Photo: The Wash lapping up to the edge of Wild Ken Hill
In this blog, our Project Manager Dom shares his views on the idea for a barrage to be constructed across The Wash. Over to you Dom!
I first heard of this idea in the middle of 2022, although it has been mooted and shelved before. I want to be clear that this is not an idea that we have dismissed off the bat. I have listened to a presentation made by the project proponents, and read the project materials that are publicly available.
Indeed, some of the proposed outcomes – if true – could be positive, in particular the generation of jobs and renewable energy. However, at this early stage, I also have such significant concerns about the proposals that I think they should be canned before they waster further time and money.
The first is of course The Wash’s wildlife. The Wash is one of eastern England’s last great wildernesses. 70,000 hectares in area, it is the largest estuarine system in the UK and the most important for birds. Its vast expanse of mudflats, sand dunes, saltmarsh, shingle, and open water provides a rich mosaic of feeding, roosting and breeding habitat for birds, making it and one of the most important and dynamic wetlands for wildlife in Europe. The Wash is also home to England’s largest common seal colony, and an important fishery.
The Wash is an internationally important ecosystem and a reminder of the abundance of nature that once persisted across the UK. Anyone to have visited the Snettisham Spectacular – murmurations of tens of thousands of wading birds flushed by the incoming tide – will have been moved by its scale and beauty.
What makes this all possible is that the Wash is a dynamic, nature-led landscape. The Wash’s habitats are formed by the specific hydrological and geomorphological processes which influence the movement of water and sediments.
The developer believes that by allowing some tidal water to continue to enter and exit The Wash, this will mimic the existing natural processes. However, any interference at all would almost certainly interrupt these processes, leading to change in the size and nature of The Wash’s habitats, and as such would likely be catastrophic for its internationally-significant wildlife.
The proponents have said that the barrage will “secure the existing ecology of The Wash”. This is rather an extraordinary claim to make. Centre Port Ltd – the developer making these proposals – to our knowledge have no in-house ecological team or experience. Nor have any ecology feasibility studies been commissioned yet. So there is no evidence for this claim.
In fact, when we heard Mr Sutcliffe present earlier in 2022, he was asked about the wildlife of The Wash, and responded that this was simply an “obstacle” that he would need to work around.
So let’s be clear, the claim that the barrage will protect The Wash’s wildlife is both baseless and insincere. It is a guess. A hope. Perhaps just a lie? Conversely, every major organisation with a history of conserving and enhancing The Wash is deeply concerned. The RSPB, The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, The Norfolk Wildlife Trust, and the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust have already made a statement on this.
With such statements being made, I have become more interested in the proponents’ backgrounds. Centre Port is a new company. It was formed only in March 2022. Its website is a few months’ old. It has no track record of its own. We don’t know who its investors are, or even if it has any.
So we turn to its CEO, James Sutcliffe, whose LinkedIn page states he led Port Evolution Management for the prior 20 years. Port Evo does not have a website. The last set of accounts it submitted in the UK was for a “dormant company”. It doesn’t seem to have any employees. Sutcliffe is also a director of Baltic Gateway Ltd and Crystal Seas Ltd – two more new companies. Crystal Seas Ltd was formerly called Port Eco Agencies Ltd.
This is all rather opaque. It seems these proposals are being made by an individual with connections to a range of inactive entities, none of which have a publicly-available track record of delivery. I therefore do not find the proponents trustworthy, and certainly not credible enough to deliver such a scheme.
This blog has so far only scratched the surface of the issues with these proposals, focusing on the one closest to home – wildlife. Briefly, though, there are other important concerns.
I am alarmed by the impact that construction and maintenance of this vast infrastructure project would have on the local area. Then there is the idea that a road would be built across it, which could lead to hugely significant pressures on the road network in west and north Norfolk. The only plan of the scheme I have seen shows the road entering Norfolk into the middle of Hunstanton, which seems ridiculous. But where are the alternatives? Heacham village? Holme dunes? I personally can’t see any.
The estimated £2bn cost is also considered a joke by everyone except the developer. By comparison, it was estimated that the shelved Severn Barrage project would have cost £34bn – and that was in 2010.
Then there are concerns that The Wash is not deep enough at the point of the proposed deep sea port and will require ongoing dredging, another potentially highly damaging human interference into a delicate landscape.
Another major issue is that no one quite understands what happens to the water that otherwise would have entered The Wash every tide. Some tidal water will be allowed to enter to power the turbines, but not all of the existing volume. There are fears that this water would be pushed elsewhere, and could cause flooding further round the Norfolk coast and beyond.
To even start addressing these concerns is going to cost millions of pounds of feasibility work. I believe that this money could be spent much better elsewhere. I should stress that we share the proponents concern on the risks of climate change. However, the Wash Barrage proponents must realise that working with nature is the way forward, not working against it. I urge the proponents investors to reconsider, and to spend their time and money on projects with real benefits for people, wildlife, and climate.