A Petition to Support Dredging … !? It’s Really About Jobs, Green Energy and Young People’s Futures

There are plenty of petitions against dredging as it can be environmentally damaging but this one is for it – for pretty much the opposite reason – and it comes from from Wells Next The Sea in North Norfolk (UK) where I live.

Here’s the issue:  offshore there is a large, new windfarm, Sheringham Shoal which has brought great community benefits and prospects, that are now at risk, mainly because of objections from a small number of local recreational sailors.

To allow boats servicing the wind farm to operate in and out of Wells, dredging is needed because access to the Harbour depends on a shallow sandy channel.  Dredging is currently on hold as the Marine Management Organisation, a government licensing agency, considers objections to a dredging licence application [see MLA/2012/00257 here] by Wells Harbour Commissioners.    So members of the community (led by a postman who is also a Town Councillor) have started a petition to the MMO to support the dredging.

Dull Stuff ?

Well it’s hyper-local but it is a microcosm of the issues faced to be thousands of times over if societies are to embrace sustainable forms of energy.  It’s a case where ‘causes’ long associated with campaigns, for example for renewable energy, are now being implemented in the mainstream from the EU to Australia, and running up against anti-change protests.   If you’re interested, here’s a bit of background.

Scira (partly Norwegian oil and gas giant Statoil) got the licence to develop the 88 turbine 317MW Sheringham Shoal in the mid 2000s and quickly worked out that if there was better access (more time across more states of tide) at Wells, this was the most economic (closest – 20 nm) location for its Operation and Maintenance Base.  This meant dredging.

But Wells, an ancient Port which has seen many twists and turns of fortune in its history of over 1000 years, is set in an environmentally sensitive coastline, (rightly) festooned with conservation designations.  Our Harbour Master Robert Smith had seen the community benefits which flowed from a similar project at Brightingsea Port in Essex and we decided to try and build an Outer Harbour to accommodate the wind farm development.  In 2009 we signed a long term agreement with Scira to finance the project but this meant finding the most environmentally benign way possible of dredging to give a minimum metre depth of water.  After a lot of studies, and emulating Dutch systems, we adopted a way of dredging which primarily uses natural channel water flows and minimal, GPS-controlled digging at low water.  We were granted a licence to do this in 2009 and the Outer Harbour began operating in 2010 – some details are here.

The Benefits

Back in 2008-9 there were plenty in the small Wells community (permanent population 2000, with summer visitors 10,000+) who felt disquiet at the thought of ‘industrial development’.  But not only has there been no evidence of environmental damage, for example to sensitive eel grass beds or mussel lays, the globally-rare Little Terns have started using the new Outer harbour shingle bank to nest on, and  in the three years it took to build the windfarm, huge economic benefits flowed to Wells.  A dozen or more ships worked daily from the Port and 650 workers accommodated offshore were fed and supplied with goods sourced locally.  It created jobs from engineering to ship crewing to taxi driving, and boosted business for butchers, greengrocers, hotels and B + Bs and many more.

The Norwegian windfarm developers Scira, have  a deliberate policy of investing in local training, education and recruitment and have built an Operations and Maintenance base creating 60 jobs which may be needed for more than  40 years.  Young people have prospects of training and careers in a green and high-tech industry, rather than just the mostly low-paid and seasonal work offered by a tourism-dominated economy.

The RNLI (lifeboats) and fishermen have found the new outer Harbour offers them operational benefits too, with the result that fishermen have been writing to the MMO to demand return of the dredging.  Scira supplies bursaries to local High School students going on the study engineering at colleges in the region, trains its own locally recruited staff, and gives £100,000 a year in support to community projects.   These numbers may not sound much but in a small community the effect is significant.

Benefits That Count

By my calculation Sheringham Shoal supplies as much electricity as is used by all the homes in Norfolk – it’s a lot anyway.  It’s part of decarbonizing Britain’s energy system and as an environmentalist, that matters to me, and some others.

But as a lady said in a focus group we ran in Cambridge a few years ago “I know we’ve got to save the planet, but there’s more important things as well”, and not everyone has the global environment as a high personal priority (see What Makes People Tick).

What’s swung the community behind the wind-farm, and left people hoping that another wind project will soon make its home in Wells, is that until very recently, there were few job opportunities for young people.   More than £7m has flowed into the community over the past few years as a result not just of the windfarm’s existence but because of Scira’s policy, encouraged by the Harbour Commissioners, of investing locally.  We’ve been able to expand the Harbour staff from four jobs to fourteen, and in a community naturally wary of change, seeing people you know get a job, makes benefits feel real.

Once 6,000 people lived in Wells and it had a thriving shipbuilding industry but the railways changed that, then came and went, and coasters grew too large to visit, leaving Wells in the early 21st Century with a small but much valued fishing fleet, lots of yachts, a lot of second homes and retirees whose influence has pushed house prices to three times what the average working family can afford, and an economy based on seasonal, mainly very low paid related jobs related to tourism, and care work.

Now that has changed, and the underlying reason Is renewable energy. Wells is enjoying something of an economic boom, and just as important, a boom in optimism and prospects for younger people and their families, the sort of young people who until recently, would have had often to move away if they wanted to ‘better themselves’.   It’s a success story built on harnessing wind energy.

The lesson for advocates of renewable energy is that it’s not what global or national benefits flow from green energy schemes that count – it’s where they fall, and who gets to benefit.

So Why Oppose It ?

If you read through the documentation about the dredging issue you’ll find that the Royal Yachting Association and a few recreational boat users are the principal source of objections to the dredging application, on grounds that it may restrict where they can sail.  (Wells Sailing Club, which represents far more sailors, does not agree).    While this is the sand in the works of the licence granting machinery, it’s probably not the only reason, or the real reason.

I read once, or someone told me (I wish I knew where), that when in the Eighteenth Century, Dutch-style windmills started to be built in Norfolk for grinding corn, there were riots of opposition, encouraged by local water-mill owners, and incited with the thought that these were an alien technology, a foreign threat.  Much the same Settler-pivoted dynamic applies in England today, with opposition to onshore windfarms whipped up on grounds of alien intrusion, and leading the governing right-wing Conservatives to try and outflank the even more right-wing UKIP by ‘getting tough’ on wind power.

After a while the water-mill owners realised they too could build the more powerful windmills, resistance disappeared and they are now largely used as homes, and conserved as a ‘treasured piece of England’s heritage’.  Even offshore, for some (including some Pioneers), modern wind turbines offend the eye.  As one person put it locally, looking out to sea he can now see the twinkling safety lights of Sheringham Shoal at night and “I miss the sense of infinity”.

I can understand that but it comes down to a trade-off.  Do you want to sustain what is in essence an illusion of unspoilt infinite natural landscape, or help conversion to a sustainable economy and a sfer climate for us and our children ?  More locally yet, in Wells it comes down to competing visions: a working port with jobs, or one which becomes ever more just a playground for those with the time and money to go sailing.

That’s something which people with a range of world views can unite around, although some, once they are committed to opposition, some may never change.

* * *

Sample of comments by those signing online:

“Because Wells is a community, not a museum, and communities only work if there is work”

“Because its good for Wells and good for the environment”

“I work in the windfarm industry and am a local to Wells and realise how vital the dredging of the channel is to the commercial viability of Wells”

“I was raised in Wells and know that the port is the heart of the town” (from Hong Kong)

“We need to keep the fishing going, Wells without fisherman would never be the same, providing employment and interest for both holidaymakers and local people”

“It gives the town / region another means of income, not just tourism”

Note:  I’m a Harbour Commissioner for Wells Harbour (a voluntary role, although recently I have done some paid work for the Harbour), a ‘Trust Port’ operating a bit like a social enterprise but under ancient rules that go back 350 years.

You can join the petition here (many more have also signed in hard copy offline)

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