Le Monde - In the United Kingdom, residents of Norfolk alone facing coastal erosion

The coasts of this English county overlooking the North Sea are particularly exposed to a phenomenon of accelerated erosion. In several villages, residents began to lose their homes. But almost no public aid is not deployed by the authorities.

By Cécile Ducourtieux Le Monde (Hemsby [United Kingdom], Special correspondent)

This Wednesday, May 29, in the middle of the school holiday week in the United Kingdom, families with towels and picnics converge on the beach, determined to enjoy the sun. The children are excited, the air smells of chips and sweets in Hemsby, a coastal village in east Norfolk, a modest but popular seaside resort renowned for its golden sand. However, at the Lacon Arms, the pub facing the beach, the atmosphere is serious

: members of the local organization Save Hemsby Coastline gathered there to share their plight. Kevin Jordan, Simon Measures, Lesley Terriss, Ian and Jackie Brennan, Terry and Christine Barnes and Lorna Bevan, the pub's owner, put on a good show, but often anxiety looms and tears are not far away.

Accelerated erosion in this eastern portion of England has disrupted their existence. The United Kingdom is one of the European countries recording the highest erosion: 28% of the English and Welsh coasts are shrinking by more than 10 centimeters per year (according to a study by the Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership published in 2020). In Norfolk, land retreat is even more pronounced, "partly because the coast is made up of sand dunes or 'soft' cliffs - chalk topped with clay mixed with layers of pebbles - and that it faces the North Sea, with powerful currents accentuating the movement of sediments,” explains Jessica Johnson, professor of geophysics at the university of East Anglia, in Norwich.

The coast has always moved in Norfolk, “but until now the sand was swept up by the sea during winter storms and carried back to the beach by currents during the summer,” explains Simon Measures. This is no longer the case: the dunes which protect residents' homes are shrinking by 1 to 2 meters per year, or even more in 2023, when, under the influence of the storms which began in August and continued all autumn, the high dune which separated the houses south of the beach finally disappeared in a few hours. In the process, the road serving the neighborhood collapsed several hundred meters.

“No compensation”

In December 2023, Kevin Jordan, a 70-year-old retired engineer, received a letter from the local authorities asking him to abandon within seven days his house acquired thirteen years earlier, now deemed too close to the beach. Four of his neighbors received the same notice. “I was told that if I did not comply, the demolition work on my house would be my responsibility. I received no compensation for my lost house [it was destroyed preventively]. And I consider myself lucky because I was considered vulnerable, because of my mobility problems. Great Yarmouth Council [which Hemsbyl is responsible for] allocated me social housing,” says Kevin Jordan. This amateur carpenter had to sell all his tools, which were impossible to store in his new home, which was too small.

Simon Measures, Ian Brennan and his wife Jackie, and Lesley Terriss, who also live along the vanished coastal road, now fear for their properties. Even Lorna Bevan, the pub's landlady, no longer feels safe. All feel neglected by public authorities, Great Yarmouth Town Council, North Norfolk District Council, the Department of Agriculture or the Environment Agency. “It’s as if they had given up on this place,” laments Simon Measures, who has been living in Hemsby since 2021.

With my wife, we were looking for an inexpensive house near the sea. We consulted an expert, who assured us that erosion would leave us alone for fifty to a hundred years,” explains the entrepreneur, whose pretty house with lime green shutters is now only protected from the beach by the last portion of the coastal road still in place. “It has lost all value, it is unsaleable,” adds Simon Measures. He is not considered vulnerable and will only be able to claim emergency accommodation in the private sector - often bed and breakfasts, in this very touristy region.

There are public funds available to compensate individuals and businesses affected by flooding, but nothing specific in England regarding erosion. Because in the United Kingdom “it is the owner of the land who is responsible for its defense. The government, regarding the coasts, has no obligation, but an optional right to help explains Robert Nicholls, professor of adaptation climate at the University of East Anglia.

A line of defense

In a country where social safety nets are minimal, this situation remains shocking, and “it keeps a lot of us up at night,” says Jackie Brennan, who, with her husband, Ian, treasurer of Save Hemsby Coastline, says they bought their house “for retirement and so that [their] children and grandchildren can have memories of the sea”. They too received reassuring advice from experts, who estimated that they would be safe for at least half a century. They quickly became disillusioned: in December 2013, a violent storm causing a sharp rise in water levels constituted a first major alert, washing away or damaging seven houses in one night - of which the sea rescue station (since rebuilt)

The link between the acceleration of erosion and climate change is “probable”, with “rising water levels, coupled with the greater frequency of storms and precipitation”, estimates academic Jessica Johnson, who heads a network monitoring the risks of collapse on a portion of the cliffs. According to a report submitted to Norfolk County Council in February, sea rise forecasts at the end of the century are 1.15 meters. Without action to protect the approximately 140 kilometers of coastline of the county, approx. 1,030 properties and businesses could be lost by 2105.

The 5,700 residents of Hemsby have been demanding, in vain, for several years a line of defense at foot of the dunes on the beach. “It would take between 10 and 20 million pounds sterling [11 to 23 million euros approximately] to bring stone blocks along the entire length of the beach and obtain reasonable protection,” explains Ian Brennan. After five to six years of administrative battle, Save Hemsby Coastline finally received planning permission (“building permit”), but local authorities refuse to advance the money. And “we cannot raise such a sum ourselves,” explains Lesley Terriss.

The North Norfolk district is promoting a new fund, Coastwise, with £8 million (€9.4 million) to help with the “transition”. This sum could be used to “move back” at-risk properties inland, but only between Happisburgh and Weybourne, not including Hemsby, further south. “The coast will continue to erode and it is not possible to prevent it everywhere. But it is possible to seek to adopt approaches that help communities adapt,” explains a spokesperson for the district council.

“There will be no more tourism”

From the middle of the 19th century, with the rise of tourism and sea bathing, the first seaside protections were erected in the region. “Before, people tended to build away from the sea. With this ability to protect coasts and changes in lifestyles, they moved their homes closer to the shore and cliffs,” explains Professor Robert Nicholls. Then there was the Great Storm of 1953, which killed more than 300 people in the UK.

After this dramatic event, engineering work massive attacks were undertaken in the 1960s and 1970s. “But, over time, the authorities questioned this protection strategy at all costs, because barriers on one stretch of coast push sediment onto another and create other problems,” adds Nicholls.

From the 1980s, with the government of Margaret Thatcher, public money became more scarce. authorities have started to apply cost-benefit criteria before deciding to invest in erosion defences. It is by virtue of these criteria, denounced by the members of Save Hemsby Coastline, that their village is considered ineligible for public assistance. “The authorities only take into account the value of the threatened houses. If we had had houses of millionaires in the village, our defenses would have already been financed,” regrets Simon Measures. " THE village brings £88 million [€103 million] to the region per year through tourism. This economic contribution should also be taken into account. If the beach disappears into the sea, there will be no more tourism,” adds Lorna Bevan, manager of the Lacon Arms pub.

Legal proceedings against the government

A few kilometers north of Hemsby, the pretty village of Happisburgh is in the same situation: its “soft” cliffs are weakened. This town benefits from defenses built in the 1960s (barriers of wood and stone, placed on the beach), but they proved insufficient in the 1990s. And the place, not very dense, is not considered either no longer as eligible for public assistance.

“However, we have a 15th century church, a lighthouse attracting many tourists, built at the end of the 18th century, a manor representing one of the finest examples of the Arts and Crafts movement [an artistic movement of the late 19th century], not counting the oldest footprints of humanoids found outside Africa, dating back 850,000 years lists Sarah Greenwood, member of Save Happisburgh.

The local association is demanding an initial envelope of 250,000 pounds [293,000 euros], which, according to Sarah Greenwood, could be enough to consolidate part of the old defenses and slow down the collapse of the cliffs. But she is aware, like Hemsby residents, that lasting protection, even of non-densely populated areas of the country, requires a policy change which, for the moment, neither the ruling Conservatives nor the Labor Party, which is counting on to take it away from them during the general elections of July 4, have not committed themselves.

Kevin Jordan chose the legal route to try to assert his rights. Along with the Friends of the Earth organization and another activist, Doug Paulley (who promotes disability rights), the retired engineer is suing the British government on the grounds that the NAP, the national climate change adaptation programme, is deficient because it does not sufficiently protect citizens against the worsening climate crisis. The first hearing before the High Court is scheduled for June 18 and 19, in London.