'We aren't being looked after' - Norfolk's coast is retreating faster than feared
PUBLISHED: 08:00 09 July 2018 | UPDATED: 15:01 10 July 2018
Our coast is disappearing faster than feared. What is being done to stop it?
Humans have roamed the land at Happisburgh for one million years.
But they are now on the retreat from the oldest known settlement in northern Europe.
A caravan park overlooking the sea is relocating inland as it teeters ever closer to the edge.
Houses have been lost at the end of Beach Road and more are threatened.
This stretch of coast is being allowed to erode under a government policy called “managed realignment”.
It means communities will be given time to move with some sea defences put in place, but ultimately, however devastating for those living there, nature will be allowed to take its course.
The justification for this is found in a 2012 report called the Shoreline Management Plan (SMP) which sets out the strategy for our coast from Kelling to Lowestoft.
It argues that defences for much of the coast are not sustainable and protecting it here will mean more erosion further south.
But an investigation by this newspaper has found:
•The coast is eroding far faster than the SMP predicted in the most vulnerable areas
•Many erosion defences are at end of their lives
•New sea defences which have cost taxpayers tens of thousands of pounds have failed
•Fears dredging sediment off the coast is speeding up erosion
Nowhere in north Norfolk will be more impacted by erosion than Happisburgh, according to the SMP.
It predicted in 2012 that by 2025 the top end of Beach Road, up to the public toilets will have been lost.
The beach currently has rock armour under the cliffs and at the ramp which leads down to it.
NNDC is moving that rock armour to protect access to the beach.
Denise Burke, who has lived in the village for eight years, said: “Nobody really has an answer about why we’ve had such high tides hitting the cliffs in the last 18 months.
“We have already lost nine houses from Beach Road and that continues to be threatened.”
Mrs Burke, who is also a parish councillor, said the SMP was “not fit for purpose”.
“Things have happened much faster than any predictions in the SMP,” she said.
“We should be looking at an urgent and completely new strategy.”
The timber groynes at Happisburgh failed in the tidal surge of 2013 and are “redundant”, according to a report from consultants hired by energy firm Vattenfall which wants to bring offshore wind farm cables ashore at the beach.
The wooden defences date back to the 1960s.
The report for Vattenfall also warns that sea level rises through climate change and more storms threatens more erosion for our coast.
To the north, at Bacton Gas Terminal the wooden defences dating back to the 1960s are also near the end of their life.
Cliff instability is now threatening the gas terminal, consultants found last year.
To protect it at least 1.5 million tonnes of sand will be pumped onto the beach in a scheme called “sandscaping”. It was meant to take place this summer but is now expected to happen in spring next year.
It will cost at least £17m and will be funded by the terminal owner and public cash. The scheme should protect the terminal for another 20 years.
But further down the coast at Winterton, Jan Hewitt, owner of the Dunes café and car park, has had to spend thousands of pounds of her own money protecting the beach.
She hired contractors to rebuild the beach after large sections were washed away earlier this year.
“The café was in danger of being lost, that was primarily the reason to protect it,” she said.
“People have an emotional connection with this beach. It is wide open and lovely again now.”
Eric Lund, chairman of Winterton Parish Council, said: “If it wasn’t for Jan, god knows what we would be left with now.
“I think it is absurd we have to rely on private enterprise to protect us and make the beach accessible to visitors.”
Coastal communities have applied and failed to get public money for defences.
At Hemsby, after homes were lost on The Marrams to the tidal surge in 2013, villagers sought £2.3m to fund sea defences from the government’s Coastal Communities Fund.
They were rejected and told other bids were a “stronger fit”. The fund has given out £174m since 2012 to 295 projects. But not a penny of that has gone to coastal defences in Norfolk.
“People feel we are not being listened to, not being looked after,” said landlady at the Lacon Arms Lorna Bevan-Thompson, 53.
The policy for this stretch of coast in the SMP is also “managed realignment” - putting in enough defences to give people time to adapt.
But the speed at which it is disappearing is catching residents by surprise.
The SMP predicted that by 2025 less than five seafront properties at The Marrams would be lost. Yet in the tidal surge of 2013 seven were lost and another 13 went this March.
The coast at The Marrams has already eroded to where the SMP predicted it would be by 2105.
And thousands of pounds of public cash already spent on sea defences have not stopped the power of the sea.
In 2015 honeycombed-shaped concrete blocks were put in after residents raised £70,000, and Norfolk County Council gave £50,000. With that money they could only afford to protect 100 metres of beach.
The blocks were meant to provide 50 years of protection, but water got in behind them in March, leading to the biggest loss of homes of anywhere on the east coast. The blocks now need repositioning.
At neighbouring Scratby, a cheaper defence option was also used in 2015.
Scratby Erosion Group (Sceg) wanted to put in rock defences and MP Brandon Lewis also called for rock armour to be extended to Scratby when he stood for election in 2010.
But they cost £3m more than the option which was chosen - metal cages filled with small rocks, called gabions.
They set taxpayers back £600,000 and were meant to last 25 years.
The contractor which put them in, Mackinnon, said at the time they should last 35 years.
But two years on they are in ruins and are being repaired. Mackinnon declined to comment.
The Environment Agency which partially funded the gabions said it was now working with Great Yarmouth Borough Council to repair the damage.
Robert Stephenson from Sceg said the gabions had done their job in stopping the cliff eroding like at Hemsby, but added: “Will the council pay for repairs each time?”
•Hope for Hemsby?
A Great Yarmouth Borough Council report being published this week could offer hope for the coast at Hemsby.
Commissioned with £35,000 of Environment Agency cash, it is expected to offer options to protect Hemsby and Winterton.
A council spokesman said: “This area of coastline is very dynamic and long-term predictions are difficult to make with any degree of certainty.
“As part of this study, we will be looking at coastal process and the recent rates of erosion to see if the data in the SMP would require updating.”
The Environment Agency said since 2014 it had provided funding for coastal defences at Cromer, Bacton, Mundesley and Scratby.
•TOMORROW: What now for Hemsby?