November 2007 Comments – Near miss

Much has happened in recent weeks, not least the weather which conspired to create a huge tidal surge in the North Sea over the 8th and 9th of November. A surge tide which took us perilously close to another 1953 disaster along the eastern flank of this country. Mercifully the weather itself ‘let us off the hook’. What defences remain took a fearful battering and some damage but they held. There were however some localised problems particularly at Walcot where the much extolled Environment Agency (by them of course) warning system failed miserably resulting in extreme threat to life and limb for many residents.

A widespread disaster was avoided solely because the wind direction did not shift more northerly. Had it done so the outcome would have been very different indeed.

Unfortunately Central Government will now consider there are few lessons to be learned from this near miss simply because it was precisely that, a near miss. In other words not enough happened to force the ‘gnomes of Whitehall’ to advise Ministers that the current and proposed policies and low levels of funding for managing the coast significantly increases the risk to the built and natural environment as well as public safety.

The second generation Shoreline Management Plans (SMPs) may well be “Plans” of what Government wants to do with the coast but in no respect are they “Management Plans” for they actually ‘manage’ nothing, not even the consequenses of their own proposals. They ignore completely the enormous Social Justice problems they create and the possible (or more likely probable) adverse effects of Marine Aggregate Dredging on the coastal process.

Make no mistake these SMPs were intended to be a means to ‘legitimise’ the massive underfunding of coast management. It was assumed (wrongly) that no longer defending much of our coastline would be a zero cost option for Central Government. Only now are they beginning to realise there is a huge cost and significant price to pay for “no active intervention” in many areas.

Contained within the Treasury’s recent Comprehensive Spending Revue is a commitment to make available ten million pounds each year for the next three years to “help communities adapt to climate change where defences are no longer considered viable”. Quite what this will mean and how it will be applied few if any people know or understand as yet. It is hoped that North Norfolk can be used to pilot any mitigation measures for if it can be got right here then it will work anywhere.

There is a real danger that some will wish to get their hands on a slice of that annual ten million to fund yet more strategies and studies etc. I have no doubt that various individuals, academics and institutions,cosultants et al are already working toward obtaining funding from the Adaptive Toolkit package. This I believe must be avoided at all costs, over the next three years that money must be used to help real people, real communities to adapt for that is the only way the SMPs will ever become acceptable to the people.

Thanks yet again to the tremendous efforts of our local MP Norman Lamb we had a meeting with the new Minister, Phil Woolas MP on the 21st of November. Clearly the Minister is a very busy man and we are most grateful he afforded us the time. The meeting was very cordial and we were able to discuss the substantive issues with both the Minister and senior staff. Only time will tell if it was as constructive as we felt it was on the day.

I was disappointed that the new Head of Flood Management, Chris de Grouchy, was not present.

Therein lies one of the major problems at the heart of the British way of doing things, every three or four years it seems there is a great shuffle round of top personnel. New people are brought in usually with no experience or understanding of coastal process or coast management. The nett effect of this is to promulgate talk, talk and more talk. Then just as those individuals begin to get a grasp of the situation they are moved on and new blood is brought in and we start all over again! This is great for perpetuating talking but it does seem to inhibit decision making (action on the ground)

Over the past four years I have met with three different Ministers holding responsibility for coastal strategy. the first was Elliot Morley, to put it mildly he was about as much use as a chocolate teapot. The second was Ian Pearson, a very bright individual for whom I have the greatest respect. He recognised and identified many of the problems very rapidly and was quietly very effective.

The third of course is Phil Woolas whom I thank very much for meeting with us and who I think could make a significant and positive contribution coming as he does from a DCLG background. Unless of course the British way of doing things impedes him as well !!

Malcolm Kerby (26 November 2007)