Case of the vanishing coastline

4th April 2003 at 01:00
A nature reserve in Suffolk presents a real-life conservation dilemma, reports Jerome Monahan

In the early 1830s, the borough of Dunwich on the Suffolk coast was notorious among campaigners for political reform. Most of this once-thriving medieval port had long ago vanished into the North Sea and its population boasted only 12 eligible voters. Yet the constituency retained the right to return two MPs. It was the epitome of a "rotten" borough, exercising an influence over national affairs out of all proportion with its size and at a time when much of the population was still disenfranchised.

It is ironic that 170 years later, thanks to the National Trust's local education programme, Dunwich's heath and coastline are being harnessed to teach young people about the local population's lack of power.

Time is running out for Dunwich village and its 60 or so permanent inhabitants (double that number if the holiday homeowners are taken into account). Rachel Rowe, the National Trust's Dunwich education officer, explains: "After particularly severe erosion of the soft cliffs in the mid-90s, an investigation was commissioned to calculate the future effects of this process on the coastline.

"The Halcrow report predicted that there was a 70 per cent chance of a worst-case scenario involving the loss of most of the remaining village by 2068. It also contained serious implications for us, predicting a significant reduction in the heath and the loss of our approach road.

"Halcrow's findings inevitably led to debate about what, if anything, should be done. Options ranged from carrying out significant 'hard'

engineering - constructing sea walls or groins - to leaving nature to take its toll. 'Soft' solutions such as the replenishment of the beach came out somewhere in the middle."

The National Trust has used this set of circumstances to create a compelling simulation for key stage 4 pupils, geared to fostering better understanding of politics and the interplay of different interests that surround public decision-making. Students are divided into groups and each person receives a character card setting out a position they must defend.

Some of the pupils are required to argue the case for protecting the coastline. The threatened land is home to rare populations of birds, insects and reptiles and amounts to 2 per cent of the remaining Sandlings heathland, which used to stretch from Lowestoft to Ipswich.

Other group members are asked to defend the position of the Environment Agency, having to consider the economic costs of defending the coastline of a relatively unpopulated and unproductive hinterland. There is also a role for a Sizewell engineer, conscious that shoring-up Dunwich's defences may have serious implications for the nearby nuclear power station.

Briefings and fieldwork inform each group's understanding. Some head for the beach to learn at first hand about Longshore Drift and the other "dynamic" coastal processes at work that are contributing to a rate of retreat which averages 0.75 metres a year. Others receive an illustrated talk about the area, its importance and the general issues surrounding coastal management.

Each group also meets a local resident, Michael Clarke, who outlines the local campaign for coastal defences. Once fully briefed, the groups discuss the issues, each person arguing from their character's perspective - whether or not it is in sympathy with their own views. In a full plenary session the groups join and come to a final decision.

GCSE students from Stoke High School in Ipswich recently took part in one of these events. Alicia Loveday, 16, says: "It was eye-opening how such a small place can attract so many people. It has over 250,000 visitors a year and should be protected." Classmate Stephanie James echoes these views. She ended the day convinced, despite the costs involved, that the Government should provide resources to protect the community. "I really enjoyed meeting Mr Clarke," she says. "Through him I gained a depth of understanding about the area you could never get coming as a casual visitor."

In contrast, Thomas Frost, 15, remained an advocate for a more hard-headed approach: "The cost of protecting it is far greater than the losses involved." And in the end, the students learned that this is the thinking that currently prevails, with even the National Trust backing a pragmatic laissez-faire policy. This policy takes into account the damage that coastal defences could do to the visual environment and the fact that the material currently eroded at Dunwich ends up in coastal banks protecting Sizewell and the town of Aldeburgh down the coast.

"There is no doubt," says Rachel Rowe, "that the activity involves students learning some tough lessons about citizenship. Here, they get a chance to sample a real problem involving real people and see how decision-making on such an issue can be charged with emotion and is rarely cut-and-dried."

For Stephanie James, the day brought home to her "how political geography can be".

Citizenship links


* Conflict resolution

* Sustainable development

* Work of community-based national voluntary groups

* The work of government in shaping the law Skills

* Decision making

* Researching a topical issue

* Debating

* Critically evaluating the views of others

* Negotiation

Dunwich Heath. Dunwich, Saxmundham, Suffolk IP17 eDJ. Tel: 01728 648501 for education officer and field study centre. Opening times: Open all year

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