Coastal erosion: a line in the sand

Coastal erosion was called the biggest issue facing East Anglia earlier this year. Four of the region's MPs talked to Mike Sherburn about their worries for communities facing the North Sea.

Failure to defend the Norfolk and Suffolk coast against the sea could lead to Southwold becoming an island.

And the idea of managed retreat could also mean destruction of the region's heritage.

But while a cross-party group of the region's coastal MPs have lambasted government policy on coast protection, they have also urged seaside residents not to pack up and leave because of the erosion threat.

John Gummer, Norman Lamb and Tony Wright have also united in saying a system of compensation should be introduced for anyone losing their home.

Mr Gummer said the managed retreat scheme was a threat to coastal communities.

"The real problem is that present proposals all the way down the coast threaten the future interests of the relatively small towns," he said, having described erosion as the region's biggest issue after he was re-elected in May.

"My concern is that Southwold and Aldeburgh have every likelihood of becoming islands in effect.

"And that is also a very clear threat in the sparsely populated areas all the way down the coast."

Parts of Mr Gummer's Suffolk Coastal constituency are falling into the sea at more than 10m a year.

"At the moment, the approach is that everything is thrown up in the air and we will look at everything again," said Mr Gummer. "But it should be that we will defend everything we have got unless there is a good reason not to."

"By not defending, you are letting down history, for those in the past who have done it; and letting down the future, because the line is going to have to be drawn somewhere.

"And I think you have to show that a different line would be a better line to defend," he added.

Mr Gummer said he hoped people would not sell up and leave their homes because the best way to win the battle was to stay and fight it. But he also condemned the lack of compensation in the current scheme.

"At the moment you bring compensation in, the government has to decide whether to spend £5m on a project or £6m in compensation," he said. "I think the government would then have a serious discussion about what would be best to do."

Mr Gummer, who has set up the Suffolk Coast Against Retreat (SCAR) pressure group with MPs, district and parish councils as well as home-owners, added that people living inland needed to be aware of how important the issue is for everyone.

"The coast is the heritage for Norfolk and Suffolk and if we still want to be able to see the broad at Benacre or walk on the cliffs at Covehithe, which people inland are going to want to do, then something has to be done.

"It's outrageous to allow the destruction of our heritage like this," he added.

Sue Allen, a district councillor and former mayor of Southwold, said she believed the key to the town's attachment to the mainland was defences protecting the Might's Bridge road access.

"The sea could come over the defences and the dunes at Ferry Road and come through that way," she said. "But the main thing is to protect the marshes and stop the water coming in around the back of the town.

"But hopefully a planned scheme with a big bank planned between the Blyth Estuary and the bridge should protect us there," she added.

The managed retreat policy has also led to questions over whether historic buildings with a low monetary value will be protected, such as the Martello Tower at Bawdsey.

Mr Lamb said many communities along the region's coastline were facing uncertainty as thousands of people in villages with no sea defence try to sell their houses.

"The key problem we identify is that whether it's 20 years or 50 years or 100 years, the time span of when your house disappears into the sea is not the same as when it effects you," he said.

"You get to a point of wanting to sell your home. But it's not worth very much because of this impending doom.

"You find a purchaser at a lower price and they get their survey done, which says the area is susceptible to erosion and they are then advised not to touch it with a barge pole," he added.

Mr Lamb said he was also worried about the knock-on effect of inadequate coast protection.

What I am highlighting is that Defra is stopping funding replenishment of beaches south of Sea Palling," he said.

"And that is the vulnerable coastline where the sea could encroach into the Broads area.

"The government stance seems to be that it's dynamic coastline and…the response is to abandon various stretches of coastline but that leaves people vulnerable.

"People have bought their homes on the basis that the coastline is defended," added the MP for North Norfolk - from Wells to Sea Palling.

"Government will be nervous about introducing compensation, but I believe there has got to be a form of recompense."

Mr Wright, who represents the Yarmouth constituency from Winterton to Hopton, said that while he did not want to worry people by saying they need to find somewhere else to live, it was still important for people to "keep an eye on the situation around them".

"It would be preposterous to think that communities such as Scratby, Winterton and California would be abandoned and there would not be things put in placed to protect these areas," he said. "What I have suggested is that I will be arguing the case for holding the line for the next 50 years.

"We need to protect the conurbations, but also the villages along the coastline.

"And if there are one or two properties in danger, then if we are going to decide that we cannot protect those then perhaps we should look at the compensation side of things."

Mr Wright said he was also concerned about the impact of offshore dredging on erosion.

"The rate of erosion has stepped up over the last three or four years," he said.

Bob Blizzard, MP for Waveney, said he was aware that erosion is a major problem from the number of letters he received from residents at Corton before sea defence project costing almost £4m was completed.

Experts had suggested that without the work, half of the village could have fallen into the sea over the next 20 years.