The government has denied it has plans to curtail the England Coast Path project after the minister responsible said it might not be a high priority.
The plan to create a well- marked walking trail around the whole of the English coast – around 5,581 miles long – was part of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009.
Natural England is responsible for creating the England Coast Path but campaigners fear there is no timetable for mapping the route and work such as the installation of gates and steps has yet to be completed.
Supporters believe the coastal trail will bring tourism and economic benefits but some landowners have resisted opening up their land.
Last month environment minister Richard Benyon added to ramblers’ concerns when he cast doubt on the future of what he called “expensive” schemes inherited from the previous Labour government, adding: “The Coastal Access Bill was a sledgehammer to miss a nut.”
But a spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs insisted the government would continue with the path.
Ramblers have been voluntarily organising surveys of coastlines. Tom Halstead has co-ordinated efforts by East Yorkshire and Derwent Ramblers to map over 100 miles of coastline from North Teesside down to the Humber estuary.
Halstead said much of the northern section, from Saltburn- by-the-Sea to Filey Brigg, is already fully accessible and well used. “But there are virtually no rights of way along the coast from Bridlington to Humberside,” he added. “People do walk the coast as there are paths, but no one who sets out from Bridlington can be sure how far they can walk before they are forced to turn back or make a big detour inland. People regularly complain about obstacles preventing them enjoying walking the coastal areas.”
Natural England has recently completed coastal works south of Whitby at Ravenscar. There has been approval for stretches further up the coast, between North Gare and South Bents, and in Cumbria between Allonby and Whitehaven. A DEFRA spokesperson said: “The aim is to have both open to the public in 2014.”
Halstead said: “I’m delighted about the new plans, but DEFRA needs to confirm an exact timetable for all works to be completed, especially as the Welsh coastal path was completed last year and is now bringing significant economic benefits to the country.”
According to the Welsh Assembly the path was walked by 2.8 million people last year, brought in an additional £16 million to the Welsh economy and has put Wales on the map as a major tourist destination.
New coastal paths from Silecroft on the Cumbrian coast right down to the Welsh border on the River Dee and towards Berwick from Tynemouth have the potential to boost tourism on both of northern England’s coasts. But Halstead fears the Conservatives, “who opposed the now extremely popular rights of way legislation introduced under Labour, are more likely to listen to landowners and the National Farmers Union, both of whom have philosophical objections to anyone except landowners accessing land”.
He added: “Let’s hope not in this case.”
The DEFRA spokesperson accepted that the Wales Coast Path has been an economic success and said: “We have already helped thousands of people to better enjoy our spectacular coastline and that is why we are continuing the programme so that more residents, visitors and businesses can benefit.”