The vista of Cuckmere Haven with the Coastguard Cottages in the foreground and the Seven Sisters chalk cliffs in the background is an internationally renowned scene inspiring countless artists, filmmakers and photographers over the years.
But this view is under threat as the cottages are at risk of collapsing into the sea if the current maritime defences are not reinforced.
Charity Cuckmere Haven Save our Shores (CHSOS) has marshalled huge public support for a ‘modest seawall defence scheme’ and an application was approved by the South Downs National Park Authority planning committee this morning (Thursday February 11).
Officers described how the existing steel pile wall was degrading, while defences around the cable hut have collapsed.
Mitigation would include artificial rock pools on top of a concrete apron.
Representatives from both the Sussex Wildlife Trust and Natural England spoke in objection to the plans.
Henri Brocklebank, director of conservation at SWT, argued the proposals would result in the direct and permanent loss of chalk reef habitats within a site highly designated for its wildlife value.
She said: “Do not allow concrete to destroy permanent wildlife habitats.”
Meanwhile Natural England’s Angela Marlow echoed her points, suggesting the mitigation measures proposed did not address the damage and could not replicate the whole habitat and community it supports.
But owner of one of the cottages Lucy Mutter, whose great-grandfather was the last coastguard officer stationed at Cuckmere Haven, described how while they had been working on the application for six years, she felt she had been building up to this moment her whole life.
She added: “It’s always been our aim to work sympathetically with the environment and we have no intention of running roughshod over the landscape and habitats we have a been a part of for so long.
“Our application is to enhance and consolidate what is already there, to allow us to continue caring for and investing in these very special buildings.
“Refusing this application will remove all our hopes. Unpredictable and catastrophic failure will follow, which would endanger the environment and ecology, putting visitors at risk and destroy forever one of the greatest treasures of our national park.”
Alan Moses, a trustee at CHSOS, said: “The buildings and the haven together are a representative symbol and essence of the statutory purposes of a national park and what it stands for.”
Michael Doyle, agent for the application, described how the proposed works were modest in scale while the buildings were ‘irreplaceable cultural heritage assets’.
Officers outlined how their recommendation to approve was a balance between culture and heritage and the national park’s natural beauty and wildlife.
Two committee members spoke against the application, and while recognising the strength of feeling in support of the buildings, suggested the difficult decision to relocate the cottages should be explored now rather than waiting another 80 years.
But Diana Van Der Klugt said: “It’s a question of whether the greater harm would be in allowing or not allowing the application and my own view is the cottages here are part of the iconic landscape of the South Downs.”
Andrew Shaxson added: “This is not just an iconic view of the national park, this is an iconic view nationally.”
For committee chair Alun Alesbury any impact on the Site of Special Scientific Interest would be ‘minimal’ in area terms compared with the ‘genuine and sensible’ attempt to protect the buildings.
The application was then approved by the committee by five votes to two with two abstentions.
After the meeting, a statement from CHSOS said: “We are naturally very pleased that the South Downs National Park Authority Planning Committee voted by majority in favour of approving our application to strengthen and renew the maritime defences at Cuckmere.
“We now await their letter of decision and conditions and look forward to working with the South Downs National Park and others on safeguarding this iconic landscape for the future.”