Price to pay for living on the edge

Communities at risk from coastal erosion say they've been abandoned to the devastating effects of global warming

Fifty years ago this week, on the night of 31 January 1953, Britain's coastline received its worst battering in a century, as an extreme meteorological depression sent the tide crashing through sea defences, up to two miles inland in places. More than 300 people drowned, while a similar number were lost at sea, and many houses were washed away. At Happisburgh in north Norfolk, a public meeting to be held on Thursday will have a particular poignancy. For the people of Happisburgh are facing a new danger from the sea: erosion has destroyed more than a dozen clifftop properties in the last few years, has now closed off their beach and threatens the very viability of the community.

For those who lose their houses, there is neither compensation nor insurance money: the loss is total and devastating. Trevor and Gillian Beeby live in a bungalow on Beach Road. When they moved there two years ago, they were assured that the property would be safe for another 50 years. Now they have been told they could have only six months left. Mrs Beeby says: 'We are retired, and we thought this is where we would stay, but if it happens, we'll have to move into council accommodation.'

A couple of chalet-type properties and a group of four Edwardian three-storey houses are in even more imminent danger. According to Malcolm Kerby, co-ordinator of Happisburgh's Coastal Concern Action Group, erosion has been taking place at a 'staggering' rate; last September 12 metres of cliff disappeared.

Happisburgh's problems stem from the mid-Eighties, when sea defences built after 1953 were falling to pieces and had to be removed for safety reasons. Nothing was done to replace them, and residents blame the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) for stalling over a new sea defence scheme proposed by North Norfolk District Council last year. By autumn, half a dozen chalets had to be demolished, and the loss of property, together with the continued damage to the cliff, meant that the scheme was no longer deemed viable.

Kerby says the cost of doing nothing at Happisburgh could be catastrophic: 'There is a risk that in the wrong weather conditions, the cliff could be breached altogether, and the whole of the northern Broads inundated.' More immediately, he says, the community of Happisburgh looks destined to pay a heavy price.

'The ramp for the lifeboat has been lost and there is no longer any access to the beach. In a seaside community the greatest asset is the beach, and this will kill off our summer trade. If nothing is done we will lose our shop, our post office, our caravan park and our pub and it will ultimately lead to the death of the community.'

Happisburgh is farm from the only place where coastal erosion is threatening people's homes. At towns such as nearby Cromer, or Lyme Regis in Dorset, there are multi-million pound schemes for new sea defences sponsored by the Government. But where relatively few people are affected, it seems resolved to abandon them to their fate.

At Birling Gap, a small hamlet near Beachy Head in Sussex, a handful of residents has been fighting a rearguard campaign to persuade the National Trust, which owns the land, to do something to save their homes. In 2000, a public inquiry decided that new sea defences should not be built. Geoff Nash, a retired coastguard, lives in a wooden house close to the cliff edge. He says: 'The inspector at the inquiry said that my house could be re-sited fur ther back on my own land. I am contemplating moving it, and I've got permission. But I've no idea how much it would cost.'

Also in imminent danger are six former coastguard cottages, and the Birling Gap Hotel. Richard Worsell bought the end cottage from its elderly owner to prevent it being demolished, after he says the National Trust offered £1 to buy it. There are still nine metres between his wall and the edge of the cliff, and he says: 'I intend to keep pushing and see if something can be done. English Nature says the erosion has to be allowed to continue to protect the river bed, but we never see them down here.'

These may seem isolated examples, but with global warming raising the ocean levels, the problem of erosion is set to get much worse in the years go come. Defra's own website states that '30 per cent of the coastline of England is vulnerable to erosion'. But your chance of gaining protection depends entirely upon where you live.

The value of property at places such as Cromer and Lyme makes spending money on defences easy to justify. But at Happisburgh, there is a fear that residents will be abandoned by the Government. 'The money is going to be switched to inland flooding in places like York, Lewes and Chichester, where there are more votes at stake,' says Kerby. 'Our sea defences were built in the Fifties when the country was virtually destitute after the war. Today we are the fourth richest nation in the world, and it is hard to believe that the money cannot be found to save a community.'