Compensate the coast

Most of us are fortunate to witness climate change, global warming and sea level rise in a relatively abstract, armchair manner.

Yes we are aware that spring keeps arriving early, that it rains less often, but harder, that April was hotter than normal and that White Christmas is now increasingly just a song by Bing Crosby.

Not so for our coastal dwellers. Millions of people in the UK live, day in, day out with the very real and ever increasing threat of losing their home and possessions as a result of our changing world.

Rising sea levels, plus the increasing frequency and ferocity of storms, have put the UK coastlines - particularly around East Anglia and Kent - on the climate change frontline.

But just for a moment, let's forget the macro level politics of what's behind this increasing threat to our coastal communities. While certainly there is a huge amount that we should be doing on a national and global level to slow or even halt the ultimate causes of their problems, it is unlikely that George Bush and the rest of the G8 will reach any meaningful agreements in Germany this week to radically change the lives of the residents of Happisburgh or Jury's Gap.

Instead, let's focus on the micro politics - on what we as engineers and as a society are doing in response to the threat.

Sadly, the answer appears to be that we are doing very little.

This week we highlight some of the many people affected by the government's current coast defence policy, and for any professional managing the public realm it makes for uncomfortable reading.

To quote environment minister Ian Pearson: "I am conscious of the distress that can be caused when people are faced with the loss of their homes as a result of coastal erosion, particularly when they had previous expectations of continuing public investment in defences." While I'm sure that it is comforting for the UK's coastal dwellers to hear that the minister is aware of their distress, it is not really the kind of statement that will bring a great deal of relief or joy.

Yes, it is hard, if not impossible, to make an economic argument to continue to defend the entire UK coastline in the face of the known trends. And yes, it is tricky in most cases to construct reasonable social argument to continue protecting all of our coastal communities.

But that is no reason for central government to simply walk away from the problem. No matter how sensible the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' new Making Space for Water strategy may be - and generally it is - it is not socially just for ministers to simply abandon policies which affect people's lives and pretend that they have no responsibilities towards them.

As residents tell NCE this week, government would not claim private land or impact people's lives to build a road, railway, power station or any other piece of infrastructure without compensation. Yet for some reason when it comes to coastal defence, the policy is different.

Engineers are in the firing line once again over this issue.

Regardless of the truth, we are seen by the public as the people calling the shots and making the policy. If the policy is wrong or unjust then we must say so or be party to the injustice.

The policy to not defend may well be just. This policy not to compensate those affected most certainly is not.

Cliffhanger: Diana Wrightson

"I have lived here for 26 years. I bought an ordinary house and then I bought the one next door. I am the proud owner of two houses that are about to go over the cliff, " says Diana Wrightson.

Without any investment in new defences the houses could be lost within five years.

Since 1990, 25 houses in Happisburgh have been lost and Wrightson's now-closed guest and tea houses stand just 5m from the cliff edge.

The lighthouse shaped biscuits and the tea served in Churchill china cups show that Wrightson is a lady who pays attention to detail. Which makes it all the more upsetting that her houses are in a state of disrepair. "What is the point in spending money on a house that is going to fall into the sea?" she says.

When Wrightson bought her first property in the early 1980s it was a different story. A 3m tall timber wall had protected the coastal community of Happisburgh since 1959 (see map) and according to her solicitor the council was planning to maintain it.

"I thought I could set up a tea shop and a gift shop that I could eventually sell on and be comfortable in my retirement, " she explains. "I bought it before shoreline management plans (SMPs) were introduced. My solicitors spoke to the council who told them they had every intention of keeping the coastal defences in good repair, and we believed them. We thought the defence would last forever." At that time so did the council. Even the first SMP completed in 1996 committed itself to holding the line of defence, although locals claim it was a political rather than a practical choice.

"The politicians would not wear the fact that managed realignment was the more realistic option, and so they pretended that everything would carry on as normal, " said one local resident.

"We were allowed to hold that belief for too long, " agrees Wrightson. "In 1996 the first ever SMP said hold the line so we just assumed that the council would do that. But then the defences began failing and we could literally see the coast falling away." The results were catastrophic.

"We lost 10m in one night, " says Wrightson, who has to evacuate her house every time severe storms hit.

Despite the SMP maintaining the "hold the line" approach, securing funding to do this proved impossible. Between 1995 and 2001 two different schemes were proposed but objections and difculties meeting Defra's priority score criteria led to the abandonment of the first defence proposal and the stalling of the second.

Meanwhile, communication between the North Norfolk District Council and residents was poor. "We finally had a meeting in 1999 and the council thought we were going to lynch them, " says Wrightson.

NNDC head of flood defence Peter Frew agrees that not enough was done to keep people informed. "There had been a breakdown in communication. We thought that staff had been going to talk to residents but they hadn't.

So we went and laid everything on the line." "We didn't know they had been trying so hard to protect us, " admits Wrightson.

By now the timber defences were failing fast and in December 2002 emergency works were carried out, with the council dumping enormous boulders behind the defence line to absorb some of the power of the sea and slow the erosion.

"Without those rocks my house would have gone by now, " says Wrightson. The emergency work cost £250,000 to carry out, partly funded by the council and partly by local donations.

Campaigner Malcolm Kirby of the Coastal Concern Action Group (CCAG) has worked tirelessly to help the community.

On the CCAG website you are invited to "Buy a rock for Happisburgh" as well as join a petition, now 3,350-strong, urging central government to invest in defences for the area.

Kirby has been instrumental in improving communication between the various parties.

"The group was set up as a direct result of the anxiety in the community due to the acute and increased rate of erosion and the refusal of the authorities to countenance it. The first thing I did was call for a public meeting.

At first I thought we were dealing with an idle council but when they had finished speaking I thought: They really have tried everything. "It became apparent that the maritime authorities want to do the same things we do [ie defend the coast] but funding is refused.

The whole system is structured not to spend money. It beggars belief that government can make decisions that ostracise vast swathes of the country.

"While accepting that no one has an inherent statutory right to be defended from the sea we must recognise that those individuals who have invested in historically defended coastal areas do have a right to expect morally sound and just recognition of the disproportionate sacrice they are expected to make when the government decides, by whatever means, not to continue defending. Particularly when they have, in purchasing, sought the best expert advice, " says Kirby.

Engineers agree. "We have got to manage the coastline sustainably but in a way that has to be fair and equitable. It has been talked about a lot, providing assistance. Compensation should be available for people who bought a house with the belief and the assurance that it would be defended long-term, " says the NNDC's Peter Frew.

But for now, no such mechanisms exist and by the time the government gets around to setting up the Adaptation Toolkit it could be too late for Happisburgh.