Taken from Purbeck District Council website
19-10-04 - Report Considered By Purbeck District Council On A Review Of The Coastal Strategy For Durlston Bay
A REPORT prepared by a cross-party panel of Purbeck councillors is pressing for new local planning policies to prevent buildings being put up near clifftops which could be vulnerable to erosion.
The report says that a serious landslip at Durlston Bay four years ago was caused mainly by surface water and poor drainage from inland – and not by erosion from the pounding of the cliffs by the sea.
The report calls for an urgent review of the surface water drainage in the area of the Durlston cliffs and says this is currently being progressed as a result of an interim recommendation by the panel.
It adds: “We suggest that policy changes be considered to prevent any further buildings being constructed in the district near cliff tops or in valley bottoms - especially where there is previous evidence of flooding.
“Consideration should (also) be given to preventing the use of soakaways within 400 metres of any cliff as we understand the situation to be in Bournemouth.”
What caused the landslip in December 2000, and might be continuing to contribute to ground instability in that part of south Swanage, was a crucial factor in deciding whether any project there would qualify for a major government grant to protect the cliffs from further serious erosion.
Using professional consultants High-Point Rendel, work on preparing a bid for that grant began soon after the major landslip, in the belief that the landslip was caused primarily by the action of the sea.
However, the Department of Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) decided in December last year that the main cause of the landslip was not marine erosion - and as a result no coastal protection grant would be forthcoming.
In January this year the council decided to set up a four-strong panel, charging it with looking into “the circumstances of the Pinecliff Walk landslide” along with “associated actions, negotiations and remedial plans”.
The panel was directed to “comment as it sees fit on the actions of members, officers and other relevant parties, and to make such recommendations as it considers appropriate”.
The panel has met 15 times and has taken evidence from councillors and residents of flats in the area of the Durlston Bay cliffs, as well as from Purbeck district and Dorset county council staff, Wessex Water, High-Point Rendel and the Department of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs.
Purbeck council leader Councillor Bill Trite said: “The panel has looked at the evidence and come up with a set of recommendations which seek to ensure that the council’s procedures are clarified.”
He added: “The panel’s report has now been received by the council and its recommendations accepted.”
He said: “The issue is extremely complex and technical. At its heart is the precise definition of coastal erosion. There are various views about exactly what caused the landslip.
“For all these reasons the council set up the panel.”
One question has been the extent of the long-term threat posed by the receding Durlston cliffs to nearby flats – the Purbeck Heights and the Durlston Cliff blocks are both in that area.
The report has criticised certain councillors and council staff, as well as experts including Wessex Water.
District council staff involved at various levels had been of the view that the cause of the landslip was marine erosion, which would have meant that work to stabilise the cliffs would win government grant support.
The report says: “Even now the ‘marine erosion’ viewpoint continues to be presented as near fact by all the officers we interviewed.”
The council’s coastal issues adviser Councillor Malcolm Shakesby took a different view - as subsequently did officials at Defra - becoming convinced that ground water was the most important cause of the problem.
The report now backs that view and concludes: “The landslip at Pinecliff Walk in December 2000 was caused primarily by the presence of ground water exacerbated by inadequate surface water systems” and that “marine action was the primary contributory factor”.
The panel pinpointed “a communications breakdown” between certain officers and councillors which “led to a failure to address the key issues, along with serious and continuing confusion as to the availability of grants, and as to what the policy was and what actions should be pursued by Purbeck district council”.
The report is critical of councillors in general for not debating the issue - at a point when a report on the project was withdrawn - saying that in such circumstances “the issue gets forgotten whilst members wait for the revised report which precedes a debate in council”.
It adds: “For a project of this size, complexity and criticality, this should not have been allowed to happen.”
The panel highlights the role of Councillor Julie Wheeldon, who lives at Durlston Cliffs flats, and says it now wants a standards board review of whether there had been a “minor and understandable” technical breach of the code of conduct for councillors.
The panel’s view is that there is evidence she failed to clearly separate her role as a councillor and her position both as a resident and a member of the Durlston Cliff residents’ group.
After the landslide in 2000 the district council held discussions with the county council in a bid to get grants for remedial as well as coastal protection work which would help safeguard the residential properties in the area.
The leading consultants in the field of coastal and marine erosion - High-Point Rendel –were commissioned to draw up a scheme and to seek grants from Defra to carry out any coastal protection works.
Defra, despite its later ruling, agreed to pay the consultants’ initial fees and to pay for the works to divert a stream away from the face of the landslip which ran through the county council-owned Durlston Country Park.
The consultants were then asked in March 2002 to prepare a strategy study for submission to Defra, with a view to securing a grant for the completion of major coastal protection works.
However, in December last year Defra decided it would not be giving any grant for the work because it had concluded that the landslip was due to instability of the coastal cliff as a result of ground water and local drainage issues, rather than to any significant problem from erosion by the sea.
Witnesses from High-Point Rendel told the panel they thought that the Purbeck Heights flats were vulnerable because of the two landslips at Durlston in 1988 and 2000.
The consultants said they had been concerned that the residents of the Durlston Cliff flats had refused permission for monitoring on their property and said they believed this was a “head in the sand” attitude. Flat residents argued some of the ground cracks were the result of a WW2 bomb and that there had been no significant ground disturbance since 1988.
The panel says it was “saddened” by “an almost complete breakdown in relations and trust” between Councillor Shakesby and Purbeck’s chief executive Paul Croft along with two other senior members of the council’s staff.
Councillor Trite said: "When it came to accepting the report, four of the total of 24 Purbeck councillors could not vote on account of their absence or connection with the subject matter of the report.
"Of the remaining 20, eleven voted for acceptance of the report, so the recommendation by the panel that the report be accepted was carried. The other nine councillors wished to defer acceptance for four weeks so that the panel could review its findings.
“They also wanted the panel to receive and consider what the nine believed to be important additional evidence which, they thought, might have affected the panel´s conclusions."