It is the quintessential coastal holiday destination, complete with a historic harbour popular with yacht owners and idyllic countryside that offers visitors a glimpse of a more traditional, genteel way of life.
Such is the charm of Southwold, on the Suffolk coast, that Gordon Brown and his wife Sarah took their two sons on a family holiday there and each summer the town attracts thousands of music fans who come to enjoy the Latitude Festival.
But now large areas of the popular beauty spot are to be lost under government plans to abandon the flood defences that have protected the town and its surrounding countryside from the sea for more than 400 years.
The clay embankments that have kept the sea at bay around the Blyth Estuary have been condemned as unsustainable by the Environment Agency because of rising sea levels and will now be left to crumble.
It means 250 acres of rare protected habitat, home to rare species of birds and plants found in only a handful of locations within the UK, will be left to be destroyed by salt water and the historic Southwold harbour will be allowed to crumble due to erosion.
The plans are expected to form a blueprint for similar strategies in other estuaries around the country. Plans are being drawn up for the Alde and Ore Estuary and the Deben Estuary, both popular beauty spots on the Suffolk coast.
They are part of a wider policy to abandon coastal flood defences across Britain, a move which will drastically change the face of country’s coastline.
Swathes of farm land, natural habitat, national beauty sites and hundreds of homes will be surrendered to flooding from the sea under the plans for “managed realignment” of coastal areas.
One new plan published for consultation last week revealed an internationally protected nature reserve, Holland Haven Country Park, near Clacton-on-Sea in Essex, will be lost to the sea when the flood defences are abandoned.
The new strategies are being drawn up under the guidance of the Environment Agency, the government body with national responsibility for flooding, as it cannot afford to maintain all of the country’s 2,500 miles of coastal defences in the face of rising sea levels.
In the Blyth Estuary, the Environment Agency has ruled that building new defences to protect three protected nature and wildlife habitats is too expensive and maintaining the current defences is unsustainable.
In addition to the wildlife sites, Southwold harbour, which helps attract more than £30 million of tourism to the area, will be lost as flooding undermines the defences currently protecting it. Around 40 properties currently protected by the embankments would also be at risk of tidal flooding under the strategy.
The reed beds and marshes under threat are currently protected as nature and wildlife havens under European laws due to the rare birds that live there, including endangered bittern, marsh harriers and bearded tits.
As part of its plans, the Environment Agency has proposed a controversial £2.7 million proposal to build new habitats elsewhere in the country to compensate for their loss. Another £5 million will also need to be spent by local authorities to protect property inland from flooding.
Councillor Sue Allen, the Conservative council member for Southwold and Reydon at Waveney District Council, said: “There is around £25 to 30 million of tourism generated off the back of Southwold.
“If we were to lose the harbour and the natural habitats that attract people here, then that income will disappear. It will have a massive effect on the people who live here.”
Campaigners fighting the decision also claim they can protect the sites for a fraction of the cost simply by repairing and building up the existing embankments.
They insist the Environment Agency based its decision to abandon the existing defences on flawed information about the rates of erosion in the area and say the defensive walls can be made to withstand flooding up to the end of the century for as little as £2 million.
Richard Steward, of the Blyth Estuary Group, said: “The marshes and reed beds on either side of the estuary are home to rare birds, insects and whorl snails. They are so important they have been designated as protected areas.”
The habitats are protected under the European Habitats Directive and EC Birds Directive after being designated as Special Protection Areas and Natura 2000 sites, which are aimed at saving the most seriously threatened habitats and species in Europe.
Protected habitats – known as Tinkers Marsh, Delacroix Marsh and the Hen Reedbeds, can only be abandoned and relocated if a case of overriding national importance can be made.
The Environment Agency claims that the high costs involved in continuing to protect these sites in the long term from seawater coming into the estuary is such a case.
Mark Johnston, a coastal manager for the Environment Agency, said: “We have to consider how to make best use of the limited funds we have available to us.
“A lot of effort was put into assessing the condition of the existing defences and they were deemed to be unsustainable. It was decided that a better use of the money was to replace or compensate the habitats that will be lost.”
The final decision to relocate the habitats must now be made by Hilary Benn, the Environment Secretary, who is currently examining the plan and is expected to make a decision later this year.
Details of other areas that will be lost to the sea were detailed in a new shoreline management plan for Essex and South Suffolk, which was published last week for consultation.
It reveals that Holland Haven Country Park, which includes marshes designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to the rich bird and insect life that inhabits the area, will be lost when the flood defences are abandoned within the next 50 years.
The 4,000 year old St Osyth marshes in the Colne Estuary, another SSSI designated area, will also be left to be flooded by the sea.
The plan also warns that realignment of flood defences in the Blackwater Estuary, also in Essex, could threaten oyster fisheries in the area. Around 60 million tonnes of oysters, prized as a British speciality, are caught here every year.
Richard Haward, whose family has been farming oysters in the creeks on the Blackwater Estuary for more than 200 years, said: “Oysters that grow near to the marshes are far plumper and a better product than those further out to sea and if the proposed managed realignment goes ahead it could make life very difficult.”
Similar plans are being drawn up for all 3,720 miles of coast in England and Wales.
Nearly two thirds of the country’s coastline is currently defended with shingle banks, sea walls and barriers that are maintained by the Environment Agency using taxpayers money.
Some land, such as that owned by the Crown Estate, is protected by privately-maintained defences.
The risk of flooding is predicted to increase over the next century as sea levels rise by up to three feet but the Environment Agency cannot afford to build new defences or to increase the height of existing structures.
Ministers have instead decided to allow the agency to pick and chose the areas it will defend, with priority being given to towns and areas with special historical or natural heritage.
Under the policy, another area to be hit will be the around the Cuckmere Estuary where 260 acres of the picturesque valley will be allowed to flood over then next 15 years.
Another strategy published for the Humber has also revealed that within the next 20 years, defences protecting 800 homes will no longer be repaired, affecting parts of Kilnsea village, Sunk Island and the mouth of the River Humber, east of Hull.
A popular tourist destination in Medmerry, east of Selsey, West Sussex, will also see 612 acres of coastal flats surrendered to the encroaching sea to form a new intertidal area.
Residents living near East Head, West Sussex, have also been told they face having to find funding to maintain the defences around their popular beauty spot.
The policy of abandoning some defences and not improving others has enraged campaigners, who claim house prices in affected areas have plummeted as residents struggle to sell their properties.
Malcolm Kerby, from campaign group National Voice of Coastal Communities, said: “Why would anyone want to buy a house in an area that will be regularly flooded in 20 years?”
Story by Richard Gray in the Telegraph