December 2006 Comments

In recent years I have tried to convince the UK coastal world that the erosion problems we suffer here in Happisburgh are not Happisburgh specific.

The truth is that Happisburgh is but part of a national problem which is going to get much, much worse as a result of mixed messages from the scientists and the perpetuation of the massive underfunding of coast protection in this country. There are now press articles from all around the country flagging up coast defence issues, see the latest addition to the press articles elsewhere on this site.

What we are witnessing is a rapid slide into coastal chaos for it will not be long before the situation becomes irreversible in many areas. I really thought there was an opportunity to get some common sense and joined up thinking when DEFRA launched the Making Space for Water project however I now feel history will show it as a wasted opportunity of mammoth proportions.

Along with that the only tangible change that seems to have come out of that project with any haste is the handing of overall strategic control of all coast defences to the Environment Agency (EA). Many key staff within the EA do not feel that is the best way forward. Many key players in coast defence around this country also feel it is not the best way forward. Personally I feel it is a huge mistake and can only lead to an already confused situation becoming much worse. Many believe it is something the DEFRA civil servants have wanted to do for a considerable time.

Over recent times we have seen significant changes in both the political management of DEFRA and the Civil Service staff. With the moving on of the ex Minister Elliot Morley there was a sigh of relief out here in the real world, who could forget his abysmal performance in the adjournment debate on March 8th last year which really underlined his lack of understanding and knowledge of the subject to hand.

We now have a new Minister, Ian Pearson MP, whom I have had the very real pleasure of meeting on three occasions. This man impresses me enormously not just because he had the courage to come to North Norfolk at his own behest on a fact finding visit but because I sense we are dealing with a very genuine man. He has resisted the temptation to make any early promises and has consistantly called for constructive dialogue. Now if only this man can get to see the real picture and not the one that is presented to him by his civil servants we might just get some progress in the right direction.

On the Civil Service side we have seen the retirement of the DEFRA Chief Engineer, to the immense relief of many of the Operating Authorities where he was intensely disliked. In my view we are now free of a very dogmatic individual who did coast protection overall in this country no favours at all.

I should add I have the greatest respect for many of the DEFRA Flood Management team and understand something of the enormity of the problems they have to wrestle with, not least the Treasury and it’s Green Book and Multi Coloured Document. However there is an urgent need to move on from the way things have always been done and a need to REALLY listen to what we are saying out here. It would also be extremely useful if the second generation Shoreline Management Plans (SMPs) are not pushed into other areas of the country until the problems thrown up by the pilot SMPs are fully resolved. I have travelled the length of the country and spoken to many coast dwellers, those in areas where a new SMP has been announced are already seeing adverse effects on property values and viability both in terms of Insurance and open market.

As far as North Norfolk is concerned, in the wake of the absolute rejection of the second generation SMP for this area, North Norfolk District Council (NNDC) has recognised and is acting upon the absolute need to buy some time for it’s coastal communities by investing in some defences which hopefully will get us through ten or so years while we wait for a more sustainable coastal policy and SMPs to eminate from central government.

It would be extremely useful if DEFRA, whose change of policy and direction without addressing social justice has caused immense social and economic problems, would match fund NNDC in their efforts. If they do match fund we can all take heart that DEFRA is sincere in it’s approach and would be a clear sign that we are all working together to achieve an effective proper outcome to the problems the SMP has thrown up. If they choose not to match fund then they run the very real risk of perpetuating the adversarial approach that has bedevilled the situation for years and is so counter productive.

Malcolm Kerby (13 December 2006)