Multi-million pound plans to restore the Otter Estuary at Budleigh Salterton to natural and historic flood plains have been unanimously approved.
East Devon District Council’s (EDDC) Planning Committee today voted in favour of the Lower Otter Restoration Project bid.
The £15million scheme will create 55 hectares of mudflats, saltmarsh and other valuable estuarine habitats, writes Local Democracy Reporter Daniel Clark.
The initiative, led by landowner Clinton Devon Estates and the Environment Agency, will see the Big Marsh and Little Marsh floodplains restored.
Breaches will also be created in the Little Bank, Big Bank and the River Otter Embankment to allow water to flow through.
The aim is to avoid the significant risk that a major flood or extreme tidal event could lead to catastrophic failure of the existing defences.
Mike Williams, from the Environment Agency, told councillors that its vision is for a nation ready for and resilient to coastal change – ‘today, tomorrow and the year 2100’.
He added that the Lower Otter Restoration Project plays a part in delivering this for East Devon.
Mr Williams said: “It is simply a matter of time before the embankments fail and lead to substantial flooding.
“This will cause great change, but this should be seen as an opportunity to be granted now while it remains possible.”
Dr Sam Bridgewater, head of wildlife and conservation at Clinton Devon Estates added: “We must adapt to climate change.
“There are two options; a managed transition, or the second which is unmanaged with none of the protections in place.
“We aim to adapt the Lower Otter Valley to the current and future challenges climate change will bring.
“This is among the biggest changes that East Devon has seen but the natural environment will be improved by the scheme.
“It is a bold initiative but the times demand it and we must confront climate challenges.”
Sam Scriven, head of conservation for the Jurassic Coast Trust, said: “It is rare for a major project like this to improve rather than harm the world heritage site.”
Local resident David Daniel added that although the scenery from his childhood would change dramatically, a man-made landscape will be lost but another one will be gained.
He added: “It is far better to pre-empt any event that manage change in a controlled way. The status quo is not sustainable.”
Budleigh Salterton ward members Councillors Alan Dent and Tom Wright both called for the scheme to be approved.
Cllr Dent said: “The concept of breaching the river embankment to restore an historic flood plain is imaginative, far-sighted, and generally welcome.
“I support this with certain caveats as assurance must be given that residents’ properties will be safe and secure in the future.
“This is a welcome long-term project that manages the risk of rising sea levels and the consequence of unmanaged flooding.”
Cllr Wright added: “Restoring the area and the environment before man intervened to create the artificial environment we have and will mitigate the damage.
“The project will deliver a significant area of quality tidal saltmarsh.”
Cllr Geoff Jung, EDDC portfolio holder for coast, country and environment, asked for the plans to be given the go-ahead and said: “You don’t mess with nature and in the end, nature wins.
“Nature will eventually take the area back, so if we allow nature to do its thing, we will lose the agricultural land, the footpaths, and allow salt water in ingress into the old waste tip.
“This can springboard East Devon into being a leader in nature-based solutions to reduce flood and coastal erosion risk.”
Concerns were raised by residents about the risk of flooding.
Margaret Yerrell said the scheme will have unpredictable and irreversible changes.
Ian Smith added that it it will bring the sea from more than 2km away to the edge of homes and was a ‘dangerous and unnecessarily overextended project’.
David Butler said that rushing to make a decision would lead to the risk of adverse outcomes.
But proposing approval, committee member Cllr Philip Skinner said: “This is such an important issue and we need to get this right.
“Usually we put up flood defences after we have had the flood, this is before it.”
Cllr David Key added: “This will rectify the issues of flooding for the area, and, if we do nothing, it will get worse.”
Cllr Olly Davey said that, while the project will involve a massive change to the Otter Valley and be ‘frightening’ to some people, on the whole it will improve the existing situation.
He added: “I do understand the concerns and hope their fears are not founded, but I am satisfied as a can be that it is not going to lead to any increase in the risks to the residents.
“I will be sorry to lose some of the habitat that we have there along the Otter Valley, but quite looking forward to seeing how it will evolve, as doing nothing is not an option.”
South Farm Road will also be realigned and raised, a new road bridge and footbridge bridge provided, and a small car park would be created at its western end.
Existing footpaths will be realigned and a landfill site capped and planted with grassland and woodland.
A spit to the south will be allowed to evolve naturally, necessitating the removal of the southern part of the loop path known as Donkeys Turn.
Budleigh Salterton Cricket Club has already secured permission to relocate to a site off East Budleigh Road.
Councillors agreed with the recommendation of planning officers to give the scheme the green light.
This is subject to appropriately-worded conditions relating to archaeology, materials of a footbridge, access details and public rights of way, contamination, a construction management plan, groundwater levels, adequate car parking, the provision of a footpath, arboricultural and tree protection details.