A line in the sand for the privatisers

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Unlike some bankers, I spent August at a spot where there was plenty of liquidity: the beach. Perhaps it was remiss to pick up only snippets about the credit crunch on a BlackBerry in Sicily. My excuse is that I was studying the boundary between public and private space.

When you go to the beach in the UK or US, you are mostly walking on public property. Even if a beach is privately owned, there is a good chance that it is held under public trust in common law. That means the owner has to let you bathe there, no matter how much he dislikes you blocking the view of the sea from his beach house.

Not so in Italy, where the most popular beaches are divided into public and private sections. In order to bathe on a nice bit of beach in Cefalu, we had to pay €18 ($25, £12) for a little square of sand with two lounge chairs and a parasol. The alternative, which we tried another day, was squeezing on to a little strip of public beach covered in cigarette butts.

It is strange that a country where the co-operative is a cornerstone of the agricultural economy and socialist parties flourish should allow beaches to be privatised. Even in France, where some beaches are private, you can usually saunter down to the sea for a modest sum to cover parking and cleaning the sand.

There is something repulsive about the Italian approach. A beach should be common ground, even if it is augmented by private enterprise in the form of hawkers selling refreshments or beachside cafes. Beaches sit on the dividing line between privately held land and publicly owned sea, and public access to the latter is an age-old principle.

There is no question, even in Italy, that everyone has the right to bathe. In English common law, adopted by the original 13 US colonies, the common man has a right to fish in the sea, dry nets on shore and navigate rivers. As Where’s The Beach?, a study for the University of Hawaii, details, that right has been extended by US courts to sunbathing and swimming.

The hard part is defining the width of the strip of land next to the sea that is public property. The US is divided between “low water” and “high water” states: private ownership can start either at the low tide or the high tide marks (only Hawaiian law prevents private ownership of any part of the beach). Yet even private land usually has public access rights.

Tension between beach access and private ownership is often fierce because a beachside house is worth coveting. The fact that the sea is indisputably public property – as well as being liquid – means that such a house has an uninterrupted view to the horizon, providing that nobody gets in the way on the beach. That has led to legal battles in the US between bodies that enforce beach access and owners of beach houses such as David Geffen, the entertainment mogul, and Wendy McCaw, a billionaire and an environmental activist. Mr Geffen finally settled his dispute this year by agreeing to allow the public access to a strip of beach in front of his house in Malibu, California.

Some beach privatisers, including Ms McCaw, have argued that beaches are better off in their hands because they will take care of them. On the principle that nobody washes a rental car, they say that bathers soil and litter public beaches because they have no sense of ownership and a beach will only flourish if it has a single user.

Apart from being blatantly self-interested, this claim is silly. Beaches suffer from the potential problem of over-use and abuse similar to all common ground (and indeed sea) that has been dubbed the “tragedy of the commons”. Common grazing land is over-grazed; sea outside territorial waters is over-fished; public beaches in Italy are littered with butts.

But I have been on lots of beaches that address the problem perfectly well without preventing public access. Beaches can be cleaned up and tended by public authorities (a charming town beach at Saint-Jean-de-Luz in south-west France springs to mind) or they can charge a modest fee to pay for private cleaning (a lovely beach near Hyères on the French Riviera).

Nor is the problem of public beach misuse generally as bad as those such as Ms McCaw paint it. People on holiday are generally in a good mood and beach etiquette, such as how much space you are allowed to take or where you can put your towel, is usually observed.

In fact, the problem of beach misuse is, in my experience, worse in Italy than in other countries where the public is allowed more access and trusted more. The public beaches in Italy that I occupied this summer were notably polluted and littered, perhaps because their second-class status had been clearly signalled to the people using them.

It is not a coincidence, I suggest, that the cleanest beach I enjoyed this summer was the one at Fire Island near to New York (I know, I went to a lot of beaches), which was open to everyone and was policed by the township. Beachside houses there are owned by figures such as Barbara Corcoran, a grand Manhattan estate agent, but they share the sand with everyone else.

Indeed, Fire Island gives ultimate primacy to the beach. If your beach home is swept away in a hurricane, or collapses when the beach erodes inland, you lose your property and the house behind is turned into beach front property. That is the correct balance between property rights and nature, I think. You do not seize the beach; the beach seizes you.

john.gapper@ft.com

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