Norfolk's uncomfortable truth
PUBLISHED: 17:41 15 February 2019 | UPDATED: 17:41 15 February 2019
Keith Skipper looks at the social imbalance of housing in Norfolk
Coast-hopping between Cromer and Hunstanton, surely one of our most alluring local exercises on offer, carries just as much appeal for me at this time of year.
Extra rations of space, time and slowing-down incentives bring fresh vibrancy to Lilias Rider Haggard’s mind-nourishing tribute from 1946: “Such enchantment lies upon the coast of North Norfolk, which leaves it in memory, not just an impression of peculiar beauty, but a series of pictures, standing out as vividly as if you had opened a book”.
She found much to praise in A Norfolk Notebook, some of it trimmed in restoration glory and relief after wartime weariness and environmental wreckage. I can’t help wondering what she would make of it now as so fashionable a magnet for trippers and settlers.
For all the bouquets handed out along this edge-of-Norfolk trail with so many natural attractions, an uncomfortable truth lurks just below the good-looking surface. A serious social imbalance cannot be totally hidden by any number of enchanting scenes.
I can recall many fervent calls for more protection of Norfolk’s home-grown virtues long before “indigenous remnants” became a handy label to stick on cussed old devils determined to kick up a fuss over who lives where and why it matters.
Council houses, tied cottages and aerodrome huts dominated a predominately agricultural village scene when I first started taking serious notice of my surroundings in the early 1950s.
We were still waiting for electricity and mains sewage, but had a school, shop and post office, chapel, church, two pubs, football and cricket teams. Nissen hut serving as village hall, twice-weekly bus service to East Dereham and railway line nearby.
Perhaps it was the last golden age of self-sufficient small communities. Most of my generation turned their backs on the land as mechanisation put men as well as horses out to grass.
Old cottages got the colour supplement treatment while new homes, mainly “executive dwellings”, arose in the name of infilling. Mobile commuters and the well-heeled retired snapped them up out of what was then still a relatively sensible Norfolk countryside property market.
A curt summary of recent rural history, maybe, but it ought to carry some value when offered by someone able to make comparisons spanning over 60 years. And that does take into account an inevitable tinge of guilt for being part of the transformation.
Villages at the heart of Norfolk’s ever-widening tourist path have been saddled with most pressures to test the remaining local spirit.
Holiday lets, second homes, well-meaning missionaries and too many meddlesome birds of passage leave precious little scope for rhe sort of individuality and independence that once ran through coastal haunts like Salthouse, Cley, Blakeney, Stiffkey, Brancaster and Thornham.
Since the latest lament about this pretty corner being priced out of bounds for most locally-born youngsters I’ve heard Norfolk voices, old and new, suggest it’s high time they realised they’ve no divine right to live in a particular place just because family roots go down a long way.
“It’s an open market. People can move when and where they like. You can’t shut the door on freedom of choice. The days of Drawbridge Norfolk are over …”. A growing number of short, sharp texts to remind sentimental peasants to “get a life” and accept the inevitable.
Well, while parish councils are afforded so few powers, a major handicap for those under siege from within and without, it will be impossible to stay true to any “dew diffrunt” formula.
When was the last time one of our district councils, let alone the county council, talked meaningfully about the challenge of change aimed at the future of family foundations in small communities?
I am not resorting to the romantic when I contend such a topic had regular airings as a matter of course in the 1960s as village representatives met under a rural district council banner soon to be hauled down and banished as wholly unfashionable.
Even then, when proclamations of protection nourished local roots, countryside stalwarts knew there was no automatic right for them or their families to stay put. But they demanded and expected a fair chance to do so.
Now, too many slim hopes of extending family links and remaining in cherished spots hinge on the dubious benevolence of “affordable” housing, usually tacked on as a sweetener for permission to build far more than site or situation warrants.