Living on the edge

More than a million people in Britain risk losing their homes to the sea. Now, as our shorelines crumble and beaches disappear, the government is urging vulnerable homeowners to "make more space for water". Edward Marriott meets the desperate families mounting a last-ditch defence against the rising tide

Nick Carter is holding a photograph of his house. It is an aerial shot. There's a red-brick bungalow in the centre of the frame, surrounded by spacious, blooming flowerbeds. There's a greenhouse and a garage. The lawns are neatly striped, well-loved. On the back of the photograph is a list of dates. "First cracks 97. First subsidence 98. Moved out April 99. Went over 9/99. Pantry over 9/00. Moved van 6/00." This photograph is all that remains of Boma Cottage. When Carter's parents bought the bungalow in 1947, its front lawn stretched for a good 100 yards; the edge of the cliff was another 40 yards beyond that, through the garden gate. But in the late Nineties, the soft clay cliff started to fall away in great chunks. Cracks appeared in the walls in 1997; by 2000, the entire house had been taken by the sea. Carter, 85, a former RAF warrant officer, now lives in a caravan on the very landward edge of his property. "Which is going to go first?" he asks, his eyes rheumy with tears. "The house or me?"

Carter's house is in Fairlight Cove, an East Sussex village with 770 houses and 2,000, mostly retired, residents. It's an area of considerable natural appeal: turning off the road from Hastings and dropping down to Fairlight on a sunny winter's day, the sea stretches out before you like beaten steel. In the distance, in the pale light, the silhouette of Dungeness power station is just visible across Rye Bay.

Much of the land around Fairlight is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and the cliffs that devoured Carter's home are a Site of Special Scientific Interest, home to some of Britain's most important fossils, including the petrified footprints of 135m-year-old pterosaurs. Partly to preserve this habitat, conservation agencies such as English Nature want the cliffs to remain unprotected by any kind of sea defence. But there is a price: in Fairlight, five houses have gone over the cliff since 1999; another 18, say engineers, could disappear by June 2005.

One of Fairlight's 18 threatened houses is Fairhurst, a three-bedroom bungalow built in the Eighties, owned by John and Kathy Sinclair. The Sinclairs are currently 40 metres from the cliff edge. According to a June 2003 report by engineers for Rother District Council, their local authority, the worst-case scenario is for the cliff to recede at 25 metres a year. The report recommends that all those in the "tension zone" should move.

The Sinclairs bought the house 11 years ago, but it was no spur-of-the-moment purchase. John Sinclair, 72, a retired GP, was aware of the history of coastal erosion in the area, and took advice from the council: "They said the house was safe for 400 to 500 years," he says. Kathy adds, 'They said it was built on sandstone. I don't know what gave them that idea.' The uncertainty about the future, she says, has started affecting her health. She's 70. 'I had a heart attack in May. Until now I've never been depressed. I always said I wanted a sea view.' She smiles ruefully. "I suppose you should be careful what you wish for."

Living next to the coast for reasons other than working the sea did not become fashionable in Britain until the late-18th century, when the wealthy took to spending weekends in their seaside cottages. Over the next 100 years, though, the coast became an increasingly popular destination, with doctors prescribing sea air for all manner of physical and psychological complaints.

For the Victorians, however, an impressive view was often more important than the solidity of the ground on which their villas stood. On the south coast of the Isle of Wight, not far west of Ventnor, is a small village called Blackgang, developed in the mid-19th century on an ancient landslip system. "In the past 150 years," says geologist Robin McInnes, coastal manager at the Isle of Wight Centre for the Coastal Environment, '200 metres of coastline has been lost at Blackgang. The policy here is retreat. There's nothing we can do about it.'

In Ventnor, 50 buildings have had to be demolished over the past 100 years because of ground movement. In other places in the UK, however, a different policy has been adopted: soft cliffs like those crumbling away at Blackgang have been shored up by defences such as wooden revetments, concrete sea walls or protective snaking lines of granite boulders the size of small cars. Recently, though, this policy has been the subject of vigorous argument. According to some environmentalists, not only can the artificial protection of soft cliffs make it hard for the colonies of plants, insects and animals that like this environment to make it their home, it can also mean that nearby beaches no longer get the supply of sand they need.

Global warming - and a projected sea-level rise of 0.3 metres over the next 50 years - has intensified the debate. According to Future Flooding, a report by the government's chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, published in April 2004, 'Over £200bn worth of assets are at risk around British rivers and coasts, and in towns and cities.' Crucial in reducing this risk will be a "reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions and enhanced long-term flood management". Currently, the government spends around £540m a year on flood management. If this remains unchanged, King estimates that the number of people at high risk from river and coastal flooding could increase from 1.6m today to between 2.3 and 3.6m by the 2080s. Increased spending of between £10m and £30m a year is imperative, he warns.

Financial realities, the government counters, will mean that some threatened communities will necessarily have to be abandoned. In June 2004, Defra, the government department responsible for sustainable development, published a consultation paper whose very title - Making Space for Water - is making some coastal dwellers extremely nervous. With good reason. To quote the paper: 'The government proposals that solutions for flood management and coastal erosion that work with natural processes to make more space for water [Defra's italics] should be identified and pursued wherever possible.'

In Fairlight, many residents believe water has already taken up enough space. I drive with John Sinclair through the village to a section of cliff that, unlike what remains of Nick Carter's garden, seems secure, vertical. A sign ahead of us marks the end of the road. "Danger. Unstable cliff."

The reason this section of cliff has survived, Sinclair points out, is because it is protected. Below us, halfway down the beach, is a 500-metre-long line of granite boulders, put in place between 1989 and 1990. On a calm day like today, the tide laps contentedly at the bottom of the rocks. "Thanks to this, the cliff here is totally safe," Sinclair says. "Before, the sea was cutting out the bottom of the cliff." If this sea defence was extended, he believes, the rest of the village could be spared Nick Carter's fate.

Desperate to draw the authorities' attention to their plight, 18 months ago Sinclair and his fellow residents formed the Fairlight Cove Preservation Trust. They have been "badgering" their local Coastal Protection Authority, Rother District Council, to back their bid to get Defra to build a protective barrier on the beach under the crumbling cliff below Rockmead Road. On one occasion, no fewer than 120 Fairlight residents turned up to lobby a council meeting. It looks possible that their persistence may pay off. According to Robin McInnes, who has offered advice to Sinclair, "The area below Rockmead Road is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. But there is also an awful lot of property that will be affected if the cliff continues to crumble." Defra is currently funding a £120,000 geotechnical survey, which may lead to it taking action to protect the cliff. The report is due to be completed this month.

Like the coast around Fairlight, much of the east coast of Britain is soft clay. The Holderness coast in the northeast of England, for example, which stretches from the high chalk cliffs of Flamborough Head in the north to the sandspit of Spurn Point in the south, is mostly clay and gravel and is eroding at an average of 1.8 metres per year. Over the past 1,000 years it has retreated by 2km; at least 26 villages listed in the Domesday survey of 1086 are now under the North Sea. Plans over the years to protect the coast - including one scheme to drop a large-scale underwater reef made of old rubber tyres - have mostly come to nothing.

Much of north Norfolk faces similar problems. On parts of this coast, there has been more than 175 metres of erosion since 1885; it is said that, given a still day and a low spring tide, it is possible to hear the ghostly echo of the church bell in Dunwich, a sizeable East Anglian port that now lies mostly under the waves. North Norfolk, being low-lying, is also particularly vulnerable to storms and freak high tides, the worst in living memory being those of 31 January 1953, which resulted in the deaths of 300 people in Norfolk, Lincolnshire, Suffolk, Essex and Kent, and the flooding of more than 24,000 houses up the east coast.

Suggest to anyone who lives on this coast that more space should be made for water and you're likely to be given short shrift. And yet a coastal blueprint drawn up last October by North Norfolk District Council, Great Yarmouth Borough Council, Waveney District Council and the Environment Agency claims that the only affordable way to manage the East Anglian shoreline is to let nature take its course. To date, no one living in the threatened areas is in line for any compensation. (And according to the Association of British Insurers, it is currently "not common practice" to offer insurance cover for coastal erosion.)

As with Making Space for Water, these plans are open for discussion. Environmental scientist Professor Tim O'Riordan from the University of East Anglia, which has taken a lead role in developing government policy, has been quoted in the local press as saying that he is "sure the first reaction of those communities affected will be a sense of betrayal by a cruel and insensitive government. But it is clear that the aggressive nature of the sea will mean defences will continue to be undermined. Vulnerable communities must think of relocating... It is not a short-term need. We have time for a planned retreat from places like Happisburgh, Overstrand and Mundesley."

On the ground, the reality of "planned retreat" is slowly beginning to sink in. In the coastal communities of Bacton, Walcott and Ostend nearly 400 properties, valued at £66m, could be lost. Bigger towns such as Cromer, Sheringham, Yarmouth and Lowestoft are likely to be protected with new sea defences, but their beaches will no doubt grow sparser and more emaciated as their supply of sand is cut off.

In Happisburgh, a town of 850 residents, there is a sense of things suspended, of a passive waiting for an end that is starting to seem inevitable. From my bedroom in Diana Wrightson's B&B, Cliff House, the proximity of the sea is tangible. Looking out on her garden, I can see 30ft of lawn, the garden fence, and then, a couple of feet further on, the ragged line of the cliff edge. At night, the sea wind rattles the window frame; the panes are streaked with salt.

Wrightson, a retired secondary school deputy head, who prefers not to give her age, first came to Happisburgh as a child, to spend time with her grandmother. She remembers "wide, beautiful beaches". The first time she came as an adult was in 1960, after the 1953 floods had led to the erection of the wooden revetments. "What I saw was fairly unsightly, but it was necessary to protect the village."

When she took early retirement, Wrightson and her partner started looking for places to buy in Happisburgh - pronounced "Haysborough". Though aware that the community was protected by permeable clay cliffs, she could also see that, since the revetments had been in place, there had been very little erosion. In 1970 she moved into Happisburgh; 10 years later, she bought two houses on Beach Road, close to the sea. A B&B here would, she felt, be perfect for walkers. Enquiries from the council reassured her: "We were told we had about 100 years before the sea reached the house." And, for many years, her B&B and teashop thrived. By the early Nineties, however, three-and-a-half decades of battering from North Sea breakers had begun to disintegrate the revetments. The council removed them and, for a while, there was talk of a concrete sea wall.

Since then, there has been no sea wall, nor any other kind of protection, and the cliffs have been left to the mercy of the elements. In the dining room of her teashop, Wrightson has a display of aerial photographs showing the effect this has had on the Happisburgh coastline. In 1996, there was a line of bungalows separating Wrightson from the ocean. They're no longer there. 'We didn't realise there was a problem until 1999, when we saw the bungalows disappearing. Even then we thought someone would stop it before it got to us.' Wrightson smiles a lot, but her eyes are sad. 'I thought I'd be able to sell up and enjoy a nice retirement.

I thought I'd have a flourishing business to sell. But I'm going to lose everything.' Government policy, she believes, is tantamount to "just allowing our heritage to disappear". And in Happisburgh, this is considerable: 18 listed buildings, a 12th-century church, an Arts and Crafts house built by Detmar Blow, and Britain's only privately run lighthouse. Not to mention a primary school. "There are a lot of children in the village," says Wrightson, 'and if this is allowed to happen they won't have a village when they are older.'

Driving out of Happisburgh as dusk falls, it is clear that there may be more at stake here than just the future of the village. A mile or so south of Diana Wrightson's B&B marks the point where the sea defences that stop just north of Happisburgh begin again. Here, the defences are not wood, as they are north of the village, but concrete: 5ft-high concave walls stretching into the spume-hazy distance. It is clear that Happisburgh is a "weak" spot in an otherwise well-protected coastline.

Malcolm Kerby, who co-ordinates the Happisburgh-based Coastal Concern Action Group, has to shout above the noise of the easterly gale, whipping cappuccino foam off the tops of the breakers below us, to make himself heard. Inland from where we are standing, he gesticulates, the land quickly drops away to below sea level: if this coast is left as it is, and continues to erode apace, it could be a decade or less before villages such as Eccles, Hempstead and Lessingham, indeed broad swathes of the Norfolk Broads, are under water. "You see?" Kerby shouts. "Happisburgh is the defensive door to this whole region."

Though London-born Kerby, 64, has been fighting for Happisburgh since he moved here six years ago, many natives have been working what feels their whole lives to save their village. David Will, 58, is a chartered surveyor and estate agent who used to be chairman of North Norfolk District Council's Coast Protection Committee. He resigned in 1998 when, after a meeting with Defra, 'It was made very clear to me that there was not going to be any funding for protection. I've been worried about Happisburgh since the Seventies. It's obvious that there are huge areas of the Broads at risk, and for years the council did not tell people the truth when they were buying property.'

Nonetheless, in what seems a strange twist, Will's estate agency is selling £110,000 bungalows at Walcott, just north of Happisburgh. He has nothing to hide, he claims. "At the moment, while the defences are in place at Walcott, those properties are safe for 25 years. Most of the buyers are retired," he says. 'They're not too worried about what might happen to them in 25 years' time.'

After dark, a small crowd gathers in Diana Wrightson's sitting room. There are seven of us, including a couple who are thinking of buying in the village, and one of Wrightson's close neighbours, 83-year-old Phyllis Tubby. She speaks softly, a quiver in her voice. She moved in 27 years ago. Her surveyor, she explains, told her the house would be safe for 100 years. "Sometimes," she says, 'the house seems to move. I have no interest in living at all; that's the truth. We've been abandoned.'

Graphic designer David Berry, 44, and his wife Catherine, 42, "fell in love" with Happisburgh on holiday from Glasgow last year. 'We'd love to buy here,' David says, 'but I just don't think we can. We're red with anger that the government could let this happen to this area, that they could let people's houses fall off this cliff without lifting a finger.'

Sitting in his office in Ventnor, with a clear view south across the sea behind him, geologist Robin McInnes insists it is seldom simple deciding whether or not a particular stretch of coastline should be protected. 'You have to ask, first, is it possible to protect the cliffs? Second, is it economically viable? Third, is it environmentally sustainable? The cliffs at Luccombe, near here, are a major source of sediment for the beaches in Sandown Bay. If you protected the cliffs you'd run out of sand on the beaches. During the Victorian and Edwardian period there were a lot of sea walls on the Isle of Wight,' he says, "and people now look back on that time with a certain amount of nostalgia, wishing we still had beaches like they did back then."

Dredging, too, he suggests - which has often been blamed for coastal erosion and, by some on the Gower peninsula in Wales, for shrinking beaches - is no longer the scourge many claim it to be. "In the past 15 years no dredging scheme has been approved that would affect beaches, and the government now seeks independent advice to see whether dredging will affect the coast."

The key, McInnes says, is that new property should no longer be built on areas of coastal erosion, and that housebuyers get proper information. He is putting together a map for Isle of Wight planning officers that will point out the high-risk areas for erosion, landslip and flooding. Compensation, he believes, should also be introduced. "In France, everyone pays 12.5 per cent on their insurance premium and it goes into a central pot that covers natural hazards such as landslide or coastal erosion." In "certain situations", he says, diplomatically refusing to endorse the claims of Fairlight or Happisburgh residents, 'when it's inappropriate to protect a community, the answer might be to fully compensate them and move them away.'

And yet, in some places, everywhere appears a danger area. The road from Ventnor to Blackgang is ribboned with strips of new asphalt, shrinking at points to single-track where bits of the road have tumbled down the cliff. "There used to be a caravan park just here," points out my taxi driver. 'It's gone now.' Further on, he indicates a point near the side of the road. "And there was a great big house there. And a row of cottages. All gone."

If you can bear the uncertainty, it's quite possible to pick up a bargain in this area. The house closest to the edge in Blackgang - number 5, The Terrace - is home to Peter Smith, 63, formerly creative director of an advertising agency. Numbers 1, 2 and 3 have gone. Smith's house is uninsurable, and was bought with cash, as mortgages are never granted for this part of the Isle of Wight. 'It was very cheap, £65,000. A similar house would cost £350,000 if it wasn't threatened by the coast. I took a chance. I've been here two years and it's hardly moved. But who knows, I may fall off in one terrible crack. I'd like it to see me out, though.'

Every three months, John and Kathy Sinclair measure the shortest distance between each of the 14 properties in Fairlight closest to the cliff edge. "The "official" erosion rate for our area is 1.45 metres a year," John says. 'Last year the engineers said our cliff was going at 25 metres a year. Now their latest studies say that it might be going at 4.5 metres a year. For a year now we've done our own measurements. And we reckon it's going at about 10 metres every 12 months.'

Not everyone in Fairlight seems to share Sinclair's wish to live in the real world. Walking along the cliff edge, past the "Dangerous cliffs" and "No access to beach" signs, there is a poignant sense that, behind some doors at least, reality is denied. At one point above the crumbling cliff-face I spot a small, well-tended back garden, its lawn mown, a child's swing made from a fisherman's mooring buoy hanging from a tree. At the end of the garden, there is an elaborate home-made system of supports constructed of wooden planking: a series of buttresses supporting the lawn, angled against the naked concave face. Canute against the waves.