On the brink - of a new beginning at Happisburgh

Householders whose doomed homes are perched on the edge of Happisburgh's crumbling cliff have finally struck sales deals and can start new lives elsewhere - ending more than a decade of uncertainty.

Demolition could begin in May on most of the at-risk homes along Beach Road and North Norfolk District Council (NNDC) chiefs say that by the summer Happisburgh will have a new look and facilities to welcome visitors.

Leading campaigner Malcolm Kerby said the agreements, revealed in an NNDC report today, represented a fresh beginning for Happisburgh which would have "knock-on benefits all round."

The breakthrough follows payments agreed between NNDC and nine of the 12 owners of 13 homes. Negotiations are still under way with a 10th but the two remaining owners have decided to stay put and not sell to the council.

If the 10th deal is concluded, it will see the council fork out some £725,000 to help the at-risk householders from its £3m pot of national Pathfinder cash, given to help communities threatened by the government's decision not to maintain their sea defences or compensate affected households.

Amounts paid are expected to be made public as each purchase is completed but Mr Kerby, co-ordinator of the Coastal Concern Action Group, said he understood they represented 40pc to 50pc of each home's value had it not been in an at-risk position.

Di Wrightson, whose home is metres from the cliff edge, said she and business partner Jill Morris would move out next month and were looking for rented accommodation somewhere near Happisburgh.

They ran a guest house and tea garden for 26 years until forced to close five years ago because their home's "dodgy position" made investment in improvements uneconomic.

"I feel betwixt and between - relief, obvious sadness, and a certain amount of anger that the whole thing has happened," said Ms Wrightson.

"We've been fighting for social justice for years and in some ways I'm disappointed that we didn't get the 100pc we were aiming for, but something is better than nothing and at least we have now got some money behind us to help us lead a better life."

Jane Archer and Chris Cutting, whose bungalow was infamously valued at just £1 in 2008 when they tried to use it as collateral for a loan, expect their deal to be completed imminently and to move out in the summer, after 23 years spent raising three children in their home.

"We don't know where we're going," said Ms Archer, 51. "We won't have enough to buy somewhere else and at our stage of life it will be difficult to get a mortgage."

Peter Frew, the council's head of coastal strategy, said they had done the best they could for householders within the constraints laid down by government and he believed most of those affected recognised that.

The council planned to replace each demolished property with a new home in the village, said Mr Frew. Cleared sites would be landscaped and the beach would also be cleared of debris, and a new access ramp provided to the sands. The previous one was washed away in 2002 and access was now restricted to those who can manage a steep metal staircase.

Visitors would be able to reach the ramp from a newly-located car park, with toilets, which would be moved to a more-protected location south of Beach Road. All would be designed as ‘roll-back' facilities which could be moved again as erosion crept nearer.

"We will be restoring Happisburgh to where it was 20 years ago," said Clive Stockton, the council's cabinet member for coastal strategy who also runs the village's Hill House pub. "It will become a destination for visitors once again."

Businesses stretching from Overstrand to Horsey, plus community projects such as Happisburgh's Beach Road car park have also benefited from the Pathfinder pot, which has now all been allocated.

Among those helped are:

  • Some 88 businesses offered services which have cost about £700,000, ranging from independent advice to grants for relocation costs or improvements.
  • Trimingham Village Hall which is to be rebuilt in another location with about £200,000 of funding towards the project.
  • The cliff-top Marrams footpath in Cromer which is currently being redirected, at a cost of about £45,000.

Next month NNDC will host a two-day conference of site visits and talks at which it will share its Pathfinder experiences and expertise with organisations affected by coastal change. The event is part of the council's bid to shape future government policy.

"At the moment this Pathfinder project is a one-off," said Clive Stockton, NNDC cabinet member for coastal strategy. "The question is, what happens next? We want to see this as part of a rolling programme of support."