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

Posted by ap507 at Oct 20, 2015 05:01 PM |
National Trust project reveals findings

Issued by National Trust Press Office

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 (76%) 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

Watch and embed a University of Leicester video of Professor Lex Comber discussing the project (Embargoed until 17:00, Tuesday 20 October 2015):

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 (76%) 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:

  • 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.


For further press information and images, please contact: Madeleine Gower,; Mike Collins,;
Notes to Editors

[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.

Additional quotes

  • David Bassett MBE, a volunteer ranger at Wembury Point, says: “There used to be no reason to walk at Wembury, it was a real eyesore. Now when I come up to Wembury I get a lump in my throat. If this had fallen into private hands it would look like the Costa del Sol. Now it’s stunning. You can walk through here and see a skylark nest; you wouldn’t have seen that a few years ago.”
  • Dr John Whittow, former Chairman of the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Reading, said: “For the National Trust to establish a programme of acquisition at the coast it was essential to identify which sites needed protecting.

“That summer, the intrepid surveyors walked thousands of miles of our coastline. Once the students had finished, more than 350 field-survey maps were returned to me to be copied onto a fresh set of maps.”

  • Professor Alexis Comber, Department of Geography, University of Leicester (now at the University of Leeds), said: “To identify coastal land use changes we had to develop a methodology that overcame the different ways that individual surveyors mapped the coastal landscape in 1965 so that we could quantify any actual changes in land use.  

“Our work was technically interesting because we used the digital versions of original 1965 maps which had been annotated by hand, together with current OS maps and modern aerial photography within computer-based mapping software. This provided us with a real sense of what land had changed and the processes that had driven those changes.

“At a personal level, the project gave us all insight into the work of the Trust. We were impressed by the diversity of the Trust’s activities as well as its land holdings in all areas of the country.”

National Trust

The National Trust cares for ten per cent (or 775 miles) of the coastline of England, Wales and Northern Ireland – including the White Cliffs of Dover, Rhossili beach on Gower and the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.  From the wildlife rich Farne Islands to magical Barafundle beach in Pembrokeshire millions of people visit these special places every year and help us for care for them, for everyone to enjoy.

The University of Leicester

The University of Leicester is led by discovery and innovation – an international centre for excellence renowned for research, teaching and broadening access to higher education. The University of Leicester is ranked among the top one per cent of universities in the world by the THE World University Rankings. It is among the top 25 universities in the Times Higher Education REF Research Power rankings with 75% of research adjudged to be internationally excellent with wide-ranging impacts on society, health, culture, and the environment.

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