What We Have, We Must Hold

"We cannot fight nature - we must not be King Canute"

This is Ihe line that the Government and its supporters use time and again to defend its policy of managed retreat for our coastline. But such a crass comment betrays a lack of knowledge of our island nation's history.

For a start, Kine Canute never claimed that he could turn the tide - he sat on the beach and commanded the tide to tum back in order to prove to his people that his powers were limited.

More importantly, the history of the Norfolk coast shows that it is only because we have been fighting nature for the last millennium or so that we are here today.

Take the village of Hickling, its residents built a wall to defend against flooding in the 15th century and it is still there today. Or look at Oversrrand, where the Victorians installed a drainage system to remove the water that threatened tbe village's cliffs.

And then there is Happisburgh, where wooden revetments constructed in 1959 protected the village for almost half a century.

The simple fact is that Norfolk's coastline has been vulnerable to the sea for as long as the county has existed and it is only because previous generations were prepared to fight narure that we are here at all. Even in these tough economic times we have more resources and more knowledge than those previous generations, so the refusal to continue to defend our coastline is an insult to those who had less but were prepared to make sacrifices to defend it in the past.

But the current policy of managed retreat is not just an insult to our forefathers; it is also a betrayal of our children. By not investing in coastal defences now, we are passing on an even bigger problem for the next generation to deal with, because they will have to defend the coastline eventually.

Managed retreat not only flies in the face of what history has taught us (that you can fight nature), but it is also based on nothing more than fortune telling.

Take the recent proposal to flood the area from Sea Palling to Potter Heigham. What the Govt. is doing is setting current sea defence budgets on the basis of what it thinks might happen in 50 to 100 years time. This is simply nonsense. No-one really knows what the consequences of global warming will; maybe sea levels will rise, maybe not.

Those 15th century residents of Hickling did not ask themselves what sea levels would be like in the future, they simply built a wall high enough to defend them from the risk that they faced. Is that not sensible? The simple fact is that for relatively small sums of money we can defend our coastline today and that is what we should do.

At the end of the day we can fight nature, the only question is whether we are willing to pay for it.

That is not to say that we will always win; there may come a time in the future where we cannot hold on to part of our coast any longer, but let's not sell out now on the basis of what might happen - after all, 50 years ago we thought we were entering a new ice age.

But the starting point for any sensible policy of coastal defence must be that what we have, we hold. And this is where compensation comes in. Many people say that calling for compensation is defeatist but it is not. At present, the Govt. is kidding itself that sea defences are too expensive (although it always seems to find the resources for areas where there are more Labour voters).

They fail to take into account the real costs of coastal erosion & flooding. The loss of property making people homeless and penniless, the loss of businesses and the loss of prime agricultural land at a time of rising food prices. All these things are ignored by the Government when deciding how much to invest in sea defences.

By getting the Government to recognise its moral and legal obligation to pay compensation, we might make the Government look again at how cost effective it is to defend our communities in the first place.

The time has come to have a sensible debate about the future of our coastline and a return to the common sense of the past - what we have, we hold. Combine this with compensation where we cannot hold the line anymore and we have the makings of a decent coastal defence policy.