For a long time, Sidmouth was blessed with a consistent high-level shingle beach that gave the town good protection in storm conditions. But in the late 1980s, much of the shingle disappeared, which caused damage to the Esplanade and increased the risk of flooding.
This led to the implementation of a government-funded scheme, involving a rock revetment at the base of the Esplanade, the installation of two offshore islands and three rock groynes. It was also agreed that the shingle beach would be periodically replenished and recycled.
This scheme has been reasonably successful: the two islands have created a shallow sandy beach, that has provided calmer conditions and helped the tourism industry. The western end of the beach has seen a large, high and stable shingle beach, that has given a lot of protection to properties at that end of the Esplanade. Everyone agrees that the islands have done their job.
The eastern end of the Esplanade has not seen such a successful outcome: the beach is well below the expected design standard, and we have not seen the promised recycling and replenishment.
Beyond the River Sid, there has been no significant improvement in the amount of shingle, and the sustained low level of the East Beach has caused problems. Since the 1990s we have seen very high levels of erosion caused by the lack of shingle protection for the cliffs. This has had very serious effects: the houses in Cliff Road have been placed at risk, Alma Bridge has had to be replaced by a new bridge further upstream, and the rapid retreat of the cliffs at Pennington Point have left the east side of the town exposed. As the cliffs have disappeared, the threat of flooding has increased. Sidmouth is being outflanked.
Two applications, in each case supported by Sidmouth Town Council, have been made to address the problem by installing a rock revetment at East Beach, but both were withdrawn following objections by Natural England.
To try and find an agreed solution, a Beach Management Plan ( BMP ) was instigated by East Devon District Council, with the intention of developing a scheme to reduce the rate of erosion at East Beach, to look at improvements to the protection of the town provided by the Main Beach, and to address the threat of flooding from the river.
Eventually, after considerable delay, a Preferred Option has emerged.
The Preferred Option
The BMP Steering Group met on August 22 2019 to approve the Preferred Option. There is considerable confusion, as the minutes of that meeting and the subsequent Press Release from EDDC are very different. Also a lot of the details are not yet in the public domain.
However, it seems that the Preferred Option is unlikely to be fully funded by central government, and the shortfall will have to be raised locally. It is not clear how this is going to be achieved, and two different dates have been given as to the timescale for the funding to be found. The amount of money required has been quoted as £1.5 million but it would appear that £2.1 million is the accurate amount.
EDDC say that if this money is not raised, they will create a new BMP that is ‘town only’. This presumably means that the problems at East Beach will be ignored, and the residents in the vicinity abandoned to their fate. However, the minutes suggest that the Steering Group did not vote for this to happen. Urgent clarification is obviously required.
The Preferred Option, as currently proposed, includes a large groyne on East Beach, accompanied by beach replenishment and recycling. The hope is that the groyne will retain a high and consistent shingle beach that will reduce erosion. It is also proposed that the river frontage will be improved to provide increased protection for the town centre. The training wall will be repaired.
It is believed that a 120-metre groin at East Beach will prevent the shingle being lost to Lyme Bay in the prevailing south westerly conditions.
Another feature is for the Esplanade splash wall to be increased in height. This element was quite recently explicitly rejected by the Steering Group, but was subsequently inserted unilaterally by EDDC.
EDDC first stated that the splash wall would be increased by 0.5 metres. In August 2018 the Steering Group apparently voted for the height to be increase by 0.6 metres. However, this is disputed, and the minutes of that meeting were not made available, either to the Steering Group or the public, until nearly a year after the meeting took place. At the Steering Group meeting of August 22 2019, the proposed height was raised yet again, this time to 0.66 metres above the existing wall, or 1 metre above the Promenade.
The Esplanade road is quite a lot lower than the Promenade, so the height of the wall from the road will be about four feet when viewed from a passing car, or from the pavement and properties on the other side of the road.
For much of the length of the Esplanade, the sea will not be visible from a car or from the ground floors of the cafes, hotels and restaurants who presently enjoy a view of the sea.