Joy as government drops plan to create Blakeney ‘no-go zone’

Norfolk people power has forced the government to drop a plan to make an area of beautiful coastal land a no-go zone for locals and visitors.

People in and around Blakeney feared 'devastation' to centuries of working and walking around the harbour and marshes if a section was made into a controversial Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) reference area.

The move - designed to let scientists study areas without human interference - prompted a 2,000-strong petition and a concerted campaign from angry local people.

And the hard work has paid off, with the news that the Blakeney marshes reference area has been dropped.

The official announcement from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) was that reference areas - including the one proposed at Blakeney - would 'not be taken forward in their current form'. It added that a 'fresh look' would be taken at the areas.

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But the EDP has learnt that the proposed area at Blakeney has been completely dropped - thanks in no small part to the relentless pressure put on natural environment minister Richard Benyon.

Mr Benyon was in March handed the 2,000-name petition, and he has been strongly lobbied by North Norfolk MP and fellow coalition government minister Norman Lamb.

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Mr Lamb said: 'I'm certain that the Blakeney reference area has been dropped - and that it will not be looked at again.

'I've got a very clear indication that we should take it very seriously.'

'The people of Blakeney played a massive part. We've collectively made a very strong case to Mr Benyon and he has listened.'

It is understood that Mr Benyon has also had his ear bent by a friend of his who lives in the Blakeney area.

Mr Lamb said: 'I don't think there is another reference area in the country that has been brought so much and so strongly to the minister's attention.'

The area is used by sailors, bait diggers, winkle pickers, fishermen, samphire pickers, walkers and wildfowlers - all of whom feared their livelihoods and lifestyles would have been harmed by the designation of a reference area.

A spokesman for Blakeney Wildfowlers' Association said: 'This information has lifted the spirits of all the Blakeney wildfowling members, and all the campaigning local communities here on this little stretch of the north Norfolk coast, which would have been affected.

'Such a small community has come together to form a big voice. This area has been managed and preserved by the local community for generations, and is already a highly protected area six times over.'

Bait digger, samphire picker, winkle picker and crab fisherman Willie Weston said: 'It was well worth the fight, but we'll have to remain on our guard.

'It means that people will be able to do what I've been able to do all my life. My son will be able to keep walking around the harbour and the marshes like I have.

'They keep taking things away, but not this time.'

He added: 'We don't just dig everything up, we preserve it - and we have shown that we know how to look after the marshes.'

Blakeney Parish Council chairman Tony Faulkner, who has been among the leaders of opposition to the Blakeney Harbour reference area, said he did not want to commit himself until he had 'absolute certainty' that the plan would not be revisited.

But he said: 'I'm enormously relieved that it is not in the first phase for consultation.'

He added: 'We just want access to the harbour. This plan would have been devastating. We do not think it is justified to keep a bit of marsh for scientists to pick around on.

'They don't need to produce an exclusion zone.'

County councillor and campaigner Dr Marie Strong said: 'The news that common sense has prevailed will be a profound relief to the many supporters of Blakeney marshes.

'The marshes are a wonderful natural resource much loved by many people across Norfolk - and as such are protected, not simply by six protection orders but by local people working alongside the Natural Trust.

'There was simply no reason to zone off any part of the marsh. The only outcome would have been a negative impact on traditional activities - some of which provide an income, many of which give pleasure to Norfolk residents and visitors.'

Despite her joy, Dr Strong warned: 'We are not going to go away and we don't want to hear even the slightest hint about this again. If we do, we will be onto them instantly.

'Their research was appalling and there was never any reason for this to happen.'

The government is pressing ahead with its plans to consult on the creation of 31 MCZs, comprising 10,900km sq of marine habitat - or an area three times the size of Cornwall.

They include the Cromer shoal chalk beds, about 200m offshore and spanning the coastline from Happisburgh to Weybourne. It is part of the longest chalk reef in Europe, where small whales, porpoises and seals are often seen, along with other sightings like sunfish and basking sharks. The designation is meant to give added protection to the UK's rich marine environment.

But the reference areas, which would have particularly stringent protection, will not go forward for this round of consultation.

In Norfolk, the reference areas in and around Blakeney are:

? RA1 - North Norfolk mussel beds

? RA2a - Seahorse lagoon

? RA2b - Arnold's marsh

? RA3 - Glaven reedbed

? RA4 - Blakeney marsh

? RA5 - Blakeney seagrass

There are two in the inner Wash:

? Dogs Head sandbanks

? Seahenge peat and clay.

Launching the consultation, Mr Benyon said: 'The UK has one of the world's richest marine environments, and we need to make sure it stays that way. This is why we are creating a network of marine protected areas.

'We have to get this right. Designating the right sites in the right places, so that our seas are sustainable, productive and healthy, and to ensure that the right balance is struck between conservation and industry.'

Subject to consultation, the MCZs will be designated in 2013.

Designating MCZs to contribute to a network of Marine Protected Areas is a government commitment under the marine and coastal access act 2009 to ensure that the marine environment is protected for years to come.

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