Public meeting to discuss Centre Port plans for The Wash hosted by Hunstanton Town Council
It is one of the most controversial projects to have been proposed for Norfolk in decades – and could radically change one of the most important wetland habitats in the country.
And judging by the public response at a packed Princess Theatre in Hunstanton on Friday evening, it could prove a tough challenge to win over residents.
Centre Port CEO John Sutcliffe appeared before a rowdy crowd at a public meeting, hosted by Hunstanton Town Council, to discuss the creation of a tidal barrage across The Wash.
The company wants to build a hydroelectric dam and offshore container port stretching from near Hunstanton on the Norfolk side of the estuary to near Skegness in Lincolnshire, as revealed last year by this newspaper.
This would also see a dual carriageway built across the water to link both counties.
To the frustration of some, Mr Sutcliffe waited until towards the end of the meeting to provide more information about the project – leaving his critics to speak about a scheme they were yet to know specific details about.
The £3billion project, which will take more than a decade to come to fruition if given the go-ahead, was presented as a vital future sea defence that would also create a reliable source of renewable energy.
It was likened to a “colander” which would allow the huge tidal flow to go in and out through roughly 40 turbines, producing power for 600,000 homes and businesses in the region.
It would also be able to hold back the flow of water as a flood prevention measure.
“We do not have the luxury of time,” said Mr Sutcliffe, who argued the scheme is necessary to protect the communities around The Wash against rising sea levels and storm surges.
He believes it could make the east into an economic “powerhouse” by creating what would be the first of its kind in the world, boosting the shipping and energy industry.
The offshore container port would be located on the Lincolnshire side, due to Norfolk’s roads being “unsuitable” for the volume of freight traffic it would produce.
Investors from the USA and the Middle East have already shown interest in the project, according to the CEO.
In an attempt to sweeten the deal, Mr Sutcliffe promised the people of Hunstanton a new four-mile-long beach where people “can see the sunset go down”. He said it would have minimal visual impact.
However, this did not go down well with the audience. Cheers erupted when one person said: “We don’t want it here.”
It was a tense and fractious event, with high tempers leading to frequent outbursts which Hunstanton mayor Mike Ruston and Cllr Robert Corby tried to control.
There are huge reservations from environmentalists and local organisations about the project, who fear it would have disastrous consequences for the environment and the fishing industry.
Mike Jones of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust voiced concerns that the “irreplaceable and fragile” habitat of The Wash could be “permanently degraded”, pointing to the effect other tidal barrages have had on wildlife.
Andy Bullen of the Lynn Conservancy Board and Judith Stoutt of the Eastern Inshore Fisheries Authority were also among those critical of the scheme.
Mr Bullen asked: “I don’t think it can successfully be built, so where is this whole project going?”
West Norfolk Council leader Terry Parish also raised several concerns about the project, mentioning the impact on wildlife and the fishing industry.
However, he said the borough council has no official position until detailed plans are put forward.
“We need to know the consequences before we consider our actions,” he said.
Mr Sutcliffe said a full feasibility and impact assessment would be carried out, and that if it was deemed likely to cause adverse harm to The Wash’s wildlife it would not go ahead.
Lincolnshire farmer Stafford Proctor gave his support to the project, arguing it would secure the future of agriculture in the Fens – an industry that is under growing threat due to rising sea levels and the increasing damage caused by floods.