Sussex

Cuckmere Valley future to be decided

Cuckmere meanders
Image caption The Cuckmere Valley today is the result of interference by man (picture by Vivienne Blakey)

More than 100 people in East Sussex are preparing to spend a seven hours thrashing out the future of a beauty spot.

Cuckmere Valley, visited by 450,000 people a year who walk or cycle alongside the river as it meanders to the sea, is threatened by rising sea levels.

The Victorian flood defences can no longer hold back the tide and the Environment Agency (EA) has withdrawn maintenance.

Announcing its decision two years ago, the EA said it wanted to spend the £18m needed to maintain the existing environment elsewhere.

The move was controversial, with many residents fighting for years to stop the valley being flooded and keep it as it is.

'Contentious issue'

On Tuesday, at a meeting at Alfriston Memorial Hall, a year-long project will conclude when one of seven options for best way forward is decided.

East Sussex County Council (ESCC) received £250,000 from the government to fund the Pathfinder Project .

Spokeswoman Jo O'Driscoll said: "This is a such a contentious issue locally. People feel really passionately about Cuckmere."

Over the past year, hundreds of people have attended meetings to come up with the seven options.

One is the Environment Agency's plan to do nothing but clear the river mouth of shingle for the next 15 years.

Image caption Hundreds of thousands of visitors every year enjoy the Cuckmere nature reserve

Others include the partial or full breaching of the embankments to restore the naturally functioning estuary.

Maintaining or even improving and raising the existing defences is also being considered.

The RSPB is among organisations which support a phased restoration of the natural Cuckmere estuary to provide saltmarsh and mudflat habitat.

"This will be a different kind of spectacle from the well-known meanders of the Cuckmere, but one which has greater potential for attracting wildlife and the tourists that seek it," it said.

ESCC has said whatever decision is reached will become its official policy for Cuckmere, but no-one is sure where the money will come from.

"One of the interesting things to come from the project is a move to form a Friends of Cuckmere Association," said Ms O'Driscoll. "That may be a forum for raising money."

"Or there are pockets of money available, for example EU money to promote salt grass habitats."

'Not lose access'

Deputy chairman of Cuckmere Valley Parish Council, Richard Mann, said he had been asking about funding for years.

"My own feeling is that, if and when a decision is made, it will still be up to an organisation like Defra," he said.

Carolyn McCourt, who lives in one of the picturesque coastguard cottages perched above the beach, has attended every Pathfinder Project meeting.

She is happy to accept Cuckmere being returned to a more natural state, with the benefits to wildlife habitat that will follow, but understands why others are not.

"What has been clear is that nobody wants to lose access to Cuckmere," she said.

Image caption Carolyn McCourt's former coastguard cottage perches above the beach

"If you love Cuckmere Haven it possesses you. People feel that you should not change something that is perfect.

"But if we get it right it will be an Eden."

She is organising an art exhibition, Celebrate Cuckmere, to mark the end of the Pathfinder Project, which will run from Friday until 19 June.

Work by professional artists will be exhibited at the Pump Barn at Seven Sisters Country Park and by amateur artists at restaurants, businesses and pubs in Seaford.

"There has been an enormous amount of fantastic, intelligent research and a lot of time and energy put into Pathfinder," she said.

"But I thought that one element that has been missing is the work of the artist."

A report on the outcome of Tuesday's meeting is to be published later in the summer.

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