MP Dan Rogerson critical of coastal path progress
A Government minister has criticised Labour's economic legacy for the "slow" progress in creating a continuous footpath around England's coastline.
Dan Rogerson, the new Environment Minister and a Cornwall MP, admitted there is no deadline to give walkers the right to roam along almost 2,500 miles of coast, a move that upset many estates, parks and homeowners overlooking the sea.
But he said Labour's 2019 target was little more than a "finger in the wind", and that the previous Government's handling of the economy meant "there's no money left" and that his department had to make priorities.
However, he said the Government is still "very much committed" to the England Coastal Path, which would include opening up long stretches of the South West coastline, on a "section-by-section" basis.
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To date, only a 14-mile stretch around Weymouth, Dorset, has been completed, and six other stretches – including two in the South West – are in progress.
Mr Rogerson was speaking to the Western Morning News in a wide-ranging interview to mark his recent appointment in the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
The North Cornwall MP, whose responsibilities include water, rural affairs and forestry, defended the Government's deal to ensure cheap insurance for flood risk properties, and said ministers were providing "political cover" to the water regulator to get tough over spiralling bills.
Building a coastal trail under the Marine and Coastal Access Act, which is being Natural England overseen by the Natural England quango, is also within his remit.
Mr Rogerson praises the South West Coast Path – 630 miles running from Minehead in Somerset, along the coasts of Devon and Cornwall, to Poole in Dorset – as a great success.
But it is based on old legislation, which means if the route disappears "you have to start from scratch", whereas the Marine and Coastal Access Act would effectively guarantee the route forever.
He said: "It's slow progress, but there's progress. Something we have to look at is the fact that the department has to deal with the budgets it has got. As someone famously said there's no money left.
"The department is prioritising flood defences."
Asked on the time-scale for completion, he said: "We don't have a deadline for it.The previous Government mentioned 2019, but they didn't put the money there to do it.
"We've got to do it on a section-by-section basis. And work to getting there. But we are very much committed to doing it and seeing that work continue."
The Water Bill is shortly to make its passage through Parliament, which will be the MP's first major piece of legislation he has handled.
Its centrepiece is a deal finally struck by the Government with business to provide insurance to properties in danger of flooding.
The new insurance scheme – known as Flood Re – caps flood insurance premiums, so a householder in the average band D property will pay no more than an estimated £800.
In turn, all householders with insurance will continue to pay a £10.50 levy into a fund to be used to pay claims for people at a high risk of flooding. But small businesses and new-build homes are not covered, which has drawn criticism.
Mr Rogerson said the exclusion of new-build properties is supposed to discourage developers from building on flood plains.
He says Flood Re has been a "key objective of the Government" as Labour "left us with something that was about to expire without a clear pathway to doing something". But he indicated tweaks were possible.
He said: "I think we need to be very careful about sending out a signal that, yes, it's fine we'll carry on underwriting that (building on flood plains) forever.
"But we'll listen to what people have to say. If there's a strong argument that's made - I haven't heard it yet - that might be something we revisit."
But he added: "We want to make sure there is a fair outcome that gives reasonable premiums to people that are in this system, without piling huge costs on everybody else paying into the system through their insurance premiums."
Water companies have come under fire from politicians in recent weeks amid parties aiming to take the lead on the cost of living "crisis". Water charges in the Westcountry remain the highest in the country despite a £50 per households state subsidy.
He said: "As long as we can continue to deliver investment and resilience, we don't want to see bills going up unnecessarily. That is now a matter for (water regulator) Ofwat to get under the skin of all the companies in their negotiations with companies and what they come back with to see if they can deliver that. "