How can Suffolk’s nature coast and energy coast co-exist?
PUBLISHED: 10:01 18 December 2018 | UPDATED: 10:23 18 December 2018
© Justin Minns
With a number of major energy related projects proposed for the coast, how do we ensure a balance between development and preserving Suffolk’s natural assets?
It is anticipated that we will see a number of major energy sector-related developments on the Suffolk coast in future years. ScottishPower Renewables, for example, is planning a series of large offshore wind farms, which will also require onshore developments, while EDF Energy has announced Stage 3 consultation on Sizewell C is due to start in January. Both projects are expected to create millions of pounds for local businesses and bring many high –quality jobs to the region.
At the same time, Suffolk has a coastline loved by many, and conserving this area is important for safeguarding the unique and important wildlife that exists here.
Maintaining the scenery and natural beauty is also essential for the many tourism businesses in Suffolk and the quality of life of residents. The vast majority of the coastline is protected and designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), and stretches are owned by organisations such as the National Trust, Suffolk Wildlife Trust and RSPB.
How do we ensure a balance between necessary development and preserving Suffolk’s wonderful natural assets? What is the best approach to ensure Suffolk’s nature coast and its burgeoning energy coast can co-exist?
It is an issue exercising all stakeholders.
For councillor Geoff Holdcroft, Suffolk Coastal District Council’s deputy leader and the cabinet member with responsibility for economic development, site selection is a key consideration.
“It is essential that site selection methodologies are designed to ensure harm is minimised,” he said.
“The use of brownfield land can be advantageous, helping to reduce the adverse impacts of a development; however brownfield land of the size necessary is not always readily available.”
Mr Holdcroft calls for a more strategic approach to energy-related development on the county’s coasts, saying “all developers seeking a grid connection in East Suffolk must work together”.
The need for a co-ordinated approach is echoed by James Meyer, a senior conservation planner at Suffolk Wildlife Trust, who warns that poorly planned or implemented development can result in a myriad of different impacts on species ranging from harbour porpoise, to wintering wildfowl and waders, to breeding bats.
He added: “It is essential that all stakeholders are involved in the strategic planning of new energy infrastructure to ensure that those that can be accommodated are located sensitively and those that would cause significant, unmitigable damage, are not allowed.”
The RSPB, whose flagship Minsmere reserve neighbours the proposed Sizewell C plot, agrees that the shift towards low carbon and renewable energy should be an urgent priority for the UK government but also says Suffolk Coast is home to “some of our rarest and most threatened wildlife”.
In a statement it cautioned: “In seeking to make this transition, we must not lose sight of what we are trying to protect by tackling climate change in the first place.”
ScottishPower said that “protecting the environment and preserving natural assets are foremost in our development process” and said that site selection, environmental impact assessments and stakeholder engagement are all important processes in achieving the best outcome.
“We are a long-term developer and want to be a good neighbour,” it said.
EDF Energy says it recognises the importance of its role as “a custodian of part of the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB” which spans part of the Sizewell estate, and points to its conservation work with Suffolk Wildlife Trust on the land around its site which has seen it awarded The Biodiversity Benchmark award.
In a statement it said: “Our ecologists have continued to undertake environmental surveys and identify likely impacts to help inform our proposals. We have responded with either embedded mitigation into our design, or proposing separate measures to reduce impacts.”
At tourism lobby group, The Suffolk Coast DMO, brand manager Annie Willey said from her perspective the Suffolk coast “represents peace and tranquillity not energy production” and feels that to date “the impact to the local tourism economy of the proposed development [of the offshore wind farms] has not been given adequate consideration.”
Suffolk & Heaths AONB, manager Simon Amstutz also focusses on the visitor economy, saying the AONB has “the highest possible protection in terms of planning law” and that the designated landscape is “worth millions to the tourism industry”.
He added: “Given the juxtapositions of an outstanding landscape, statutory obligations and the need to produce cleaner electricity the Suffolk Coast is not an appropriate place for much of the infrastructure associated with energy production.”
Paul Forecast, regional director at the National Trust, said when we think of the economy, “a big industry like energy tends to sit higher in people’s minds than an amalgam of B&B owners but the energy and tourism sectors are equally as important as each other - so it’s important that by investing in one sector, we don’t damage another.”
“High in our minds,” he added. “is the importance of ensuring that infrastructure doesn’t ruin the landscape we have.
“The Suffolk coast is highly unusual and an a highly important asset, and we damage it at our peril.”