27th May 2020
Whilst the Dorset coastline is volatile and well known to be prone to instability, developing properties that boast exclusive sea views along its shores has the potential to be lucrative to those willing to take the risk. One developer took that chance on a cliff above Castle Cove in Weymouth, with planning permission in place to build three luxury homes worth £1.5 million. Despite these incentives, the development would bring its challenges as the entire site was to be built on a historic landslide.
The plans to build at this location on Old Castle Road were controversial among local residents, who had known for many years that the cliff was unstable. Indeed, some residents have previously lost part of their gardens to landslides and some have taken measures into their own hands to protect their homes by building defences. However, planning was granted on the basis that the development design would not negatively affect the stability of the cliff and that it would potentially curb further movement, which could otherwise affect the Old Castle Road. Despite this promise, locals were still not convinced that the land was suitable for development.
In March 2020, before building works had begun, a landslide took a large portion of the site down and the value of the land with it. The developer originally tried to sell the land at a cost of £1 million, but this was later reduced to £600,000. This significant decrease in value is likely a direct result of this landslide event.
With the development stalled, there is nothing stopping the cliff, which is now four metres from the Old Castle Road, from retreating further due to a combination of increasing high rainfall events, a high-water table, and coastal erosion. There are growing concerns that the Old Castle Road will need to be rerouted and that up to 90 homes could be affected if further movement occurs. This will have implications for the residents who could lose more than just the value of their property if the cliff continues to recede. The landslide progression is currently being examined, which will indicate to the authorities what further works are required. Whether this will involve installing full coastal defences or letting nature run its course remains to be seen and will depend on the social, economic, and environmental factors at play.
The current Shoreline Management Plan (SMP) for this heavily developed section of the coast fundamentally aims to protect its commercial, social, and environmental assets. However, there is an acknowledgement that intervention would not be possible for some parts of this section of coast and that some cliff top properties could be lost. As society and industry grow more conscious of sustainability, the shoreline policies move towards more ‘natural’ long term plans. Where the potential losses are not sufficient to justify the economic or environmental expense, some properties may not be offered protection at all.
If the right engineering solutions are implemented for new developments on the areas of coastline at risk from landslides and coastal erosion, this could allow for private development to continue whilst protecting existing properties and infrastructure. However, the expense and potential for significant losses involved in such ventures, as demonstrated at the Old Castle Road development, is likely to put many people off.