Wednesday, 22 October 2014

‘Power to the People’? 
It’s practicality, not politics

MY seafront walk now leaves the museum and theatre, lying a few paces apart with the town council between them. An inside-out sandwich! 

Their volunteers – being trusted and respected by those in charge – have such energy, commitment and quality. Will councillors sometime look out from the Guildhall’s echo chamber to notice how their exemplary neighbours work?

Ahead are Phase II of coastal protection scheme, the reinstated gardens, and restored shelters. Together enhancing our seafront, each owes much to vigorous, informed local contribution. They remind us how valuable is ‘people power’.

I’ve been reading press cuttings and leaflets, and listening to some people involved, when from 1989 to 1991 Lyme’s voluntary ‘Committee Opposing Beach Breakwaters’ (COBB) challenged the water company and district council. With untreated sewage in the sea, and the seawall deteriorating, the two authorities planned storm water holding tanks and a pumping station for a long untreated sewage sea-outfall – these and the frontage to the harbour to be protected by three enormous offshore rock breakwaters.

The possibility of building these breakwaters had been previously explored with town councillors, but when the plans were unveiled just two months before the intended July 1989 planning application, many townspeople suspected ‘railroading’. Perhaps water board privatisation and looming EU regulations prohibiting raw sewage discharge explained some of the hurry?

Appalled by the breakwaters’ disastrous visual, economic and safety aspects, their likely ineffectiveness, and continuing sewage-in-the-sea, Lyme wouldn’t be bounced. A large protest meeting quickly resulted in COBB being formed, led by Stuart Case. Battling to smoke detail out of the authorities, firing letters to ministers and officials, and calling for a public enquiry, COBB initiated a town referendum which voted 97 per cent against the idea.

This stopped the proposals in their tracks, buying time for all sides to listen to each other. COBB set up the ‘Voluntary Advisory Group’, a technical team of local wisdom such as the former Deputy Borough Surveyor, geologists, engineers and fishermen with long experience of Lyme’s waters. In November their ‘back to the future’ plan advised restoring the self-scouring nature of the harbour, with longshore drift replenishing the beach.
Breakwaters abandoned

In August, a shaken district council had established a widely-representative ‘Lyme Regis Voluntary Advisory Panel’ to find alternatives to the breakwaters. This group (later evolving into the still-extant Coastal Forum) was led by the open-minded WDDC engineer Keith Cole, who took collaboration seriously and appreciated the significance of ‘amenity value’. The engineers analysed COBB’s proposal, eventually judging it technically impractical. But by May 1991 the unacceptable breakwaters were officially abandoned, replaced by plans for a phased scheme meeting concern for the appearance and utility of the seafront.

The enforced breathing space had other benefits. In 1990 sewage discharge to sea was outlawed: so the Uplyme treatment plant created a modern system with extended outfall and pumping works at Gun Cliff, protected by new seawall and promenade, completed as Phase I in January 1995. 

By 2004 government had come to accept that coast protection involved not just building sea walls but also managed beach replenishment and landward slope stabilising. Thus a recharged beach, slope drainage and pinning, with geomorphological understanding behind it, became fundamental to Phase II (the all-embracing scheme that’s protected the main front since 2007, proving itself so dramatically last winter) and to Phase IV, now almost complete.

Phase II had reduced the gardens to a muddy wasteland with a few carefully-preserved trees. It took Merry Bolton’s keen horticultural eye, examining the reinstatement plans for this unrivalled setting, to see that ideas from townspeople could enhance them: thousands of laurels below the Woodland Walk, for example, and over-use of ‘municipal planting’, would be inappropriate and costly to maintain.

So the longstanding Lyme Regis Environmental Group, chaired by Ken Whetlor, approached the district council, which understood the argument that “these are community gardens – the people of Lyme own them,” as Merry puts it. Drawing in a world-expert botanist, several skilled horticulturalists and an experienced entomologist – all local – the group worked with the council’s landscape architects who incorporated their more shrub-based planting to suit the site, encourage “bugs, birds and bats”, and minimise upkeep. We can all admire the results. It’s no surprise that Tony Benger Landscaping won a national award for implementing the design, nor that the U3A gardens group was inspired to help with planting and minor maintenance.

With seafront and gardens now stable, regenerating the derelict shelters also involved local volunteers. Although town council property, the district council in 1997 and 2002 commissioned engineers’ reports on their condition. LRTC’s ‘Shelters Working Group’ chose the option to ‘demolish and rebuild’, seeming to believe that demolition costs could be absorbed into WDDC’s Phase II. Optimistic! But – despite the Conservation Officer in 2005 drawing up a ‘project brief’ for redevelopment – the ‘working’ group forgot that demolition in a Conservation Area needs prior planning approval for replacement, a process they’d not even begun.

Challenge time again – now in 2006 from the Lyme Regis Society to Mayor Barbara Austin, who set a volunteer ‘Shelters Regeneration Working Group’, including several councillors, to work. Chaired by Stephen Wilkins, work they did, liaising closely with the council, for five years. They arranged an updated engineering report, led a major initial consultation and 72 small meetings about design and use with over 55 town organisations, compiled specifications, mounted exhibitions, held public meetings, sought an architect, struggled through the toils of Planning, and raised over £215,000 in additional funding.

These three undertakings were different in many ways, not just in scale – certainly Barbara Austin’s positive attitude was light-years from the attempt to impose a solution that faced the town in 1989. But in each case a public authority came to value the time and effort of local volunteers and, equally important, the knowledge and experience they offered.

Such partnership between ‘authority’ and ‘the people’ isn’t easy. Only self-confident and capable councils can handle it. Perhaps the present town council, while learning from its nearest neighbours, might also reflect on these examples.

No comments:

Post a Comment