Could there be a new ‘Holbeck’ at the Spa?

Artist's impression of a Spa landslip
Artist's impression of a Spa landslip

News feature - Scarborough sea defences alert

On June 4, 1993 Scarborough’s coastline changed forever when the Holbeck Hall Hotel crashed into the waves below as a result of a massive landslide.

<Digimax S500 / Kenox S500 / Digimax Cyber 530>

<Digimax S500 / Kenox S500 / Digimax Cyber 530>

Now, coastal experts fear the town’s historic Esplanade and Spa theatre could suffer the same fate if battered Victorian sea defences and crumbling cliffs are not overhauled.

Councillors are currently preparing a business case for a £16.6m rock armour scheme at the front of the Grade II listed Spa after the controversial project was given the go-ahead in April.

The hotly-debated scheme has sparked a huge outcry among both residents and visitors to the town who don’t want to see their beloved seafront blighted by giant boulders.

But Scarborough Council’s chief coastal officer, Stewart Rowe, maintains the work is vital in protecting structures which are built on a ticking time bomb as the North Sea continues to ravage the cliffs.

He said: “People don’t like change. It will be a change and it will look different. What we have got now was fit for purpose at the time but it isn’t any longer and now we have got to address that. They are coastal protection structures at the end of the day. That’s what they were built for and that is why we are building this one now.”

A ground investigation, which saw deep holes burrowed into the South Cliff, has revealed high levels of water are penetrating the landscape, causing mudslides and huge cracks to appear.

“There is already evidence of instability. Cracks on footpaths don’t just happen because the concrete is drying out. We monitor it all the time and we are seeing evidence of movement not dissimilar to when the Holbeck went. We have now got evidence that it will happen but we don’t know when. It could be now, it could be years ahead but it will happen,” said Mr Rowe.

“The difference to Holbeck is people saw the gardens starting to move and had time to evacuate. What if there is a full concert at the Spa and it goes and there is no time to evacuate the properties behind? We are a risk management authority. We have a risk and we need to manage it.”

In an attempt to prevent another disaster, which could potentially see the loss of assets worth £140 million, the council is planning to carry out major slope stabilisation work behind the Spa.

Plans have been unveiled which will see the South Cliff gardens completely stripped back, drained and pinned, before being reinstated in a similar scheme to one that is currently underway in Lyme Regis.

Mr Rowe explained: “We will have to strip it right back and there won’t be much left of it. It will be major works over a construction period of 12 months. We haven’t got to the detailed design phase but we know we are going to do the cliff works.”

While hacking into the cliff will undoubtedly alarm residents, Mr Rowe said it was an ideal opportunity to vastly improve the landscape.

“It’s a bit grotty behind the Spa and the buildings are coming to the end of their life. Yes it’s precious but I don’t think a lot of people are using it. It doesn’t have to look different but if it’s a bit tired and rundown before the work is started then why just put it back as it is. It’s an opportunity to do more.”

Mr Rowe now plans to work with the Friends of South Cliff Gardens in the hope that a project to restore the gardens could be combined with the cliff stabilisation scheme.

He said: “We could improve the footpaths and determine if they are in the right location. We could restore some of the chalets and replace some of the plants. There could be nature trails, there could be many things. We will be working with shareholders like the Friends so people can take ownership.”

The multi-million pound scheme is part of a coastal defence strategy which was first produced in 1999, before being adopted in 2007 after being regularly reviewed and updated.

In February Scarborough Council’s Cabinet agreed to push forward with plans for a new £22m stepped concrete revetment rather than the £16.6m rock armour option, which was put forward by officers.

But the decision was reconsidered in April after the authority’s Environment and Economy Scrutiny Committee recommended that members should opt for the rock armour with a 1.1m wave wall as the preferred choice.

Marine conservation group The Sons of Neptune, which strongly objects to the scheme, vowed to continue its fight against the plans. Campaigners want the original sea wall – which has stood for around 150 years – to be restored. But Mr Rowe stressed this wasn’t feasible.

“These so-called present defences have always required a lot of work. There isn’t very much of the original wall left, it’s a real mish-mash of rock and concrete blocks. These walls are taking a real battering and they need constant repairs,” he said. “The Victorians had the foresight to build something that lasts and we need to do the same to make it last for another 100 years.”