At last, 'joined up' coastal management

Life changed in Happisburgh yesterday.

The village - a calm, pretty outpost of Norfolk which has become an international icon in the battle to address the impacts of coastal erosion, climate change and an emerging Whitehall-driven policy of managed retreat - was abuzz, albeit rather gently, with the news that their local authority had been awarded £3m to tackle coastal challenges.

Part of that money - and this would have been a quite staggering concept just a few months ago - will be used to buy the half a dozen most at risk homes and allow people to walk away with far more than what they thought they would receive - which was, until yesterday, nothing.

Another chunk will be put towards a "buy and lease back" scheme for a group of slightly less at risk homes, again an idea which few people saw coming until very recently.

This is a community with strength of character, no little patience, a beautiful beach, an eye-catching sentinel church, charming candy- striped lighthouse and relatively small but charismatic businesses - a wet fish shop, pub, general store and caravan site.

But Happisburgh, along with other communities in Norfolk, Suffolk and around the country, has been blighted by the spectre of coastal erosion.

Not purely blighted by name, but also by a suffering property market. Houses still sell here, but often for less than they would if they were elsewhere, away from both the erosion itself and the perception of how serious that erosion is.

The hope is that the dual purchasing schemes, alongside other parts of the project such as helping businesses move backwards physically on to new land as the cliff crumbles before them and tidying up areas which have become eyesores because of erosion, will breathe new life into such communities as Happisburgh, restore confidence and allow the property market to find a new level.

That market level may never be the same as it would be for an inland village, but the key point is that it should allow a community which feels it was once led to believe it would have sea defences for perpetuity to spread the cost of losing those defences over more than one unfortunate generation - which for so long appeared to be the current one.

Clive Stockton, who holds the coastal portfolio at North Norfolk District Council as well as running the Hill House pub in Happisburgh, explained: "To date we have had an all or nothing situation, where we applied for government funding for coastal defences for an area or a community and if successful it was all well and good.

"But more and more there were cases of defences being turned down - and that was effectively the end of the story, with communities left to their own devices.

"This is all about addressing the consequences of not defending and coming up with mechanisms to deal with the reality people are left with if funding for defences is not forthcoming.

"This is the first time that has happened.

"With new options, a lot of the blight and the problems which come with not giving a community a future can be removed.

"This is not about backing away from building sea defences; it is about producing a management scheme where there are alternatives."

The full public explanation of what this project is and how it will work in practice is going to take some time because it is both detailed and unprecedented, but steps are expected to be taken quickly and the emotional impact has been immediate.

Di Wrightson has become something of an accidental Happisburgh celebrity and not only because she used to run a thriving village tearoom. She lives in a pair of houses on Beach Road which will, quite probably within a few months, be demolished and a payment made under the pathfinder project so she can look forward to buying another home.

She said: "The Beach Road residents can now breathe a sigh of relief, but there is still a need for every coastal community to feel properly protected against the uncertainties of erosion and climate change.

"My personal response to this announcement is one of joy and elation that, after many years of anxiety and stress, watching the storm clouds gather and imagining the difficulties ahead, I suddenly feel as if I had stepped into sunlight.

"Please don't pinch me - I might wake up and find it's all a beautiful dream!"

Her near neighbour Jane Archer, a founder member of the Coastal Concern Action Group who was infamously told her home was worth £1 last year when applying to borrow against it, looks set to fall into the "buy and lease back" category.

"If this were to happen - and we really don't know the detail yet - the value of the house would change from nothing to something," she said.

"It's just that we don't know what that something is yet. And we also don't know the terms of any lease back.

"But we now have some hope we will end up with something, where we previously did not."

There are many unknowns at this stage. By no means is this a solution to a hugely complicated topic and these projects must be seen as they are: pilots designed to inform and educate.

The pessimist would point out that these purchases may be one-offs and the government may never agree to carry such a policy through to a fully fledged version.

The pessimist might also suggest this is a sop to calm a troublesome bunch of East Anglian campaigners in the short term. That would be a mistake on the part of government. There is now so much knowledge of this subject both in Happisburgh and at North Norfolk District Council's headquarters in Cromer that it would be unwise to believe the problem will go away with no long-term attempts at a solution.

And it is vitally important to point out that this is not just about Happisburgh, but many other parts of north and west Norfolk, the village of Scratby near Great Yarmouth and also Waveney.

But Happisburgh, and particularly Beach Road, will undoubtedly retain the glare of the media spotlight and it will be fascinating to watch the next few months pass by.