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Hallsands – A village twice betrayed

THE sudden loss of Hallsands one hundred years ago is a timely reminder of how human interference with the environment can cause unexpected results.
Last week, Totnes MP, Dr Sarah Wollaston raised a question in the House of Commons to business, energy and industrial strategy secretary Greg Clark. She drew attention to Hallsands as ‘an act of environmental destruction and vandalism that saw the removal of protective shingle from the shoreline’ – asking the minister for assurance that he will ‘protect us from an act of environmental vandalism —withdrawal from the Paris agreement?’
Dr Wollaston said: ‘The destruction of Hallsands village in the great storm of 1917 was a direct consequence of the dredging that removed so much of the protective shingle from Start Bay.
‘Whilst those responsible would not have known at the start of their dredging operations, they certainly did towards the end and yet their ongoing act of environmental vandalism has consequences which continue today.’
The week the village was destroyed, the Gazette lead with the headline ‘The beach went to Devonport and the villages went to the sea’ a reference to Richard Hansford-Worth’s report on the destruction of the village.
‘In 1903, Mr Hansford-Worth was appointed honorary engineering advisor to the villagers and worked for them, largely unpaid, for several years,’ David Marcer, from the No Second Betrayal group explained.
‘He was the first person to analyse the shingle and to prove, contrary to what the government of the day claimed, that tidal currents could not bring in material from out in the channel to replace it.’
Mr Hansford-Worth concluded: ‘Any loss caused by the removal of a portion of the shingle must under present conditions be permanent.’
Hansford-Worth emphasised the stability of the beach for the centuries before the arrival of the dredgers, although some later researchers questioned this stability.
Plymouth University have conducted numerous studies in recent years that have confirmed that while there is a natural state of flux to the movement of the shingle, it is a closed system – and any removed shingle is a permanent loss to the integrity of Start Bay’s defences.
Derek Mottershead concluded in his book Classic Landforms of the South Devon Coast: ‘In the light of information now available on the nature of Start Bay, and of modern understanding of coastal processes, there can be little doubt that the destruction of South Hallsands was an inevitable consequence of the removal of shingle.’
The destruction of the village one hundred years ago has eerie similarities with the current plight of North Hallsands – described by residents as having been ‘betrayed’ by government policy past, present and future.
The villagers are campaigning under the banner ‘No Second Betrayal’ to challenge the Environment Agency’s Shoreline Management Plan.
The coastline around Hallsands was assigned the designation ‘no active intervention’ in 2008. This means that the village is at the mercy of the sea, nature will be left to take its course and no public money will be spent on sea defences or repairs to the village’s infrastructure.
In 2014, after the last big storm, the villagers repaired sea defences themselves. And as Hallsands is left exposed and vulnerable, public money is spent on the protection of the neighbouring villages of Beesands and Torcross.
In the same storm, a section of the north road collapsed and Devon Highways have declined to repair the damage.
A Devon County Council spokesman said: ‘The road from Bickerton to North Hallsands is in an acceptable condition until it reaches the car park.
‘Since 2014, when much of the access road was swept away, the Environment Agency declared that no public funds should be used to repair the natural damage on this section, and this has become the DCC stance.
‘Local residents have self-funded a great deal of sea defence work and DCC has carried out ‘patching’ behind their work, but the defence has now failed again causing damage to the carriageway again.’
Residents of the village have campaigned and canvassed politicians at all levels, but most of their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.
Following the storm in 2014, Oliver Letwin MP, former flood recovery minister, visited Hallsands and made sympathetic noises about reviewing the Environment Agency’s status for the village. But a few months later, villagers learnt that nothing would change.
David Marcer told the BBC: ‘The shoreline management plan says that there’s nothing worth saving at Hallsands – but we beg to differ.
‘You can’t just say to some people – your houses are going to fall into the sea and there’s nothing we’re going to do about it. We pay our council taxes and national taxes like everybody else.’
The No Second Betrayal campaign draws attention to what they see as ‘unfairness’ – with local authorities’ collecting council tax and granting planning permission for new buildings and developments at North Hallsands, despite the ‘no active intervention’ policy.
A spokesperson for South Hams Council said: ‘Each planning application is determined in accordance with national and local planning guidance. If the development being proposed is appropriate and satisfies national and local planning policy, the council will grant planning permission.
‘Development in a coastal area is subject to normal controls, and we base our decisions on planning applications on the most up-to-date information.’
The spokesperson continued: ‘The Shoreline Management Plan identifies Hallsands as an area with ‘no active intervention’, a policy which the council follows, the district council has therefore not undertaken works at Hallsands, nor shall it do.
‘The district council works with the Environment Agency, to draw down funds where possible to protect the coastline and as such, while we do use officer time on coastal defence projects, we rarely use our own funds for direct works.’
In an interview with BBC Spotlight, district and county councillor Julian Brazil questioned whether local authorities should be spending ‘a million pounds’ on sea defences while neglecting ‘adult services, special educational, youth clubs, libraries, mending the roads.’
‘It’s a balance, unfortunately it’s not an infinite pot of money and we have to make priorities,’ Cllr Brazil said.
But David Marcer from the No Second Betrayal campaign hit back at this claim: ‘How can we have a sensible debate when the waters are muddied by people who should know better?
‘Cllr Brazil knows full well that the cost of sea defences is met by the Environment Agency, not by the county council and that the cost of repair at Hallsands would be much closer to the combined annual allowance of a county and district councillor than his fabled one million pounds.
‘Let us have less fake news and more openness in our political debate.’
While Hallsands received a brief mention in the House of Commons last week, Dr Wollaston reiterated that she is not in a position to change the Shoreline Management Plan: ‘Whilst I would welcome a policy change that protected the entire coastline of the bay, the focus has been to concentrate resources on the more permanently residential communities of Torcross and Beesands and the important infrastructure road link of the Slapton Line.
‘It is understandable that this will seem terribly unfair to those bought properties at North Hallsands and especially to those who did so before the designation was in place.
‘Whilst I and many others would welcome an apology for the extent of the original dredging, it would come too late for those whose livelihoods were destroyed in the great storm.
‘The most appropriate tribute to them would be for us to learn the lessons for today. The consequences of the loss of shingle from the closed system of Start Bay have been made far worse by the threat from rising sea levels as a result of climate change.
‘These are worrying times as the new US President contemplates another act of environmental vandalism in tearing up the Paris Agreement. Hallsands is a symbol of the consequences of man-made environmental destruction and I am happy to raise this with ministers.’
For further information on the No Second Betrayal campaign, visit the website:

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