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Friday, 14 July, 2000, 10:36 GMT 11:36 UK
Crumbling cliffs highlight coastal crisis
Birling Gap PA
Birling Gap: The cottages will almost certainly fall into the sea in the next few years
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

A public enquiry is about to begin into the fate of a tiny village on the English coast that will soon be engulfed by the sea.

Experts say the village will have to be abandoned as the sea cannot be held back.

The tiny settlement of Birling Gap near Beachy Head in southern England, caught in a narrow cleft in the South Downs, teeters picturesquely over the stormy waters of the English Channel.

The handful of people in the six cottages huddled on the top of the cliffs, though, have little time to think of the view.

The Channel is creeping closer year by year, as it has for several millennia, eating away inexorably at the soft chalk. And within the foreseeable future, their homes will finally slip over the edge.

Some want coastal defences built to protect them, but they have run into powerful opposition.

English Nature, the United Kingdom Government's wildlife adviser, rejects their plea. It says any defences would damage a unique site of special scientific interest (SSSI), the designation awarded to the top conservation sites.

The National Trust, owner of three of the affected cottages, also opposes the protection plans, and so does the Sussex Downs Conservation Board.

The local council's planning officers agreed, but were overruled by elected members of the council, who want to accept one of the two schemes suggested.

National significance

The matter comes to a head on 18 July, when a public inquiry into the fate of Birling Gap begins in the nearby downland village of Alfriston.

What eventually happens there will affect only a handful of people. But the inquiry's decision, important as it will be to them, will have a wider national significance as well, because long stretches of the UK's coast are now at risk of erosion, or of simply disappearing under the encroaching waves.

The problem is worsened by the prospect that sea-levels will rise as climate change takes hold: the sea in the English Channel could be up to 54 cm (21 inches) above its present level by the 2080s.

English Nature says Birling Gap is important because of the way land and sea interact at the shoreline, for its sections of exposed rock, and for the habitats and species it shelters.

It is also the longest natural exposure of chalk cliffs in Europe.

With the erosion rate over the last 125 years estimated at an average 0.75 metres (2.5 ft) annually, English Nature says any attempts to protect the Gap would cause problems further along the coast, and would probably be ineffective anyway.

Lost land

The National Trust's regional director, Sue Forster, said it had offered to buy the three privately-owned cottages at Birling Gap, only one of which is now occupied, and allow the owner to rent one of the three which it owns at a peppercorn rent.

"We cannot hold back the sea in the longer term," she said.

Modelling undertaken by an independent engineering consultant indicates that the rock barriers proposed by the residents will not prevent their cottages being lost to the sea. Managing the impacts of the erosion is therefore the only realistic course of action."

The Trust's policy on coastal protection is summed up in a statement which says: "The Trust accepts and works with natural coastal processes and only in certain cases seeks to interfere with them. It accepts that it will lose land on the coast."

Birling Gap's days as a human settlement are inevitably numbered. And natural forces, with or without climate change, will ensure that its abandonment to its fate, however unpopular it may prove, will be the pattern for many more spots on the UK coast.

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