Ground-breaking mapping project reveals 50 years of land use change along the coast

  • Original survey carried out in 1965 to highlight the impact of development on our coastline has been updated to reveal land use changes
  • 94% of coastline considered to be ‘pristine’ 50 years ago is now protected through the National Trust or through the planning system
  • While three quarters (74%) of the coast remains undeveloped, urban/built-up areas have increased by 42% (17,557 hectares), adding the equivalent of a city the size of Manchester to our coastline
Sunset over Wembury Point, near Plymouth, Devon.

Sunset over Wembury Point, near Plymouth, Devon. Credit National Trust

One of the biggest mapping projects of the 20th century has been repeated fifty years on by the National Trust to understand how the way that land is used along the coast has changed since 1965.

The report, released today by the conservation charity, finds that overall the modern planning system has worked with development contained and directed to the most suitable locations. However, it also warns against complacency and highlights the need, too, for a marine planning system that effectively manages the competing priorities at the coast.

On 11 May 1965, concerned about the potential impact of development and industrialisation on the coast, the National Trust launched the fundraising campaign, Neptune [1]. That summer, as part of the Trust’s efforts to focus public attention on these threats, geography students from the University of Reading were appointed to survey how land was being used at the coast [2].

In addition to establishing land use, the survey sought to identify coastline considered to be ‘pristine’ and in need of long-term protection from development and poor land management.

Now, five decades on, the survey has been repeated by geographers at the University of Leicester. They were commissioned by the National Trust to revisit the pioneering mapping project to determine the location and nature of land use change along the coast and establish how successful the Neptune campaign had been [3].

Thanks to the generosity of hundreds of thousands of supporters, the campaign has achieved extraordinary success and raised more than £65 million. This has helped the Trust to acquire, care for and provide access to the 775 miles of coastline in its care with just one mile of coast costing the charity £3000 to look after every year.

The new mapping report, which compares the two surveys, shows that a total of three quarters (74%) of the coast of England, Wales and Northern Ireland remains undeveloped [4] providing an important resource for people and nature.

Much of the land that has remained undeveloped is now protected by landscape or nature conservation designations such as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). In fact, of the 3,342 miles identified as pristine in 1965, 94% of this has some form of statutory protection.

Peter Nixon, Director of Land, Landscapes and Nature for the National Trust, said: “50 years after we launched our Neptune campaign, most of the UK coast remains undeveloped. Our coastline has been spared the sort of sprawling development that other countries have suffered.

“This is a moment to pause and celebrate the generosity and passion of our supporters, and the value of a robust planning system in securing a coastline that people can access and enjoy. National Trust ownership provides unique permanent protection of the coastline to benefit people and nature, and there is a continuing need for us to raise funds for this. But we also know that 90% of people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland agree that it’s important that the planning system works to protect the beauty of our coastline, and long may that continue [5].”

The report also found that:

Easington Colliery Beach between Fox Holes and Beacon Point on the Durham Coast still bears some evidence of former coal spoil dumping although the sea has cleansed much of it away.

Easington Colliery Beach between Fox Holes and Beacon Point on the Durham Coast still bears some evidence of former coal spoil dumping although the sea has cleansed much of it away. Credit National Trust

  • There has been a 42% increase in urban and built environments over the last 50 years. While this is a significant increase, over three quarters of the coast remains undeveloped, which suggests that new development has not sprawled along the coast as it might have without good planning.
  • Industrial areas along the coast increased by 39% to cover 13,081 hectares. Although what’s most significant here is that the location of industrial sites has been moving geographically as the type of industry has changed [6].
  • The use of land along the coast for defence has decreased by 24% (a loss of 4,209 hectares) [7].

As the findings of the two surveys illustrate the importance of a robust and well-enforced planning process, the National Trust hopes it 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.

Peter Nixon concluded: “We must also look out to sea where the challenges are now much greater. 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 the National Trust will remain dedicated to providing access to the coast by working with others, while caring for its wildlife and heritage. Part of this will be supporting the Government’s commitment to creating a coastal footpath around the whole of England by 2020.  Climate change will also accelerate the natural process of coastal change, and in November the Trust will set out its commitment to addressing this challenge.

Read the full ‘Mapping Our Shores’ report here

  • Ends –


[1] The Neptune Coastline Campaign was originally known as Enterprise Neptune when it launched in 1965.

[2] Thirty-four students led by lecturer Dr John Whittow spent three months walking 8,000 miles of coastline to complete the task. The surveyors colour-coded maps using 14 land use categories, including ‘open countryside’, ‘woodland’ and ‘defence’. Many of the surveyors also made value judgements often in relation to the aesthetic appeal of the area with comments such as ‘excellent scenery’ or, in one example, ‘deplorable shack development’.

[3] Led by Professor Lex Comber, Department of Geography, University of Leicester (now at the University of Leeds), the researchers developed an approach for recording robust measures of land use change. A methodology was designed that involved aerial photography, current OS topographic base maps and the original map sheets (now digitised), and, where necessary, other sources such as Google Streetview to analyse land use.

It took the careful supervision of Professor Comber, one research associate, two interns and several MSc students six months to complete the project. Once finished, both surveys were compared and statistically analysed to determine the location and nature of land use changes along the coast

[4] Undeveloped land is land that was classified as either ‘open countryside’ or ‘woodland’ in the survey.

[5] This is from research carried out by YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 5,047 adults in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Fieldwork was undertaken between 03 and 07 July 2015. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all adults in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (aged 18+).

[6] There has been a large shift from primary industry like quarrying and mining to transport services, namely ports and storage containers. One example of this change is on the Durham coastline which in 1965 was characterised by the mining industry based there. The beaches were described as being ‘black with coal (and) covered with refuse’ from the waste dumped by the deep coal mining taking place under the North Sea. The National Trust acquired the land in the 1990s and employed local people to help begin the clean-up and manage the rare limestone grasslands for nature. The stretch of coast has since recovered considerably to become part of the Durham Coast AONB.

[7] A key example of where this change has taken place is at Wembury Point in Devon, which was the home of the HMS Cambridge Gunnery School until the site was bought by the National Trust in 2005.


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