The Somerset road crumbing into the sea - and the plan to save it

The cliff at Blue Anchor

Work to protect a vital Somerset coast road can finally get underway after the final funding was agreed.

Somerset West and Taunton Council carried out emergency repairs to the sea defences at Blue Anchor in late 2020 to prevent the nearby pub (now called Anchor’s Drop) and the B3191 from falling into the sea.

A more permanent scheme to protect both the road and the nearby properties has been agreed, with the contract being awarded to the Kier Property Group in April. This scheme will now be able to go ahead before the winter after the full council agreed the final budget for the scheme in Taunton on Tuesday evening (July 5).

The existing sea defences at Blue Anchor are a mixture of angled concrete walls, constructed between the 1920s and 1980s.

The council undertook the first phase of emergency repairs after two “significant” holes in part of the wall were discovered in early-June 2020.

In early November 2020, 1,800 tonnes of granite rock armour were delivered to Blue Anchor Bay by boat for the second phase of repairs, designed to shore up the base of the cliff to prevent further landslides.

Both stages of emergency repairs were funded by the Environment Agency (EA) to the tune of £385,000, to ensure Blue Anchor was protected during the winter storms.

The new, more permanent scheme will see more rock armour installed along this stretch of the coastline, with mesh and turf being used to re-profile the cliffs to prevent future cracks or landslides.

The final cost of the scheme will be £3,762,280 – lower than the £4m which was expected, but higher than £3.55m which was originally committed by the district council in December 2020.

The pub is teetering on the edge of the cliff - at the mercy of the sea's high tides. Credit: ITV West Country

Apart from a £50,000 EA grant, this funding comes entirely from Somerset County Council, which has responsibility for highways but asked the district council (which is responsible for coastal management) to manage the scheme.

The £262,280 of outstanding funding needed for the scheme to proceed will also come from the county council – meaning there will be no additional financial pressure on the district council in the run-up to the new unitary Somerset Council taking over in April 2023.

Council leader Federica Smith-Roberts clarified on Tuesday evening (July 5): “This is about the movement of money – it’s not about us having to borrow more or change what we’re doing.”

Councillor Andrew Sully, portfolio holder for environmental services, was unable to attend the meeting in person after contracting the coronavirus.

An aerial view of the pub on the precipice - does it make you feel dizzy? Credit: ITV West Country

However, he did give a written update in a report published shortly before the meeting, confirming that the bulk of the scheme would take place in the autumn.

He said in his written report: “An order has been placed with Kier (our main contractors) for the delivery of 13,500 tons of granite rock armour from the Glensanda Quarry in western Scotland.“

Three vessel loads will anchor off Blue Anchor and the rock will be transported to the beach by barge and off-loaded at high tide.“

Delivery dates have yet to be confirmed, but it is anticipated that the rock will be placed in late autumn 2022, with drainage works taking place simultaneously to seek to stabilise the cliff above the armour. The scheme is designed to protect the B3191 in situ.”

The B3191 provides a valuable diversionary route for both locals and holidaymakers during roadworks or congestion on the A39 between Minehead and Williton.

Existing coastal defences at Blue Anchor in West Somerset. Credit: ITV News West Country

Councillor Loretta Whetlor – who represents the neighbouring Watchet and Williton ward – said: “I‘m very pleased about this, because if that road goes, there’s no access to or from Watchet from the other side of Blue Anchor. It should have been done years ago.”

Councillor Benet Allen, portfolio holder for communications and corporate resources, said he hoped the B3191 would be made safer for cyclists in the long run. 

Mr Allen – who represents the Periton and Woodcombe ward in Minehead – said: “This is a road that does need to be protected – I hope it’s going to be safe to cycle on as well.”\

The additional funding was approved by a significant margin, with no votes against and only one abstention (from Green Party councillor Dave Mansell).

In addition to the Blue Anchor scheme, separate discussions are underway about ways to protect the other end of the B3191 at Watchet.

The Cleeve Hill Development group has submitted revised proposals for 136 homes on Cleeve Hill, which would include moving the coast road inland in exchange for allowing fewer affordable homes on the site.

Such a scheme is favoured by the county council, which is estimated the cost at £18.3m and £28.1m – including £11.55m for reinforcing the existing cliffs (with £1.55m being pledged by the EA).

Words by Daniel Mumby for the Local Democracy Reporting Service