We were there. In Alfriston Village Hall on Tuesday 7 June, the historic day when the Cuckmere Estuary’s future was finally decided.
After all the engineering and ecology reports, all the years of discussion about whether to let the sea flood the estuary or to hold the line, the people had spoken. Of the six options, the clear winner was option D, Maintain the Existing Defences.
The principle of protecting and conserving the estuary, rather than pursuing radical wetland options, had been established.
Then a strange thing happened. After the vote was announced, the meeting was moved by Hopkins Van Mil – the London-based ‘community engagement’ specialists employed by East Sussex County Council under its Pathfinder Project – to a ‘consensus-finding’ session.
Suddenly, the wetland-
creating option that came second, the complex Engineered Reactivation scheme, was brought back into consideration, though not by us. A vote, it seemed, was not a vote.
By the time Andy Robertson of ESCC closed the meeting at 7pm, after some comments from the floor, he had somehow persuaded himself that there was ‘consensus’ for maintaining defences for a few years, then moving to a wetland scheme after that.
But there was no consensus for this in the random contributions that we heard from the floor during that final session. No polling occurred to support this creative interpretation of what the voting figures ‘really meant’. Its corkscrew logic also ignored the fact that very close behind the Engineered Reactivation scheme, in the voting results, were the two ‘raise the banks’ schemes which anticipate potential sea-level rise. Two other wetland options, originally proposed by the Environment Agency, came last by a distance.
Almost a million pounds has now been spent on consultation exercises about the Cuckmere Estuary, when much smaller sums could not be found to maintain the banks.
Perhaps it is now time that ESCC, the Environment Agency and bodies like Natural England and the National Trust which have a wetland agenda unrelated to the needs of Sussex and the Cuckmere Valley, recognised reality.
The people have spoken. They do not need an enhanced wildlife habitat in the Cuckmere Estuary, which already attracts an amazing range of birds and other species. They want it accessible to all, with its historic landscape and unique beauty conserved.
And that – loud and clear – is what they have said.
Dr Jill Rosser, Seaford & Tristram Hodgkinson, Litlington