The group with competing interests who look after one of the jewels in England’s heritage have found a way to work together by being open and focusing on outcomes, research has found.
The study examined in detail a group set up to manage the complex and ever-changing coastal land adjacent to a popular sandy beach, West Wittering, in West Sussex.
The group’s key job – in common with coastal communities worldwide – is to confront the ever-present risks of flooding and erosion.
It is thought to be the first study of what makes a high stakes complex local coastal management group successful.
We examined the management of East Head, a rare, fragile and dynamic sand dune site which is potentially sensitive environmentally, socially and politically.
One of the report’s authors is Dr Jonathan Potts, an expert in coastal and environmental management at the University of Portsmouth’s School of the Environment, Geography and Geosciences. He hopes the results will encourage and inspire other management groups that communication, patience and persistence can help prevent loss of valuable natural assets.
Dr Potts said: “We examined the management of East Head, a rare, fragile and dynamic sand dune site which is potentially sensitive environmentally, socially and politically.
“What’s important is the different stakeholders have agreed a common approach. They’ve found that being transparent, holding regular meetings, focusing on outcomes and being flexible is working. They also see their group’s diversity as critical to its success – they value the different perspectives and areas of expertise of others in the group.”
The lessons could be applied to other environmental issues where consensus needs to be developed, he said.
“The group and its processes aren’t perfect, but they are a great model – I’d argue they are an exemplary example which others, particularly similar coastal groups, could follow.”
The data was collected by then-masters student Rebecca Creed, now a coastal engineer at Canterbury Council.
The East Head Coastal Issue Advisory Board was formed in 2007 to find a way of taking into account the views, needs and expertise of a disparate group. Its members include local authorities, neighbours, a harbour authority, the Environment Agency, land owners, the National Trust, a funding trust, and Natural England.
Being transparent, holding regular meetings, focusing on outcomes and being flexible is working. Different perspectives and areas of expertise of others in the group are valued.
The site is a designated area of Special Scientific Interest, because of its importance as a habitat to coastal birds, and juts into Chichester Harbour, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
In addition to birds, the area draws large numbers of tourists, recreationalists and environmentalists.
The spit stands on the edge of the harbour mouth, protecting many thousands of boats.
Of particular concern and interest is the hinge, part of East Head which continuously and unpredictably erodes or is rebuilt, depending on the winds and seas.
The management group is following an adaptive management approach, which involves making decisions without knowing the outcome, aiming to learn from decisions and, eventually, to reduce the uncertainties.
Of those in the group, 83 per cent said the adaptive management policy was the best way forward partly because it was impossible to predict changes in the position of the hinge or other areas of the spit, and so it allowed them to be flexible and respond as and when needed.
One of those interviewed said the management approach struck “the right balance between nature taking its course and engineering”.
Another told researchers that uncertainty over how best to manage a highly complex landscape came from “a deep-seated need for a clear-cut answer”, and that in a situation where no clear-cut answers were likely, adaptive management was a sensible and pragmatic approach.
Management of coastal resources was increasingly necessary in England, he said, as coastal management underwent a major shift from keeping water out, to making space for water.
This shift in philosophy brought with it a demand to adopt a more flexible way of looking after resources in an ever-changing dynamic environment.