Posted: 05.04.21 at 11:35 by Daniel Clark, Local Democracy Reporter
The current proposal for improving Sidmouth’s sea defences is being put on hold after it emerged that funding could be available for a better, but more expensive, alternative.
The potential for a ‘bigger and better’ scheme was announced by the district council at the end of February, following a change in the rules on eligibility for funding; read more here.
Last week the council’s cabinet voted to pause the existing £9 million scheme so that alternative measures, previously thought to be unaffordable, can be explored.
These measures are likely to be more sustainable and less costly to maintain – but if they are adopted, there will be a delay of up to two years in starting construction.
The council plans to carry out temporary work including rock armour at East Beach to prevent further erosion during this period.
The current £9 million option would involve beach replenishment, periodic beach recycling, a new rock groyne on East Beach and modifications to the River Sid training wall.
It would also include raising the height of the splash wall along the seafront slightly, and then topping it up with temporary storm barriers or strong glass panels when needed.
Back in 2017, Sidmouth town councillors had backed a scheme with four additional semi-obscured offshore ‘reefs’ in the sea off East Beach, but as it cost up to £20m – the most expensive of all the options – it wasn’t taken forward.
Other options rejected had included modifying the rock groynes at Bedford Steps, York Steps and East Pier Rock into T shapes, placing a slope of large boulders next to the seawall, removing the current rock groynes on the beach and installing more breakwaters similar to those on the main beach and East Beach.
Tom Buxton-Smith, an engineer with the district council, told Wednesday’s cabinet meeting that pausing the £9 million scheme will give an opportunity to technically investigate the other options, which could be more sustainable, with lower ongoing maintenance costs to the council, and a better visual solution for East Beach and the World Heritage Coast.
But he warned that if, after the six months, another option is chosen, it is likely to to another four years before construction can begin – a two-year delay.
He said if the cabinet voted to pause the scheme for six months to investigate the alternatives, they should investigate temporary works at Pennington Point and East Beach, such as a temporary rock revetment at rock armour at the base of the cliffs.
He said: “In the short term, it will slow down erosion rates, meaning the cliff edge will be kept away from residents’ houses for longer, the mouth of the River Sid remains better protected from South Easterly storms, meaning a reduction in flood risk to Sidmouth Town, and removes pressure to deliver the Beach Management Plan quickly, which will allow time to further assess other options and allow further post-pandemic public consultation.”
But he added: “It is possible that temporary planning permission will not be granted, the rock armour will be unsightly, and will be the first thing residents/visitors see of the World Heritage site when looking east from the Esplanade, and placing rock armour in front of the cliffs could be argued to be desecrating a pristine site with many important designations, albeit temporarily.”
Cllr Denise Bickey, who represents the Sidmouth Town ward, said: “If we were desperate to plough ahead, it’s like being on the M5 when want to be on the M4, and it’s pointless to keep ploughing ahead with the wrong plan, so we can go back to the drawing board and find good ways to change it so everyone in the town can be as happy as can be. Pausing it and a temporary solution and to really get it right is so important.”
Cllr John Loudoun, who represents the Sidmouth Rural ward, added: “The residents of Cliff Road whose parts of their gardens are falling daily into the sea have a great deal at stake in this.
“We need to think of the residents above East Beach as if we do this, it brings added angst and anxiety to them as they thought they knew what was going to happen and when, now they are less certain. So to give the support and encouragement, we need to go with the temporary permission, and I hope we can deliver all of this is good time for those residents and the rest of the town.”
The cabinet voted by eight votes to none, with two abstentions, in favour of pausing the project for six months to look at viability of other previously dismissed options, and to approve the investigation of temporary planning permission and installation of rock armour at East Beach.
Engineers and specialist consultants will spend up to six months reviewing and assessing various alternatives, and produce a report on whether to go ahead with the original preferred option or use the additional funding to finance a different option which may be more beneficial.