Decision time in the fight against the sea

PUBLISHED: 13:08 11 February 2011

Coastal protection campaigner Malcolm Kerby

Coastal protection campaigner Malcolm Kerby


The ground beneath campaigner Malcolm Kerby's feet is on the move again - but this time the cause is not coastal erosion.

Mr Kerby is having a “big wobble” and needs to make some important decisions.

He turned 70 in December, his fight for justice in Happisburgh has reached a major landmark and now he is seriously considering whether or not to “throw in the towel.”

For more than a decade Mr Kerby has led the Coastal Concern Action Group’s (CCAG) high-profile struggle to make government accept responsibility for the impact of its sea-defence policies on communities like Happisburgh.

And last month – after 12 years, thousands of hours work, ministerial visits, trips to Westminster, Brussels and The Hague, meetings, TV appearances, conferences and a lot of straight talking – that campaign began to reap dividends.

Nearly all of those whose homes are most at risk have clinched sales deals with North Norfolk District Council expected to pay out 40 to 50pc of the properties’ ‘not at risk’ values.

The agreements use government’s pioneering Pathfinder cash, given to help communities cope with the effects of erosion after much lobbying from organisations including the CCAG.

Hopes are high that, once those Beach Road homes have been demolished, it will be many years before any more slip over the eroding cliff and that Happisburgh will become a popular tourist spot once more.

“We’re halfway there and it’s hugely important,” said Mr Kerby.

For campaigners, who have seen government shift from a ‘hold the line’ to a ‘no active intervention’ sea-defence policy, causing property prices to plummet, the fight will not be truly over until those affected receive 100pc of their homes’ ‘no-problems’ value – ‘you changed the policy, you pay the price’, runs the argument.

Mr Kerby was blissfully ignorant of all that when he parked his bicycle outside Happisburgh’s Church Room one night in 1999 and tried to join his new neighbours inside at a public meeting.

Just six weeks earlier he and his partner had moved to Happisburgh, anticipating a semi-retirement with time to enjoy their beloved rescue horses, mess about in a boat, and for Mr Kerby to ride his 750cc Honda Africa Twin motorcycle. But there were far too many to squeeze into the room so they were streaming out and heading for Happisburgh Church.

Some 300 anxious people had turned up to discuss how they could protect their homes against rapid coastline erosion.

Mr Kerby spoke at the meeting, acknowledging people’s passion and energy but calling for it to be organised.

From that meeting the CCAG evolved, Mr Kerby became its co-ordinator and embarked on “a massive learning curve.”

What did he know of the problem at the time? “That the North Sea was cold and I didn’t want to swim in it, and that sand got in the elastic of your trunks and your sandwiches.”

Born in wartime London, he left school at 14 and claims never to have passed an exam in his life.

Today he can speak with authority on a highly-complex subject, has lunched with lords and baronesses, been chauffeur-driven around European capitals and is an external member of the all-party parliamentary group on coastal and marine issues.

CCAG has become an internationally-respected organisation and its website is used as a key resource by academics.

He went on to form and chair the National Voice of Coastal Communities, a CCAG off-shoot aimed at uniting all the country’s threatened areas, and is now regularly contacted by desperately-worried people from Barrow-in-Furness to Selsey.

Academic qualifications aside, Mr Kerby came to his CCAG role with a lifetime’s experience as a businessman. He was UK sales manager for Lotus before starting a company with his son-in-law, selling industrial insulation, and even found time to chair Wicklewood Parish Council.

Those university-of-life skills have been critical in helping him undo years of mutual distrust, if not outright hostility, and forge respectful relationships between campaigners and all layers of government – although he still has little time for “London windbags.”

Mr Kerby is convinced that the campaign for full social justice and a progression from Pathfinder should continue, but says he hates getting up at 4.30am to catch London trains, being away from his partner, and had long promised himself that he would bow out when he reached “the old three-score-and-10”

So, with such strong reasons to quit, why the wobble? He struggles with his thoughts before admitting: “Because I have enjoyed it.”

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