Published: 06:00, 24 November 2020
Residents trying to save their homes from plunging over a cliff edge have been told to remove the clay they’ve used to fill a sinkhole – or prove it’s not contaminated and won’t make matters worse.
A team of neighbours in and around Eastchurch’s Surf Crescent worked to remove debris and consolidate the cliff top after a large part of the cliff fell away and Emma Tullett’s family bungalow - called Cliffhanger - collapsed over the edge of the precipice in June.
Malcolm Newell, whose home is just two doors away from where Cliffhanger was, had been working with residents in the community to fill in the private land in a bid to save their properties from suffering the same fate.
Mr Newell, 71, said the contractors they had got on board and applied for a U1 environmental permit, from the Environment Agency, to reinstate the road and create a turning circle. But, on October 19, Swale council issued the residents with a notice to stop all works for 28 days because of “ecological” concerns.
Those days were up on Sunday, November 15 – after which some more tipping took place.
However, on Friday, residents were slapped with another stop notice and a planning enforcement notice, ordering them to remove the tipped clay within two months.
The orders were accompanied by a letter from the council’s head of planning James Freeman, which said: “You have been served with a copy of this notice as it appears you have an interest in the site and/or the works that have previously been carried out.
The cliff in June and this week
“The effect of the stop notice is that all of the works specified in the notice must cease from November 19, 2020.
“The effect of the enforcement notice is that all of the material imported to the site has to be removed within 56 days of the date that the notice takes effect.”
He added: “I am mindful that this would be a significant operation in itself, with potential issues in respect of health and safety and impact on the adjacent site of special scientific interest (SSSI). The council is able to exercise discretion in this regard, and it is possible that an alternative may be available, but this would depend wholly on the council being satisfied that the material imported to the site to date is not contaminated, and that this alternative action would not in itself increase the instability of the surrounding land.”
Mr Newell, chairman of the Eastchurch Cliff Erosion Community Group, which has been campaigning for better protection for the homes since 2015, said the notices were a “kick in the teeth”.
“The council still hasn’t done anything to help us, there’s just obstacles every step of the way,” he added. “How can we physically remove the soil? What do they want, for us to go down there with our shovels and spades? It’s ludicrous.
“It’s an inpossibility for us and for the council. How can we or they calculate what has been tipped in there and what was already there, as it was the same clay as what was put down the hole.
“It just seems to us that as soon as we finished the job of cleaning up the mess – the rubbish, the house, the car, the gas bottles, fly-tipping - and the last skip was filled and taken away, they came and put a stop notice on us.”
As with before, the residents face being taken to court and fined up to £20,000 if they fail to comply with the stop notice. Mr Newell, who is also an Eastchurch parish councillor, said: “They are really trying to stop us from carrying on and saving our homes.
“What is wrong with us making the area good again and a place of natural beauty, which it was. Why do they keep stopping us? We keep getting told what we can’t do but no-one is helping us with what we can do.
“We just want to fill the hole in to support the road that’s there - the clay we were tipping was a top-class clay, we had it certified,” he added. “If we hadn’t have been stopped, the job would have been finished by now.”
Mr Newell said about 15ft of land had collapsed off of neighbouring Third Avenue over the past month including much of Ed Cane’s garden.
“Another six weeks of rain, it’s going to be up to his back porch,” Mr Newell said. “This is why it’s most urgent that it’s going to be fixed.
“We are people living in fear or our lives or our homes going over the cliff and the council is not doing anything. We, as a community, should be able to finish the job ourselves. If there is anything wrong with it when we’re finished, we would put it right.
“We are not interfering with the SSSI - we’re nowhere near that - we were simply filling a private property, where Emma’s home was, to save our homes.
“We were not causing a danger to anyone else, we were actually trying to prevent a danger.We weren’t using tax payers’ money, we were using our own money.”
He added: “I came her 20 years ago and was quite happy to be here and see my retirement out but it doesn’t look like I will be doing that.
“We just want the ground supported to stop our properties going. We have got to get something sorted otherwise we are going to have three more families homeless by Christmas. We are desperate.”
Swale council has been contacted for comment.