PHOTOS published by Wirral Council show how Hoylake Beach used to look as far back as 1997.

The photographs, taken by the North West and North Wales Coastal Group through the North West Regional Monitoring Programme, are photographed from the air and cover a stretch of the beach from the town’s RNLI station to the Red Rocks. Many of the photos were taken before Wirral Council decided to stop using the weedkiller glyphosate on the beach in 2019 and pause beach management in March 2020.

Since then, vegetation has started to spread across the beach which has divided the community between those who want to see it develop naturally into salt marsh or sand dunes and those who want the vegetation cleared for an amenity beach. People speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) previously criticised the current state of the beach as “a bog.”

Permission from Natural England for beach management would have expired in March 2021 and according to council minutes, “the decision to stop previous beach management was taken in order to allow time for evidence to be collated, and so that the beach could be effectively surveyed” ahead of any new management plan.

Wirral Council is currently developing a future beach management plan which, if approved by government regulators Natural England, would outline how the council can manage the beach going forward. Two final options put forward by the local authority for public feedback include clearing two areas of beach of different sizes near the town’s RNLI lifeboat station.

The local authority said: “A fundamental consideration in developing the new Hoylake Beach Management Plan are the life-saving operations of the RNLI and their ability to continue to launch and operate from the Hoylake foreshore.”

An email published by the council via a Freedom of Information request from the RNLI in June 2023 said the beach’s development had made two slipways “too hazardous” due to vegetation growth. According to minutes from a private meeting in September 2023 published in the same request, “Natural England have stated that lifesaving activities take priority over conservation interest” but the government body would “need justification” for the RNLI’s requirements.

It was also asked at the same meeting whether a 25m strip of cleared beach from the seawall was needed for recovery but it was confirmed only 10m was needed. However it was stated that “if certain thresholds are met then Natural England may approve the beach management plan.”

The council previously had permission to use weedkiller on two targeted species from 2017. However in a statement issued in 2020, Natural England said it had given advice to council officers on beach management which said that due to vegetation development already happening on the beach, “it has become extremely difficult to keep spraying targeted” and keep such activity compliant with the law.

According to the Cheshire Wildlife Trust, the vegetation has grown as a result of “sand and a little mud is being deposited on Hoylake shore, raising its level to the point where the sea rarely reaches the promenade, and conditions are excellent for specialist plants.” A 2022 geomorphology report commissioned by Wirral Council said sand is being deposited at a faster rate than sea level rise and beach levels are expected to rise by nearly 90cm in the next 50 years.

In 2020, Natural England said it could not withdraw past consents but would be unlikely to allow weedkiller spraying in the future. As final approval needs to be sought from Natural England for any beach management plan, a majority of councillors requested on November 2022 that “any options proposed for final public consultation must meet NE (Natural England) full approval.”

However., when Wirral Council published its final two options for Hoylake beach, it made clear neither option had been approved by Natural England and would be subject to further development. Asked to clarify whether it has indicated it would approve either option, a Natural England spokesperson said: “Wirral Council are the landowner for Hoylake Beach and as such it is their responsibility to manage the beach and work to assess any impacts on the protected site, in consultation with Natural England. 

“Natural England have not yet been formally consulted on Wirral Council’s beach management plans and any proposals need to consider the special nature of the site which is protected by law for its precious wildlife and habitats.”

Asked why it had published both options before getting approval from Natural England, a Wirral Council spokesperson said: “Since the committee resolution of November 2022, officers have been working to develop the two options requested by committee at that meeting. This has involved the production of detailed Habitat Regulations Assessments (HRAs) and other evidential information.

“As per the resolution, both options have been shared with Natural England and Merseyside Environmental Advisory Service (MEAS) and the advice and feedback they have provided will form part of the information that is reported back to the Environment, Climate Emergency and Transport Committee – along with the findings of the public consultation currently underway – for a decision.

“It has always been clear that whichever option committee wishes to take forward as our Beach Management Plan would be subject to further detailed HRAs and other evidential reports before final assent from Natural England. It is also clear that there can be no beach management activity, including removal of any vegetation, without Natural England assent.”