Sea could swallow thousands of homes

THOUSANDS of homes could be swallowed by the sea if conservationists get their way and allow sea defences to be breached to create new wetland habitation.

English Nature and the Environment Agency believe it will cost too much to maintain the concrete wall near Winterton in the long term.

In a report which will send shockwaves throughout North Norfolk, they suggest it could be left to collapse, therefore allowing the sea to eventually engulf six villages and hundreds of isolated homesteads.

The study known as CHaMPS (Coastal Habitat Management Plan), which will be considered by planners responsible for protecting Norfolk's coastline, concludes that in the long run it might prove too costly to keep maintaining the existing concrete sea wall.

The report states: "The saline flooding of northern Broadland resulting from a major breach of the dunes, would, of course, represent a major human tragedy involving six villages and numerous isolated house and farms."

The villages most likely to be threatened include Sea Palling, Eccles, Waxham, Horsey, Hickling and Potter Heigham, while erosion could see between 70 and 260 metres of coastline at Winterton itself lost over the next century. The report added the area flooded could be restricted to 6,500 hectares if extra defences were built at Potter Heigham and Stalham.

It continued: "Given the fact that such a major change in the coastal landscape is not likely to occur for at least 100 years, it would be possible to consider adjustment to long-term planning objectives so that socio-economic interests would not be adversely affected.

"The conservation value of such a steep change in the management of this critical coastal area would be immense, while the alternative, in terms of continued and increasingly expensive and potentially unsustainable defences, is difficult to contemplate over a period of more than two centuries.

"It is clear though, that further study of the proposal would be required, particularly with respect to the viability of other long-term coastal defence options.

"In this context it is important that continued monitoring of the Winterton frontage is undertaken in order to determine the accuracy of the predictions made in this CHaMP.

"Only with additional and longer-term datasets can informed decisions on the future sustainability and strategic direction of coastal defence requirements be made for this stretch of the Norfolk coastline."

Peter Lambley, English Nature's conservation officer for the Norfolk coast, was quick to stress the ideas were still subject to a much wider consultation process.

He said: "The CHaMPS is a contribution to the debate on this length of coast which will be built into the Shoreline Management Plan which is in development."

But families in Winterton have been rocked by the suggestion the sea could be allowed to swallow swathes of land and forever change the landscape of the Norfolk coast. Shirley Weymouth, Great Yarmouth Borough councillor for Winterton and Somerton, has called a meeting which will include representatives from English Nature, the Environment Agency, the Broads Authority and various local authorities.

She said there was concern in Winterton over the erosion of the coastline, with predictions that water levels could rise by nearly a metre in the next 100 years.

She said: "Until we have had this meeting, I do not really know the ins and outs. That is why I have called the meeting. One party is saying one thing and another says another thing. We have got to get everyone together."

The meeting will be held in the village at 7.30pm on Monday, September 29.

Work on the concrete wall started in 1953 after a surge tide broke through the existing defences and seven people died. The current wall was built in stages between 1953 and 1989.

Gary Watson, coastal geomorphologist at Anglian Coastal Authorities Group, based at North Norfolk District Council, will take a lead role in drawing up the Shoreline Management Plan for the county's coastline.

He made it clear English Nature's views would not be the only ones taken into account when the policy was drawn up next year and submitted to the Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs for funding approval.

Mr Watson said: "I do appreciate the environmental benefits, but English Nature do not take into account that thousands of people will be affected. English Nature's report blatantly ignores the fact there are a lot of people who live there and we are probably talking about millions of pounds in compensation."

Last month, several hundred protesters gathered on the rapidly-eroding clifftops at Happisburgh to spell out a human SOS to the Government.

Keith Harrison, parish representative of the Norfolk Coast Partnership, said the time to panic had not come yet. "There's a new round of Shoreline Management Plans taking place at the moment which could say something completely different to what Champs say."