One of Europe's most beautiful seascapes is in danger of being destroyed by a botched attempt to shore up its beach defences, say local residents
The view from the windows of Ken and June Thomas's black-tarred cottage is extraordinary. The largest expanse of shingle beach in Europe is dotted with rare plants and desert flowers. Birds screech as they flock beneath the vast sky.
Ken Thomas's fishing boats are pulled high above the tide mark as giant tankers pass by in deep channels scored close to the shore and anglers huddle along the water's edge, their tents hidden in the ridges of shingle. Strain to the right and you can see a lighthouse, built with a unique pigmented, spiralled concrete. Beyond is the weathered shack where Marconi sent the first radio messages across the Channel, and along to the left is Derek Jarman's celebrated Prospect Cottage, with its driftwood garden and John Donne's poetry carved in wood on its wall. At the tip of the promontory is the Dungeness nuclear power station.
It is no ordinary backyard.
This week residents of the 99 Dungeness houses – many of them built on top of Victorian railway carriages dragged on to the shingle a century ago – will attend a public meeting with Kent county council and EDF, the company operating the Dungeness B plant, to discuss a controversial planning application that would see this landscape change dramatically.
The proposal, from EDF and the Environment Agency, is to have between 50 and 100 quarry lorries a day, each weighing 30 tonnes and three metres wide, coming along the 3.1-metre wide unmade road for five days a week, trundling right past their front doors. Diggers will be out too, along a 300-metre stretch of seafront, pulling out up to 30,000 tonnes of shingle a year to dump it back into the sea a few miles away down the coast.
The idea is to "recycle" the shingle by piling it on to the eroding coastline on the Kent-East Sussex border and prop up the beach in front of the power station. Anglers who come to Dungeness from miles around for its cod and bass fishing have already been getting up petitions over the quarry works fencing, which would cut off access to some of the best fishing spots.
Now residents have started a campaign against the plans. They say it is a waste of time and money, because not all the shingle is washed back to its original location. Residents also fear that the huge dumper trucks will destroy the fragile ecosystem and turn away the growing numbers of tourists who have been starting to visit their stretch of the Romney marshes. Dungeness is also of international importance, designated as a national nature reserve, a special protection area, a special area of conservation and a site of special scientific interest.
A similar scheme of quarrying the eastern side ended in 2007 over concerns for the environment, and since then the Environment Agency, responsible for England's coastline defences, had been buying in shingle from inland quarries. But that costs three times as much as digging out the beach – or "borrow pit", as the area to be excavated is known.
In a statement, the Environment Agency said: "Recycling shingle has an effect on the Dungeness special area of conservation, and in 2007 we stopped using the borrow pit and started to explore how we might minimise this effect while still maintaining the defences. Recycling shingle from the borrow pit provides the best value for money for the taxpayer and means that we can stretch public funds further to reduce the risk of flooding to more homes and businesses."
It would seem to go against the Department for Energy and Climate Change which, in a recent report on sites for a new nuclear facility, rejected Dungeness, stating: "If shingle had to be sourced from Dungeness for sea defence purposes, then this could impact this nationally and internationally important conservation site".
For local people it could also radically set back the area's growing popularity as a tourist destination. "Since they stopped quarrying here in 2007 the tourists have been coming. We get coachloads of schoolchildren, students on photography courses, bird watchers, photographers, the anglers of course. With the power station going out of commission we need the tourism for the local economy," said June Thomas. "You can't expect anyone to come here when there are giant lorries constantly going up and down. It's not safe." She can see the "borrow pit" from her windows.
"I dread it. As they load the lorries the sound will be awful, a mass of shingle being dropped from a height into a metal container, all day, every day, awful."
Her husband Ken, 60, is from a family who have fished here for generations. For him the plan itself doesn't make sense. "They will just change the profile of the beach and the channels, but do nothing to stop coastal erosion. None of them has any idea of how shingle moves. They had no idea how the shingle would shift when they built the power station and they wouldn't listen to the fishermen who told them this would happen, that they were building it in the wrong place.
'Now they're not listening again. They haven't done basic research to see what works and what doesn't by way of coastal defences. They stopped it once, when the conservationists stepped in and said that method can't be done. Now they want to save money and they've come back to it. They think Dungeness is a dump, a wasteland. Well, they're out of date, it's recognised now for what it is, somewhere special."
Paul Schwartfeger's house is built around a Victorian railway carriage, complete with parquet floor. He has been busy making up "No to Quarrying" posters that almost all the homes have in their windows. He says the EDF and Environment Agency proposals are short-sighted and won't provide any long-term defence against the longshore drift that affects the stretch of coast from Kent into East Sussex. "The quarrying at Dungeness is a cheap way of trying to tackle a major problem but all the expertise points to it not working. The Environment Agency says itself that flood defence strategies we need to be working with are those which manage risk – protecting and restoring and copying the natural regulating function of rivers, floodplains and coasts."
Mudflats and salt marshes provide a natural "sponge" for rising sea levels rather than hard barriers like shingle, while lifting the shingle also allows more water into the land – raising the water table and, in effect, raising the flood risk. "What makes me feel really angry is the hoops we have to jump through, and rightly so, about planning and the environment. We can't touch the land in our garden or put up a fence. It's a privilege to live here, but then the council can come along and decide quite arbitrarily to dig it all up. It's extraordinary," says Schwartfeger.
The protesters also make the point that EDF and the Environment Agency could dredge shingle offshore for a similar cost but without the noise and disruption. That's not something the owner of the fishing tackle shop in the nearby village of Greatstone is keen on. Tony Hills is chairman of Dungeness Angling Association and a Shepway district councillor. He believes the government's rejection of Dungeness as a nuclear site could still be overturned and is in favour of a quarry to provide the necessary shingle. "We need jobs desperately. Economic advantage shouldn't be put off by environmental needs. If we don't get sea defences, we don't get a power station, and vice versa."
He adds: "What's going to happen if we don't do this? For starters, you're leaving the 30,000 people living in the marsh area to drown."
by - Tracy Mcveigh