Erosion: Minister looks for ways forward

Byline: By Steve Downes (Eastern Daily Press, 23 August 2006)

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.”

August 2006 Comments

This month we shall welcome Ian Pearson MP, the new Minister, to this area so that he may see for himself the true extent of the problems along our coastline.

I have to say I do admire the man for volunteering to come here, before being asked, at our meeting on June 8th having only been in post for a very short time and I would ask all of my friends and colleagues in these parts to join with me in offering the Minister a genuinely warm welcome.

It is my most fervant hope that the visit will open the way for a new era. An era of greater understanding by all sides of each others problems, of much closer and more meaningful dialogue and above all an era of ACTION and co-operation.

As many will know I have an absolute conviction that if we (all sides) are prepared to sit round the table together, enter into discussion starting with the areas on which we agree (there are some) and move naturally into the more contentious issues we will achieve an outcome which can be bought into by everyone.

Recently Prof. Tim O’Riordan presented the preliminary findings of the research project carried out by the Tyndall Centre on the impact of the draft, pilot, second generation Shoreline Management Plan (SMP) for this area on our communities. I am particularly pleased with the results as they confirm what CCAG has been putting forward over recent years. Let us hope that Government from this point forward stops just hearing us and actually starts to listen.

On the wider front I have been working with communities in other parts of the country, the South East and the North East in particular. One of the things that puzzles me enormously is why DEFRA is pushing SMPs into other parts of the country before the problems thrown up by the pilot plan here have been resolved. It is common knowledge that our pilot SMP has caused significant property and planning blight throughout the coastal strip and up to app. two miles inland. Surely by imposing SMPs in other areas DEFRA is spreading blight all around the country. Come on DEFRA do the responsible thing, place a moratorium on all further SMPs until the problems with the pilots have been resolved.

Malcolm Kerby (07 August 2006)