The challenges of defending the Norfolk and Suffolk coast from the North Sea look set for another good airing in the coming months. ED FOSS examines the state of play of two key projects – the shoreline management plan for Kelling to Lowestoft and the Pathfinder schemes, which attracted millions of pounds of funding into East Anglia last winter.
Back in 2004, all hell was let loose when the Kelling to Lowestoft Ness shoreline management plan (SMP) was published in its first public draft form, suggesting some dramatic losses of land and homes along the coastline across the next century.
Following its traumatic arrival into the world, thousands of hours of work have been put into consultations, reports and meetings to try to bring the SMP to a standard acceptable to the mainly rural coastal communities which, at the time, justifiably feared they were about to be swept aside both literally by a pounding North Sea and metaphorically by a central government with a perceived urban focus.
The demand has, famously, been for communities facing losing homes and businesses to be guaranteed “social justice”, which in most cases constitutes financial compensation in all but name.
As another set of meetings looms to see if the tinkered SMP can finally get the nod from the relevant maritime local authorities so it can become a ‘set in stone’ document nearly six years on, views about whether enough has been done have begun to emerge. And there are clearly differences of opinion.
In parallel to this debate is the progress of the Pathfinder project, which in December saw three local authorities – North Norfolk (£3m), Waveney (£1.5m) and Great Yarmouth (£296,500) – win bids totalling nearly £5m out of a national pot of £11m to address coastal challenges.
The headline part of Pathfinder was the prospect of buying and demolishing some of the most at-risk homes on Beach Road in Happisburgh, allowing homeowners to escape with more than nothing following the slow but certain loss of what for many is the main lifetime purchase.
There are emerging differences of opinion about how successful the Pathfinder will end up being, but they do not seem as potentially divisive as those over the SMP.
The main point at this stage is to redraw the battle lines over the SMP and gear up for a further fight,according to Malcolm Kerby, the Happisburgh-based co-ordinator of the Coastal Concern Action Group (CCAG) and chairman of the National Voice of Coastal Communities (NVCC).
Along the frontage involved – from north Suffolk to somewhere near the middle of the north Norfolk coast – people have been beginning to rebuild their opposition to the plan, and need to carry on doing so, according to Mr Kerby.
A consultation into one aspect of the SMP, the strategic environmental assessment, will finish on July 2. Although it is technically only about that aspect, it has been taken to be a chance to ask about and ponder the wider plan ahead of local authorities being asked to vote on it.
“When the SMP comes up for acceptance again in this area, if there is still no social justice built into it, which at the moment I believe there is not, I shall do all I can to fight to stop it being accepted, and I would encourage others to do so,” said Mr Kerby.
“More than five years ago we went through massive pain and turmoil here over the SMP and we have to give huge credit to the elected members at North Norfolk District Council for standing their ground and refusing to accept it.
“The stand we took all those years ago has moved the whole situation on by a significant amount, but in some ways we are just back to square one.
“Social justice is at least actively under consideration by the authorities and there is recognition that something will have to be done to address the consequences of the SMPs on coastal communities, but there is nothing yet locked in place within the SMP itself.”
To accept the SMP under those circumstances would be a “giant leap of faith in the dark,” said Mr Kerby, as he encouraged district councillors to take another stand and for people to lobby their councillors with the same intention.
For Peter Frew, head of coastal strategy at North Norfolk District Council, the response from around 100 people at a recent set of SMP consultation meetings in Sea Palling, Great Yarmouth, Corton and Mundesley was of a different nature to Mr Kerby’s stance.
“The people who came to see me wanted to know if their concerns about changing policies had been put into the SMP and they went away satisfied.
“By and large we have been able to allay people’s fears.”
It was the subsequent and separate work, such as Pathfinder, which would address the issues around social justice, said Mr Frew. The SMP would potentially come before the district council’s cabinet in November, added Mr Frew.
Although widely accepted as being born out of the original SMP crisis, the Pathfinder project is a separate strand of activity, a short-term attempt to solve some localised problems while, arguably more importantly, trying to identify longerterm solutions to generic problems.
Pathfinder has a wide mandate, including working out how to help businesses relocate in the face of erosion, assessing the viability of buying and demolishing privatelyowned property and trying to formulate policy for moving community buildings so they survive for longer.
Concerns have been raised that the project (it’s not a pilot, apparently – Defra doesn’t like it being called that) has not moved forward quickly enough since the cash handouts were confirmed in December, with people living in the relevant Happisburgh houses only receiving small levels of contact to date ahead of a technical deadline of the end of this current financial year – next April.
But others feel it is progressing as quickly as it can, considering it involves a new approach to a longrunning set of challenges, and argue that the real deadline is not the end of the financial year.
A company called Bruton Knowles has been appointed as an independent property adviser to hold meetings with residents, assess values and work out suitable financial offers.
What is almost certain is that there is not enough money in the pot – the property acquisition for demolition project has been allocated £550,000 – to do what most people wanted and buy a small number of homes for somewhere near standard market value if they were in a no-risk location.
On the other hand, others suggest that some money is better than nothing, which looked likely not so many months ago.
Story by Ed Foss in the Eastern Daily Press