Why we must have full compensation
On the face of it, any cash offer for homes which were once considered to be worth close to nothing because they are at imminent risk from coastal erosion must be a bonus. But here leading coastal campaigner MALCOLM KERBY explains why he feels the 40pc to 50pc of market value offer likely for a set of homeowners in Happisburgh, reported on the EDP's front page on Saturday, is simply not up to scratch.
"At the level quoted, which is 40pc to 50pc of no-risk market value, people will not be able to move on uninjured.
It is clear that something is better than nothing and perhaps many people will misunderstand what appear to be negative comments on the matter from me.
But what is so important about the Pathfinder scheme which has produced this offer is that it is a guide to setting future policy nationally.
Happisburgh has spearheaded the campaign nationally for social justice and finding a sustainable approach to actually managing the coast rather than mismanaging it – as is the case at the moment.
If all we see out of this is a 50pc offer, that will send all the wrong signals to government.
We all have to be mindful of the fact that while Happisburgh is in this uncomfortable position of being in the lead on the issues at hand, we – and I – have a responsibility for other communities all around the country.
If we don’t get this right here, what hope is there for the other communities scheduled, under the proposed shoreline management plan, for the same problems we currently have here in Happisburgh?
And, more immediately, what effect will a low offer have on the wider community in Happisburgh?
Will it lift the property blight that many people have been complaining about since the shoreline management plan was first published in 2004?
I don’t believe it will.
What really grates with people is that if these homes were in a fluvial situation – next to a river – under the Water Resources Act 1991 there is allowance for full compensation of a home’s value.
All we are saying is that we want parity with the fluvial situation – why the difference?
The absolutely critical thing to remember is that the people on Beach Road in Happisburgh, who this applies to, are affected through no fault of their own.
This is a government-induced problem which means it has been done in the name of the wider nation. And the wider nation should take full account of that.
I would ask those people who think the 50pc offer is reasonable – and there are bound to be some – how would they feel if the government came along and said "look here, we are going to build a new motorway or railway or some other similar development right through your property and we are going to give you 50pc of its value".
Some would say that comparison doesn’t apply because the erosion at Happisburgh is a natural process and the homeowners are at fault for moving there in the first place.
That is utter rubbish, there are people who have lived here all their lives who had legal searches done before they bought, which told them the government policy was one of ‘hold the line’, in others words no land would be surrendered to the sea.
It is then reasonable for people to invest in a property on the basis of that search and that policy – they were not buying on an undefended coastline. If they were buying on an undefended coastline, it would be a case of caveat emptor – let the buyer beware.
But here that was not the case until the government decided overnight to switch the policy to "no active intervention".
If that policy is to change, it is only just to ally that with making sure individual people are not injured in the process.
And the other message to those who talk of natural process is this – we have 13.5km of defences to the north and 14km of defences to the south. This is the soft bit in the middle – that’s not natural process.
What ends up happening is we have a situation of winners and losers. At Sea Palling, millions of pounds were spent on the offshore rock reefs which have done a brilliant job of defence.
Yet they have an effect of interrupting the process of sand moving around the coast, which means other places have worsened levels of erosion.
Yet here in Happisburgh they won’t pay 100pc of values of these houses.
Anything less than 100pc would in my view be discriminatory. And the Human Rights Act 1998, Article 14, includes reference to not being allowed to discriminate on various grounds, including property.
Doing something about the situation which people both in Happisburgh and around the country are facing is one thing. Doing what is needed is another. This offer is not enough."
Erosion visit by minister
Coastal erosion minister Richard Benyon will visit Norfolk and Suffolk on Friday.
A formal list of where he will visit has not been published, but it is understood his visit could take in Cromer, Overstrand, Happisburgh, Winterton, Scratby, Hopton, Corton and Aldeburgh to see some of the key locations of current and future erosion challenges.
It is the first ministerial visit to the region in connection with the subject of coastal management since the coalition government took power earlier in the year.
A string of Labour ministers have made similar visits over recent years, many of them calling at Happisburgh.
"I was one of several MPs who wrote to Defra and asked for a visit," said North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb.
"It is important to get our message across to any new minister on a matter such as this.
"We will be attempting to explain the importance of social justice to him and what the lessons of the Pathfinder project are so far."
Opinion & commentary
The decision facing a small number of people in Happisburgh in the coming weeks is set to be a classic case of Hobson’s choice.
Take the money and move on? Or don’t take it?
And then what? Is there even an option to fight on? That is a crucial question and the answer is not all that clear.
It is a dilemma which has two impacts.
The first is on each individual and their financial security, possibly even their future health.
Difficult enough. But the second is the precedent it sets on the national scene. All that does is ramp up the pressure on the individuals. There will be those who wonder why the offer is even being questioned. They are not the ones faced with the decision. The proposed payments are an imperfect answer to a very difficult situation in a very imperfect world.
Some credit must surely go to North Norfolk District Council for creating this new option.
But our thoughts should be with those people who, having already suffered years of tension as each winter storm bashes into the soft cliff, may now face sleepless nights trying to work out their next step.