‘Timescales can be squeezed if there is adequate will’: column by Robert Smart

The latest in an occasional series of viewpoints by Councillor Robert Smart, Leader of the opposition Conservative Group on Eastbourne Borough Council, looks at seafront protection timescales.

Environment Agency discuss changes to the seafront SUS-221105-093217001
Environment Agency discuss changes to the seafront SUS-221105-093217001

The latest in an occasional series of viewpoints by Councillor Robert Smart, Leader of the opposition Conservative Group on Eastbourne Borough Council, looks at seafront protection timescales.

Last week (April 30) I attended the exhibition, talk and seafront walk arranged by the Environment Agency(EA), in order to understand their progress and future programme to safeguard Eastbourne from flooding.

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My criticism is one of timescale: the ‘long list’ of 30 project possibilities presented was not specific to this Eastbourne and Pevensey Bay location but represents the Agency’s ‘box of solutions’ that would be available to any coastline and, in my view, could have been presented a year ago.

The EA make it quite clear that their timetable is to present a full business case to Defra in 2025 (three years away!) followed only by the start of any works in 2026 at the earliest.

I know it is a complex project, but as the development of Covid vaccinations shows, timescales can always be squeezed if there is adequate will.

Of course, a long-term view should be considered and the project is described as providing solutions for 100 years. But, because of uncertainties, the business case is almost certain to be quite flexible and provide for future review points.

Within the 30 possibilities are four described as to “maintain existing frontline defence structures”. Compliments have been paid to the existing structures and it is, in my opinion, highly likely that no change will be deemed necessary for a number of years after 2025.

Eastbourne Borough Council cannot (and should not) defer decisions on our important seafront assets until this proposal is completed in 2025 (at a cost itself of £4m.)

By comparison with this timetable, it is very pertinent to contrast it with our EBC’s bid of up to £50m from DLUHC for rejuvenating Eastbourne seafront (from Harbour to Holywell) which needs to be submitted in two months’ time, by July 6! This is complex too.

If there is one positive result arising from the unnecessarily delayed ‘longlist’ it is that none of the 30 solutions implied redesigning our unique promenades.

Nor should it: the mandate to the EA is to protect our heritage assets as well as the estimated 10,000 homes (mainly in Eastbourne) at potential risk of flooding in the next 100 years.

On finance, it is relevant to point out that clearly no scheme is anywhere near being costed: The £100m-plus figure referred to is the estimated benefit of protection, largely of 10,000 homes and is consistent with the Government’s overall announcement of £5.2bn to protect 336,000 homes nationally.

The working assumption is that costs at this level will meet the Government’s Green Book rules. However, the ‘partnership funding approach’ will further complicate the bid, as will the secondary objectives of reducing carbon emissions and increasing biodiversity. Although desirable in itself there is little evidence that the latter can contribute significantly to reducing flood risk.

All of which supports my assertion that Eastbourne Borough Council (and others) should not defer decisions on seafront assets whilst awaiting details of the EA’s proposal: an approach sensibly taken at the recent meeting of the Strategic Property Board, of which I am a member.