Dover's White Cliffs: Would you mine them for £1bn-worth of gold?


Could Dover's white cliffs be sold?

How do we decide what's worth saving and what we would happily see destroyed to make way for development? For The Editors, a programme which sets out to ask challenging questions, I asked what price, for example, for the White Cliffs of Dover?

Woven into the national fabric as a symbol of wartime defiance, the cliffs stand immortalised by the voice of Vera Lynn and images of soaring Spitfires.

A National Trust campaign has just raised over £1m to buy a key stretch of the cliff-tops to forestall any development.

Most people would probably agree that that was a good thing. The trust's campaign video flashed up names such as Caesar and Churchill to emphasise the pivotal importance of the cliffs to our island story, and the donations rolled in.

What makes the cliffs so distinctively white is that they are made of limestone. As it happens, this type of rock isn't particularly valued. You can buy a tonne of it for about £20.

But what if another kind of mineral was discovered inside the cliffs? Let's say, purely hypothetically, that the cliffs contain gold.

Now imagine that gleaming deposit of gold is valued at £10m. Would you agree to it being gouged out of the rock? Of course not. You'd say, "Don't be so grubby, didn't you learn any history at school?"

Upping the ante

But what if the gold was worth £1bn? At that price a few people might agree to let the diggers move in. After all, a new mine would create jobs and the Treasury would get another, very welcome, source of revenue. So would the National Trust.

There would be a protest movement, obviously, and I'm guessing that the majority would be outraged at the idea of sacrificing the cliffs for a mere billion. However, we would start to see a fracturing of public opinion, wouldn't we?

Start Quote

The definition of what's sacred will become more contested”

End Quote

So let's up the ante. What if the deposit was in fact valued at £1tn? Yes, one trillion, almost the size of the national debt.

So what do you think now about demolishing a cherished corner of our national heritage?

Would you argue that times are exceptionally tough, that it is irresponsible not to make use of the gold, and that most visitors to Britain come by air so don't see the cliffs anyway.

You could suggest that a facade of the cliffs be maintained while the riches behind are burrowed out - it is £1tn, after all.

Or would you stiffen your spine, summon up the memory of Winston's call to fight invaders on the beaches and draw a principled line in the chalk? Some things, you could say, are just too precious. If the White Cliffs, why not Stonehenge? In short, is nothing sacred?

Rainforest threat

This idea came to me on an assignment in the heart of the Amazon rainforest.

The majestic ocean of green stretched for miles in all directions - and I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking that the world's largest tropical forest deserves special protection.

But right in the middle of the jungle, near the town of Carajas, is another feature that's the largest in the world - a vast iron-ore mine.

Amazon iron ore mine A huge iron-ore mine operates in the middle of the Amazon rainforest

The diggers work around the clock in unimaginably huge manmade canyons. The ore is shipped to the coast and on to the global markets.

We have probably all benefited from the iron of Carajas.

The metal ends up in our cars and bridges and office buildings. But each new extraction of the rock requires the destruction of another mass of trees.

The whole place is basically a mountain of iron. And its value? Getting on for $1tn. So, rainforest or iron?

I thought about these choices again while on a British research ship earlier this year.

The expedition was investigating the seabed off the Cayman Islands where hydrothermal vents - bizarre natural chimneys - rise from the ocean floor.

They host unique forms of life. And they're also richer than any rocks found on land.

The vents are brimming with copper and the rare earth minerals that all our electronics depend on. The seabed rocks are worth countless billions.

Suddenly, with metal prices so high, many areas of ocean floor all over the world are worth mining.

Prospecting is going on in about 20 areas. Huge robotic machines are being built to carve up the seabed. Excavating the rock could destroy marine life. But we all need the minerals.

Changing priorities

Attitudes vary. Wealth is one factor. Richer countries are more likely to feel able to afford conservation. Can Brazil, with its favelas, really turn down the money from its iron?

Necessity is another factor. The world is hungry for the metal that modern economies require - and is mining at sea really more damaging than mining on land?

A third point is that priorities change. When the Normans landed and conquered Britain in 1066, they built a massive castle on top of the White Cliffs. As victors, they didn't need planning permission.

Hydrothermal vents Hydrothermal vents brim with rare minerals

When Napoleon massed his armies on the other side of the Channel, a huge fortress was built above Dover at the Western Heights. In the rush, no-one worried about demolishing an old Roman lighthouse that stood in the way.

Unloved, underfunded and mostly closed to the public, the fortress - the largest of its kind in England - is now set for a £5m makeover.

But the money comes as part of a deal - a development company provides the cash but in exchange wins the right to build a five-star hotel on the site and 500 homes in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty at Farthingloe nearby.

An unusual heritage landmark gets a new lease of life and Dover gets some badly needed investment.

Artists impression of the re-development of the White Cliffs How the re-developed fortress could look

But there is a price - paid by a stretch of countryside designated off-limits to development. So which is sacred - the fortress or the countryside? Where do we draw the line?

Back in the 1980s, there was widespread hostility to the building of the Channel Tunnel, including the difficult question of where the spoil would be dumped.

In the end it was tipped into the sea at the foot of the White Cliffs. At the time this seemed an appalling idea.

But the spoil formed a bank - which has now become the Samphire Hoe nature reserve visited by 100,000 people a year, a "bad" idea turned good.

Battles over how we use our land, and what we save and what we don't, will become tougher.

The population is growing and Britain is becoming more densely settled. The definition of what is sacred will become more contested.

Finally, in case you are wondering about that suggestion of gold in the White Cliffs? There isn't any. Just as well.

BBC News: The Editors features the BBC's on-air specialists asking questions which reveal deeper truths about their areas of expertise. Watch it on BBC One on Monday 29 July at 23:10 BST or catch it later on the BBC iPlayer or on BBC World News.

David Shukman Article written by David Shukman David Shukman Science editor

How could we intervene to change the climate?

The field of geo-engineering - where humans intervene to change the climate - throws up fascinating ideas, and nightmare scenarios.

Read full article


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 574.

    Like the author says, it's all a case of circumstances.

    When humans first arrived in the UK it was covered in trees, but

    1. Nasty animals live in the forest
    2. We needed fire and building materials

    Result, very little forest survived. Except for decoration.

    So I guess they'll stay there until there's nothing less pretty to destroy.
    I say Mars.

  • rate this

    Comment number 573.

    We already know the Tory gov. in power think it is ok to frack in the North because it is void of natural beauty so why not tarmac over the south downs and mine the white cliffs. Its all about making money for the corporations right so to hell with the environment and our children's futures.

  • rate this

    Comment number 572.

    This is the question very few people are willing to talk about let alone admit. It is the most pressing issue in the history of humanity on this planet.

    My view is that humanity would rather commit suicide than address overpopulation. Unfortunately our demise is on it's way because we are choosing to ignore !!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 571.

    The question really is does one care enough about another man’s ‘white cliffs’ or treasured place?
    It’s not about Mr Cameron or Tory party links to business. It’s about us and our complacency over issues causing great personal grief to other people.
    The tree of despair may grow in other countries but we feed the roots and eat the fruit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 570.

    I lived in this beautiful island for 3 years now and it punches above its weight in terms of natural beauty. I dont want to see it to be destroyed....

  • rate this

    Comment number 569.

    I simply want an effective planning law that shares proportionately the burden of all Government,Industry & private planning consent equally regardless of the price of properties,wealth,influence,and power in any locality.
    How many power stations,sewage works,recycling plants,industrial estates,drug rehab center's,mental health provision is in wealthy areas?
    Even allowing for access & population?

  • rate this

    Comment number 568.

    Super cheap energy from Thorium(LFTR) would be a real game changer in saving the landscape, making things like vertical farming economically viable thus massively reducing the amount of land destruction from agriculture, and also producing energy cheap enough to filter-mine many minerals from seawater rather than destroying land through conventional mining.

  • rate this

    Comment number 567.


    So in answer to my question, NO, you CANNOT provide ANY evidence to back your claims up...!!!

    No money down south...??? Yeah, right...

    Nothing to look at down south...??? Yeah, right...

    DO you perchance live in cloud cuckoo land...??!

  • rate this

    Comment number 566.

    It would not matter if the public agreed or not, The gov't would plunder the resources for their friends to fill their pockets , the common people will be left with the scars on the landscape.

  • rate this

    Comment number 565.

    Back in the day of dads army, the Dover cliffs were a good defense against invasions.
    Now the borders have been opened up for legal migration these defenses are not needed.
    Also, if you take into account the amount of places flooded for reservoirs or flattened for building, what real case is there for saving the cliffs.
    Personally, i would rather they were used by a modern dads army.

  • rate this

    Comment number 564.

    What if the deposit was in fact valued at £1tn?

    Expect lots of people would defend the cliifs to the bitter end. But now add another what if.

    "Mining the gold could result in the abolishing of income tax"?

    Now almost everyone will directly benefit from the destruction. How
    many would then defend the cliffs?

  • rate this

    Comment number 563.

    541.Peter Buck
    You seem to be confusing the Romans, who conquered the future Wales and England, with the Normans, who conquered everything they could but met stiffer resistance in Wales and Ireland than the English gave them.

    The Vikings settled in large parts of England and smaller parts of Scotland, Ireland and Wales; York is well known for both its Roman and Viking periods (plus Norman).

  • rate this

    Comment number 562.

    Dover's White Cliffs: Would you mine them for £1bn-worth of gold?"

    No, absolutely not. There is far too much money in this world but tri££lions of it is hidden away in offshore and secret bank accounts by the minority few so if we need to pay off the UK's debt, let's "mine" these bank accounts and save the white cliffs from irreversible damage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 561.

    What if the deposit was in fact valued at £1tn?
    So what do you think now about demolishing a cherished corner of our national heritage?"

    we'll be selling off the family gold - never good.
    little of the £1tn will find its way into paying off the UK's debt - the majority of it will be pillaged and transferred into overseas bank accounts and out of the UK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 560.

    The world is an amazing place in all its biological and geological landforms. We are just one generation - do we have the right to destroy stunning places so that future generations do not get the same opportunities and wildlife is lost. There is growing evidence that areas of outstanding natural beauty provide poeple with a sense of wellbeing - losing a national asset makes us all poorer forever.

  • rate this

    Comment number 559.

    Mankind is turning into bacteria on a toilet seat...........multiplying exponentially..........the constant need for more .....and more......robbing the poor planet of its natural resources......more babies....more food........more.......constantly.......more profits.......more growth.......

    I feel sorry for planet earth personally........and for wildlife losing their natural habitat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 558.

    Of course, if we can make money for our friends!

  • rate this

    Comment number 557.

    The endless search for precious metals frustrates me.

    90% of it sits in a vault.

    The only Gold I've got is dental crowns which are hopefully going to pay for my wake.

  • rate this

    Comment number 556.

    553. Little_Old_Me

    I don't need to prove anything, the Impact Assessment will decide.

    I can understand the local desire to protect the cliffs but they are just white cliffs, I know there is not much to look at in that part of England but money is money and people should be grateful there is a way of generating some.

  • rate this

    Comment number 555.

    Excellent news


Page 1 of 29



  • Witley Court in Worcestershire Abandoned mansions

    What happened to England's lost stately homes?

  • Tray of beer being carried10 Things

    Beer is less likely to slosh than coffee, and other nuggets

  • Spoon and buckwheatSoul food

    The grain that tells you a lot about Russia's state of mind

  • Woman readingWeekendish

    The best reads you need to catch up on

  • Salim Rashid SuriThe Singing Sailor

    The young Omani who became a prewar fusion music hit

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.