North Norfolk’s coastal concerns put to environment minister Richard Benyon

Campaigners battling protective 'no-go' zones on the north Norfolk coast have been reassured by an environment minister's pledge to protect traditional shoreline activities when he reviews the proposals.

Defra minister Richard Benyon met a delegation led by North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb yesterday to discuss the potential impact of Natural England's plans to establish Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs).

The proposals, aimed at protecting vulnerable eco-systems, include a number of reference areas (RAs) where human interference would be restricted.

Two are located within the inlet to Blakeney harbour, where widespread concerns have been raised about the possible impact on centuries-old traditions like sailing, wildfowling, bait digging and fishing – and the knock-on effect to the local economy.

Villagers said they were furious to have been excluded from the stakeholder consultations on which the recommendations were based.

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Mr Benyon acknowledged the consultation process could have been flawed, but he said he would wait for reports from nature authorities before deciding if the proposals would go forward to a public consultation.

Mr Benyon said: 'I do not want to restrict access to the foreshore, or to prevent things like samphire collecting, wildfowling and dog walking. It is quite the reverse. I want to see more of that.

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'Firstly I will have a chance to review the information given to us, and then local people will be able to have a say. There are many steps to go and I want to reassure people that no decisions have been made and I have heard the message loud and clear from the communities of Blakeney and Morston, which I know well, and I want to make sure that the good work they have done to protect the foreshore continues.'

The minister said he expected to see environmental impact assessments in the summer, after which a public consultation would be planned for later in the year.

'Whether this proposal gets as far as that, I don't know. There may be information we can share before then, but I want to see what the statutory nature protection bodies are saying and take a decision in a sensible way, not just based on the back of one meeting.'

Mr Benyon also heard concerns that opinions from Blakeney and Morston were not gathered when the draft plans were formed.

'I recognise that no system is perfect,' he said. 'The stakeholder groups involved a lot of people from a lot of different groups, but they did not include everyone. If there was not enough consultation with local people then there was clearly a flaw somewhere along the line. The most important thing is that this decision remains here for ministers to take, when we have all the facts and there will be a very genuine public consultation.'

The delegation led by Mr Lamb included parish council chairmen from Blakeney and Morston, district and county councillors and John Sizer, National Trust manager for the Norfolk coast.

Mr Lamb said: 'These proposals have attracted an astonishing level of public opposition. I didn't expect a decision from the minister today, but he made it clear that he did not want these zones to interfere with the traditional rights that we talked about. That clear statement from him was, I think, very encouraging.

'We spoke with one voice to say the process was flawed and that if public authorities are going to interfere with individuals' rights there has got to be an overwhelming reason for doing it. And there is not one here.

'We don't want these sites to go into the consultation process. My view is that this plan is so flawed and completely without support locally that it should be resolved now rather than leaving the uncertainty dragging on throughout the year.'

Tony Faulkner, chairman of Blakeney Parish Council, said: 'The imposition of 'no-go' reference areas within Blakeney Harbour could have a devastating effect on the long-shore economy, the tourist trade, and local businesses dependant on the use of the harbour for fishing, seal watching, boating and the like.'

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