Safe from the sea?

Ministers should learn the lessons of New Orleans and take measures to protect the Norfolk coastline, argues Norman Lamb MP

Many people in my North Norfolk constituency remember the terrible storms of 1953, often described as the worst peacetime disaster to befall Britain. There were no flood warning systems in place and it wasn't until water came crashing in through doors and windows that people realised what was happening. Sea defences were breached in 1,200 places along the North Sea coast: 132 people died, 30,000 were evacuated, thousands of animals drowned, and it took nine months to drain alI the flood water.

That was more than 50 years ago. We now have much more sophisticated early warning systems for approaching bad weather; and flood barriers and sea defences to ensure that people living on vulnerable stretches of coastline do not suffer in the same way again.

But early warning systems couldn't protect the people of New Orleans from the wrath of Hurricane Katrina. Years of under-investment in the levees and other coastal defences left the city shockingly vulnerable. Among many other things, the aftermath of Katrina has emphasised a simple truth: if we do not invest in coastal defences, our coastline - and the people who live and work there - wilI not be properly protected.

People in Norfolk know this only too well. Just recently, a local farmer near Cromer lost a huge chunk of fertile land overnight when tonnes of undefended headland felI into the sea, while the vilIage of Happisburgh continues to lose ground - and time - in its fight against the advances of the sea. What people 1ocally also know is that it is only a matter of time before we have a storm at least equal to what hit the East of England in 1953.

This is a key issue in Norfolk, not least because any major breaches in the sea defences put the Broads at risk of flooding, as well as threatening whole communities and villages along the coast itself. Tourism, especially in the Broads, is a vital source of income in Norfolk and one we literally cannot afford to leave open to destruction.

I appreciate that the government has many issues to consider when deciding what to fund and what not to fund. However, there often appears to be a lack of logic in their approach. For example, government has channelled tens of millions of pounds into the construction of protective reefs offshore at Sea Palling on the northeast Norfolk coast. This project, which also involved beach replenishment south of Sea Palling, appears to have been very successful. However, suddenly, government funding for replenishment has been stopped. This confusing and apparently arbitrary volte-face undermines the last 10 years of investment and leaves a vulnerable stretch of coastline - and the Broads - at increased risk of flooding and erosion.

The Environment Agency has expressed real concern at the potential consequences of this withdrawal of funding. I have written to the minister responsible, pointing out what an extraordinary change of policy this is and what the implications are for my constituents. We have yet to receive a response. More generally, the government's approach now is to advocate managed retreat of the coastline - rather than seeking to maintain hard defences everywhere.

What this means in reality for coastal communities is the abandonment of much of the coastline, with potentially devastating implications. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs steadfastly refuses to consider the case for compensation for those who lose their homes to the sea, even for those who bought when defences were still maintained. Where is the social justice in that?

We are already seeing the first signs of blight setting in: house prices are hit, it is more difficult to get a mortgage, and insurance companies get cold feet. This problem will not go away. My plea to the government is to remember what happened in 1953 and to see the price paid for neglect in New Orleans. Please let's not wait until it's too late.