On crumbling coastline from Humberside to Felixstowe they will cheer his name: Peter Boggis, 77, retired engineer and gallant knight battling for the right of all Englishmen to defend their homes against the encroaching sea. Mr Boggis has spent at least £400,000 building clay barriers to defend his house and his hamlet against the North Sea. He has spent another eyewatering sum fighting a legal battle against Natural England, the government body that argued that his defences were unlawful.
It designated his stretch of coastline a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and argued that, as such, it was in the interests of science to allow the ground beneath his home to erode naturally. Yesterday, in the High Court, he won a remarkable victory. Mr Justice Blair rejected the arguments of Natural England on a technicality. Both sides now plan to appeal.
Last night, Mr Boggis returned to his home in Easton Bavents, north of Southwold, and declared himself “mildy elated”. The price of defending his home, which may be worth £300,000 if his defences remain, and £30,000 if they are removed, has never deterred him. The principle was far more valuable.
“I’m fighting in the interests of everyone who lives on the coast of England,” he said. “If we can save one inch of the coast of Britain it’s worth it. If we can save one house it’s worth as much as a castle anywhere else.”
Up and down the coast of England yesterday, coastal defenders cheered the man whom they have called the Clifftop Crusader.
In the Norfolk village of Happisburgh, which has already lost 26 properties to the sea, Malcolm Kerby, head of a local coastal defence action group, said: “We’re absolutely delighted. When a man takes on the Goliath of the Government and beats it, it just makes you think that perhaps England still exists.”
John Gummer, the MP for Southwold, called The Times from Paris. “I think we will all take heart from this,” he said. Though this legal skirmish was won on a technicality, he said: “You have to fight on the minutiae. That’s how you win these battles. It will mean that Natural England will have to think again before it imposes these sorts of things on individuals.”
He also believed it would “bring more pressure on a very important issue, which is that if you don’t allow someone to defend their own property then you must compensate them”.
Not only are some clifftop householders barred from defending their property, they may have to pay at least £3,000 for its demolition by the council.
“In shoreline management plans. . . serious efforts are afoot to withdraw from any sort of defence of coastline,” Mr Gummer said. “This will show people that they can fight and they can win.”
Mr Boggis’s family bought the land upon which his home stands in 1904, buying part of an estate, much of which has since been swallowed by the sea. The pace of erosion appeared to increase in the 1980s and just over a decade ago Mr Boggis began casting around for a means to beat back the waves.
“I have to do something with my retirement, to get the grey cells going,” he said. Thirty folders of research on the subject of sea defence piled up in his study, and from 2002 until the end of 2005, he embarked on an ambitious project on the beach beneath the cliffs, with 250,000 tonnes of clay.
He cut an impressive figure on the rampart, with his greying beard and timbrous voice. He had no doubt that the money for his project would come, “with a little help and the grace of God. I believe if you put your shoulder to the wheel the rest of the world will fall into step beside you,” he said.
Natural England halted his work in the winter of 2005. It argued in the High Court that its concern related to some rather older residents of the area, signs of life from the Pleistocene era 1.8 millions years ago, now fossilised in the rock. John Horwell, QC, for Natural England, argued that many sites were designated SSSIs “because the process of erosion makes them interesting to scientists”.
In the event, Mr Justice Blair’s ruling was strictly for the birds. Attempting to stop the protection of the coastline by imposing an SSSI might have an adverse effect on a Special Protection Area (SPA) for birds to the north. The judge ruled that Natural England should have performed an assessment first of the risk to the SPA.
Mr Boggis called it an indictment of the tangled mess in which Britain’s “environmental lobby” were caught, the “yellow-bellied cowards who should never have been put in charge of the welfare of this nation”.
He believes that his rampart may last at most another five years. Then, if the legal battle is finally won, he may start building another one.
Story by Will Pavia by the Times