Interests in conflict and in harmony

Helene Burningham and Simon Read have been organising a series of field meetings as part of their ‘Deben Soundings’ project. In this article, they report on the third meeting, held at Waldringfield on 10 February.

It is not unusual for the tendency of distinctive landscapes such as the Deben estuary to break down to overlapping spheres of interest. These different sectors and zones achieve a harmony despite inevitable tensions arising from the continuing evolution of the lives and livelihoods of a small community that has learned to live with itself and within a landscape. The small settlement of Waldringfield is just such a place, attracting visitors to sail, swim, sit on the beach and walk the estuary embankment, where pub, sailing club and boatyard reciprocally benefit each other and where rich and varied wetland habitats are host to rare species of wildfowl and wading birds.

Together this affords an ideal location to reflect upon how demands made within a constrained estuarine landscape need not lead to conflict or become mutually destructive. Immediately to the south of Waldringfield is a substantial salt wetland created by the failure of a flood wall in the last century, which now hosts a substantial colony of grey seals. Immediately to the north of the village is a newly created freshwater wetland flanked by a new improved flood defence that also functions as a promenade for locals and visitors alike. As can be imagined, this multiplicity of function could be a recipe for chaos, but somehow it isn’t, and for our small and crowded country, this is an archetype of a semi-natural landscape under pressure.

In the third field meeting of the Deben Soundings project, held at Waldringfield on 10 February, we explored the concentration of several business, community and environmental concerns all in very close proximity to each other, to scratch the surface of what appears to be a relatively harmonised collection of interests to see where the pressure points are and how they are managed. To accompany us we had Sue Quick of Waldringfield Parish Council, Alyson Videlo and Trish Hopkins of Waldringfield Sailing Club, Harbour Master, Tony Lyon, and Jon and Linda Wilkins of Waldringfield Flood Defence Group. We were once again very grateful to David Kemp of the Environment Agency for joining us to clarify some of the historical and contextual issues relating to the management of this stretch of the Deben.

As for all of our field meetings, a key to its success was the number of participants and range of interests they represented; to promote informal conversation, we restricted the participants to around twenty and ensured that each participant’s interest in the site would bring a different point of view to the discussion.

The themes we identified as starting points for conversation included:

  • the challenge of multiple interests clustered around the waterfront and the effort made by all parties to ensure that all views should be suitably accommodated with due consideration of each other
  • Waldringfield flood defence scheme (completed in 2015) along the north shoreline, the new freshwater marsh at Dairy Farm Meadow, and the management works on Waldringfield saltmarsh
  • a comparison between Waldringfield and Hemley saltmarshes

The challenge of multiple interests and public usage

In a confined location, as business and community interests continue to expand, increasing pressure is put upon the availability of space:

  • the ongoing success of the Maybush brings increasing footfall and vehicular traffic to Waldringfield that can present access problems for residents;
  • the boatyard is also busy, managing a large number of moorings for boat owners who come and go with increasing frequency during high days and holidays;
  • the sailing club continues to expand, and is beginning to outgrow its premises (in particular the dinghy park), resulting in a request to take over the adjoining saltmarsh area as an overflow, which is strictly not permissible given the designation accorded to the saltmarsh stock on the estuary as protected habitat;
  • the beach remains popular for visitors who come to take in the atmosphere, play, and bathe, and Covid lockdown raised issues around access to toilet facilities which are currently only available when the pub is open – conflicting needs have arisen as Waldringfield Parish Council have identified the only feasible location for new public toilets would be the car park behind the pub, but the pub want to retain that space for visitor parking.

Altogether, Waldringfield has become the victim of its own success and could spiral beyond its ability to manage demand. With increased development in the immediate area, this pressure is only going to become more intense, and rather than stay muddling along as best it can, perhaps now is the moment to consider a strategy to conserve the amenity value of the village without unduly compromising its genius loci.

Waldringfield Flood Defence Scheme

The initial impetus for this work was the dire effect of the December 2013 tidal surge (Figure 1) that overtopped the flood defences flooding the boatyard and the residential properties just beyond.

We were fortunate to be guided through the Waldringfield Flood Defence Scheme, and the events that led to the work, by Jon and Linda Wilkins (founding members of the Waldringfield Flood Defence Group and key instigators of the project) and David Kemp (representing the role of the Environment Agency in the partnership).

Figure 1: The Harwich tide record from December 2013, clearly showing the significant surge event that occurred overnight from the 5th to 6th; the tide at Harwich reached around 1.3m above the predicted high tide for that night


This gave clear insight into the complexity of setting up any infrastructure project on the estuary, from the partnerships involved through permissions to be secured to the funding streams to be sought. Although this was an integrated flood management scheme, it comprised three interlocked funding streams and responsibilities:

  • support from the Coastal Communities Fund (central government), established to ‘help coastal communities flourish and strengthen their appeal as places to live, work and visit
  • the hard defences in front of the residential properties fell within the remit of the Environment Agency
  • raising the clay wall beyond was project managed by the East Suffolk Internal Drainage Board (IDB) using clay acquired from Dairy Farm Meadow behind the wall creating a default freshwater habitat from the excavated site

Dairy Farm Meadow is owned by the Waller Trust, set up to create a wetland reserve – both the wall and the meadow are maintained by the Waller Trust. In order to protect the wall from wave action on its estuary side, the IDB commissioned a series of brushwood fences (Figure 2), which retain silt and will hopefully improve resilience by eventually establishing saltmarsh vegetation.

Figure 2: Brushwood fencing to aid saltmarsh restoration and stabilisation at Dairy Farm Saltmarsh

Note: Image provided by the authors.

Given the layers of responsibility for managing this project, including the need to seek permission and pay for a licence from the Marine Management Organisation to carry out works on the tidal side of the wall, it is evident that, even if it is for the public good, any initiative such as this demands perseverance and patience and cannot be undertaken lightly. In fact, given the hurdles that must be overcome for a community organisation to set up and run a project, it is a miracle that anything gets done at all, let alone the need to manage it into the future.

Comparing Waldringfield and Hemley saltmarshes

Hemley saltmarsh is quite a different matter to the easily accessible Waldringfield saltmarsh (Figure 3): accessed via the degraded defence wall, skirt the edge of a field, duck through a hedge, and you are on the remains of a flood embankment that has not been operational since 1938. Little would Henry Kent, the landowner at the time, have suspected that the failure of his flood defence was to play a significant part in the determination of flood risk management policy in the UK as we know it today – and with the help of David Kemp, we can give a full account of an intriguing and serendipitous story.

Figure 3: Map showing the estuary reach for our Waldringfield field meeting; inset map provides the 1900 map, showing the intact flood embankment across Hemley to Spinney saltmarsh prior to the initial breach in 1938

Coincidence has it that David’s great uncle, Sidney Kemp, was the tenant farmer at Hill House Farm in 1938 when the flood defence on Spinney Marsh breached. The relevant authority at the time – the East Suffolk Rivers Board – accepted the responsibility to mend the wall and employed a gang of labourers to fill the breach using sandbags. In 1939, the embankment breached again, and the landowner sued the local authority for negligence, which it fought and lost. On appeal to the high court, it lost again, but in 1940 the local authority took the case to the House of Lords where the verdict was overturned in its favour. The judgement from the House of Lords was that although East Suffolk Rivers Board may have the ‘permissive right to intervene’ it was not legally bound to do so.

This case set a precedent that continues to this day – the term ‘permissive right to intervene’ is enshrined as the guiding principle by which the Environment Agency undertakes the responsibility to directly fund flood defence works. The advice for or against intervention by the Environment Agency is guided by a cost benefit analysis, which sets the cost of maintaining a defence against the economic value of the flood cell to be protected to a ratio of 8:1, which is a rough estimate of what is required for a project to be fully funded by central government. Unless there are other factors to consider, such as residential property or ‘valuable’ infrastructure, the maintenance of the defences for small unproductive wetlands, such as at Hemley and indeed Dairy Farm Meadow, would not qualify for funding.

Since 1938, repeated tidal exchange through the breach has expanded the opening, and the site continues to evolve as it increasingly connects with the rest of the estuary. Unlike Waldringfield saltmarsh, which also functions as a first line of defence for an otherwise vulnerable clay wall, the marsh at Hemley extends landward as far as the tidal limit. As the derelict flood embankment here continues to deteriorate and more breaches occur, the system will over time establish its own equilibrium, and since there is no threat to lives and livelihoods it is most likely to continue without intervention.

Final reflections

Completing the day’s event convivially with tea and sandwiches at Waldringfield Sailing Club, we had an opportunity to expand upon what we had set out to explore and to exchange views upon the issue of increasing visitor impact, the management of new and existing wetland habitat, and questions around saltmarsh sustainability and resilience: is it under threat, will it continue to keep pace with sea level rise, does it require intervention to retain its integrity and if left alone, would it continue to evolve or gradually degrade and disappear?

These are questions for the present to be acted upon into the future, and although the intention of our project is not to advocate solutions, we seek to alert the broader community to the complex debate over the dynamic relationship between the estuary as an asset for the community to benefit from in harmony with a healthy and biodiverse ecosystem. Our thanks to our participants and particularly to Jon Wilkins for his account of the Waldringfield Flood Defence Scheme and as ever to David Kemp for ensuring that we kept our facts right.

This article is reproduced with permission from the Deben Soundings website. Featured image credit: Aaron Burden on Unsplash


Helene Burningham is a Professor of Physical Geography in the Department of Geography at University College London.

Simon Read is a visual artist and an Associate Professor at Middlesex University London.