…visitors to the Country Park face being criminalised for harmless activities such as wandering off the path, and picking blackberries…
By Bernard McGinley
New bylaws are proposed by Hastings Borough Council (HBC) for the Country Park to replace those that have been in force since 1974.
This process began slowly in 2014-15 and is now a matter of great urgency for the council.
On February 12th HBC refused at the full council meeting to defer sending the new Country Park proposed bylaws to central government for approval.
They were asked by the Friends of the Country Park and by Councillor Dany Louise to clarify the basis for the new proposals, especially, “Restriction of Access” affecting 40 per cent of the Country Park. The Chief Legal Officer said the only options were to accept or reject the proposed bylaws, but this was not the case. (See the Rules of Debate: Paragraph 16.10 e. of the Council Constitution, Part 4.) They could have deferred a decision in order to clarify the situation.
Issues include why fields were henceforth to be closed to access all year round rather than seasonally – for crops or the nesting season, for example and why the evidence for the need for these changes was not provided.
The future of solar farms in the Country Park also remains a live and very controversial controversy.
As well as misdirection and a rarefied sense of ‘full public consultation’ – even the Friends weren’t notified – there were other breaches of the council constitution, procedurally questionable manœuvres, map-switching and a flouting of the Nolan Principles.
The proposed bylaws were approved and now await approval by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA). Objections can be made until Friday March 13th. Objections to the proposed Country Park bylaws can be made to: Protected.Areas@defra.gov.uk or by writing to their Bristol office.
The council’s sudden haste was a mystery until late February. Then Natural England, the government’s independent adviser on environmental matters, announced the new part of the England Coast Path – Eastbourne to Camber.
Section EBC 5 goes from the Old Town to Pett Level, through the Country Park. The Coast Path has with it a coastal margin, between the path and the sea, and a presumption of right to roam. Some of the coastal margin is in areas designated for ‘Restriction of Access’.
A clear conflict arises. HBC’s proposed bylaws require people to keep to ‘right of way’ paths in some parts, including some parts of the coastal margin. Natural England, broadly, allows the right to roam.
Who trumps who here? If the bylaws are approved and go ‘live’ before the Coast Path can be approved, what then? Who gives way?
Changes to bylaws are possible, through negotiation in East Sussex County Council’s Local Access Forum (LAF), but pre-existing arrangements – even if pre-existing by just a few weeks – might not be changeable, perhaps. This remains a legal conundrum, as yet untested and it would probably be more easily resolved if the Secretary of State asked HBC to resubmit the proposed bylaws on a more detailed and less procedurally dubious basis.
Comments on Natural England’s path proposals don’t close until April 23rd. For the bylaws however, Friday March 13th – just six days away – is the deadline to ask the Secretary of State to refuse to approve the proposed bylaws.
Otherwise future visitors to the Country Park face being criminalised for harmless activities such as wandering off the path, and picking blackberries, that the 1974 bylaws did not even mention.