Communities will be engaged with over future sea defences plans in north Norfolk - Environment Agency

Communities will be consulted about the future of flood defences on the north Norfolk coast, the Environment Agency has said after its boss questioned whether freshwater habitats should be sacrificed to the encroaching sea.

In the seaside villages across Norfolk people were divided about whether or not the barriers should be repaired, after storm surges broke through in early December.

• Is part of Norfolk's coastline about to be abandoned to the sea?

Norfolk MPs Norman Lamb and Henry Bellingham both called for breaches to be fixed, and said they would be seeking meetings with the Environment Agency about the future of the coastline.

Their comments come after the government-funded agency's boss Paul Leinster told a committee of MPs on Wednesday that there were questions to be asked about whether some breached sea defences in Norfolk and Suffolk should be reinstated.

About 20km out of 840km of tidal defences in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex were damaged or breached in the surges at the beginning of December.

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Consultants Halcrow are pulling together a report on the future of flood defences for the Environment Agency, which said: 'We are looking at a range of options for the sites in question, and discussing implications for habitats and species with Natural England and the land managing conservation bodies at Brancaster, Blakeney and Cley-Salthouse.

'Since the tidal surge we have been in discussion with partners such as Natural England, the National Trust and the Norfolk Wildlife Trust and with the local community.

'Senior coastal officers in Norfolk and Suffolk assumed responsibility for engaging with communities and will continue this engagement alongside partners such as Natural England as we jointly move towards a decision.'

A series of drop-in events have been organised throughout January and February.

Conservationists have raised concerns about the impact a failure to repair defences could have on key habitats.

Natural England, which will also be involved in decisions about whether or not to repair defences, said that if any of the locations became 'more open to more tidal exchange' there would be a gradual transition from freshwater grazing marsh, reedbed and pools to more saltwater habitats, such as salt marsh, saline lagoons and, in places, tidal reedbed.

'Parts of Cley-Salthouse Marshes already support a range of saline lagoons and brackish marsh alongside freshwater habitats and, of course, there is the shingle ridge, itself an important natural feature and habitat.

'A more saltwater system would in turn alter the range and types of wintering and breeding birds that use the habitats, although this would vary between different species, depending on the extent to which they can interchange between both fresh and saltwater habitats, while others are more freshwater dependent and therefore vulnerable to change.'

North West Norfolk MP Mr Bellingham said he was concerned that the wall parallel to Beach Road in Brancaster, which does not protect any sanctuary, would just be considered from the point of view of the Royal West Norfolk golf club, but said it also linked to houses.

'When the tide quite often comes over Beach Road, not just when we have a surge, there is no way back from the club, but the bank gave us the opportunity to walk back,' he added.

He also highlighted the impact on pubs in the village which benefited from customers leaving their cars in the beach car park and walking back when the tide is up.

'From a number of points of view, including those of tourists, it is important that bank is repaired,' he said.

Mr Lamb said he would be urging the Environment Agency to repair a breach to the flood defences at Salthouse after a visit to the beach on Friday, where he met flood wardens who had concerns.

Tim Venes, manager of the Norfolk Coast Partnership, which represents the organisations which look after the 450sq km area of Norfolk coast, said: 'We appreciate that there are difficult decisions to make in the aftermath of the storm surge, but we feel it is very important that local people are involved in discussions and these decisions. We will be working with the Environment Agency to try to achieve this.'

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