What a surrender to the sea would mean for Norfolk

Byline: By John Welch (Eastern Daily Press, 28 March 2008)

At least six villages wiped off the map, hundreds of people turned out of their homes and some of the Broads’ best freshwater lakes swamped by sea water. Thousands of acres of agricultural land turned into mudflats, the loss of bird species such as bitterns, cranes and marsh harriers and the extinction of traditional crafts such as reed cutting. Unthinkable? Perhaps, but if radical proposals currently under consideration for the future of the Broads ever see the light of day, by no means impossible.

Conservation chiefs are currently drawing up strategies in response to the effects of climate change in this most vulnerable of areas. With sea levels set to rise, government body Natural England has produced a list of four possible courses of action for the Upper Thurne basin, discussed at a conference in Norwich last month. The options are set out in a document which was distributed to delegates, but has not been made public. Natural England has refused to supply a copy but the EDP has managed to obtain one.

The first option listed is to do nothing to adapt to climate change: to fail to maintain coastal defences and inland flood embankments, allowing them to fall into disrepair and be breached by the River Thurne and the sea.

The second is to hold the line, the current policy of the Environment Agency. This involves maintaining the sea defences and flood embankments in their current positions. Under this option, saline intrusion – something all farmers fear – would get worse as sea water passes under the coastal dunes.

The third option is to adapt the line: allow the sea to flood some places while building barriers and embankments to protect other parts.

The fourth and final option is the most radical of all, and is described as the “embayment of the Upper Thurne”. Once the sea has penetrated existing coastal defences between Horsey and Winterton, the area immediately behind would flood as far as two “retreated defences” – think of them as sea walls, or even dams – built at Potter Heigham and Stalham.

Five of the best lakes in the Broads including Hickling Broad and Horsey Mere would be lost as 25 square miles (6,500 hectares or 16,061 acres) of Norfolk – 1.2 per cent of the county’s total area – disappeared under sea water.

Under the proposals, this could happen between 20 and 50 years from now, given what the document describes as the “unsustainable nature” of these sea defences beyond this point. Maintaining sea defences is a costly business, not least because vulnerable beaches need to be constantly “fed” with material to replace that washed away by the waves. There may come a point at which the government decides it is no longer prepared to throw good money after bad.

Longer term, it is envisaged that a spit would develop near Winterton, behind which “coastal and inter-tidal habitats” would develop. For comparison, think of the area of North Norfolk around Blakeney and Morston. What remained of Potter Heigham, Hickling and Eccles would revert to freshwater reedbeds, while Waxham and parts of Somerton would become brackish saltmarsh, and Horsey would become an area of saltmarsh and tidal channels.

What about those whose homes and farms would be lost? Where would they go, and would they be compensated? It seems nobody has properly considered these questions yet: the document concentrates on the implications for the natural environment and barely touches upon the human cost of such a scheme.

The proposals have come to light just days after North Norfolk planners refused to approve three bids to build new homes at Mundesley because the plots were on land that could be swallowed by the sea in the next 100 years.

The Environment Agency has already revealed plans to abandon flood defences along the Blyth Estuary, near Southwold, over the next 20 years, claiming the costs of repairing them are greater than the benefits.

Proposals for the Upper Thurne are not entirely new. They were was initially drawn up by English Nature and the Environment Agency in 2003 under what was called the Coastal Habitat Management Plan (CHaMP) for the Winterton Dunes.

Malcolm Kerby, of the Happisburgh-based Coastal Concerns Action Group, said he had been concerned by the plan ever since he had first heard about it, and was dismayed but not surprised to learn it was back on the agenda. “I have never ever doubted it is very much on the cards,” he said. Mr Kerby said he was sceptical that people would be compensated for the loss of their homes. “If they are seriously considering this and have pushed it up the agenda again, they have to be firmly told ‘Don’t even think about it until you have a complete social justice package in place’. One has to say if there’s anywhere to surrender to the sea that looks the right place. That doesn’t mean I agree with it, but I can see the rationale behind it. I’m afraid we’re going to see some very major changes along the coastline whether we like it or not.”

Plan to allow sea to flood Norfolk villages

Byline: By Nick Allen (Telegraph, 28 March 2008)

Large swathes of Norfolk, including six villages, could be flooded under a controversial plan to deal with the effects of climate change.

The proposal would see Britain effectively admit defeat in the battle to maintain coastal defences and around 16,000 acres (25 square miles) of land in the Norfolk Broads would be allowed to flood.

Six villages, hundreds of homes and thousands of acres of farmland would be wiped out over the next 20 to 50 years under the plan put forward by environmental group Natural England.

Villagers who face losing their homes have described it as “devastating” and “horrifying”. The area is also one of England’s favourite holiday spots.

Experts doubt that coastal defences in the area will stand up to rising sea levels caused by global warming and the plan to “realign the coast” is seen as a less expensive long term option.

The sea would be allowed to breach 15 miles of the north Norfolk coast between Eccles-on-Sea and Winterton and would flood low-lying land to create a new bay.

Seawater would destroy the villages of Eccles, Sea Palling, Waxham, Horsey, Hickling and Potter Heigham along with five fresh water lakes.

Two new “retreated” sea walls would be erected further back from the original coast line.

According to the Natural England report 1.2 per cent of Norfolk would be flooded and the area would revert to saltmarsh to create a new habitat for wildlife.

Opponents say the plan would involve relocating hundreds of people from their homes and compensating them. In the short term property would be unsellable.

The move would also see a millennium of history vanish under the sea. The village of Hickling is typical of what would be lost. It is mentioned in the Domesday Book under the name Hikelinga and a priory was founded there in 1185.

The village has been flooded many times before including in 1287 when 180 people lost their lives.

Potter Heigham has similar historical value with a medieval bridge dating from 1385 and a church with a round tower dating from the 12th century. A number of its other buildings are listed by English Heritage.

The flooding proposal was discussed at a meeting in Norwich between Natural England, the Environment Agency, the Broads Authority and Norfolk County Council. No final decision has been made.

But North Norfolk Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb, who would see a significant part of his constituency disappear under water, said: “The implications are pretty horrifying for the communities involved. What shocks me is that profound, devastating implications are being discussed at a conference between delegates without the communities affected being part of the decision at all.”

Dr Martin George, of the Broads Society, said: “I’m extremely concerned at the prospect of houses effectively finishing up in the sea and I think it’s very sad that agricultural land is going to be lost. I am just horrified by the proposal.”

He said one eighth of the area thought of as The Broads would be lost, including Hickling Broad, the largest and most popular.

Even if the plan didn’t go ahead for years the effect on the value of properties would be devastating, he said.

Steve Hayman, project manager for the Environment Agency, said his organisation was committed to “hold the line” by maintaining existing sea defences for the next 50 years.

“It’s going to get more difficult and expensive to hold the line but we’re going to do our damnedest to maintain the defences in the best possible conditions because there are people living directly behind.”

A Natural England spokeswoman said the “surrender” option was one of many and their report was intended to start a debate about facing up to climate change.

She said: “We have got to face up to the issue. We have got to have discussion. There are difficult decisions to be made and we have produced this report after lengthy research.

“It’s one of a number of options for consideration and we’re in the early stages of trying to decide what options to take.”

The Broads span 74,000 acres to the north and east of Norwich and are based around 63 shallow lakes, most of which were dug in medieval times by people gathering peat for fuel.

The largest is the 350-acre Hickling Broad which one of Britain’s most popular holiday and boating areas and contains a wealth of wildlife.

Coastal erosion – residents can protect homes

By Charles Clover, Environment Editor

Coastal home owners have won a landmark ruling against a Government agency which was attempting to force them to abandon their homes to the sea.

Charlie England, an artist who lives on an eroding cliff at Easton Bavents, north of Southwold, in Suffolk, has won an appeal against Natural England which refused to allow him to maintain sea defences protecting his property.

An inspector decided that Natural England’s plans to force erosion on the occupiers of properties on the cliff would have constituted an unnecessary and disproportionate interference with their human rights.

Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary, has accepted the inspector’s report and directed Natural England, his conservation advisers, to give residents consent to maintain the soft sea defences in front of their homes.

The ruling is expected to have wide implications for landowners who seek to reinforce sea defences themselves.

Since 2002, a neighbour of Mr England, Peter Boggis, who has been called the King Canute of East Anglia, has used more than a quarter of a million tons of clay, shingle and building site waste to shore up the cliff to prevent the houses being lost to the sea.

But in 2005, Natural England designated the cliff a site of special scientific interest (SSSI), which prevented residents reinforcing it.

It claimed that protecting the cliffs would prevent the study and analysis of geological exposures in the cliff and that it was necessary in the national interest that natural erosion should continue.

Mr Boggis, who is a spokesman for Eastern Bavents Conservation, a residents’ group, said: “I am thankful to the inspector and the secretary of state for the clarity of their decision.

“It has been hell to watch mine and my neighbour’s property being destroyed at the whim of dictatorial agencies having personally taken care to protect them without cost to the nation until forced to neglect them by Natural England in December 2005.”

Peter Scott, of Parkinson Wright, solicitors, said: “This is a ground-breaking decision; it shows that Natural England is likely to be unable through the creation of SSSIs to force people to lose their properties to coastal erosion without paying compensation.

“This is a very significant decision in the long-running campaign to save Easton Bavents from being destroyed in its entireity by the North Sea.”

A spokesman for Natural England said it had received the inspector’s report and was considering the decision.

John Gummer, MP for Suffolk coastal, said: “This is a landmark case and very much underlines the reason why I set up Suffolk Coast Against Retreat and proves that we all have to fight together in order to win the battle.”

He said the next battle would be to save Southwold harbour and the Blyth estuary just to the south.

The Environment Agency decided last autumn to abandon the maintenance of sea defences there, in the same month that they repaired the sea wall outside the property owned by Tony Benn, Hilary’s father, on the Blackwater Estuary in Essex.

March 2008 Comments

Comments on the press article Erosion victory is good news :

This report brings us news of what could be a landmark decision for many coastal inhabitants and communities.

Personally I feel it absolutely vindicates and underlines the comments and judgement made in my letter to the then Minister, Elliot Morley MP, of 7th August 2005.

Without doubt this fires a considerable shot across the bows of Government’s policy and thinking on how stakeholders should be treated when a decision is made to discontinue or withdraw from protecting the coast.

Central Government continually refuses to bring the management of the coast up to 21st century standards. They absolutely cling to that probably most outdated of all statutory instruments, The Coast Protection Act 1949, simply because that act gives them the right to walk away from protecting much of the coast and it’s communities at absolutely no cost to Government itself. That fact alone makes the path being trod by the whole Making Space For Water (what an unfortunate name) project and the Second Generation Shoreline Management Plans completely unsustainable.

I have been, and remain, astonished that any Government department can actively persue a policy which utterly disenfranchises so many people and renders so many of them penniless. Even using it’s own quangos to attempt to prevent individuals from protecting their own homes and property.

This judgement reinforces my unshakable belief that if Government policy dictates that we have to stop defending previously defended parts of the coast in the wider National interest then that cost must be borne by the wider Nation in whose name it is being perpetrated, not by individuals alone.

It is extremely gratifying to see the Human Rights Act 1998 actually working for good honest citizens as much as it seems to have been used over recent years for those who many of us feel should have relinquished it’s protection by their own unlawful and sometimes horrific actions.

Malcolm Kerby (13 March 2008)