Erosion: Minister looks for ways forward

Beleaguered villagers who fear the sea will swallow up their homes were given a glimmer of hope today as a government minister surveyed the state of the north-east Norfolk coast.

Environment minister Ian Pearson made no bold promises of a cash injection to save communities like Happisburgh from a watery grave.

But he pledged to begin dialogue on an issue that has previously been dismissed out of hand by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) - compensation, or social justice, for people whose homes and livelihoods are lost.

Mr Pearson said: "I know how serious the problem of coastal erosion is. We need to look to find new ways forward.

"I want the government to seriously engage on this issue and I want to have a debate about social justice for the coastal communities.

"I have a lot of sympathy for homeowners that bought properties, say, 20 or more years ago and had the expectation that they would be defended forever."

He added that he wanted to see the government, the district council, the Environment Agency, English Nature and local people getting together to "look at ways forward".

But he said: "We've got 4,000 miles of coastline and we can't defend everything for all time."

Malcolm Kerby, from Coastal Concern Action Group (CCAG), who was outspoken in condemning Mr Pearson's predecessor Elliot Morley, said he was "hugely impressed and encouraged" by the new minister.

He said: "Obviously we can't expect any minister, particularly one who's so new in post, to come here with a basket full of promises.

"But clearly he's a thinker and an intelligent man. He was a very brave man to come to the most troublesome stretch of coastline in the country, with the most vociferous people.

"However, if he doesn't measure up in the future then we won't be frightened about giving him a rough ride."

Mr Pearson was taken on a tour of the coast, including Sheringham, Cromer, Overstrand, Happisburgh and Sea Palling.

He saw at first hand the devastation wrought by the sea at Happisburgh, where dozens of homes have fallen over the cliff in recent years.

And frustrated residents in a number of the villages told him how their homes have been "blighted" by the draft shoreline management plan, which proposes only protecting the main towns and leaving the rest undefended.

Jack Hall, who lives in Happisburgh, told him: "People find it manifestly unfair that this generation is the one generation that will lose everything. There's got to be a way out of this."

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb, who helped to broker today's visit, said he was "encouraged" by Mr Pearson's comments.

He said: "I think it's encouraging that we are now engaging in dialogue and he's listening to us and appears to accept some of the principles.

"But it's a step by step process. There's no breakthrough yet. We've got a long way to go."