Debate on Norfolk coastal defences

The debate over coastal management in Norfolk is set to hot up today when leading academics, regional organisations and local people meet for a one-day conference. Up to 200 people are expected to attend the Changing Coast conference, organised by the Wells-based Norfolk Coast Project which was founded in 1991 to promote sustainable use and management of the county's coastline. But while ideas are debated in a cosy conference room, villagers living at the cutting edge of an enduring coastal problem are calling for fewer words and more action.

In Happisburgh, despite a summer of helpful tides which has built up sand and shingle, locals know it only takes a spate of surging tides and biting gales to tip the balance and tip more houses over the cliff edge. Such is the strength of feeling at this erosion hotspot, and the suspicion that the experts will keep talking while livelihoods are lost, the villagers formed a steering group to fight for action. Malcolm Kerby, co-ordinator of Coastal Concern said the answer lay at the Government's door. "We can talk from now till doomsday," he said. 'What we need is action and the time to take that action is now. What we'd really like to see is properly constructed and placed hard sea defences. We could stop the sea if we had the will to do it.'

Diana Wrightson runs a guest house and tea shop in Beach Road, close to the cliff edge. Her livelihood depends on warding off erosion. Defences, she said, had only about five years' life left in them. "If the present barriers are allowed to fall, we would be in great danger," she said.

For while the village centre is safe, outlying homeowners face an ever-uncertain future.

Nearly four years ago, during the notorious storms of 1996, George and Jeanne Scott hit the headlines after refusing to evacuate their bungalow as it teetered on the edge of the crumbling cliffs during a stormy spell.

And it is the very coastal issues epitomised at Happisburgh that will be discussed at Holt this afternoon. It is the second time the event has been run and speakers include John Pethick, professor of coastal science at Newcastle University and representatives from the Environment Agency, English Nature and North Norfolk District Council.

But the villagers' plea for defence is a far cry from what Keith Clayton, founder of the University of East Anglia's school of environmental sciences, will have to say. His support of a sustainable approach could see more and more homes lost to the sea as nature would be allowed to run its course. 'I shall argue it's time to re-think where we're going,' he said. "Cliffs have been moving inland for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years. It is only in recent years that people have wanted to live near them." Less money spent on defences could mean more for compensating people who lost homes to the grips of the sea, he added.

Event organiser Tim Venes said the purpose of the day was to involve local people in coastal management issues and raise awareness for the future. "We are trying to make sure people are as well informed as they can be about coastal forces," he said.