Council defends use of foam which caused Hilbre Island blaze

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Wirral Council has apologised for the recent blaze on Hilbre Island – but insisted the use of polyurethane foam to strengthen a cliff was a “well-intentioned” idea that went “badly wrong”.

The Environment and Overview Scrutiny Committee was told by Assistant Chief Executive David Armstrong that the method of repair was seen as the best option to support an overhang above a cave which had opened up due to the collapse of a wall.

He explained this was because of “insurmountable” difficulties of getting alternative materials over to the island, and the damage it could cause to the beach.

HM Coastguard at Hilbre Island during the blaze

Initial findings from the investigation into the blaze on Friday 23 August show a build up of heat caused a chemical reaction during the curing process, which then lit items in the cave.

Mr Armstrong said: “If this had been on the mainland, then some kind of grout injected material, concrete type material would have been used.  The issue is that to get that sort of material in the quantities you’d need, the nearest you could have it delivered to would be the car park in West Kirby. So you’d be trying to get it across to the island, which is fine across the sand, you could probably do it, but once you get onto the next section it’s really problematic.”

He said the council is co-operating fully with two national bodies who are looking into permissions that should have been sought for work on the island – which is a site of special scientific interest – and is carrying out its own probe in to whether the contractor followed the agreed specifications.

Defending the use of the foam, he said it is used in marine environments and in sinkholes, and was identified as a longer-term solution because it has a lifespan of 100 years.

Smoke billowing over Hilbre Island during the blaze

Mr Armstrong added: “The people involved did not intend this to happen – it wasn’t a cavalier approach to doing things. It clearly went badly wrong. We can only apologise for it and put it right and give an assurance that we won’t be attempting that form of repair again.”

But he warned: “We do need to take a decision on it because it is a documented risk. If we could fence off a whole area around it and just leave it to nature and people agreed that’s what we would do that would be fine. But the trouble is this is in an area that we can’t stop people going to because nobody lives on the island anymore.

“Despite the upset we’ve caused and despite the fact we’ve disappointed people with the outcome, I think everybody accepts that doing nothing was not an option – it certainly wasn’t an option for the council in terms of risk.”

Emergency services gathered at West Kirby beach before heading out to the island

He revealed the council is looking to bring some of the uninhabited buildings back in to use, raising the possibility that the island could become occupied again.

Committee member, Councillor Chris Blakeley, described it as “a very sad incident” and said the council needed to learn lessons, while Councillor Jo Bird called it “an environmental disaster” .

An options report will be brought to the next meeting for councillors to decide on a way forward.