Malcolm's mission to hold back the tides

Future Norfolk

Climate change minister Joan Ruddock has given the government's side and Natural England's Shaun Thomas has spoken from the lobbyists view but what of the people directly affected by climate change? In the last in a series of interviews, environment correspondent TARA GREAVES talks to Malcolm Kerby, co-ordinator of the internationally recognised Coastal Concern Action Group

IT IS THE WORST CASE SCENARIO. A STARTLING LOOK INTO THE FUTURE for the hundreds of other towns and villages along the UK coast that will eventually suffer the same fate.

Happisburgh's crumbling cliffs have become an international symbol of the battle to protect the coast from the onslaught of the unforgiving sea - and it is thanks to the work of the Coastal Concern Action Group (CCAG).

Surprisingly, the man at the helm of the organisation - which has recently been cited as a reference point by the European Commission - is not Happisburgh born and bred.

Malcolm Kerby arrived in the village at what seemed to be a turning point; with residents no longer prepared to sit back and simply wait as the sea gradually encroached further inland, ever closer to their homes.

"I moved to Happisburgh in 1999, my youngest daughter was changing schools and I liked the three school system in operation in this area," he said.

"I also wanted to achieve my lifelong ambition of having horses in my own garden. We found a little place in Happisburgh within budget, as they say, and moved in.

"I will have lived in Norfolk for 30 years this year."

His relationship with the sea had, up until that year, been somewhat romanticised.

"My old man was a London docker and I grew up close to the docks at a time when the city was one of the busiest ports in the world. I spent much of my time as a youngster around there and I suppose I always had a romantic vision of the sea."

That changed a few months after moving to Happisburgh on a cold evening in March.

"The residents of Beach Road had got together and said 'the cliff is getting closer to our homes and, as nothing seems to be being done about it, we need to look for answers'. They called a meeting and I said to my wife maybe we should go as it will help us meet people," he said.

"It was a freezing cold night but when we arrived we saw what I can only compare to toothpaste coming out of a tube. There were so many people they couldn't all fit in and they were spilling out of the building. Luckily the rector very kindly opened up the church.

"I had been a parish council chairman before and had been heavily involved in the community so I knew what a big deal it was to have 300 people out of a population of 850 turn up to a meeting."

Mr Kerby was one of the last to speak and suggested that if they wanted to do something they needed some organisation.

"You can't have 300 people banging on the door of authority as they would just be regarded as a rabble. So I plucked up the courage and said my bit and afterwards, as we were just about to get on our bikes and cycle home, Diana Wrightson, who owns two of the Beach Road properties, said 'you seem to know a bit about this sort of thing' and asked me if I would go to the next meeting."

And from there his life changed course.

One of the first things they had to decide was on a name and while many of the suggestions had Happisburgh in the title, Mr Kerby could see the wider picture.

"Everybody seemed to see it as just a Happisburgh problem, particularly those who had been born here. But I came in with a fresh pair of eyes. Happisburgh is the worst case scenario at the moment but it's part of a problem that is getting much bigger. And so the Coastal Concern Action Group was born," he said.

Ever more people are seeing that climate change is not just an abstract problem, it is real and it is affecting them. Happisburgh is very much on the front line.

So far 26 properties in the village have been lost to the sea and a further six in Beach Road are on the brink.

Residents feel the government has simply washed its hands of the problem.

"It is certainly a them and us - the them being central government," said Mr Kerby.

"Happisburgh is in the position it is because of a massive under-funding from central government over the last quarter of a century. There is no money to play catch up now. What they are doing is not managing the coast for the sake of the coast, they are managing it for fiscal reasons.

"Diana bought her properties some 28 years ago when the government policy was to hold the line. She had no reason to doubt that would change. She is absolutely opposed to being helped by the state and wants to provide for herself but her investment has now been rendered worthless. She is going to lose everything and the only thing she will get is the offer of a council house.

"I see another runway is back on the cards at Stansted and those living in the line of the runway will be paid off, although they obviously don't want to they want to build another road and compulsorily purchase homes, people get the full value."

Mr Kerby believes the government is relying on the outdated laws of a 1939 act (which was revamped in 1949) to stop them paying compensation.

"We are trying to manage a problem with a 69-year-old tool kit," he said.

A Defra spokeswoman said: "The government is committed to sustainable protection for people and property, which is why we have nearly doubled the spending on flood and coastal erosion risk management in cash terms, from £307m in 1996-97 to an estimated £600m in 2007-08. This will further increase to £800m in 2010-11.

"These record levels of investment are supported by a prioritised national programme of works to ensure tax payers' money is used to best effect. We recognise the impact that the changing climate has on our coastline which is why we are developing a range of approaches to help communities adapt. We will be asking all local authorities affected by this issue to feed into this process.

"There can be no right to compensation given that flood and coastal defences are provided under permissive powers. At present there is no legal obligation on the government to protect property to a given standard or at all. This has been the policy of successive governments.

"From April 2008 the Environment Agency will have a strategic overview of all capital funding for coastal defence to ensure that works are appropriately prioritised, balancing national interests and local needs."

But while what would be considered the ultimate victory has so far eluded them, Happisburgh residents have been successful in other areas, including getting council tax lowered for some residents under threat.

And last year limited works were carried out by North Norfolk District Council to build on the emergency works carried out in 2002 - a temporary measure designed to buy time while a more sustainable solution to the situation was sought.

The CCAG website now gets 25,000 visits a month and 100,000 page impressions which proves that more and more people are becoming - many through necessity - interested in the issue.

"There is no doubt CCAG has become a central reference point. I am contacted by people from all over," said Mr Kerby.

There could also be fresh hope for residents in terms of compensation in the form of the Human Rights Act of 1998 which could provide the means for a legal challenge - if Mr Kerby can find finance for such a battle.

For now, he must continue doing what he does best; trying to convince people from the ground up about the need for action.

And it is a fight he feels he is driven to continue, although admits that it is not the retirement he had planned.

He said: "A few years ago I was asked to make a documentary and I interviewed a lady called Mrs Tubby.

"She is 86 and when she was 50-something she bought a property on Beach Road to see her through her retirement. I was asking her what she thought about the situation and she said she couldn't understand why the government was doing this to us. Here is a woman who typifies what I would call Great Britain, but the situation had got so bad that she said: 'I pray every night and the last thing I say is, please don't let me wake up in the morning'.

"When I am standing in front of the public, civil servants or politicians, I think of her and that fuels my fire."