A special meeting which may change the future of Hoylake beach is happening this week.
On Friday at 4pm, Wirral Council’s environment committee will debate the decision of Labour councillor Liz Grey, the authority’s cabinet member for the environment, to stop raking and spraying Hoylake beach.
Wirral Council’s management of the beach has been a controversial topic since last August, when it was lambasted for spraying the beach with glyphosate – a chemical linked to cancer in numerous studies.
This provoked an outcry from locals and celebrities, such as Wirral-born cyclist Chris Boardman, who were furious that such chemicals were being used on the beach.
Due to this and two other factors, Cllr Grey used her cabinet position to stop the beach being raked and sprayed to control the growth of vegetation.
One factor was the allegation that the beach had been over-sprayed and over-raked, if this was proven to be the case the council could have been liable for hefty fines from Natural England – the government agency to which the authority must answer on its management of the beach.
The Labour councillor said such fines would be a huge waste of money.
As well as this, Wirral Council declared a Climate Emergency last July and this included an acknowledgement of the biodiversity emergency with record losses of species being recorded all over the world.
Cllr Grey felt she had a duty to protect Wirral residents from the effects of climate change and the loss of biodiversity and if managing Hoylake in a particular way, such as refusing to eliminate grass on the beach, could help in that then the council should do it.
Cllr Grey wants the council to conduct a survey of the beach in its natural condition for a ‘baseline assessment’, which is recommended by coastal specialists and Natural England before any return to raking on the beach could be considered.
However, this has been delayed because the environment committee must vote for it. The committee has not been able to do so as the Covid-19 pandemic has consumed much of Wirral Council’s efforts.
Now, Friday’s meeting could see Cllr Grey’s policy overturned if the environment committee votes for a motion seeking the return of raking on the beach.
Keep up to date with news in your area by adding your postcode below
Any return of glyphosate spraying is seen as unlikely due to the council’s vote to phase the chemical out last year and its potential links to cancer in humans.
Earlier this year, Natural England was commissioned by the council to write a report on Hoylake beach.
The report stated: “Beach raking to prevent the establishment of foreshore habitats can impact on the natural coastal processes and so would generally not be welcome from a ‘Natural change’ perspective.
“Raking control should only be focused on patches of single species such as the invasive Spartina anglica or possibly some limited areas of Puccinellia maritima, rather than raking of large areas of beach.
“There needs to be a thorough ecological survey of any areas to be proposed for targeting of vegetation control.”
On the basis of Natural England’s current stance, Cllr Grey said: “NE [Natural England] is unlikely to ever consent to any activity that endangers naturally occurring species.
“If we cannot rake those species we may wish to get rid of without damaging other species, then it is unlikely we would be allowed to rake even if we wanted to.”
Hoylake’s Conservative councillors have long argued that Cllr Grey has abused her privilege as a cabinet member to impose the no raking policy on Hoylake’s residents against their wishes, but Cllr Grey disagrees.
She said: “I get a different postbag to them. They ask their supporters, if you ask a group of people who feel one way you will get a very specific answer.
“I get a more mixed bag. Lots of residents tell me that the climate and biodiversity crisis matter to them and I get some who say they want ‘golden sands’ too.
“I get both views, pleasing both sides is difficult when we have got such polarised views. I have got to do what’s legally and environmentally in the best interests of residents and the beach.”
Cllr Grey said lots of locals were adamant that they did not want glyphosate sprayed on the beach again and that the vegetation only exists on a small part of the beach with the vast majority of it sandy.
Conservative councillor Andrew Gardner triggered the call-in meeting and has argued for raking to resume on the beach in the past.
Back in March, Cllr Gardner said: “We can do no harm to the beach by raking, we've been doing it for decades with no ill effect.
"We don't know where the beach will go in the future if we stop managing it but all the signs are of a swamp. We do however absolutely know where it will go if we do manage it – clean golden sands to be enjoyed.”
"No-one's trying to change the beach apart from Cllr Grey."
Speaking to the ECHO today, Cllr Gardner struck a more conciliatory tone. He said: “My only aim is for the people of Hoylake to be listened to, with their concerns.
“It’s more about process and accountability, and democracy and consultation.
“The consultation has come after the decision, when it should have been the other way around.”
Cllr Gardner referred to a survey conducted around two years ago by local councillors in Hoylake. The survey was sent to 2500 people and around 25% responded.
The Conservative councillor said 95% of respondents were in favour of a sandy beach rather than a grassy one.
He also said that if he had been in Cllr Grey’s position, he would have maintained the beach management plan which existed before the Labour councillor’s intervention last summer for five years and used that time to get a full Natural England report of the North Wirral Foreshore.
Cllr Gardner said he would then seek a consensus from local people before changing Hoylake beach in any way.