Why are they letting the sea destroy our homes?

... and protecting those in wealthy `Islington on Sea' 30 miles away

Erica and Malcolm Barber thought they had struck a good deal when they bought a six-bedroom Victorian house overlooking the sea in Beach Road in the Norfolk village of Happisburgh in the early Nineties - right at the bottom of the market.

It was during the housing slump and Malcolm explains: 'Between first seeing the house and actually buying it the property fell in price from £75,000 to £40,000. It is the biggest house we have ever owned. We have spent another £40,000 on the house and intend to stay here for the rest of our lives. When we retired we imagined letting out the top floor and converting the downstairs into a flat for ourselves.'

The Barbers were not to know that, by the time they pay off their mortgage in four years, their house will be a pile of rubble in a landfill site and the patch of ground upon which it stood a part of the beach. In the early Nineties, there were a dozen bungalows standing between the Barbers' house and the cliff edge. Now,all but a couple of bungalows have gone and the house, with the welcoming name Sand Dunes, lies only a few feet from the edge.

A few yards beyond the house and the road stops abruptly at a barrier reading road closed while, to the rear of the property, the pasty clay cliffs have eroded right up to the driveway leading to the garage. The house, built as a railway cottage, may have just weeks left: 40ft of land has been lost in the last three months alone.

'Any morning now and I'm going to wake up to find I can't get the car out of the garage,' says Malcolm. 'We've been put on the local authorities housing list in preparation. Not only will we lose everything we've worked for, we've been told by the council we might be charged up to £15,000 for our house to be demolished before it falls on to the beach.'

Cliffs wouldn't be cliffs if they didn't crumble from time to time but the fact is, for three decades, Beach Road was successfully protected from the sea, and now officialdom has given up on the job.

In 1958 a series of wooden revetments were built along the beach to break the force of the waves and so slow down the rate of erosion to a matter of inches a year. A brass plaque further down the coast commemorates the day when the Minister of Agriculture proudly unveiled the defences.

But in the early Nineties the defences were nearing the end of their life. Following a storm in 1993, North Norfolk District Council removed them and proposed a concrete sea wall.

What happened next is an astonishing story of how Government policy favours the wealthy over ordinary homeowners, how the concerns of ordinary homeowners have come to take a poor second place to the fads of environmentalists and how feudalism continues to exist in 21st Century Britain.

Before the sea wall could be built, the Government announced a change in policy regarding sea defences, claiming the country could no longer beat the cost of defending its shores.

In future, defences could only be built if the value of the property which would be protected was at least twice the cost of the defences. Stretches of coastline which did not fulfil the criteria would be allowed to erode naturally - much to the delight of environmentalists who argue that sea defences harm wildlife.

The upshot of the change was that Happisburgh no longer qualified for its sea wall, because the 19th Century brick terraces and Twenties bungalows which it would defend were deemed to be too cheap.

If Beach Road residents were millionaires who lived in mansions, a sea wall would have been built at taxpayers' expense but, because they lived in bungalows, they would receive no help or compensation whatsoever - not to mention being charged for the privilege of having their homes demolished.

Some of the properties might look shabby and cheap, says Diana Wrightson, who runs the cafe next to the Barbers. But it is a vicious circle. People are reluctant to spend money maintaining their homes because they are under threat.

While bureaucrats argued, the cliff began to recede at an alarming rate of more than 20ft a year, making several people homeless. A report by private consultants HR Wallingford, published in November 2001, calculated that the parish church, which now lies just a couple of hundred yards inland could disappear within 20 years. Finally, North Norfolk District Council proposed a new, cheaper, £702,000 coastal defence scheme which would just fall within Government rules. The scheme would consist of a sea wall and a jetty built from Norwegian rocks.

In spite of receiving 325 signatures in favour of the scheme, North Norfolk District Council was obliged by law to delay the scheme while it dealt with two letters of objection. One was from a retired environmentalist who lives a safe distance inland in Norwich and believes in principle that the natural processes of erosion should be allowed to do their work.

The other was from Eric Couzens, otherwise known as the Lord of the Manor of Happisburgh, a title he id believed to have bought at auction.

He claims a right to the foreshore and a right to the salvage of wrecks, says Gary Watson, Coastal Geomorphologist to North Norfolk District Council. 'We understand he could be entitled to compensation on the grounds that the rock jetties would damage any shipwrecks washed up on the shore. The Environment Agency has told us he has already claimed £19,000 in compensation for the loss of beach at Eccles on Sea after defence works there.'

And, if the council was forced to pay a similar sum at Happisburgh, it would tip the cost of the defences over the level allowed by the Government's formula. When contacted by telephone, all Mr Couzens would say is: 'I don't make statements to the media', before slamming down the phone.

While the residents of Beach Road,sit and wait anxiously, it is a different story 30 miles up the coast at Burnham Overy Staithe, nicknamed Islington on Sea because of the number of trendy Londoners who own holiday homes.

There, the Environment Agency has just built a £1.25 million sea wall, partly for the benefit of sea birds whose habitat was threatened by the erosion of sand dunes. It helped too, when the Environment Agency applied for a £1 million grant, that property values in Burnham Overy are considerably higher than in Happisburgh. Modest cottages sell for £300,000 or more.

On the quayside, a resident watched birdlife through binoculars. Did she think it was odd that birds were a priority over homes?

'I don't know,' she said. 'People haven't got a lot going for them, have they?'