Quango criticised for blocking Alma Bridge plans

Alma Bridge. Ref shs 8755-10-15SH. Picture: Simon Horn

Alma Bridge. Ref shs 8755-10-15SH. Picture: Simon Horn - Credit: Archant

An environment quango has been accused of putting plants and fossils before people after it blocked a bid to protect Alma Bridge.

County Hall chiefs have blasted Natural England’s objection to a rock armouring scheme as ‘scandalous’ and ‘bureaucracy gone mad’.

However, opponents of the bid have said the defences could have unintended consequences and called for ‘more radical ideas’ to protect Sidmouth’s eastern end.

Devon County Council (DCC) has a £300,000 project in the pipeline to replace Alma Bridge next year.

The rock armouring required would comprise of up to 12 boulders. This aspect would need to be funded by either the district council or the Environment Agency.

However, Devon’s flood protection boss said a recent meeting saw Natural England object to the work. It has a policy of ‘managed realignment’ in the area, meant to ensure a healthy beach as the cliffs retreat.

DCC is now looking at another option of moving the eastern side of the bridge several metres upstream to increase the life expectancy of the structure. Funding has been agreed for design work.

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County councillor Stuart Hughes, Devon’s cabinet member for flood protection, said of Natural England’s objection: “This is a bureaucracy gone mad – Natural England is putting flora and fauna before people’s lives and livelihoods.

“It’s scandalous – rock armour is the most environmentally acceptable form of coast protection and all we are looking at here is for a temporary solution while a permanent solution is drawn up through the Beach Management Plan (BMP).

“This type of response doesn’t bode well for that scheme if all the concerns are for a few daffodils and tulips tethering near the cliff edge and a few fossils.”

But Cliff Road Action Group chairman Paul Griew said there was no immediate risk to Alma Bridge so it would be better to wait until the BMP is finalised – hopefully by the end of the year.

“That way we can protect the whole of the eastern town rather than a small part of it,” he said, warning that there is no saying what effect limited defences would have on the erosion of the broader Pennington Point.

Jo Frith, a BMP steering group member, added: “I don’t think [DCC is] likely to have any success asking for rock revetment around Pennington Point.

“I’ve long hoped for more radical ideas about protecting the eastern end of town.”

She said an artificial reef would be less intrusive than rock armouring, more acceptable for Natural England, good for wildlife – and it could utilise river and tidal energy to generate power. Ms Frith welcomed DCC’s revised plans for Alma Bridge and said she hopes it can be integrated into the BMP.

Natural England was approached for comment but has yet to do so.