The Government’s official body on outdoor matters today recommended the setting up of a 4,500km-long access corridor around England’s coast.

Natural England, which was set up last autumn, says there should be a new law to ensure public access to the country’s beaches and coastline. At present, it is not possible to walk along large stretches of the English coast.

Natural England’s (NE) board agreed proposals put to it that the Government should introduce a new Act to allow public access. Sir Martin Doughty, chair of NE, said: “The principle is clear: the public should have consistent and secure access around their coastline.

“Under our proposals, local communities would have a vital role to play in creating the coastal access corridor in their area. Careful discussion with land managers and local interests is central to making this new right work for everyone.”

The organisation says it should have statutory powers to create a coastal access corridor around undeveloped littoral areas where none presently exists. This would be extended to include, for instance, headlands and what it calls ‘spreading room’. Beach access would also be formalised. Landowners would have the right of appeal if they thought NE was acting outside the rules.

It has ruled out compensation along the corridor in favour of grant-aid for environmental improvements such as moving agricultural land back from cliff edges.

Sir Martin said: “We think this approach will be a multiple win – for the environment, for the land managers who will receive new income for taking alternative approaches, and for increased enjoyment of our coastal wildlife and landscapes by the public.”

The proposals come as part of a commitment by the Labour Government to address coastal access, which was included in the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act, which gave limited right-to-roam on upland areas and heath and moorland of England and Wales. Scotland already enjoys coastal access rights which extend to water-borne activities as well as walking and climbing.

The Ramblers’ Association (RA), which campaigns for walkers’ rights in Britain, gave the proposals a guarded welcome.

Kate Ashbrook, the association’s chairman, said: “The recommendations are encouraging and will go a long way to providing public benefit but legislation is essential for ensuring that this generation can for the first time walk around the English coast without impediment.”

The RA says it is concerned that local authorities are to be given a central role in the implementing the new access areas. It says: “Many local authorities have a poor record on ensuring footpaths are unobstructed even though it is their legal duty.  The national walking charity fears that a reliance on local authorities will result in inconsistent improvements which could take decades to secure.”

The association says it wants the new coastal corridor to be broad and to include provisions for the protection of privacy and the enhancement of biodiversity. Access rights should also be flexible and capable of being realigned with erosion, it believes.

Natural England says it will pick up the cost of any improvements necessary for the setting up of the corridor and will be responsible for installing structures such as gates and bridges. It also makes a commitment to look at conservation issues where there are important natural sites.

NE is estimating a cost of between £2m and £5m for the task, spread over ten years. It also says landowners will have a similar reduced liability to CRoW land where the coastal corridor is introduced.

The Government is due to consult more widely on coastal access later this year.