Plans to open up the whole of England’s coastline to the public for the first time have been set out by DEFRA secretary David Miliband.

Ministers favour a strip allowing access along the full length of the coast, as well as access to headland, coves and beaches so that a continuous route will always be available as close to the coast as possible.

But other options in the consultation paper include using existing rights of way legislation to create a footpath all round the coast, extending open access using the Countryside and Rights of Way Act or making voluntary agreements with landowners using existing mechanisms such as agri-environment schemes.

Mr Miliband said: “We are an island nation. The coast is our birthright and everyone should be able to enjoy it. 

“I want families to have safe and secure access to walk, climb, rock scramble, paddle and play all along our coastline.

“The coast is also vitally important for nature conservation and wildlife and for tourism, so our vision for greater freedom and rights for people will take into account the need to safeguard habitats and heritage sites.

“Improving public access will enrich people’s enjoyment and understanding of the varied seaside landscapes and environments around the country.”

David Fursdon, president of the Country Land and Business Association, said he wanted more people to enjoy the coast but feared that the consultation would end up being about taking rights without compensation.

“The Secretary of State has stated that, ‘land, even private land, is a public good and we should assert our right to enjoy it’, but the question is where does this begin and end? 

“What is concerning is that the government has a “presumption against paying compensation” where public rights are asserted over individual rights.

“What’s to stop this precedent being extended to the building of new roads or airport runways?  What’s to stop the government from putting forward the argument that we have a ‘natural birthright’ to walk across each others back gardens without compensation?

“This is a very dangerous precedent to set for all householders in England: it shifts the balance from the protection of the individual to the power of the State.”

The deadline for responses to the public consultation is 11 September 2007.