Wednesday 7 January 2009

Congratulations to the Environment Agency on the Cuckmere Valley!

The Environment Agency (EA) has been looking at the future management of the Cuckmere for years now. Throughout this time it has preferred an increased reliance on natural processes rather than reverting to the heavy engineering of hard sea defences. To their credit the EA has stuck to its guns and is now withdrawing maintenance of these sea defences.

There are limited funds available for flood defence, no homes are at risk from flooding here and better public benefit can be delivered by improving the natural functioning of the river. It has therefore concluded that it is not in the public interest to rebuild hard flood defences in the valley. This is the right decision and The Sussex Wildlife Trust supports this view.

The valley is of very high importance for nature conservation. It is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, will be a National Park and is a very significant asset for public amenity and tourism. Nevertheless, past construction of an intrusive canal along the valley, along with hard sea defences, has isolated the valley from nature. It could be far better. Sea level rise plus general ware and tear means that these sea defences are near the end of their lives anyway so the EA had a choice – highly intrusive, ugly and expensive concrete sea defences or a more sensitive approach based on re-naturalising the valley. To their credit the EA chose the latter. A modern, environmentally sensitive approach will now be achieved by understanding and working with nature, rather than fighting against it with hard coastal defences.

Obviously there might be details that we could argue about but an approach that starts from the perspective of re-naturalisation is the right approach. Furthermore this could provide an excellent model for approaches to coastal defence in other areas. It will improve the area for wildlife, in particular by expanding areas of uncommon habitats such as salt marsh, mud flat and coastal grazing marsh (even if at the expense of the relatively wildlife-poor grassland in the valley). It should result in many more species able to use and live in the area, birds in particular likely to be especially benefited.

The Cuckmere meanders form one of the most valued views in the county. However, past engineering works have cut them off from the river system and so they are silting up. They will disappear under the current approach. Rebuilding the sea defences would keep the meanders isolated from the river and so lead to their eventual loss. Improving the natural functioning of the river is more likely to conserve them – even though their course will change with time (as they should – meanders are active, dynamic features, which should move).

The Cuckmere valley is a complex area catering for many uses so specific issues will need to be addressed. The canoe club, for example, provides an excellent resource for allowing access to the natural world. If the club has to be moved it should be re-sited to a location that takes advantage of the enhanced environment. Similarly the various paths, bridleways and campsites allow people to enjoy the area; these should be maintained and where possible enhanced. This is perfectly possible against the back-drop of a more natural valley.

There are some local concerns about the approach, however. Some of this is based on miss-information – for example a belief that the whole valley will be turned into an expanse of mud. In fact coastal mud flats are so rich (having the energy equivalent of about 17 Mars Bars per cubic metre!) that they support an enormous number of birds. However the area won’t all be mud flat – picture an area more like Chichester or Pagham Harbour rather than the Wash in Norfolk.

Some also have a perception that the landscape will be damaged – they like the way it is now so any change is threatening. However, change happens anyway – like the eventual loss off the meanders through silting up - and there are external forces acting on the valley, such as sea level rise and the erosion of current sea defences. So change will happen anyway but the EA’s plans are more likely to deliver positive change.

There is also a desire to make sure that specific issues are handled correctly, such as access around the valley. These are reasons get any plan right, not reasons to oppose a plan.

In my mind these concerns are a healthy sign that people are concerned about their local environment – it would be far more worrying if nobody cared what happened! The EA has tried to consult widely and engage people in these plans. Clearly there is a need to continue and expand this – people should be engaged and their comments (both positive and negative) carefully considered.

The basic principle of re-naturalising the valley is right but there are things that need discussing and details that need sorting out. There may also be extra benefits that can be worked into any plan (like re-located footpaths) that may need novel funding. However, this is the point of working in partnership. If a partnership develops a shared agenda for what is desired for the area then it is more likely to be able to source the funding to deliver it than if all are in opposition with each other.

Fortunately such a partnership already exists and this could be the driving force to move from conflict and opposition towards shared ideas and positive outcomes. This partnership is developing a web site and I believe this will provide a helpful forum to find out about plans for the area and input view and ideas about them Why not take a look and get involved in the discussion?