The pure white sand of Druridge Bay, an eight-mile stretch of Northumberland coast lined with dunes, lagoons and nature reserves, is the victim of a 30-year-old planning decision described as a legal nonsense.
In the early 1960s, the Government overruled local planning authorities and gave the go-ahead for sand extraction at Druridge on condition that only a "small mechanical digger" was used. The permission was granted to a small firm for local building needs. But in the 1970s, the rights were bought by Northern Aggregates, a subsidiary of Ready Mixed Concrete (RMC), and the rate of extraction accelerated.
Planners blame the loose wording of the original permission, typical of the days when environmental awareness was low. Today's "small mechanical digger" can scoop up to two tons in its bucket. And the demand for building materials has grown substantially.
According to planners at Castle Morpeth Borough Council, the condition gives RMC "carte blanche to take as much sand as they like". At a rate of 40,000 tons a year, about 1.5 million tons of sand have been extracted from Druridge, causing "extreme" erosion. Beach levels have dropped, the dunes are narrowing by a metre every year and underlying clay, rock and a fossilised forest are regularly exposed as the sand thins.
Fiona Hall, chair of the Druridge Bay Campaign, a coalition of more than 70 groups opposed to the extraction, said: "This is the first unspoilt piece of coast north of Newcastle. There is a lot of feeling about this on Tyneside."
The bay is increasingly important for leisure and conservation. Parts of it are owned by the National Trust and a country park has opened. There are two sites of special scientific interest (SSSI) and four nature reserves.
The erosion also jeopardises plans by Northumberland Wildlife Trust to create new habitats for otters, marsh harriers and the now rare bittern. One of the threatened dunes, an SSSI, has a colony of scarce marsh helleborine orchids.
Ironically, RMC prides itself on its environmental record and is a corporate member of the Yorkshire, Cleveland and Durham wildlife trusts, though not of the Northumberland trust, which rejected its application. The firm argues that its contribution to erosion is "minimal". Local councils say they cannot afford the estimated £500,000 to compensate RMC for revoking the permission.
Last year, RMC agreed to cut extraction by a quarter and has said it will stop using Druridge if similar sand can be found elsewhere. An alternative site has been earmarked but will not be available for at least a year.
Many protesters claim this will be too late for Druridge as the bay is a "closed" system and cannot generate its own sand. Ian Douglas, reserves manager for the wildlife trust, said the risks were pointed out in the 1960s. "Thirty years later, we are still talking."