This is the gist of the message to some residents from their council. Last week, high tides and heavy rain caused the collapse of the only road to some houses in Hemsby, eight miles north of Great Yarmouth on the Norfolk coast. Thirty five homes were cut off. The result is perhaps the most shocking letter most people will ever have received from a local authority – saying essentially, that “the emergency services will no longer attend if you are in danger”. On land, ambulances and fire engines would come, at sea the lifeboat would come, but if you are living on an unstable pile of sand overlooking the beach, the climate crisis is here, and you are on your own.
The residents of the affected road have been warned not to stay in their houses, and to remove anything which might be dangerous or pollute the beach if they fall over the cliff (like the contents of oil tanks, septic tanks, and gas cylinders). How exactly they are to do this when the road is gone is unclear. The council has funds to assist with the demolition of houses (up to £6,000) but not to replace them.
So why is this happening?
The fastest eroding coast in Europe
Coastal erosion has always been an issue on the east coast. This land has been steadily sinking since the last Ice Age, and we have one of the most rapidly eroding coastlines in Europe. There are whole medieval towns under the sea off what is now the Suffolk coast. But the speed of change has been accelerating, as sea levels rise, and weather patterns become less predictable.
The Norfolk cliffs are made of soft sands, silts, gravel and clay, easily eroded from below when storms coincide with high tides, but also easily weakened by the kind of heavy rain we have had this autumn. The large collapse near Happisburgh last year appears to have resulted simply from the weight of rainfall cutting down into the soil from above.
Without human intervention, the sea erodes the cliffs and carries the sand along the coast, building beaches which protect the coast further south, especially in Great Yarmouth. Coastal defences which stop the erosion in one place can have the effect of redirecting this sand out to sea, stopping the beach building downstream, exposing their cliffs to more erosion. In Winterton people believe that the acceleration of erosion in their area has been caused by protection works further north at Horsey.
What to expect
Current estimates are, that in Norfolk alone, 1,000 houses will be lost to the sea in the next century. Homes have been falling off the cliffs in Happisburgh, Pakefield, and Hemsby. In Winterton, in recent years, the dunes have retreated 50 metres, destroying a large area of car park and the beach café. At Happisburgh, a wall of rocks was added to the beach to dissipate the impact of tide and waves, and a new ramp was built last year to access the beach. This year that ramp was washed away and rebuilt. Last week it was gone again, and the linked car park, built in 2012 is about to be abandoned. In Pakefield, three houses were demolished this month after a section of road collapsed, and a dozen static caravans are being removed from the cliff edge.
Much erosion is unstoppable. Certainly, stopping it is expensive. At Happisburgh, where a long street is being eaten away, house by house, the cost of building defences has been judged to outweigh the losses caused by erosion. In Hemsby, the cost of protective measures was estimated at over £15mn. Because of its economic importance, measures have been taken to protect the Bacton gas terminal, with a “sandscaping” project, which added nearly two million tons of sand on the beach. But putting off erosion there for another 15 years has cost £20mn. Plans are now in hand to convert the terminal into a major source of hydrogen production, but continuing to protect the site in the longer term will come at greater cost.
The Shoreline Management Plan
North Norfolk District Council has responded to erosion with a Shoreline Management Plan which divides the coast into “policy units”. For each unit there is a plan to intervene or not, and a projection of where the coast will be in 2025, 2055 and 2105 as a result. The plan is:
- Sheringham, Cromer, Bacton, Great Yarmouth, Gorleston, and Lowestoft will be protected until at least 2105.
- Mundesley, Eccles/Winterton, and Caister will be protected, but only until 2055.
- Overstrand, Hopton, and Corton will only be protected in the short term.
- The areas in between are all classified as either ‘managed realignment’ (allowing the coast to adapt naturally); or ‘no intervention’ (making no investment at all in coastal defence).
In 2012, when the plan was approved, it predicted that fewer than five properties would be lost between Winterton and Scratby (which includes Hemsby) by 2025. But more than that have already gone in Hemsby alone. The prediction of losing 55 by 2055 now looks like an underestimate.
Managing the ‘transition’
Defra and the Environment Agency have invested £6mn in a Coastwise programme to help coastal communities to plan for and manage the transition between 2022 to 2027. It covers two areas, the East Riding of Yorkshire and North Norfolk, which between them account for over 80% of the houses at risk over the next 20 years. However, the programme will not compensate individuals who lose their houses.
The Norfolk Coastwise project team says,
In most cases, coastal risk management structures are difficult to design and build, can have negative environmental impacts on local areas and communities, and will need large amounts of local funding. It is unrealistic and unsustainable to continue to protect large parts of the North Norfolk coast.
This may be inevitable, but it is not good news for the people living in the affected areas. Some have been there for generations, and some bought houses on the prediction of decades of safety. But global heating has shattered some of those predictions. For some, the approaching cliff edge has turned those decades into years. Could the council, or the government, have done better to help the victims?
In the month of COP28, it is a shocking reminder that climate change is real. But is this really the best help North Norfolk Council (and the government) can do to help the victims?