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Minister visits UK’s erosion hot spot

PUBLISHED: 09:34 06 September 2010 | UPDATED: 09:37 06 September 2010

MINISTERS come and go at erosion hot spots with the same certainty as the tides which eat away at the crumbling cliffs.

The latest Whitehall suit to visit the shoreline was Richard Benyon, who came to find out more about how communities are coping with current coastal management strategies which see many established defences being abandoned, leaving villages in fear and blighted by plunging property prices.

Aided by millions of pounds of government cash, local councils are coming up with measures to help, including compensation packages, and oiling the wheels for people to relocate homes, businesses and village halls in their perilous parishes.

Mr Benyon saw the situation and heard from officials and campaigners at Happisburgh, and the Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft areas, where he also discussed fishing issues.

But erosion was the main item on the agenda and Mr Benyon made it quite clear that there was not a huge pot of cash to bale out problem-hit areas.

In north Norfolk he said the coastline had “the most serious erosion problems in Europe.

“Everybody knows there is a serious problem and it is exacerbated by climate change. No one is going to ignore it, and there is no change in the determination to deal with it.

“Flooding and coastal erosion are real priorities for the government. Other areas will be cut back severely, but these will be a continuing priority.”

The government spends about £720m on tackling river and coastal flooding, about a third of it on the coast, but needed to be “smarter” with its money.

A large slice of an £11m national Pathfinder pot – aimed at setting up local initiatives – has gone to East Anglia, with North Norfolk getting £3m, Waveney £1.5m and Yarmouth £300,000.

Mr Benyon was impressed with some of the schemes in North Norfolk, which include seeking to buy threatened homes, some to demolish and some to lease back for some of their remaining lifetime in a bid to beat-off blighted property prices.

“The government does not have a bottomless pot of money, so we are looking for innovative local solutions,” he added.

On Monday, North Norfolk District Council’s cabinet will discuss a package of Pathfinder measures, including buying 10 properties most in danger on Beach Road at Happisburgh for demolition, looking at buying and leasing others nearby in the 20-100 year line, and providing help to move the Manor Farm caravan park away from its clifftop location. It is also helping to relocate a village hall at Trimingham.

Local MP Norman Lamb who met the minister at the start of his tour has also suggested launching a “local solidarity fund”, which could see locals put £5m a year into a pot to manage the coastline – either for defences or compensation schemes.

It would need to be backed by a local referendum and he hoped people right across the district, at inland towns too, would support the idea as it would be protecting not just coastal communities but local heritage.

He accepted it was “always a battle” to get government funding, so initiatives needed to be a combination of local and government initiatives. The local fund would enable North Norfolk to have more of a say in its destiny.

Mr Benyon said he would need to check there was “legal impediment” to the idea, but said the government encouraged “localism”.

He added that the coastline around Norfolk and Suffolk was also part of the region’s heritage and helped protect the Broads, which provided tourism income to the area.

Local coastal campaigner Malcolm Kerby from the Coastal Concern Action Group said progress had been made over the years with compensation, which was once ruled out, now on the table, though not at the 100pc levels that would be ideal.

The ministerial visit was a chance to build a rapport with the new man in charge and a chance to persuade him that erosion – and the withdrawal of sea defences under latest policies – was a “national problem that needs national solution”.


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