The Brink of Disaster

Andrew Morgan meets Norfolk villagers who face ruin as the sea devours their homes.

Malcolm and Erica Barber have lived on the sea front in the Norfolk coastal village of Happisburgh for the past 11 years. Recently, though, the seafront has shifted alarmingly close for comfort. The acceleration of cliff erosion has put their garage barely 30ft from the edge and has made the loss of their three-storey Edwardian home on Beach Road imminent. Its demise will follow a series of chalets which have already been lost to the elements.

The Barbers have three children at home and four years of mortgage to pay, and are not expecting any compensation if their home disappears. "We're in the lap of the gods," says Malcolm.

Three other houses and a couple of bungalows are also in danger after 35ft of sandy cliff was lost in Happisburgh (pronounced Hays-borough) in September. One high-risk scenario predicts the loss, due to storms, of scores more houses - even the medieval church - within 10 years.

The effect on the lives of villagers has been devastating. Trevor and Gillian Beeby bought their threatened Beach Road bungalow two years ago for £70,000. They claim a council report said there would be no subsidence "in the foreseeable future".

"We'll have lost everything we worked for," says Trevor, 67, a former supermarket manager. "We were thinking of buying a new carpet but there probably wouldn't be any point."

Phyllis Tubby, 81, is another resident of Beach Road. "I can't sleep and I feel sick about it almost every day," she says. "This is such a beautiful house. I've lived here for 25 years and I just want to die peacefully here."

Di Wrightson, who moved to Beach Road 22 years ago and runs a teashop, saw 30 feet of land disappear from her garden in August and a further 25ft in September. Her home now teeters little more than 30ft from the cliff edge. At first, other bungalows stood between her home and the sea but they were bulldozed. She has no insurance for landslip: the standard household insurance policy excludes damage from coastal erosion. The council has offered her an "exit strategy". This entails the authority putting her belongings into storage and offering her council accommodation.

Villagers are bitter that the Government has yet to provide sea defences to replace wooden structures, which were built after the devastating flood of 1953, but which rotted away 20 years ago.

Last May North Norfolk District Council proposed a £700,000 defence scheme to stop the cliffs at Happisburgh from crumbling. But a Department of the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) representative said the papers had gone missing, which held up assessment.

In the meantime, several chalets had collapsed and the cost/benefit case for defences grew weaker. Indeed, some villagers are convinced the Government has abandoned them and the delays will ensure proper defences are never built.

As an emergency measure, 4,000 tonnes of rock, costing£160,000, were dumped on the beach in December in a 400-metre line. It is designed to protect Beach Road from the worst of the storms while proper defences are sought. Concrete reefs costing millions were built at Sea Palling a few miles down the coast, but locals claim these altered erosion patterns and accelerated cliff loss at Happisburgh.

Despite publicity over erosion - with day trippers even coming to view the scene - local estate agents still talk up prices of houses in the village which are, seemingly, a safe distance from the doomed Beach Road. A detached bungalow can fetch £170,000, while a period three bedroom flint cottage demands up to £200,000.

"In general, we don't have problems selling in Happisburgh," says Simon Dale at William H Brown. One hopes he will not repeat the experience of one local agent who was interviewed by a television crew about the effect cliff erosion had had on house prices. "What erosion?" he answered, as the camera homed in on a bungalow behind him which had slowly started to slip away.

Homeowners were dealt another blow when storms destroyed the ramp taking people and the lifeboat down to the beach, and all access is now closed.

"Happisburgh is not alone among coastal villages whose greatest asset is their beach," says Malcolm Kerby, the coordinator of the Coastal Concern Action Group. "This will have a knock-on effect on those relying on summer trade for survival. It may also be reflected in the popularity and the value of property throughout the village."

Kerby thinks that flooded inland areas in such places as York and Lewes will take the lion's share of Government funding - and smaller communities near soft cliffs will be abandoned. "Had sea defence plans at Happisburgh been put in place, business confidence would have increased and the value of property have risen, probably in excess of the national average," he says.

Meanwhile, this spring's high tides may prove terminal for Beach Road residents. "We'll keep bombarding the Government," says Di Wrightson, "but it is probably too late to save us."