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Dune and Dusted?

Dune and Dusted?What excitement!  National coverage on TV and in the quality newspapers. "Man bulldozes historic sand dune" and so on was the cry, and a lot of uninformed (and sometimes inaccurate) criticism flowed from the pens of those who probably should have known better.

Locally it was just as bad, with many of the contributors to the Gazette's website treating it to the same sort of invective normally reserved for paedophiles and serial murderers. The venom used by some was quite astounding.

We've even seen normally measured people being entirely illogical as they flex environmental concerns and credentials without stopping to look for the facts and to think about what is happening.

But the publicity has been great for Fylde. (Much better than Blackpool's recent attempt to create a stir with the "Heut Peut" short for UTube)

We've been contacted by several readers for information on what has happened, so we thought we'd try and shed some light in it. Once again, we're not going to be universally popular with what we have to say.

The first thing to note is that at one time all this land with the sand dunes and rabbit warrens, stretching way inland, was completely undeveloped and belonged to the manor of Lytham.

(Arguably, originally it belonged to no-one and to everyone, but if we start down that road we'll be here all day buried in the socialist "all property is theft" argument). So for the time being, we'll just accept it was in private ownership.

The land was sold to others. We think it lies just outside the 'square mile' originally bought by the St Annes on Sea Land and Building Company (who themselves destroyed large swathes of natural duneland and dune slacks in order to build the town of St Annes of course), but either way, the land was, historically, in private ownership.

At some point (and we suspect this was before the houses were built on this section) the St Annes Promenade was built (or more probably extended) across this land.

In just the same way that a road might be built across a farmers field, the field that remains untouched on either side of the road stays in the ownership of the farmer whose property had been cut through by the road. Just so with the landowner here. They retained ownership of that part of the land they owned on the seaward side of the new promenade road.

We suspect that the houses were built after the road was put in place, but either way, the owners of those particular houses retained ownership of the small section of land on the far side of the promenade road that had cut through the plot they had bought with the house (or at least the plot they had acquired and were granted planning permission to build on).

So the landowner is quite right when he says he owns the land he has 're-landscaped'.

We're not sure if he owns the whole of the area onto which he has pushed the sand, and this might be the first area of difficulty for him.

If he has pushed it back onto part of the foreshore which *is* in the Council's ownership, they might argue he had no right to do so. They might also claim the sand is 'contaminated' and it may not be put back onto the foreshore.

He can counterclaim that the process that deposited it on his land is either natural (windblown) or man-made (the council or more probably the council's contractor clearing the footway that is part of the highway), and in either case he is entitled to return it to the lawful owner.

By the by, he is also right (at least up to a point) to say the Council has put  sand on his land. It does (or at least did) this in two ways.

Firstly, if there was a blowout of the foredune, it would fill the hole with organic  beach cleaning debris then cover that over with a depth of sand and plant Marram and Sea Lyme grass into it, thus accelerating the natural process.

Secondly, it employed contractors to clear the road after a strong wind. The contractual arrangement used to be that the work was done for the value of the sand removed (so it was at no cost to taxpayers).

Where a mechanical shovel could scoop it up off the road that was put straight into the contractors lorry and (presumably, eventually) sold. Where the footways were cleared, often the contractor would scoop up the sand and deposit it on the existing sandhill.

Whilst these practices may, or may not be those currently in use, they are, historically, accurate descriptions of what happened.

This matter is clearly one for lawyers to feed on for weeks with no-one except them benefiting from it.

There are (or at least were) other properties with the same 'frontager' ownership rights, but over time some, if not all of them, agreed to dedicate (give) the land on the seaward side of the road to the Council.

This was mostly because it could be argued they were technically responsible for the cost of clearing the sand that had blown from their land onto the highway, and they could avoid the risk of having to pay for road cleaning by giving the land to the Council.

The man with the bulldozer evidently was not convinced that the Council could succeed with a  claim that it was 'his' sand that was being deposited on the highway (and we have some sympathy with that view since the sand originates from the foreshore which is in the ownership of the council anyway). And he has evidently decided to retain ownership of his land.

So where does this leave us?

Was he right to push the sandhill back onto the beach, and what's going to happen now he has done?

Well, a lot of folk are making noises about compulsory purchase and needing planning permission, but we suspect that is more hot air than practicality.

We suspect he was perfectly entitled to do what he has done and there's not a lot anyone can do to stop him or change things.

One exception here is that the Council and the Government probably have deeper pockets than he has (actually, with Fylde in the financial state it is at the moment that might not be strictly true, but certainly the Government has more money... or it did until it started taking huge loans out) and they could go to law on the basis that he may not be able to adequately defend an action.

The consequences of what he has done are a different matter.

There are two main aspects to consider: whether the action has opened the possibility of flooding; and whether there is now greater risk of windblown sand landing on the roadway, his property and other properties. We'll deal with each in turn.

The increased chances of flooding 'per se' at this point are minimal. However there is an increased chance of overtopping of waves.

That's not the same thing as 'flooding' though, because the water would run into drains and get away.

It would only become flooding if the drains couldn't cope. Occasional wave overtopping is unlikely to overwhelm drains. If it did, then the chances are the sea would have first come in through the gap in the dunes that is the access road for the sandwinning operation near 'Dunepoint' (as that incongruous monstrosity of a monument to the worst planner in Fylde's history that sits in the middle of a SSSI is known). It would also be up the grass and across the road at Granny's Bay.

And in any case, overtopping at this point historically only occurs with a combination of storm conditions and what is known as a 'surge tide' that is held artificially high by wind from a particular direction. These conditions typically arise less frequently than once every 20 years, and the last two occasions, whilst doing great damage to the existing dunes, by washing the front half (about 50%) of them away, caused no flooding except a bit in the low lying car park area between Pleasure Island and St Annes Swimming Pool.

So wholesale property inundation with the sea is unlikely because of the bulldozing.

The weakest point in that area is actually the short stretch from the corner on Todmorden Road to the end of the paved 'slipway' slope the council constructed. Marked as 'B' on the older photo below.

North Promenade, St Annes

At the top of this slope, the 'dunes' are entirely man-made and only about 2 to 3 feet thick at the base (although these days they are stretching down the flagged slope a bit because there has not bee a recent storm to clear them from the slope). There is much more chance of wave overtopping at this point than there is where the bulldozer has been.

There is also already a gap through the dunes nearby to allow vehicular access to the Sandgate Pumping Station, (Shown at 'A' on the picture), so if water is to come through a gap in the dunes, it will be through there as well.

So whilst what he's done is not helpful in terms of sea defences, its not a cardinal sin either. Nor is it the only (or even the most likely) place that the sea would come through. And that argument will still apply even if you believe the threats of sea-level rises.

This is going to be more of a problem.

To grow properly, Marram and Sea Lyme grass need constant replenishment with windblown sand. They actually grow through the deposited sand as it piles around them.

Part of their function is to trap sand by slowing the velocity of  strong, sand carrying winds passing through the grass. This causes most of the heavier grains to drop out amongst the grasses, creating the 'top dressing' conditions they need.

So the sand dunes help to reduce the amount of windblown sand reaching the built up parts of the area. This is also why, over time, they increase in height and spread.

Under natural conditions,  periodic storms could be expected to take away anything up to 50% of the dunes. This action reduces the natural height and  spread as the remaining sand slithers down and blowouts occur. Nature's healing process here is to re-colonise the damaged dunes with Marram and Sea Lyme grass and the whole process starts over again.

But here, the landowner has pushed the sandhill forward onto the foreshore. That will create a venturi that strong winds will whistle through, and for a time at least, there will be much more sand blowing onto the road and onto property nearby than would otherwise be the case.

He has said he intends to plant 'the area' with grasses and we're not sure what he means by this. Newspaper reports suggest planting of the sand pushed forward. That would be a waste of time and money.

The first decent high tide we get (probably this autumn) will wipe that sand away as though it had never been there - Marram grass and all.

Planting Marram and Sea Lyme on the flat area that has been cleared is much more sensible because the dune re-construction process would begin again, echoing nature as the next lot of blown sand settles around the planted grasses.

But that of course will start the sandhill growing in height again - which may not be the objective of the landowner.

We also hope the Commissar isn't going to try an make too much capital out of the blowing sand argument - at least not until he had fixed the magnificent Victorian Sand Shield next to the St Annes boating pool.

This is in a lamentable condition and is not working as it should. Not only has the sand not been cleared for eons, but it is structurally damaged in many places so it can't trap the sand - and hasn't been painted to protect it from further deterioration for many a year.

Sandshields, St Annes Promenade

Dated:  22 May 2009


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