Eve of desruction

Over centuries, East Anglians have grown to accept, if not actually live comfortably beside a degree of cliff erosion. Schoolboys learn with amazement that the important mediaeval port of Dunwich is now half-a-mile out to sea, but shoreline management has become an increasingly serious and pressing matter.

Somehow the scope of potential dangers and any degree of urgency has entirely escaped the public perception; whilst defence of the realm has simultaneously become unfashionable in Whitehall. The problem is hardly a new one. The sea made major incursions in 1953, 1938, 1928, 1897, 1703, 1663, 1570, 1287, 1236 and 1099. Before the last deluge, atmospheric conditions caused parts of the North Sea to rise by nearly 11 feet. Today, not only is the land tilting downwards, but melting ice caps are raising sea levels, both of which could combine with increasingly severe storms caused by global warming.

Managed retreat is the cheapest political option for the Norfolk and Suffolk coastline - do nothing, or nearly nothing, for an area with few votes. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs uses a points system to assess investment in sea defences that simplistically weighs the capital cost of new works against the value of property likely to be saved. Local councils are responsible for cliffs; the Environment Agency, the flood plains; while the ubiquitous English Nature is also represented on the Anglian Coastal Authorities Group charged with developing our Shoreline Management Plan. Decision-making is confused by too many experts and the scoring system ensures that rural areas don't stand a chance. Out of the total Government flood defence budget of �570m for 2005/6, only �47m will be spent on coastal defences - the rest goes to higher-scoring inland towns and cities. Along our section of coast, nearly all expenditure on sea defences goes towards protecting the centres of population at Lowestoft, Great Yarmouth, Cromer and Sheringham. All credit to Norman Lamb, MP for North Norfolk, for raising the issue of compensation for lost property, which, if it doesn't solve the problem, would at least help level the playing field within Defra's points system. His parliamentary debate, which was supported by Tony Wright, member for Great Yarmouth, received precious little coverage.

At a current cost of three to five million pounds per kilometre, we are told it's not possible to encase our entire, five-and-a-half-thousand mile coastline with concrete. A more logical thought process might start with strengthening the first line of defence. Instead of building up the system of outer banks that ring the East Anglian coast, we have to accept that each and every year about 10 million tons of aggregate are dredged from them. Many view cash pocketed by dredging contractors and the Treasury (�1m a week) as immoral while homes and businesses are falling into the sea. In the meantime, Whitehall is considering an application from Hanson Aggregates to renew a dredging licence off Great Yarmouth.

Our small overpopulated island must eventually need space, yet we are only offered short-term solutions. A hundred miles to the east, they have centuries of experience of struggling to keep the North Sea out of their homes and there remains a lingering feeling that our Dutch friends are considerably more expert. The outer banks off the Netherlands are sacrosanct, although the Dutch remain big customers for our offshore aggregates.

A more radical solution would be to join up the outer banks. Reinforced outer defences could support all the windfarms and mobile phone masts that anyone could dream of not having in their own backyard. We could generate tidal power through the gaps and sleep soundly in our beds. The calmer water in the lagoon formed inside the banks would increase coastal tourism of every description.

A degree of coastal drift may be required from, say Happisburgh to, for example, Lowestoft to produce its long sandy beaches. Lowestoft's beaches are simply not worth the scenes of desolation and deprivation that are currently seen at Happisburgh. Even the most uninformed visitor can spot that the worst erosion is directly behind areas of sea defences that have not been maintained. If it's continued, this policy of managed retreat will erode the coast sufficiently within a man's lifetime to destroy the coastal tourism industry, currently worth an estimated �1bn per year from Titchwell right round to Minsmere. The Broads too, as we know them, will be gone for ever. Even Whitehall's apparent preference for park keepers in place of farmers won't help grass over thousands of acres soured with salt. Be absolutely clear, our politicians are proposing to write off property and industries worth billions of pounds every year in exchange for today's capital saving on the cost of keeping the North Sea where it belongs.

Despite the obvious environmental merits of the upper Thurne, without significant investment the sand dunes that pass for sea defences around Waxham and Horsey must inevitably give way to the North Sea.

English Nature, ever pliant to the whims of political masters, is prepared to contemplate sea defences running along the road between Stalham and Potter Heigham. Horning-on-sea is no longer a flippancy.

The inhabitants, industries and wildlife associated with the villages of Sea Palling, Eccles, Waxham, Hickling and Potter Heigham are suddenly no longer important and a change from fresh to salt marshes is apparently just fine for wildlife.

Inland, we are beginning to witness construction of another, yet still a low-cost option, flood prevention scheme devised for the Broads. The flood plain is divided into compartments, designed to contain excess water and minimise the effects of a breakthrough. The scheme involves reinforcing river banks with gabions (steel cages filled with stones), raising their level and then "grading" or sloping the banks away from the centre of the river. Today, you can see this process along the eastern bank of Haddiscoe New Cut and prepare to see more of the same work in the vicinity of St. Benel's Abbey. Without even considering loss of moorings, increased groundings or potential dangers from remaining, redundant quayheading; grading river banks desecrates the Broads landscape in a manner that would not be permitted from any other type of development in any other National Park. It seems unlikely that these fundamental changes to a typical Broads vista will be man enough to cope with a breakthrough approaching 1953 levels. Again, more imaginative options were available. Making Breydon Water into a more effective safety valve could help reduce a number of regular flooding problems on the south rivers and still improve its standing as a nature reserve.

None of this bodes at all well for the future of either the Broads or the industries the area supports. Too little, too late - and that carried out with an entire lack of flair - would seem the only possible verdict. When, rather than if, there is a repeat of the February 1953 flooding, our politicians should expect questions to include the word "complacency".

Fears heighten as erosion speeds up

Householders in Scratby, near Yarmouth, have said quickening erosion has snatched up to 30ft of land in the past six weeks, raising fears their homes could be gone in five years.

Pamela Campbell, 62, who has lived on the Promenade for seven years, said the erosion had been noticeably worse over the past year and a half. She said: "We on the Promenade have five years in these houses, if we are lucky. We can't sell this house - no one would buy it. I'm not even sure we could get insurance."

And next-door neighbour Barbara Sowinski, 65, said: "We hoped to leave this house to our grandchildren - now we are not sure if it will even last through the next decade."

They hope their bleak prospects will have an impact on the consultation process being held into the draft shoreline management plan. The residents blame the new Scroby Sands windfarm - which sits at an angle to Scratby - for affecting the pattern of erosion. But the Environment Agency and windfarm operator Powergen say this is unlikely.

Activists move in for support to stem the tide

Broads villagers have been given a stark warning they could end up living by the seaside, if the Government lets Norfolk's sea defences crumble. Campaigners fear a combination of planned policy changes and lack of funding could let the sea surge inland flooding waterways and low lying land - and destroying communities, homes and businesses in its wake.

Residents who attended a public meeting near their homes 15 miles inland were told they could become "Horning on Sea".

Previous meetings discussing the threat have all been held in coastal communities, where people feel most directly at threat of erosion and the lack of sea defence cash.

It showed the Broads were more likely to suffer saline inundation and subsequent economic impacts because of the plan.

And the message comes as the Broads Authority also highlighted "major concerns" about the controversial new Kelling to Lowestoft Shoreline Management Plan including the lack of any compensation for those affected, the failure to defend even those areas which were marked for help, lack of research to provide better long-term options and for proof that dredging does not affect the rate of erosion.

Coastal Concerns Action Group coordinator Malcolm Kerby, who led the Horning meeting, said the Eccles to Winterton stretch could prove the weak point for the Broads beyond.

Although the SMP planned to protect it for 100 years, albeit in a policy of managed retreat instead of holding the line, there was a "glorious get out clause" of only doing it if it was financially viable.

The initial battle to save part of Happisburgh, and efforts to promote schemes elsewhere along the coast, have all been dogged by years of Government refusal to provide any money.

The SMP's general thrust however is to abandon many defences to provide a more natural coastline - which Mr Kerby says is "technically and environmentally suspect, and morally bankrupt"

He is also concerned about the "dark secret" of a coastal habitat plan first mooted by English Nature in 2003, which would let the sea swamp an area including Sea Palling, Eccles, Waxham, Horsey, Hickling and Potter Heigham.

"We don't aim to frighten or worry people - just to get them to understand what the Government is saying," said Mr Kerby.

Horning parish council chairman Pamela Masters said the Broads would be lost and become salt marshes if the sea invaded, resulting in lost homes, jobs and wildlife.

The whole catchment area of the Ant, Thurne and Bure could see economic problems.