to do so now.
“Previously, Dorset County Council – not Natural England – has worked with the Lulworth Estate to rebuild the Durdle Door steps each year, repairing damage caused by erosion. The steps to the beach are not part of the coastal path. The county council helps to maintain the coast path with financial support from Natural England,” she added.
Mr Weld said Natural England’s response was ‘disingenuous’. “No one is suggesting our land has been taken away. But the steps are now part of this Access Agreement and our position is that because Natural England have included them as being open to the public, they should contribute to their maintenance,” he said.