Sea defence boss attacks agency

Byline: By Richard Batson (Eastern Daily Press, 25 September 2006)

A sea defence boss from north Norfolk has launched a stinging attack on the agency being lined up to look after the nation’s shoreline.

A Government consultation paper identifies the Environment Agency (EA) as the best organisation to take overall control of coastal management, some of which is done at present by local councils.

But North Norfolk District Council’s head of coastal strategy, Peter Frew, has dismissed the agency as remote and unfeeling.

He says he was stunned when a national agency officer suggested that residents under threat of losing their homes to sea erosion at Happisburgh should “be told to get out”.

Yet the government, in its Making Way for Water paper, is suggesting that coastal communities should be looked after by an organisation employing a person holding that unacceptable attitude, he points out.

Mr Frew’s report will be discussed by the council’s cabinet next Monday with a recommendation to object to the proposals in the strongest possible terms.

It outlines grave concerns about the Defra document, which would take coastal management out of the hands of councils serving local communities and give it to a regional committee made up of government appointees and nominated representatives from county councils.

The report says there is a danger of ignoring the wealth of local knowledge and understanding employed by local people who have “lived and worked with seas and rivers all their lives”.

Mr Frew adds: “The EA is seen by local communities as remote and unfeeling and inclined to take decisions on theoretical understanding without taking local knowledge into account.”

He concedes that the present system – where the agency looks after low-lying coastlines susceptible to flood risk, while councils protect cliff areas from erosion – can cause confusion and says he appreciates why the government wants to unite the two functions.

But he says it is also important to look at wider coastal issues such as planning, economic and tourism – something to council is doing through its new local development framework by having a special action plan for the coast.

His report also highlights fears about job prospects for people used by the council for coastal protection works and services, with a further loss of local knowledge and skills leading to increased costs and lower standards.

An Environment Agency spokesman said the council was entitled to its views in the consultation process but insisted there was a need to simplify the system and gave an assurance that it would work closely with the council.