Rocks will protect homes for the winter

Families living in fear of losing their clifftop homes have been given the early Christmas present of 4000 tonnes of rock. A £160,000 emergency scheme will protect Happisburgh's Beach Road from all but the worst of storms – for the time being. But householders have been warned that the longer-term future of their houses still hangs in the balance.

Work on a "firefighting" scheme aimed to buy time should begin on December 16 and will be finished in the New Year, officials said yesterday. It may be only a stay of execution, because a full sea defence scheme could still be years away – leaving the vulnerable part of the village at the mercy of the elements.

The news of the emergency work was welcomed by villagers, but they are still angry about the delays which have scuppered a proper £700,000 defence scheme. Coastal Concern Action group spokesman Malcolm Kerby said: "We appreciate the efforts of the council, but it may have given us a six month stay of execution." He condemned the delays caused by Government bureaucrats and objectors and said the group would be looking at legal issues, such as the human right of protection, among longer term answers.

Guesthouse owner Di Wrightson said "we are grateful for the time this has bought us, but we must fight on. Our life is in turmoil. We are getting inquiries from people who want to stay next summer, and we are saying we don't know if we will be here."

Local district councillor Sue Willis said the news was an "early Christmas present" for families, who had been unable to plan for the festive season because of fears about the fate of their property. But the council had to be honest with people about the long-term uncertainty, and did not want to build up false hopes.

The long-running saga of trying to find a solution to worn-out sea defences and accelerating erosion rates at the east end of Happisburgh has reached a climax in recent weeks.

North Norfolk District Council's executive committee met behind closed doors to get legal advice and decide on what action to take. Afterwards chief executive Bruce Barrell said the situation was "extremely serious" and that "doing nothing is no longer an option". Councillors had looked at the legal, technical and, mostly importantly, the social issues of the situation, namely people's homes.

Engineering manager Peter Frew said legal advice from a barrister revealed that emergency work could be carried out – but admitted it was "firefighting." It would involve a wall of eight-tonne rocks piled 2.8m high which would "buy time" and would "see us through the winter." The council's frustration had increased because the latest major sea defence scheme was the first one, in many years of trying, to meet Government criteria.

But because of the delays – caused by two objectors including lord of the manor Eric Couzens – it was no longer viable, said Mr Frew. Recent erosion meant a bigger scheme was now needed, but the loss of property in the meantime meant it was harder to make an economic case. Mr Couzens has told the EDP he does not talk to the media about his objections, which include navigation and beach safety issues.