Every year, the cliffs of the Norfolk coast are ground back another metre by the encroaching sea. When a severe storms hit, ten metres can be lost overnight. But the pubs and lighthouses of the region’s coastal villages aren’t the only structures in trouble. Just north of the village of Bacton, sits the Bacton Gas Terminal, which supplies up to a third of the UK’s natural gas. Situated perilously close to the cliff edge, it’s this site that has led to the arrival of a project never seen before in the UK.
Sandscaping involves taking vast quantities of sand from the sea bed and moving it to the shore to act as a natural defence against erosion. The ‘Zandmotor’ in the Netherlands, created in 2011, is the most famous example and now the Dutch project is being used as inspiration for a similar scheme at Bacton. Construction is almost completed, with 1.8m cubic tonnes of sand, enough to fill Wembley Stadium, being deposited at the foot of the cliffs. The idea is that this new beach will protect the gas terminal in the event of an extreme storm for up to 20 years and, as the sand naturally moves southeast, will also buy the villagers of nearby Bacton and Walcott more time.
Jaap Flikweert, a flood resilience expert at Royal HaskoningDHV, the company contracted to design the scheme, explains how this double benefit works. ‘The majority of sand will be placed in front of the terminal,’ he says, ‘but we’ve been able to design it in such a way that the sand will gradually move towards the southeast and sustain the beach there.’ He adds that this natural process should then protect the two villages.
This isn’t a permanent solution for local people. North Norfolk District Council’s management pan for the area ultimately involves the residents having to move. Flikweert acknowledges this but adds that the scheme not only ‘buys time for the villagers but also it buys society and government time to find practical ways for people to adapt’ – though there are those who question this take. Writing in The Conversation, Sally Brown, a senior research fellow at the University of Southampton noted that the project could raise ‘expectations of long-term protection and could discourage people from coming to terms with the problem’.
There are also obvious environmental repurcussions to consider when removing such a vast quantity of sand from the sea-bed. ‘These things aren’t easy,’ Flikweert admits. ‘The sea-bed is used for all kinds of things, just as the land is, and that’s a balance that needs to be found between all the functions of society. The sand that we’re using here you could almost see as a by-product of that which the construction industry needs to build homes and offices throughout the country. But obviously mining always has its challenges and that balance has to be found. It is a transparent process, the environmental assessments are available so everyone can see what the thinking is.’
But despite these shortcomings, for now at least, this scheme is likely to come as relief for the villagers of Bacton and Walcott, particularly as it’s something of a fluke – they would never have benefitted from a £20m scheme if it weren’t for the concerns of the nearby gas terminal. In other places however, those with larger coastal towns, Flikweert says that it may not take the presence of heavy industry for similar plans to be implemented. He adds that sandscaping projects are already being considered in Penzance and other locations in Suffolk.
Of course, these too will only be temporary solutions. As things stand no permanent buffer exists to prevent the sea from battering the land – erosion can be slowed, but not stopped.
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