November 2002 Comments

Whilst there can be absolutely no doubt that the loss of the proposed scheme for sea defences at Happisburgh can only be regarded as a major setback for the village and its environs, we must also recognise the success of what has been achieved. The precedent for capital expenditure at Happisburgh has now been set. This in itself is, I believe, a major step forward.

I would take this opportunity to congratulate our District Council coast protection team and our District Councillor; their commitment, diligence and sheer hard work on our behalf has been outstanding. I know I am not alone in offering a most sincere thank-you to them. Keep up the good work guys – “We ain’t dead yet!”

My greatest regret is that the more extensive proposed scheme was scuppered to a large extent from within our own community. There are those who really should hang their heads in shame.

Since starting the CCAG website, we have been greatly heartened by the comments and feelings expressed in support of both Happisburgh, and our cause. Keep them coming – they will demonstrate quite clearly to those in power the breadth and depth of feeling. Use the forum – it is your opportunity to say what you feel and ask questions, all of which we will endeavour to answer in the same manner as we have conducted the campaign: with an open, honest approach without fear of any individual or organisation.

Malcolm Kerby (30 November 2002)

Rocks will protect homes for the winter

Byline: Richard Batson, Eastern Daily Press

Families living in fear of losing their clifftop homes have been given the early Christmas present of 4000 tonnes of rock. A £160,000 emergency scheme will protect Happisburgh’s Beach Road from all but the worst of storms – for the time being. But householders have been warned that the longer-term future of their houses still hangs in the balance.

Work on a “firefighting” scheme aimed to buy time should begin on December 16 and will be finished in the New Year, officials said yesterday. It may be only a stay of execution, because a full sea defence scheme could still be years away – leaving the vulnerable part of the village at the mercy of the elements.

The news of the emergency work was welcomed by villagers, but they are still angry about the delays which have scuppered a proper £700,000 defence scheme. Coastal Concern Action group spokesman Malcolm Kerby said: “We appreciate the efforts of the council, but it may have given us a six month stay of execution.” He condemned the delays caused by Government bureaucrats and objectors and said the group would be looking at legal issues, such as the human right of protection, among longer term answers.

Guesthouse owner Di Wrightson said “we are grateful for the time this has bought us, but we must fight on. Our life is in turmoil. We are getting inquiries from people who want to stay next summer, and we are saying we don’t know if we will be here.”

Local district councillor Sue Willis said the news was an “early Christmas present” for families, who had been unable to plan for the festive season because of fears about the fate of their property. But the council had to be honest with people about the long-term uncertainty, and did not want to build up false hopes.

The long-running saga of trying to find a solution to worn-out sea defences and accelerating erosion rates at the east end of Happisburgh has reached a climax in recent weeks.

North Norfolk District Council’s executive committee met behind closed doors to get legal advice and decide on what action to take. Afterwards chief executive Bruce Barrell said the situation was “extremely serious” and that “doing nothing is no longer an option”. Councillors had looked at the legal, technical and, mostly importantly, the social issues of the situation, namely people’s homes.

Engineering manager Peter Frew said legal advice from a barrister revealed that emergency work could be carried out – but admitted it was “firefighting.” It would involve a wall of eight-tonne rocks piled 2.8m high which would “buy time” and would “see us through the winter.” The council’s frustration had increased because the latest major sea defence scheme was the first one, in many years of trying, to meet Government criteria.

But because of the delays – caused by two objectors including lord of the manor Eric Couzens – it was no longer viable, said Mr Frew. Recent erosion meant a bigger scheme was now needed, but the loss of property in the meantime meant it was harder to make an economic case. Mr Couzens has told the EDP he does not talk to the media about his objections, which include navigation and beach safety issues.

On the edge of disaster

Byline: Richard Batson and Edward Foss, Eastern Daily Press

Clifftop residents are desperate for sea defence scheme to be implemented to end their nightmare.

They await their fate like the inmates of Death Row. Each day, each storm, moves their homes a little closer to the cliff edge of oblivion. Yet the people are innocent. Their only “crime” is to have bought a home close to the seaside, like generations before them, to enjoy the bracing air, spectacular sea views, and walks along the nearby beach.

But they are currently sentenced to a life of worry, anger and frustration as that beach inches ominously closer, through a combination of action by Mother Nature and inaction by Government bureaucrats. The real guilty parties, according to local campaigners, are the Whitehall paper-shufflers who do not understand the urgency of the situation at Happisburgh.

The village has been battling for years to replace the worn-out wood revetments built in the 1950s in a frenzy of post 1953 flood defence construction. But its east end has been going west at an increasing rate of knots. Soft sandy cliffs have been tumbling into the sea. A bay has appeared. And, most dramatically, a string of holiday chalets have disappeared – either over the edge, or pulled down as doom and danger knocked on their doors.

The district council has drawn up a series of sea defence schemes but has constantly struggled against two major obstacles – Government red tape and local objectors. Government rules have made it difficult to come up with projects which meet a “cost-benefit” formula, which demands that schemes should not cost more than the land and property they are designed to protect.

The string of low value holiday chalets in the main firing line did not help boost the sums, but officials have played what they thought was an environmental ace up their sleeve, saying there was also a danger of the sea breaching into the priceless Norfolk Broads within 20 years. But the feedback from Government was that it was too early to play that trump card.

Ministers have visited the site, but – and it is a fact that says it all – the land they walked along is no longer there. It too has been swallowed by the sea. Three successive MPs have called for action, and a local campaign group was set up to force a speedy conclusion to the latest stalemate, which has seen a £700,000 scheme of rock protection and groyne repairs – much cheaper than earlier multi-million pound solutions – stuck in the sea defence sausage machine for months.

Part of the problem is objections from two “regulars” who have lodged official opposition to the past three schemes. Professor Keith Clayton, a retired environmentalist from the University of East Anglia, continues to float his academic view that the best form of coast protection is to let nature take its course rather than to have any man-made interventions. He says a patch-and-mend mentality is no good, but that the North Norfolk coast needs to be managed as a whole. And he adds that the solution is now out of his hands and with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. He also believes that people losing their homes should be compensated.

Local lord of the manor Eric Couzens is objecting on several points, including navigation concerns for the lifeboat, safety worries about people being trapped on the beach by the groyne and disappointment that the scheme does not deal with the danger of flooding the low-lying land behind the cliffs. He refuses to speak to the media.

But the groundswell of local opinion is that these issues should be dismissed by Defra, in favour of getting the scheme started urgently, to save more homes from being lost.

While Happisburgh awaits a Defra hearing, the fears are that it will take weeks, and even if there is a favourable decision it might not come until after Christmas – by which time the cliff edge could be slicing across the back gardens of some of the brick-built homes in Beach Road for the first time.

Previous victims have all been wooden chalets and caravans, but the danger is now creeping closer to the more permanent homes in that part of the village. Officials say that, if the scheme got the go-ahead, a start could be made in a fortnight.

Council officials are visiting the area virtually daily to talk to residents, update them on developments, check the cliffs and even discuss possible evacuation measures. Local district councillor Sue Willis said that emotions were running high among the people affected by the erosion risk. She commented: “They are worried sick. There is anger and frustration. The officers have done everything in their power to get a scheme off the ground, as well as being sensitive and kind to the local residents. But these people at Defra sit in their ivory tower and have no idea at what is happening out here.” Hinting at the situation at Salthouse and Cley, where a new clay bank is soon to be rebuilt, helped by the area’s ranking as an international wildlife reserve, she added: “If this was a rare bird we were trying to protect, new defences would have been paid for by now. But what about people?” She urged the objectors to “see sense” and withdraw their objections.

The situation was all the more poignant in the lead up to Christmas, she said. “There are people there with families who are trying to plan for Christmas, but do not know what the future holds.” Mrs Willis said it was no longer and good “being nice” to a department that was doing nothing, apart from chasing paperwork. She welcomed any moves to get action from Defra, and help for Happisburgh.

Defra said that it wrote to North Norfolk District Council on October 8, “telling them what they had to do next. The council is responsible for taking the scheme forward,” said a spokeswoman, who went on to say that Defra would be called upon to adjudicate “only when we have received the relevant documentation from the council.” This would include planning permission and local land owner permission.

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said at the weekend: “Let’s get on with the hearing now, we have to get a decision on this. I am a layman on the sea defence issue and I am conscious that there are differing views about the effectiveness of the scheme. But I am absolutely convinced that there is no cause for delay in having a hearing, where the experts can reach a decision. If the experts then see it as a runner, then for goodness sake get on with it.” Mr Lamb has raised the question of the Hold-ups with Defra minister Elloit Morley.

Local action group co-ordinator Malcolm Kerby said concern was reaching fever pitch. “We understand everybody has a right to object. But it is important that they exercise that right responsibly,” he said. “We feel these two men are being irresponsible, and that Defra has the discretion to overrule them.” Mr Kerby said a public consultation over the scheme had resulted in 325 supporters.

Ironically, the people in danger at Happisburgh can look eastwards along the coast and see millions of pounds worth of man-made reefs off Sea Palling – which rubs salt into their already-sore wounds.


Years of erosion

1959
Happisburgh’s line of wooden revetments were built to protect the shore in front of the village in a wave of coastal defences put up in the aftermath of the 1953 floods.

1992
A £2 million scheme is drawn up to provide a line of rock replacing the worn-out wooden defences. It drew objections from two men, Prof Keith Clayton and lord of the manor Eric Couzens. Other objections from Norfolk County Council, which raised concerns about building a “Maginot line” to protect “tatty” chalets, were later withdrawn. But the scheme foundered after failing to meet ministry funding criteria.

1993-94
A new shoreline management plan for the area comes up with a policy of “hold the line” at Happisburgh as opposed to the “managed retreat” earmarked for other stretches of coast.

1995
A report by consultants Halcrow looked into how a scheme could link in strategically with the new man-made reefs at Sea Palling. It proposed a £2.7 million scheme of reefs built on the beaches. There were objections from Messrs Clayton and Couzens. But the scheme could not proceed because of new Government “cost benefit” rules, which mean defences cannot cost more than the land and property they are trying to protect.

1996
March – The impact of the failing defences hits the headlines as the clifftop home of George and Jeanne Scott teeters on, and finally topples, over the edge, following an 11th hour evacuation by the couple.
May – Visiting junior agriculture minister Tim Boswell is handed a dossier of stories from the News’ sister paper, the Eastern Daily Press, called On The Doorstep of Disaster, to help him understand the urgency of the Happisburgh problem. He said “I haven’t brought my chequebook today” and later called for more cost-effective scheme than the £4.6 million one on the drawing board.
November – A new £3.7 million project of rock breakwaters is hatched instead. Prof Clayton objected and stressed he did not feel guilty. He said: “I do not make a habit of objecting to these schemes. I have only done it three times and do not do it for amusement.” He felt the money spent on sea defences to protect “wooden houses” could be spent on housing, hospitals and schools.

1999
January – Despite the parlous state of the cliffs a little blue three-bedroomed wooded bungalow in Beach Road, called Kenrick, attracts more than 20 potential buyers, even though it only had a limited lifespan. Three sales fell before it eventually sold to an Essex woman, for much less than the £17,000 top bid in a sealed auction in January.
March – A Coastal Concern Action Group is set up after a public meeting at which Pat Gowen, of the North Sea Action Group, blamed offshore dredging for the bigger waves which were speeding up erosion.

2001
The latest scheme for a smaller, more affordable £700,000 scheme is drawn up. It features a rock groyne, rock revetment and repairs to an existing groyne. The council says it could be Happisburgh’s “last chance”, with Government moves to switch more funding to inland flooding problems. There were objections from Messers Clayton and Couzens. From January to May this year council officials tried to resolve the objections, without success, meaning that the scheme must now await a hearing from Defra to decide its fate.


As the red tape surrounding the proposed sea-defence scheme at Happisburgh prevents work from starting, Edward Foss met some of the people closest to the edge. They speak with a common voice, an anger and desperation borne of frustration and endless waiting.

“Something will get done – but if it is in time for us, I don’t know”

Di Wrightson owns and runs the Cliff House teashop and guesthouse. She went to live in Happisburgh in 1970 and moved to her current home 22 years ago. Miss Wrightson and her neighbours saw around 10 metres of land disappear in August and another eight metres in September. “I am confident something will get done in terms of the defence scheme, but if it is time for us, I do not know,” she said. “The council and the concern group keep attempting to get something done. If nothing happens, it will not be for the want of trying. This is not democratic.”

She added that as things stood it was almost impossible to say when she might have to move out of her business and home, but admitted that Christmas was a possibility. “If we had not had the two objectors I don’t think we would still be waiting. That is how the law works at the moment, but I think it is wrong.”

“We are in the lap of the gods…”

Erica and Malcolm Barber have 38ft of land left between their garage and the cliff. If they are still in their home this Christmas, they will have lived there for 11 years. The Barbers still have four years to pay on their mortgage, a commitment they say they will stick to even if their home is lost to the sea. “Touch wood, none of the cliff has gone in the last few days but we are still in the lap of the gods at the moment,” said Mrs Barber. And Mr Barber added: “It seems to me that there are people who are trying to slow it down and slow it down.” The couple said compensation would help, but more than anything wanted protection for their home.

“It is always in your mind”

Trevor and Gillian Beeby who live the village-side of Di Wrightson, have been in their home for 15 months. The retired couple, who have been married for 43 years, say the situation affects their quality of life every day. “It is always in your mind,” said Mr Beeby. “It makes you question whether those who make the decisions actually care about people. No one seems to mention the people who could lose their homes. We told the council people we were thinking of getting a new carpet, but we were told there probably would not be any point.”

The Beebys say they realise they could be within an immediately dangerous distance of the cliff by February. “We are hopeful we will be here this time next year but we have to be realistic. I would just like to pick up my bungalow and move it,” said Mrs Beeby.

“I just want to die here”

Perhaps the simplest and most immediately distressing of all the Beach Road stories is that of Phyllis Tubby. The 81-year-old has lived in her house, which she describes as her “first and last real home”, for 25 years. “I can’t sleep, I feel sick about it almost every day, ” she said. “If it comes to getting out of this house, it will be the end of me. This is such a lovely house, I just want to die here.”

Living on the edge

Byline: Edward Foss amd Richard Batson, Eastern Daily Press

Families living in a “death row” street of North Norfolk clifftop homes have delivered a plea for help before their houses fall victim to the sea. And last night, North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb warned: “The sea won’t wait for Whitehall officials to make a decision.”

The householders at greatest danger of being made homeless have united to send a message to the bureaucrats who hold Happisburgh’s fate in their hands – “act now or we lose our homes”. One 81-year-old resident who lives near the cliff said the situation had “knocked her for six”, even adding that she “just wants to die”.

Bad weather means that more than half a dozen houses could be claimed by the sea by Christmas. Residents believe that if work does not start soon, more will certainly follow.

The appeal comes six months after a £700,000 sea defence scheme to protect crumbling cliffs was first put forward to the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). That scheme has still failed to emerge from red tape.

As hundreds of papers, faxes and e-mails flew between departments over the summer, chalets fell victim to the sea around Beach Road, a battle ground for coastal erosion for 10 years. Now owners of brick houses are awaiting their fate, be it in a week, a month, a year or maybe five years.

While a war of words has been building between MPs, Defra and North Norfolk District Council, as well as between objectors and supporters of the defence scheme, more and more people are waiting to watch their homes destroyed. One couple have four years left to pay on their mortgage, a commitment they will keep to, even if they are forced out of their home in the coming months. All the Happisburgh residents want is for the concerned parties to knuckle down and come to a decision on the scheme – and quickly.

Council officers have been repeatedly praised for their hard work in trying to get the plans off the ground. They have done “everything and more”, according to campaigners. But Defra have insisted the onus on moving the scheme forward rests with the local authority, and that it had not received all the relevant information in relation to the issue. “We have not seen all the ducks in a row”, said a spokeswoman.

The objections of two individuals to the sea defence scheme have held up the process. There should eventually be a special hearing adjudicated by Defra.

Lord of the manor Eric Couzens is objecting on several points, including navigation concerns for the lifeboat, safety worries about people being trapped on the beach by the groyne, and disappointment that the scheme does not deal with the danger of flooding low-lying land behind the cliffs. He refuses to comment to the media.

Prof Keith Clayton, a retired environmentalist from the University of East Anglia, Norwich, says a patch-and-mend mentality is no good, and that the North Norfolk coast needs to be managed as a whole.

People in Happisburgh are tired of what many people see as a slanging match between people who either do not live in the village, or who barely know where it is.

Officials say that if the scheme were to get the go-ahead, a start could be made in a fortnight. Action group co-ordinator Malcolm Kerby said concern was reaching fever pitch. “We are in dire straits here. We are fed up with waiting for civil servants to dot Is and cross s,” he said. And district councillor Sue Willis said emotions were running high among the people at risk. She said: “They are worried sick. These people at Defra sit in their ivory tower and have no idea what is happening out here.”


As the red tape surrounding the proposed sea-defence scheme at Happisburgh prevents work from starting, Edward Foss met some of the people

Residents on edge as waiting goes on.

Di Wrightson owns and runs the Cliff House teashop and guesthouse. She went to live in Happisburgh in 1970 and moved to her current home 22 years ago. She and her neighbours saw about 10 metres of land disappear in August and another eight metres in September. “I am confident something will get done in terms of the defence scheme, but if it is time for us, I do not know,” said Miss Wrightson. “The council and the concern group keep attempting to get something done. If nothing happens, it will not be for the want of trying. This is not democratic.”

She said it was almost impossible to say when she might have to move out of her business and home, but thought Christmas was a possibility. “If we had not had the two objectors I don’t think we would still be waiting. That is how the law works at the moment, but I think it is wrong.”

Erica and Malcolm Barber have 38ft of land left between their garage and the cliff. If they are still in their home this Christmas, they will have lived there for 11 years. The Barbers still have 4 years to pay on their mortgage, a commitment they say they will stick to even if their home is lost to the sea. “Touch wood, none of the cliff has gone in the last few days but we are still in the lap of the gods at the moment,” said Mrs Barber. Mr Barber added: “It seems to me that there are people who are trying to slow it down.” The couple said compensation would help, but more than anything wanted protection for their home.

Trevor and Gillian Beeby who live village side of Di Wrightson, have been in their home for 15 months. The retired couple say the situation affects their quality of life every day. “It is always in your mind,” said Mr Beeby. “It makes you question whether those who make the decisions actually care about people. No one seems to mention the people who could lose their homes. We told the council people we were thinking of getting a new carpet but we were told there probably would not be any point.”

The Beebys say they realise they could be within an immediately dangerous distance of the cliff by February. “We are hopeful we will be here this time next year but we have to be realistic. I would just like to pick up my bungalow and move it,” said Mr Beeby.

Perhaps the simplest and most immediately distressing of all the Beach Road stories is that of Phyllis Tubby. The 81-year-old has lived in her house, which she describes as her “first and last real home”, for 25 years. “I can’t sleep, I feel sick about it almost every day, ” she said. “If it comes to getting out of this house, it will be the end of me. This is such a beautiful house, I just want to die here.”