Fifty years of land use change at the coast

Published : 03 Mar 2016

In 1965, concerned about the impact of development along the coast of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, we launched our Neptune Coastline Campaign to help us raise money to buy and protect further stretches of the coast.

That summer we commissioned the University of Reading to survey how land along the coast of England, Wales and Northern Ireland was being used and to find out which areas were most at risk from development. Fifty years on, we’ve resurveyed the coast to see what’s changed.

A ground-breaking mapping project

The 1965 survey would prove to be an epic journey around our shores. Dr John Whittow, who was then a professor at the University of Reading, led a team of students to walk 8,000 miles around the coastline of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

‘For the National Trust to establish a programme of acquisition at the coast it was essential to identify which sites needed protecting,’ said Whittow. ‘Over three months the intrepid surveyors and I set forth to tramp thousands of miles generating more than 350 field survey maps.’

Fifty years on

Half a century later, and coinciding with the 50th anniversary of our Neptune Coastline Campaign, we’ve resurveyed land use at the coast with the help of the University of Leicester.

Thanks to the generosity of hundreds of thousands of supporters our Neptune Coastline Campaign has raised more than £65 million since it was launched which means we now look after 775 miles of coastline – over 550 miles more than we did when the 1965 survey took place.

Identifying change

Our Mapping our Shores report shows that nearly three quarters (74 per cent) of the coast of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, an important resource for people and nature, remains undeveloped.

Much of the land that has remained undeveloped is now protected by landscape or nature conservation designations such as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

In fact, of the 3,342 miles of coastline identified by our 1965 survey as ‘pristine’ and in need of protection, 94 per cent of this has some form of statutory protection.

Maps from 1965 and 2014 showing changes along the Durham coast. In 1965 the beaches were black from dumped coal. We bought the land in the 1990s and worked with local communities to help the land recover. It's now part of the Durham Coast AONB.
Maps showing land use change along the Durham coast

Key findings

The report also found that there has been a 42 per cent increase in urban and built environments over the last 50 years. While this is a significant increase, the fact that nearly three quarters of the coast remains undeveloped suggests that development hasn't sprawled along the coast as it might have without good planning.

Industrial areas along the coast have increased by 39 per cent, with sites moving geographically as the type of industry has changed. Meanwhile land used for defence along the coast has decreased by nearly a quarter (24 per cent), showing a shift from the post-war era of 1965.

You can find out more about how land use has changed at coastal places you love and which matter to you via our interactive Mapping our Shores website.

" (In 1965) development on the coast was proceeding very rapidly. The pressures were spiralling upwards and alarm was growing. This survey work has not been done anywhere else, it is unique and it's a story that has to be told."
- David Pinder, one of the surveyors who mapped the south west coast in 1965.

A planning process for the future

Both the 1965 and recent survey illustrate the importance of a robust and well-enforced planning process. We hope the findings will encourage partnership working within and between local communities, landowners and policy makers in order to maintain a sustainable and beautiful coast for the next 50 years.

‘We must also look out to sea where the challenges are much greater,’ said Peter Nixon, our director of land, landscapes and nature. ‘As the need for offshore development increases, the new marine planning process must be as effective and rigorous as the planning system on land has become.’

Along with helping to ensure the coastline is protected from inappropriate development we’ll remain dedicated to providing access to the coast by working with others, while caring for its wildlife and heritage.

This article was first published on 22 October 2015.

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