The River Alde from Snape courtesy of Mike Page.jpg

Saving Suffolk from the waves 

Our much lauded heritage coast is under attack by the weather, climate change and an imperceptible tilt in the angle of the land. Anne Gould reports on a plan to save it from the sea

 

The stretch of coastline from Shingle Street to Snape is possibly one of the most astonishing landscapes in Suffolk and the UK.

It’s wild beauty, stunning seascapes and big open skies attract visitors in their thousands and make it a dream location for those seeking lifestyle refuge in “idyllic” countryside surroundings.

With its seemingly never ending salt marshes, creeks and waterways it’s a haven for wildlife, for the sailing community, for walkers, artists, writers and people who just want to marvel at wide open spaces.

And astonishingly, the essence of its beauty is that it’s a coastline in a state of flux. The beach, the shingle, the offshore sand banks can change from one day to the next according to the tides, the wind, the rain.

However the shifting shingles and tidal undercurrents combined with land grabbing winter storms pose a permanent threat though - of flooding to precious farmland, property, homes and maybe even loss of life itself.

In early December we had a timely reminder of the mighty power of the elements - with a surge tide similar to the fatal 1953 flood where 307 people lost their lives in the UK.

It flooded property and land at Snape, the seawall was breached at Shingle Street and Iken and there was widescale flooding across the area.

Animals including 40 ducks, geese and turkeys at Snape and pigs at Butley were lost and many farmers lost wheatfields which will now have to be desalinated— but it could have been much worse.

But the storm, bad as it was had lost some of its power by the time the surge reached the estuary the wind had dropped and the surge and the high spring tide failed to co-incide.

Had this not occurred the devastation and flooding could have much more severe.

Of course historically Suffolk is well accustomed to being ravaged by the waves - Dunwich - or much of what it used to be, simply drowned, more recently homes and roads have been relentlessly eaten away and right now days are numbered for the iconic red and white lighthouse on Orfordness.

Romantic notions, of ghostly church bells tolling in the depths aside, coastal communities have now got a more urgent imperative though - the sea defences.

Changing policies and funding by the Government and the Environment Agency has meant that in some areas much of the responsibility for keeping the sea at bay has shifted back to local level and to local people.

The response in Suffolk has been the setting up of the Alde &Ore Partnership, which has announced an ambitious plan to raise £7 million to maintain 42 kilometres of flood defences between Shingle Street and Snape, from Boyton to Butley and beyond.

This innovative community response, headed up by landowner and Suffolk High Sheriff Sir Edward Greenwall, has the potential for greater things too.

Not only could it protect the Alde and Ore esturaries but if it’s successful could also form a blueprint nationally for other stretches of Britain’s seaside that are similarly “at risk”.

Sir Edward, who is currently the High Sheriff, a former chairman of Suffolk Coastal District Council and is on the board of the National Trust, explained the partnership is a committee of 12 local people with a wide variety of interests and expertise supported by The Environment Agency, Natural England and Suffolk Coasts and Heaths AONB.

Their aim, he says, is to maintain and repair the sea walls along the Alde and Ore estuaries to withstand a surge created by the sort of freak storm that might happen once in every 200 years up to 2050 and after December’s storm the need to take action has become ever more apparent.

 

Sir Edward said, “This time we have been lucky. The high tide did not exactly coincide with the North Sea surge. Nonetheless the damage and the cost of putting it right will be considerable.   The Partnership has plans to make all flood defences in the estuary capable of surviving surges like this intact. We are just embarking on efforts to raise the money to achieve that. This is, therefore, a timely reminder of the urgency of our task. "

 

There’s no way of knowing when another storm of this severity might occur. It was 60 years between the storm of 63 and 2013 but, he added, “We don’t know when the next storm of this severity might be. We could have one or even two next week.”

Climate change, rising sea levels and the fact that Suffolk is tilting and sliding into the sea at the rate of 1.5mm a year (that’s six inches over a century) further complicates the picture.

Also, says Sir Edward,  you can never be sure where the most damage will be caused - along the Alde and Ore there are 12 “flood cells” any one of which could be breached.

So for instance apart from the obvious coastal stretches, areas of Butley, Snape or Ham Creek and Hazelwood Marshes near Aldeburgh could be equally susceptible.

However if there was a particularly severe storm all flood cells might breach - with devastating consequences. Sir Edward’s office has a map which shows  a worse case scenario which shows Aldeburgh and Orford becoming islands. 

Making sure the sea defences are at the right height and standard to withstand such an onslaught comes at a vast cost though - £7million to be precise.

And while the Environment Agency will contribute - locally the Alde & Ore Partnership have to find £5million.

The solution, depends on a lot of factors and local people working together with the agreement of parish councils, Suffolk Coastal District Council and local landowners.

What they are planning to do, he says, is approach about 20 local farmers and landowners and ask them to donate a piece of land  which will be sold as development sites to build new properties.

All the money raised from this will go into a newly formed charity which has been set up to manage the project.

Something similar was done at East Street in Bawdsey, with a plan to create affordable homes for local people.

“We are doing something slightly different because we want permission to build single properties.However it’s all dependent on getting agreement from local councils.”

It’s an incredibly complicated process - there are lots of legal and technical conditions and regulations to be fullfilled.

And of course it’s vital that the people who own the land are all in agreement - and Sir Edward is not only looking at what pockets of land he might personally donate to the cause but is planning to visit every single other farmer in the area too.

Of course the other issue is the timescale for getting the work on the seawalls done.

“We cannot get all the work done at once but our aim is to get it done within ten years. Once we have been able to get some money from selling the development sites we can get started.”