£15m plans to restore the River Otter to its natural and historic plains approved

The Lower Otter Estuary

The Lower Otter Estuary - Credit: Lower Otter Restoration Project

Councillors have unanimously backed multi-million-pound plans to restore the Otter estuary to its natural and historic flood plains. 

East Devon District Council’s planning committee on Wednesday (January 6) morning voted to approve the Lower Otter Restoration Project, which will create 55 hectares of mudflats, saltmarsh and other valuable estuarine habitats. 

The £15m project, led by landowner Clinton Devon Estates and the Environment Agency, will see the Big and Little Marsh floodplains around Budleigh Salterton restored, with breaches created in the Little Bank, the Big Bank and the River Otter Embankment to allow water to flow through. 

The aim is to avoid the significant risk that a major flood or extreme tidal event could lead to catastrophic failure of the existing embankments, with unpredictable environmental and social impacts, given that in recent years, part of the South West Coast Path that runs along the embankments have been closed to the public for significant periods due to erosion caused by such events. 

The committee heard that if nothing was done, then changes to the environment would likely occur, but would be unmanaged and unpredictable, and backed the officer recommendation to approve the scheme. 

Mike Williams, from the Environment Agency, said: “It is simply a matter of time before the embankments fail and lead to substantial flooding. This will cause great change but this should be seen as an opportunity to be granted now while it remains possible.” 

The River Otter

The River Otter - Credit: East Devon District Council

Dr Sam Bridgewater, head of wildlife and conservation at Clinton Devon Estates added: “We must adapt to climate change.  

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“There are two options – a managed transition, or the second which is unmanaged with none of the protections in place. “We aim to adapt the Lowe Otter Valley to the current and future challenges climate change will bring. 

“This is among the biggest changes that East Devon has seen but the natural environment will be improved by the scheme. It is a bold initiative but the times demand it and we must confront climate challenges.” 

Budleigh Salterton ward councillors Alan Dent and Tom Wright both called for the scheme to be approved, with Cllr Dent adding: “The concept of breaching the river embankment to restore an historic flood plain is imaginative, far sighted, and generally welcome. 

“I support this with certain caveats as assurance must be given that residents’ properties will be safe and secure in the future. This is a welcome long term project that manages the risk of rising sea levels and the consequence of unmanaged flooding.” 

Cllr Wright added: “Restoring the area and the environment before man intervened to create the artificial environment we have and will mitigate the damage. The project will deliver a significant area of quality tidal saltmarsh.” 

Cllr Olly Davey that while it will involve a massive change to the Otter Valley and he understands how frightening that may be for some people, on the whole, this will improve the existing situation. 

He added: “I do understand the concerns and hope their fears are not founded, but I am satisfied as a can be that it is not going to lead to any increase in the risks to the residents.  

“I will be sorry to lose some of the habitat that we have there along the Otter Valley but quite looking forward to seeing how it will evolve, as doing nothing is not an option.” 

Concerns had been raised by local residents about the risk of flooding, with Margaret Yerrell saying it will have unpredictable and irreversible changes, Ian Smith saying it will bring the sea from over 2km away to edge of homes, asking councillors to not give permission for ‘the dangerous and unnecessarily overextended project’, while David Butler said that rushing to make a decision would lead to the risk of adverse outcomes. 

But councillors agreed with the recommendation of planning officers, who said the proposal is acceptable subject to appropriately worded conditions relating to archaeology, materials of the footbridge, access details and public rights of way, contamination, a construction management plan, groundwater levels, adequate car parking, the provision of a footpath, arboricultural and tree protection details. 

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