Living on the edge

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."