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thePipeLine looks back on a sometimes bitter struggle between a powerful commercial body, the Port of Dover, and the grass roots Save Our Sands campaign and asks what lessons can be drawn for heritage and environmental groups faced with what opponents of Government environmental and planning policy call, the #AttackOnNature.

In what appears to be a complete vindication of the six and a half year long campaign by the Deal based campaigners of Save Our Sands, the Port of Dover has announced that it no longer seeks to dredge hundreds of thousands of tons of sand and gravel from the south west Goodwin Sands off the coast of East Kent. The port authority had claimed that it was essential to the financial viability of the £250 million Dover Western Docks Revival construction project that aggregates required to build planned new dock and commercial facilities came from the Goodwin Sands. However, an alliance of local people and experts in the natural environment and maritime archaeology fought tenaciously to protect what are, in their view, a uniquely sensitive marine ecosystem containing an unknown number of historic wrecks, potentially including the maritime military graves of sailors and aircraft protected by the UK Protection of Military Remains Act.

The climb down came as the dredging licence, granted controversially by the Marine Management Organisation in 2018, was about to lapse and was announced in a press release by the CEO of the Port of Dover, Mr Doug Bannister,

Putting a brave face on the apparent U-turn, Mr Bannister said that, while the case for the dredging the Goodwin Sands remained, the Port had been exploring the viability of alternative sources of aggregates for the project with the aim of finding a way forward which allowed the construction to continue, but which would also address the concerns which had been expressed over the use of the Goodwins as the source of the construction material.

Mr Bannister concluded,

“This is a win for us all.  It enables us to move forward with confidence in developing land for new local employment opportunities at a time when such opportunities are greatly needed and helps unify our community by removing an issue that has, in places, divided opinion.”

The Conservative MP for Dover, Natalie Elphicke, welcomed the Port of Dover’s announcement, stating,

“I remain fully behind the Port and its excellent ambitions for development, but I have also held concerns about the proposed dredging of the Goodwin Sands. I am delighted that the Port of Dover has listened to those who held concerns within our community and has been active in finding a way forward that works to both promote and secure jobs and investment, while also respecting and preserving the special marine environment and habitat of the Goodwin Sands.”

Ms Elphicke added,

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“It is an excellent outcome and I pay tribute to the work of the Port of Dover in finding the solution and to Goodwin Sands SOS team for raising this important issue.”

However, welcome as the reprieve for the Goodwin Sands is, Mr Bannister’s comment that the issue of dredging the Sands has divided opinion comes as something of an understatement to many who have followed his company’s controversial attempt to dredge the Goodwins.

When it was announced in middle of 2016 the Port of Dover’s plan to remove three million cubic yards (2.5 million cubic metres) of material from the southwest Goodwin Sands was met with horror by many local people, as well as by environmentalists and archaeologists concerned for one of the UK’s most sensitive coastal areas.

Not that you would have guessed that from the PowerPoint presentation that the Port of Dover published to state its case.

While some supporters of the project claimed that there would be little damage as the area had already been dredged for a previous harbour works, the presentation reassured the public that the new project was backed by thorough environmental studies.

Just a small proportion of the sands would be taken, [0.22% of the total volume] and there would be no coastal impacts the Port of Dover claimed.

Overall, the licence application was in support of the option with the least environmental impact.

Addressing the issue of archaeology, the presentation did not try to argue that any archaeology had been damaged or destroyed in earlier dredging in the area. Instead it was stated that the project’s Archaeology and Historic Environment working group had determined that there would be no direct impacts on known wreck sites, that there would be minor impacts on unknown wreck sites – but these would be offset by mitigations; and finally, that there would be no impact on, so called, heritage assets along the coast.

The assessment was given credence by the addition of the logo of the respected commercial archaeological contractor Wessex Archaeology which was commissioned to provide archaeological services to the project.

While there would be little argument with the first and last of these claims, the claim that there would only be minor impacts on unknown archaeological sites and that the mitigations proposed were adequate, would prove contentious to the point that it is likely to have been one of the issues which has now forced the Port of Dover to backtrack so spectacularly.

Unconvinced by the PowerPoint, and by the Port of Dover’s 1500 page environmental statement, a petition delivered to No. 10 Downing Street in October 2016 attracted over 12,000 signatures, while questions over the data supplied in support of the application licence application by consultants employed by the Port of Dover forced the government’s regulator of commercial activities offshore, the Marine Management Organisation [MMO], to undertake, a more or less unprecedented, three separate public consultations.

In one particularly egregious example of an apparent failure to properly consider the impact of the dredging, thePipeLine investigated how consultants Royal Haskonning DHV seemingly failed to take into consideration the well established Protection of Military Remains Act with regard to the crash sites of military aircraft on the Goodwins, of which there are an unknown number, especially from World War Two.

Conspicuously Royal Haskonning failed to consult the Ministry of Defence casualty branch, the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre [JCCC] which administers and licences the recovery of the remains of British service personnel, although the consultant did claim to have consulted the Commonwealth War Graves Commission which has no such administrative and licencing role.

The embarrassing omission led not only to a rapidly arranged set of meetings with both the Ministry of Defence and even German diplomats, the remains of whose personnel might also be affected by the dredging, but also to the question as to whether the consultant had been either lazy and incompetent in its research and presentation, or it had been caught out trying to deliver the cheapest and least time consuming solution for its client.

Asked to comment on the situation a spokesperson the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre [JCCC] told thePipeLine,

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“We have made the Dover Harbour Board aware of the provisions of the [Protection of Military Remains] Act.  

We are doing all we can to highlight the Act and the implications if it is not adhered to.”

That highlighting would have included the advice that to disturb a military aircraft covered by the act without a licence, granted for a specific aircraft crash site in advance, is illegal, and failure to work without the correct licence might have seen personnel from the dredger, or even officials of the Port of Dover itself, in court.

As this was going on, during the statutory consultation phase for the dredging project, the respected Nautical Archaeology Society told the Marine Management Organisation that, in its view

“…it would be difficult, if not impossible, to contemplate a more inappropriate locality in English waters in which to conduct dredging operations.”

Historic England also came out against the dredging telling the Marine Management Organisation the the original application was not satisfactory and contained “considerable elements of risk”, adding later,

“We recommend that you do not issue a Marine Licence for this proposed project as there are important matters regarding risk to the known and unknown historic environment that are not adequately addressed in the present application.” 

This stance was vindicated when further research prompted by the SOS campaign demonstrated that the original dredge zone, given the all clear by the Port of Dover’s consultants, contained at least two military aircraft crash sites and two potentially valuable shipwrecks, all of which would have been severely damaged at best, had the dredging gone ahead as initially proposed.

Meanwhile Mr Bannister’s predecessor as Chief Executive of the Port of Dover, Mr Tim Waggott, attracted criticism for responded to the increasingly confident and well informed campaign against the dredging, organised by the Goodwin Sands SOS campaign, with a dedicated website and attack advertisements in the local press under the banner “Deliver for Dover”.

Mr Waggott’s PR blitz sought to portray the campaigners from what was known as “Save Our Sands” as a small group of ill informed outsiders who were mounting an attack on the economic future of the Port of Dover and the people who live in the historic East Kent ferry port.

This led to the criticism that, if anyone was trying to divide the local community, it was Mr Waggott and the Port of Dover, by promoting a wedge issue in the then fashionable style of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.

The Dover Western Docks Revival project under construction

In another controversy in 2017 the newly appointed Director of Marine Licencing at the Marine Management Organisation, Trudi Wakelin, faced allegations that she had allowed Mr Waggott privileged access to a senior manager at the MMO, that is herself, at a time when the commercially and environmentally sensitive matter of the dredging licence was under consideration by her organisation.

The allegations arose after news emerged of an unminuted meeting with Mr Waggott which had taken place when Ms Wakelin visited the Port of Dover shortly after she took up her post.

Describing her visit as part of an attempt to connect with the MMO’s clients, Ms Wakelin wrote in an official blog,

“A good example of this, was my very constructive meeting with the CEO of Dover Harbour Board. He wanted to make sure the MMO has a good understanding of his business and how important it is to the local community.  I went to see his operations and it was fascinating to see the piling rigs at work and the wider context of how he manages his ferry and port operations.”

The piling rigs were working on the Western Docks Revival site. The destination for the sand and gravel lifted under the contentious licence.

Asked about the visit the MMO told thePipeLine,

“Trudi visited Dover Harbour Board and as part of her visit saw piling rigs in action.”

However, the MMO spokesperson emphasised that,

“She did not visit the DWDR project. The photos she took were actually not part of any visit or meeting but during her travelling time.”

So that was all right then.

Ms Wakelin visited the port, not the project which was taking place prominently within port.

However, in spite of such apparent missteps, leading to unproven accusations of an attempted stitch up over the dredging licence, the efforts of Mr Waggott to “deliver for Dover” on his terms, ultimately paid off.

The Port of Dover were granted a marine aggregate extraction licence in July 2018.

This grant of the licence further angered campaigners because just one week previously the Goodwin Sands as a whole were designated as one of the Government’s new “Blue Belt” of Marine Conservation Zones, as being of particular importance for foraging seabirds and as a nursery for commercial stocks of cod, sandeels and plaice.

Sadly however, Chief Executive Mr Waggott was no longer around to enjoy his triumph. In March 2018 he unexpectedly resigned to pursue “new opportunities”.

While the Port of Dover made no comment about the exact circumstances of Mr Waggott’s departure, the media pointed out that, coincidently, two weeks before his resignation, a dossier of accusations about his behaviour had been handed to his employers by Kent based human resources consultants Dakota Blue, and had been reported by Sky News.

The dossier included allegations of abusive language towards staff and the public and inappropriate gestures towards female staff.

Nonetheless, even with Mr Waggott gone, his successor, Doug Bannister, a dual US/UK national with extensive experience in running ports and airports, persevered with the Western Docks Revival project and a crowd funded Judicial Review into aspects of the way the project had been designed and conducted, brought by Save Our Sands at the High Court in London in 2019, was unsuccessful.

However, the campaign continued with Save Our Sands claiming that they had identified further flaws in the the data used to model the impact of previous dredging, leading to suggestions the work might lead to a reduction in the protection the Goodwins give to the foreshore of the vulnerable low lying coastal settlements between Deal and the Isle of Thanet.

This lack of trust in the modelling brought forward by the Port of Dover was reinforced by the embarrassingly public failure of the new Marina Curve yachting marina, which was opened as part of the Dover Western Docks Revival development. Three years after the marina opened it remained largely unoccupied because waves at the entrance made the facility dangerous to use.

The Port of Dover was forced to try to solve the problem by applying to add a second, outer wave barrier to protect the entrance to the marina’s pontoons. A situation ward councillor John Biggs described in Kent Online as, a

“…disaster due to poor design”.

In addition the campaigners also pursued claims that military aircraft wrecks had been reported in the area by local divers, but that the Port of Dover’s consultants had failed to pick them up, either on seabed surveys, nor in easily available archives.

It was further alleged by the Nautical Archaeology Society that the archaeological impact assessment submitted by the Port of Dover had accepted the high potential for the discovery of military aircraft remains, but conspicuously failed to acknowledge that some of those aircraft might be intact.

To independent archaeologists and aviation experts this was inexplicable, particularly in the light of the recovery of a more or less complete, and very rare, Luftwaffe Dornier 17 bomber from the Goodwins by the RAF Museum in 2013.

Of course, the discovery of an intact aircraft would have had the potential for causing major disruption to the dredging operation.

The aggregate extraction licence is due to expire on 31st December 2022 and since dredging had not yet begun by the Autumn of 2022, the Port of Dover had run out of time to undertake the work and would have been forced to apply for an extension if it still wanted to send its dredgers onto the Goodwins.

However, thePipeLine understands that any such move would have been opposed again by the campaigners from Goodwin Sands SOS.

Grounds for opposition would have included the contention that the archaeological impact assessments, which were argued to have been significantly flawed in any case, were now as much as five years old and so were out of date to the extent they could no longer be used, particularly in such a dynamic marine environment where the sands shift almost on a daily basis.

It followed that the surveys would need to be repeated and resubmitted for consultation and peer review. A process further delaying the project.

In addition the licence process had never even got as far as properly questioning the Port of Dover’s Written Scheme of Investigation, including the proposed mitigation of having an observer, who might not even have been a qualified archaeologist, monitor and record the material going into the dredger hopper.

Expert maritime archaeologists advising the campaign were ready to point out that, by the time material from the seabed was spotted at the surface, any artefact, perhaps even a significant shipwreck or aircraft, will have already been chewed up by the steel dredger buckets.

It is also the case that with Dover still recovering from the double impact of the 2016 Brexit vote, and the Covid-19 pandemic four years later, and with the Climate Emergency now a major factor in framing the perception of major construction projects, the public and economic environment within which the Dover Western Docks Revival is taking place is much more uncertain than when the project was first mooted.   

Thanking the supporters who have campaigned for this result for six and a half years Goodwin Sands SOS campaign co-ordinator Joanna Thomson said,

“We are obviously delighted that the Port of Dover has decided not to extract sand from the Goodwins.  This is the right decision for them, the local community and the Goodwin Sands, sending a strong message that cost neutral alternatives can be found and that development does not always have to be at the expense of our environment.

Ms Thompson concluded,

“We would like to wish the Port of Dover every success in the next stage of their redevelopment and hope that we can work with them in the future to promote the environmental and historical importance of this unique maritime area.”

Mr Bannister concluded his press release with a similar attempt to rebuild the relationship between the Port of Dover, its docks revival project and the wider community of East Kent.

“This is a demonstration of the real partnership approach I want to see going forward,” he said,

“and is part of an ecosystem of mutual trust, support and harmony I am keen to build that allows both the Port and community to thrive together as we navigate future challenges and opportunities in Dover and more widely within Kent.”

The Save Our Sands campaign concluded its comments by stating that it too wanted to leave the, sometimes acrimonious, past behind.

“The Goodwin Sands Conservation Trust will continue to promote the environmental and historical importance of the Sands through talks, pop up displays and creating learning materials for Kent primary schools.” the campaign promised, adding, 

“It is also working with local authorities to ensure proper legislation is put in place to prevent the Goodwins from being the target of further development plans.”



Whatever happens in the future, there are lessons which campaigners within the heritage sector can draw from the six and a half years of campaigning to save the south west Goodwin Sands from the buckets of a commercial dredger.

Most importantly, the Save Our Sands campaign did not just say “No” to the Port of Dover, expecting that would be enough to carry the day.

Instead the campaign took on the Port of Dover’s case on its own terms, engaging their own experts in archaeology, marine geology, tidal action and the natural environment, experts who were often working on a voluntary basis, and were prepared to question the data which the well paid commercial consultants acting for the Port of Dover presented in support of their bid.

It must be of some concern that too often that expensively acquired and presented data data was found wanting.

And when the Port of Dover came back with fresh data they questioned that too.

This approach, which came at a great cost in time and effort to the campaign team, effectively levelled the playing field upon which the licence application would be decided.

Had they not campaigned so smartly one of the most sensitive offshore environments in Britain would now have been scarred by the dredgers and an unknown number of wrecked ships and aircraft might have been damaged or destroyed, with little, or no, real archaeological recording.

Nonetheless, while environmentalists and archaeologists might now celebrate a conservation battle won, it is sobering to wonder how many other development projects, with equally unsatisfactory evidential foundations and partial archaeological mitigations, apparently designed not to inconvenience too much a commercial party, have actually gone ahead, on sea and on land, because the playing field was not level.

And one final thought.

While it is fair to say the dredging of the Goodwin Sands was delayed by the Goodwin Sands SOS campaign, it is not legitimate to say the campaign delayed the Dover Western Docks Revival project, which has continued throughout.

While the campaign could only be fought for as long and effectively as it was, in large part, because there were legitimate grounds to question the dredging plan under the same UK and EU Law and Environmental Regulations which are currently under threat from UK Government policies to deregulate planning and strike out EU derived Law through the Retained EU Law Bill currently before Parliament.

It is also the case that there were always less environmentally damaging alternatives to dredging the Goodwins available to source sand and gravel for the project. A fact which offered the Port of Dover the off ramp from a PR disaster about a possible environmental disaster, which the managers of Britain’s busiest port have now taken.


Lead Image:  Campaigners gathered outside the headquarters of the Port of Dover on Remembrance Day 2016.
[Courtesy of the Goodwin Sands SOS campaign]

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thePipeLine is an independent news publication that investigates the place that heritage, politics, and money meet.

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