Mr Knight said that the study will explore ways to improve opportunities to visit and enjoy coastal areas.
'As well as access, we are also looking at the potential to improve people's opportunities to understand and appreciate the natural and historic environment that is such a fundamental part of our nation's heritage.
'We need to look carefully at potential ways to improve access to the coast in ways that will really benefit people and nature, and help people to get the most out of the coast.'
The four selected for the project are the Southern Cumbrian coast and Morecambe Bay, the Suffolk coast, the North Devon, Exmoor and West Somerset coast and the County Durham and Hartlepool coast.
The study will also explore ways in which benefits for the natural environment could be gained, whilst ensuring that the negative effects of improved access on the landscape and wildlife are minimised.
The Natural England partnership, comprising the Countryside Agency, English Nature, and the Rural Development Service, will undertake fact-finding work on the coastal situation and the types of access that would be most valuable to people.
These areas represent the diverse conditions around England's coast.
The studies will look at the different types of coastline (for example cliffs, dunes and areas of coastal erosion and accretion), areas with good or less good existing access provision, and other issues such as tourism levels and proximity to large population centres.
The Natural England partnership will report in early summer, and Defra will issue a public consultation paper on the subject in the autumn that will help inform a comprehensive coastal access policy.
1. The government's Rural Manifesto 2005 states that improving access to coastal areas will be an early priority for the Labour third term.
Implementing the commitment to improve access to the coast will be a flagship project for Natural England following its formal creation in October 2006. It will take an integrated approach to ensure delivery of access, landscape and wildlife benefits.
2. Meetings will be held in each area with local stakeholders, including local authorities, landowners, walkers, those involved in nature conservation, and members of local access forums and coastal projects. These meetings will provide more information on the overall project and the work to be carried out in each of the locations, but will also seek local advice and knowledge on issues surrounding access to these particular stretches of the coast. The exploratory workwill then take place during March and April.
3. The Natural England partnership will report to Defra on the outcomes of the fact finding and study area work in May. The report will form the basis for a public consultation which will be issued in October 2006.
4. England has about 4,000km of coastline, excluding estuaries and offshore islands.