Pounds 20m dream to transform wilderness: Conservationists are worried about the impact of an ambitious scheme to create a 'Somerset Broads' network rivalling the one in Norfolk

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The Independent Online
DES ROACH, who once sold bread to holiday camps on the Yorkshire coast, has a vision to carry the Somerset Levels triumphantly into the 21st century.

Here, across the ancient flood plains poking inland from the Bristol Channel, their flora and fauna teeming against the distant amphitheatre of the Blackdown, Brendon, Mendip and Quantock Hills, Mr Roach is dazzled by his dream of the future: a 100-mile circuit for holiday cruisers linking the rivers Parrett, Tone, Cary and the 18th century waterway, King Sedgemoor's Drain.

Major engineering works, including a pounds 7.1m barrage across the tidal Parrett at the port of Dunball, will be needed before the area, serenely desolate even in high summer, can be opened to the pleasure craft fleet. Anticipation remains high of a financial killing to offset high unemployment. Local newspapers are already heralding a 'Somerset Broads' to rival those in Norfolk.

Conservationists are worried about the impact across 800 sq miles of one of Europe's most delicately-balanced wetland wilderness. Most groups, convinced the project is a dead duck, are reserving their judgement.

Rosemary Cooper, of Somerset's Council for the Protection of Rural England, has no such reservations. She cites the Yorkshire Dales and Lake District as examples of the damage mass tourism can inflict. 'It's a daft idea,' she says. 'They've taken absolutely no notice of the road network which is very narrow and would require extensive improvements. Farmers are worried about an invasion of their land from the river banks. There's an incredible number of bridges that would have to be raised and locks that would have to be put in, and pumping stations.

'They want more tourists and more jobs but, of course, it's our argument that you're spoiling the very thing that tourists come for in the first place . . . the peace and quiet of an unspoilt area of Somerset.'

Mr Roach will have no truck with such pessimism. 'It's the best thing that could happen for tourism in Somerset since the coming of the railway,' he said. 'The number of people that come down the M5 runs into millions. If we take a very small percentage we've got a successful enterprise.'

As a county councillor and chairman of Somerset's economic development committee, Mr Roach is at the sharp end of a consortium of local authorities and their pounds 20m scheme, spread over 22 years, to exploit the area's tourist potential. The scheme is considered a natural extension of the modernisation, for pleasure boating, of a 14-mile stretch of the Bridgwater-Taunton canal, including the building of a marina and 100-bed hotel.

Mr Roach and his colleagues emphasise that the green lobby is being kept informed of progress and that the Levels' boats will be electrically-powered and so less intrusive. Some 15 per cent of the area has been graded as Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

The consortium has commissioned an pounds 80,000 feasibility study from Oakwood Environmental, a consultancy based in Surrey. Its report is due this autumn. The managing director, Elizabeth Dower Jeffrey, declines to discuss the project, although she is nettled by comparisons with the Norfolk Broads: 'The Levels form quite a different landscape.'

In fact, the consortium's own initial report points out Somerset's advantages. 'Unlike the Norfolk Broads, which are located in flat land with little visual interest, the Somerset system from most parts provides delightful views of near and middle distance hills, and a whole assortment of church towers and other structures.'

Pleasure boating, the report adds, would create a need, financed by the private sector, for 'holiday and catering accommodation, moorings, slipways, car parks, picnic areas, etc'. Tourists would be 'able and even encouraged to pass through environmentally sensitive areas', though this could lead to development pressures which would have to be controlled.

The report anticipates that development would proceed in three phases. Phase One (3 to 12 years) and costing pounds 9.5m: building a tidal barrier across the Parrett and other works to create a 79-mile boatway linking Taunton, Bridgwater, Langport and Hambridge. Phase Two (13 to 17 years) pounds 2.7m: work on rivers Tone, Parrett, Yeo and Westport canal connecting Taunton to Ilchester, Kingsbury Episcopi and Westport; a total distance of 91 miles. Phase Three (18 to 22 years) pounds 1.14m: work on King's Sedgemoor Drain and river Cary; distance 8 miles.

River managers like Christopher Arden, area fisheries recreation officer for the National Rivers Authority, express anxieties about the effect on traditional industries like elver fishing, which depends on regular tidal flow and could be wiped out if the waterway was dammed. Another problem would be with controlling floods during heavy summer rain.

'Flash floods at this time of the year are a danger,' Dr Christopher Hancock, conservation officer for the Somerset Trust for Nature Conservation, says. 'To stop them they'd have to open the barrage and there's the rather daunting prospect of a large number of pleasure craft being swept out into the Bristol Channel.'

Large question marks already hang over the future of rare meadow flora and wading birds because the moors are drying out. Farmers are being offered grants of pounds 140-an-acre (0.4047ha) to set fields aside as wet havens. Even without talk of tourism, the tension between the priorities of locals and the green lobby is palpable.

One of Dr Hancock's major worries is the effect of pleasure craft on otters, still an endangered species. 'They're doing reasonably well in the northern part of the Levels,' he says. 'Any rapid movement of boats at this stage would be less than helpful.'

Even farmers who are edging into tourism and welcome the boating circuit are worried. Richard England, whose 300 acres (121ha) at Muchelney, includes lakes and a caravan site, says: 'With agriculture declining in the area it can't do anything but good. What'll worry a lot of farmers more intensive than me is if they bring up the water levels in the rivers. They'll have to give one hell of a guarantee that it doesn't increase our flooding.

'A lot will worry about losing their privacy. They'll say to people: 'How would you like me to walk in your garden because that's what you're doing to me'. It'll have to be sold to the general farmer in a very clever way, to be explained very thoroughly that they'll have control over their own river banks, over things like moorings.'

The Levels consortium is pressing ahead despite a warning from one of Britain's leading boat operators that the scheme could be a financial disaster. Ken Gaylard, managing director of Hoseasons, which operates pleasure craft in many areas of Britain, does not think the Somerset Levels are an economic proposition.

'There's been a well-documented decline in boating holidays over the past 10 years, from a peak of 600,000 in 1978-79 to 390,000, a third down,' he says. 'Before you start a business like this you have to think of the level of business and it's just not there. My advice to Somerset has been to treat this thing very cautiously. It's free advice and could be worth a lot of money to them.'

(Photograph omitted)