Published: 06:00, 21 November 2020
Swale council is hoping to turn back the tide like King Canute to save Sheppey’s crumbling cliffs.
Members have agreed to press the Government to reverse its policy of non-intervention and to start protecting the Island’s coastline.
Councillors voted 23-15, with seven abstentions, for the proposal by Cllr Peter MacDonald (Con, Sheppey Central) at their full councildespite an astonishing outburst from Labour’s Angela Harrison (Sheerness) who said it was the residents’ own fault for living there.
She also accused Cllrs MacDonald and Ken Ingleton (Con, Minster Cliffs), who seconded the motion, of using “people’s grief” to drum up Tory votes in next year’s county council elections.
She said: “People who live on the Island know houses have been falling down the cliffs for years and years. We used to play in them when we were kids. Everybody knows it happens.”
Rounding on the two veteran Conservatives she said: “What gets me is that for 16 years you have been quite happy with managed retreat and then all of a sudden, six months before an election, you have seen the light and you want to stop the managed retreat.
“That is very disingenuous of you. The worst of it is, you are trying to raise the expectations of those people on the cliffs. I think it is appalling of you to start using people’s grief as an election bandwagon.”
Cllr MacDonald, 80, has been campaigning to change the Environment Agency’s policy for more than a decade.
He told members that although some believed it would be “very difficult” to get policies changed, he had helped overturn a previous decision by the Environment Agency in 2008 when it wanted to abandon all sea defences along the Swale from Leysdown to Queenborough.
He said: “I told them it would lead to flooding by the back door. When I pointed out there would be huge compensation claims from residents they altered the policy within a week.”
He added: “This is an opportunity for Swale council to show it cares about the people of Sheppey.”
Cllr Ingleton, 76, said Sheppey’s cliffs had been slipping into the sea since the last Ice Age 11,000 years ago and were still losing between 1.5 to 3.1 metres a year with some falls taking chunks of cliff up to 30m.
He said recent falls were caused by surface water at the top and storm-force waves eroding the base of the cliffs. He said a new base along the beach and the cliffs graded to 30 degrees with drainage like at The Leas at Minster was needed.
He added: “This will not save existing properties in danger but it will be a long-term project to protect what remains of the Island.”
The council’s cabinet spokesman for environment Cllr Tim Valentine (Green, Boughton and Courtenay) said he met residents in March before the latest cliff fall and had then approached the Environment Agency which had insisted its non-intervention policy was based on “well-founded good evidence.”
He said: “To change the policy is not just about writing a letter to a government department. We would have to submit detailed evidence which would need engaging outside consultants.”
He added: “Our advice from the Environment Agency is that Cllr MacDonald’s scheme would not be successful.” He said only 21 properties were predicted to affected up to 2105.
Conservative leader Cllr Alan Horton (Hartlip, Newington and Upchurch) said he was “perplexed and disappointed” by Cllr Valentine’s remarks and said telling Islanders the council would do nothing to try to save their homes, caravan parks and tourist trade was “entirely the wrong message to send.”
He added: “This should be about us as a council doing the right thing for our residents.”
Cllr Elliott Jayes (Swale Independents Alliance, Sheppey Central) said: “Anything to protect our beautiful Island from bad government policy is welcomed.”
Cllr Whiting (Con, Teynham and Lynsted) said the council should stand “full-square” behind the proposal and the residents of Sheppey “who are literally living on the edge.”
But Cllr Ben J Martin (Lib Dem, Watling) said the proposal was “simplistic” and Sheppey’s coastline policy could not be changed without affecting the rest of Swale. He added: “It is the wrong time to be challenging this. We should be concentrating on the pandemic.”
Cllr Alastair Gould (Green, Boughton and Courtenay) said work would be “ultimately futile” and the cost would fall on Swale taxpayers.
Cllr Ghlin Whelan (Lab, Chalkwell) added: “This slippage is well-known and documented and predictable. Trying to hold back the sea like King Canute is going to be extremely expensive. The owners must have been aware of all this when they took over their properties.
“I know for a fact when I was a mortgage advisor 20 years ago that mortgages could not be obtained for these properties and they were uninsurable. The Environment Agency has the correct policy. This motion is divorced from reality.”
Farmer James Attwood submitted a £500 million scheme to the Environment Agency in August 2016 to landscape the cliffs which he said he could do using spoil from the next Thames tunnel and at no cost to the taxpayer. But he was turned down.
The cliffs are currently designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest because of the many fossils buried in the mud.
The cliffs hit the headlines in June when mother-of-five Emma Tullet's house at Eastchurch slipped over the edge making her and family homeless.
Cllr McDonald’s proposal in full: “In view of impact of climate change accelerating the rate of the erosion of the Sheppey cliffs, this council wishes to change government policy to prevent further unsustainable erosion, thereby protecting the existing, expanding and future population of Sheppey.
“Swale council undertakes to seek the removal of the government coastal policy of non-intervention with its serious social and commercial implications and replace that policy with a policy of protection of the coastline.”