Debate on Norfolk coastal defences

Byline: Norfolk Now

The debate over coastal management in Norfolk is set to hot up today when leading academics, regional organisations and local people meet for a one-day conference. Up to 200 people are expected to attend the Changing Coast conference, organised by the Wells-based Norfolk Coast Project which was founded in 1991 to promote sustainable use and management of the county’s coastline. But while ideas are debated in a cosy conference room, villagers living at the cutting edge of an enduring coastal problem are calling for fewer words and more action.

In Happisburgh, despite a summer of helpful tides which has built up sand and shingle, locals know it only takes a spate of surging tides and biting gales to tip the balance and tip more houses over the cliff edge. Such is the strength of feeling at this erosion hotspot, and the suspicion that the experts will keep talking while livelihoods are lost, the villagers formed a steering group to fight for action. Malcolm Kerby, co-ordinator of Coastal Concern said the answer lay at the Government’s door. “We can talk from now till doomsday,” he said. ‘What we need is action and the time to take that action is now. What we’d really like to see is properly constructed and placed hard sea defences. We could stop the sea if we had the will to do it.’

Diana Wrightson runs a guest house and tea shop in Beach Road, close to the cliff edge. Her livelihood depends on warding off erosion. Defences, she said, had only about five years’ life left in them. “If the present barriers are allowed to fall, we would be in great danger,” she said.

For while the village centre is safe, outlying homeowners face an ever-uncertain future.

Nearly four years ago, during the notorious storms of 1996, George and Jeanne Scott hit the headlines after refusing to evacuate their bungalow as it teetered on the edge of the crumbling cliffs during a stormy spell.

And it is the very coastal issues epitomised at Happisburgh that will be discussed at Holt this afternoon. It is the second time the event has been run and speakers include John Pethick, professor of coastal science at Newcastle University and representatives from the Environment Agency, English Nature and North Norfolk District Council.

But the villagers’ plea for defence is a far cry from what Keith Clayton, founder of the University of East Anglia’s school of environmental sciences, will have to say. His support of a sustainable approach could see more and more homes lost to the sea as nature would be allowed to run its course. ‘I shall argue it’s time to re-think where we’re going,’ he said. “Cliffs have been moving inland for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years. It is only in recent years that people have wanted to live near them.” Less money spent on defences could mean more for compensating people who lost homes to the grips of the sea, he added.

Event organiser Tim Venes said the purpose of the day was to involve local people in coastal management issues and raise awareness for the future. “We are trying to make sure people are as well informed as they can be about coastal forces,” he said.

November 2011 Comments

I have for some considerable time refrained from making comment or updates as there has been considerable activity ‘behind the scenes’ and I was conscious that any comment could have affected some of the negotiations and events which were taking place. However I believe the time is now right to comment on a number of relevant issues.

Firstly and perhaps most importantly (in the wider context) is the all new Central Government policy for Flood and Coastal Risk Management which came into being in July of this year. This is a policy which seeks to convince us, and no doubt the Association of British Insurers ( ABI ) that more will be done on the coast when in fact Government is looking to do much less with an ongoing reducing budget. The only positive I can find in the new policy is the fact that it removes any doubt that we manage our coast for fiscal reasons rather than sound coast management rationale. My own view is that the new policy is hugely divisive, has increased costs for the Maritime Authorities when seeking to provide a scheme which is subject to central funding grant in aid and could be damaging in the long term.

The conundrum for Government which this policy seeks to resolve is, how do we do less on the coast whilst convincing the public we are doing more!

There is nothing within it to address the shortcomings of past policy. For me the most glaring example is the continued combining of fluvial and coastal policy and approach. Clearly the drivers and solutions are entirely different for fluvial (rivers) and the coast (sea), this combined approach can surely only disadvantage both areas. It may make ‘political sense’ on paper but to both myself and others, including some highly respected coastal managers, it is a major stumbling block to achieving good coast management. I can however understand why it appears attractive to Government. I’m sure they would claim it reduces their operating cost. Problem is it conveniently obscures the paucity of funding for the coast when budgets are announced and produces policies which are centred on fluvial thinking much of which simply does not apply on the coast.

Also there is still no mechanism (policy or funding) for adaptation on the coast in the face of projected rising sea levels and climate change. Both changes appear inevitable and beyond the control of man which makes it fundamentally important that we have adequate, effective policies in place to successfully manage our way through said changes. In a word Adaptation.

Secondly we still have a situation where when losses are incurred to people and communities resulting from policy change on a hitherto defended section of coast usually from Hold the Line to either No Active Intervention or Managed Realignment there is still no policy or funding to deal with the consequences of that change. Yet for flora and fauna in the same situation there is a policy of 100% compensation irrespective of cost. Quite simply that can not be either right or socially just.

On another aspect of policy, or rather the lack of it, it seems that we the people are denied the right to a properly constructed appeal procedure against decisions made by the Government created quango Natural England (NE) who are charged with policing the environment. Problem is Government and the politicians would have us believe NE are just advisors, a view which NE itself strongly supports and propagates. In practice however it seems no Government Department or politician will challenge or go against NE ‘advice’. So it would appear that policy is being set by default with a singular lack of checks and balances. We need more than just relying on the goodwill of any individual within it or NE itself.

Over the past year we have seen a plethora of public consultations from Government Departments and quangos on proposed new policies, indeed at one stage it was difficult to keep up with them. Those proposed policies have since been ratified and are now in place. The question and comment I constantly hear from communities and individuals (including those who have to manage the coast) is are these consultations meaningful or are they simply a box ticking exercise to comply with convention rules as precious little attention seems to be paid to constructive comment made in the consultation responses.

Perhaps at some stage in the future we will get a politician or politicians who will not just read the script handed to them by senior aides and have enough knowledge, understanding and balls to get involved in the creation of Flood and Coast Management policy which will actually work for the coast and it’s people within a fair and socially just framework.

With 16.9 million people living in the coastal zone in this country (Atkins 2004: ICZM in the UK – a stocktake) we deserve better, much better than that which is currently being foisted upon us.

I do realise that these comments may cause some consternation amongst some of the politicians and civil servants within DEFRA, EA and NE with whom I have had the very real pleasure of working over recent years. However I hope they know me well enough to know that my abiding principle has not changed and that is to ‘work with in search of better whilst telling it like it is’.

Malcolm Kerby (18 November 2011)

June 2010 Comments

Inevitably the Kelling to Lowestoft Ness Second Generation Shoreline Management Plan (SMP2) has reared its ugly head again. This time it takes the form of a consultation on the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of the SMP2.

Whilst this latest consultation is concerned solely with the SEA it is, quite understandably, being interpreted by many local individuals and communities as a further ‘referendum’ on the SMP itself.

It is now almost six years since this particular SMP2 hit the press (Oct 04) and produced an absolutely unprecedented response (well over 2000 respondents) which expressed the stakeholders (public) utter revulsion and rejection of it and the policy path it proposed for many areas. There was and still remains no policy for or means of managing the consequences of its proposals.

In a recent press interview and article (EDP 17th June, Challenges of erosion to get another good airing) I put on record my absolute opposition to acceptance of SMP2 until there exists a means of applying a socially just approach either built in to the SMP process or running concurrently alongside it.

What has become increasingly obvious over time and with experience is that SMPs are, quite simply, NOT FIT FOR PURPOSE.

The word “management” should be removed from their title as they manage nothing.They are meant to be regarded as the ‘high level strategic document’ in coast management. In fact they are a technical document with zero capability of managing their policy recommendations or the consequences of them. As such they should feed into and supply the technical background for an overarching, integrated coastal management policy which takes full account of both the technical and socio economic consequences of it’s policy path with particular emphasis on adaptation to climate change.

Without this integrated approach and with the continuing stand alone god like status placed on the SMPs I fear we shall never achieve successful adaptation or acceptance of it on the coast.

If we do not square the Social Justice/Adaptation circle we move closer and closer with gathering momentum to crisis on the coast.

Malcolm Kerby (23 June 2010)

December 2009 Comments

As can be seen elsewhere on this site North Norfolk District Council (NNDC) have been awarded £3million, under the Pathfinder project, to support communities and individuals adapt to climate change where defences are no longer to be sustained.

When I first heard the news I could not understand why I felt disappointed, £3million is a significant sum of money however it is only 52% of the amount NNDC bid for. I felt disappointment because I knew that this would reduce the effectiveness of the work which needs to be done.

Two questions continue to burn in my mind, firstly why was the national pot for the Pathfinder project only £11million when £30million was set aside in the Comprehensive Spending Review of Nov 07 ? From that the next question is what has happened to the ‘missing’ £19million ?

The Pathfinder project is designed to be a working pilot policy to inform Government what will be needed post March 2011, when this project ends.

My fear is that, once again through lack of funding, we will not be able to present Government with a complete picture of what is needed and required after march 2011 to ensure a socially just, smooth transition into adaptation to the effects and consequences of global warming and climate change.

Having said all of that it is a significant step forward and a clear indication that the Government ‘machine’ is beginning to understand some of the problems coastal communities and individuals face when coastal policy is changed.

It is an inescapable fact that coast management is an expensive business whether one chooses to defend or not. What we simply must not do is perpetuate the biggest mistake of the last 25 years or so. Underfunding! If we continue the lack of investment in the coast we will, surely, exacerbate the combined effects of Climate change, global warming and sea level rise.

I would take this opportunity to send a heartfelt thank you to all who have supported us over the years, without you nothing would have been possible.

My thanks also to Government Ministers, Politicians (of all political party persuasion) and those within NNDC, DEFRA, the Environment Agency and Natural England who have put up with me for another year and worked toward achieving a more socially just approach to coast management.

Finally and with special thoughts for the people of Cumbria who have recently felt the cruel hand of nature may I wish everyone on behalf of CCAG and Happisburgh a very Happy Christmas and a healthy, happy and safe New Year.

Malcolm Kerby (16 December 2009)

May 2009 Comments – Elliot Morley Suspended

Many from communities along the North Norfolk coast will remember Elliot Morley when he was Environment Minister particularly when we went to Parliament on the 8th March 2005 to support our own MP Norman Lamb in the Adjournment Debate he won to put our collective case.

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Norman Lamb put a very succinct and eloquent case on our behalf. We were all confounded by Elliot Morley’s response and demeanour. He clearly was in difficulty amidst lack of knowledge of the subject and what his department were doing. We were heartily sickened at the sight of a floundering Minister making a response which was being written for him on scraps of paper and handed to him by his aides. I also recollect him saying he had no intention of talking with that rabble (us).

Here was a Minister trying to defend coastal policies which were/are not fit for purpose when it was abundantly clear he was not fit for purpose himself.

I have lost count of the number of times Morley repeated that he could not justify expenditure on our communities, either to continue with defences or mitigate the financial consequences of that decision on the grounds that he had to “ensure value for money for the taxpayer”. What a sick joke!

Many coastal dwellers, I feel sure, will now earnestly hope that a formal police investigation of Morleys financial affairs is undertaken. As taxpayers they have an absolute right to know whether or not any of their taxes have been misappropriated.

I have read his lame excuses. Surely if a burglar breaks into a home,steals property then when caught hands it back he remains a burglar.

At best Morley’s conduct has been disgraceful and I fail to understand how he can be allowed to continue as an MP. Not only should he be sacked but he should also forfeit all rights to his considerable pension entitlement that no doubt we the long suffering taxpayer will otherwise be expected to provide.

As a Minister Morley certainly appeared incompetent now it seems he could be even worse.

Malcolm Kerby (14 May 2009)

April 2009 Comments – The First Ten Years Are The Worst

CCAG was created ten years ago today. It grew out of the deep frustration and fear within the community.

Frustration because Government’s attitude and approach to the management of our coast seemed to be devoid of any common sense or understanding.

Fear because the prospects for individuals and the community were extremely worrying. Everyone felt they had no voice and were being abandoned out of hand.

Over those ten years some things have changed, some have not. To a lesser extent fear still plays a part in some people’s lives here. However frustration has been reduced because we know we have played a significant role in beginning to change Governments attitude and approach to coast management.

We have become increasingly proactive in seeking change that will benefit all coastal communities not just our own.

It has been our fervent desire to be a leading part of the solution rather than a leading part of the problem. To that end we have worked extremely hard to understand the problems and difficulties all levels of Government face when attempting to manage the coast.

We have been, and remain, committed to fostering a wider understanding by all involved of each others problems and feel very strongly that we must continue the effort and build on the achievements of the last ten years.

Climate change and sea level rise will undoubtedly test our collective resolve as we move through this century. Of paramount importance will be our ability, with adequate institutional arrangements, to manage our way through.

CCAG is committed absolutely to working with everyone involved irrespective of political party or level of authority to achieve a socially just coastal philosophy and policy which we can all ‘buy in to’.

Malcolm Kerby (08 April 2009)

February 2009 comments: “For Risk Management read Mismanagement”

It has been extremely interesting watching the televised ‘grilling’ of Bankers by the Treasury Select Committee over recent days.

What occurs to me is the stark parallels which can be drawn from the way the Banks were (mis)managed and the way we (mis)manage the coast.

It seems to me the demise of the Banks (which has led to financial chaos) is due largely to suspect ‘Risk Management’ techniques and the marked absence of good old fashioned sound banking principles and practice. The result is financial chaos on an unprecedented scale.

As regular users of this website will know I have repeatedly questioned and condemned Government’s ‘Risk Management’ approach to coast management and have oft times denounced it as pushing us ever closer to ‘coastal chaos’. As each week, month and year roll by more and more evidence from all around the country (see www.nvcc.org.uk ) is emerging which clearly indicates that ,with current ‘Risk Management’ techniques and approach, we are indeed laying the foundations for coastal chaos particularly for future generations.

I feel sure the ex bosses of HBOS Bank now wish they had listened to the ‘whistle blower’ within their own organisation rather than getting rid of him. He certainly has my sympathies and admiration because he not only recognised the folly of his employers ways he was brave enough to tell them (we need more people like him) and that, quite unjustly, cost him his job.

Problem is once a major corporation (in this case HBOS) or Central Government (in this case with its management of the coast) have commited to take us all down the ‘wrong road’ it becomes a Herculean task to get them to change and adopt a more appropriate (safer) course by applying more precautionary principles.

In spite of their political protestations to the contrary funding for coast protection has, and continues to be, reduced year on year and is now at a dangerously low level.

Surely it has never been more appropriate to believe that ‘Risk Management’ equates to MisManagement.

The burning question is, will Central Government emulate the Banks and ignore all warnings until it is too late only then to be forced to adopt a safer more appropriate policy or will it see sense in time?

Either way there is but one thing for absolute certain, it is you and me the average bloke in the street not the Bankers not the Politicians who will have to fund the whole sick mess whichever way they go.

Malcolm Kerby (12 February 2009)

January 2009 Update – Natural England Press Release

I note with interest the press release from Natural England (NE) covering their decision to appeal the recent High Court judgement re Peter Boggis and the Easton Bavents cliffs.

Sean Thomas (Regional Director NE) says the judgement “threatens to stifle the ways in which advice and expert opinion can be used to inform planning and development decisions”

That, I would respectfully contend, is absolute rubbish. What it may do is force NE to take a more open, honest democratic approach which must surely be in the public interest.

Currently their paymasters and owners (the taxpaying public) have no input or influence whatsoever in how NE arrives at any decision be it for advice or otherwise. That is absolutely undemocratic and intolerable.

NE itself is an unelected, undemocratic quango which is costing the taxpayer millions of pounds annually and is getting in everyone’s way and doing a great deal of harm to individuals and communities around the coast.

As we all know there can only be one thing worse than the foregoing that is an unelected, undemocratic quango with powers!

What is really behind all this is that NE clearly does not wish to be forced into fully and publicly carrying out their assessments or have to justify their decisions or advice to anyone.

Over recent times I/we have met with more than one Minister of State and some very senior players in the field of coast management indeed one Minister revealed his impatience with NE by dismissing them completely saying “ignore them they are only advisers they have no say in policy”. Perhaps the time has now come to do precisely that.

Of course if we lived in a democratic, socially just society rooted in equality for all there would never have been any need for conflict between the residents of Easton Bavents and NE in the first place.

Unfortunately we do not live in such a society, it seems if one lives on the coast one is treated like a leper by being told to give up your land and property in the, so called, wider national interest and the wider nation takes absolutely no account of that. The individual is expected to bear the full cost.

Malcolm Kerby (15 January 2009)

January 2009 Comments: “How to waste taxpayers money with style and panache”

A strategy for promoting an integrated approach to the management of coastal areas in EnglandDEFRA, 6th January 2009

The above link will take you to what purports to be our Government’s view on how to implement Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM) in England.

This absolute debacle is not so much a strategy for ICZM, more an instruction manual on ‘how to over egg the pudding you’re not even making’!!

Surely we (the taxpayers) have a right to expect a constructive lead from our Government on issues as important to the well being of our island nation as coast management. What we are getting is a whole series of measures, plans, strategies and policies emanating from the centre which are unworkable, unacceptable and seem to increasingly prove how little comprehension exists within central Government and its Quangos of how the coast and it’s communities function, or what is needed to maintain their functionality through global warming, climate change and sea level rise.

Having read the foreword to this onerous document by the relevant Minister, currently Huw Irranca-Davies MP, I was extremely encouraged not least because I have long been calling for an ICZM approach rooted in a socially just framework, also because at last we have a Minister who should have some grasp of the theory of coast management (I believe he has a Degree in Estuarine and/or Coast Management)

Although I am unaware of any practical experience of actually managing an estuary or coast he may have. Then I read on and yet again bitter disappointment was mine!

Incidentally this does point to one of the significant problems we have in this country, coastal governance and the highly destructive target driven approach to coast management is being created and spewed out from the centre by theorists who have absolutely no experience of actually managing any part of the coast and its communities.

Over recent years there has been a significant shift in the skills base for managing the coast. Central Government no longer has adequate numbers of experienced people.

It is the Maritime Authorities who have the people with the skills and knowledge base to effectively manage the coast.

It is high time the Maritime Authorities stood together to tell central Government in the strongest possible terms enough is enough, they simply cannot continue with the massive underfunding of the coast, inadequate governance or the ridiculous constraints placed upon them.

What we have here is not really a strategy for the implementation of ICZM in England, it is yet another typically British cock up which will add to the confusion, further fragment the situation and increase the absolute chaos which currently passes for coast management in this country.

With so many Ministers coming and going it is difficult to keep up, however one thing is for sure whoever signed off this final document without it going out to consultation before release and public presentation should be dusting down their CV and searching for another job to which they are clearly more suited.

Oh yes, may I wish everyone a very healthy, happy and safe New Year.

Malcolm Kerby (07 January 2009)

December 2008 Comments – Taxpayers … value for money?

There surely can be few other areas of Government which provide poorer value for money than DEFRA’s Flood and Coast Protection (F&CP) department.

F&CP now has it’s own ‘Bermuda Triangle’ the three sides of which are DEFRA, Environment Agency (EA) and Natural England (NE).

Dubbed Bermuda Triangle because if one lives on the coast and happens to be caught between those three (one department and two quangos) it is quite likely that one will disappear into the administrative, process led and target orientated black hole which they seem to create.

The only thing which seems to disappear faster than any individual caught in it is taxpayers money.

Against the backdrop of significant underfunding more and more of our money which is made available is being spent on processes to achieve the goal of spending less and less on coast protection. In fact I’m sure we must be approaching the time when we will be spending more on avoidance procedures than actual protection works.

In reality the new system of reduced funding, even more inadequate benefit to cost criteria, positively mystical ‘outcome measures’ and EA overall control is doing what Government quietly wanted it to do, that is create a more effective smoke and mirrors scenario along with a reduction in works undertaken on the coast.

Over the last three years F&CP, as it is now entitled, has had two Secretarys of State and is currently enjoying it’s fifth consecutive Minister. Most of whom simply did not have a clue about what they had been put in charge of. They just espoused whatever their senior civil servants ‘advised’ them to say.

I am given to understand at least one of those ex Ministers has spoken privately and, allegedly, conceded that with F&CP they (presumably the Government) have got it all wrong, that it is an absolute mess and how pleased and relieved he was to get away from it. I’m sure the same could be said for all the previous incumbents.

Personally I have spent almost ten years of my life living, eating, breathing, sleeping coastal process and policy. In all that time I have never seen the situation so dire as it is now. All around the country defences are failing with no intention from central Government to repair or replace and absolutely no means of managing the consequences unfairly levied on individuals and communities as a result.

I remain convinced that the whole coast management polcy, structure and application as it currently stands is absolutely unsustainable and is breeding really significant problems for future generations and society.

Back to the ‘Bermuda Triangle’ and the black hole into which more and more taxpayers money is pouring for an ever diminishing return. We simply must clip NEs wings, we cannot go on giving greater emphasis to flora and fauna at the absolute expense of man’s homes, businesses and cultural heritage. We must redress the utterly idiotic situation where flora and fauna receive 100% compensation, irrespective of cost, for loss of habitat (no benefit/cost criteria here) and people lose their homes and livelihoods with absolutely no compensation or assistance of any kind.

As I type this news has come through that Peter Boggis has received judgement in his favour in the matter of his case against Natural England (NE) who tried to stop him defending his home at Easton Bavents, Suffolk from coastal erosion.

I recall some years ago the very beginnings of the dispute over Peter’s attempts to protect his home. At that time it was the forerunner of NE, English Nature, who attempted to halt Peter’s efforts.

My understanding is that after consultation amongst themselves behind the scenes, the various Government (both local and national) departments decided it would be best left to English Nature to stop this individual’s attempts to save his home by envoking the SSSI at Easton Bavents.

However when English Nature began proceeding they discovered the original SSSI had expired and they found that Easton Bavents frontage was no longer subject to any SSSI therefore they could not proceed under that situation.

Not to be outdone they urgently created a new SSSI (without any public consultation) with which to attack Peter Boggis.

This subsequently cleared the way for the latest incarnation of the by now defunct English Nature, Natural England, to use it’s ill gotten powers to stop this perfectly ordinary (but exceptional), law abiding, right thinking and conscientious British citizen and bring him to heel. In short I firmly believe it was all about making an example of one individual to deter others.

This case throws up some interesting questions ie why are these over zealous Government quangos allowed to determine what constitutes an SSSI and their own interpretation of the ‘rules’ in a clandestine manner. Absolutely everything they do must be open, transparent and subject to public scrutiny and assent after all the entire cost of their very existence is borne by the taxpayer yet the taxpayer has no say in how they conduct themselves.

Already in it’s relatively short lifetime NE has managed to create low morale amongst many of it’s own staff. As was clearly demonstrated recently, when asked to cut back it’s overhead, it put the question of voluntary redundancy/natural wastage to it’s staff and I understand at least half the entire workforce applied to go!

Along with that they are regarded by individuals and communities all around the coast of this country as public enemy number one.

Without doubt the Peter Boggis/ Easton Bavents affair has severely damaged their credibility and I fear if they take up the option to appeal the judgement what little credibility remains will be destroyed.

I would urge Helen Phillips, Chief Exec. NE, to seriously consider her and her quangos position. Having as it were shot themselves in one foot do they really want to put a bullet in the other one ?

There is a limit to what even British taxpayers will swallow and Natural England is becoming more and more unpalatable to their ultimate owners, the long suffering taxpayer.

What I find extremely regrettable in all of this is the effect on NE staff some of whom are extremely competent individuals that I have had the privilege and pleasure of working alongside and with in the quest for a socially just, effective coast management policy.

What is urgently needed is a root and branch review of Natural England and it’s fitness for purpose, it’s remit and it’s ethos.

Malcolm Kerby (07 December 2008)