Our coastal homes have to be saved, say owners

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The Independent Online

The residents of a hamlet of coastguard cottages have begun a battle to save their homes from crashing into the sea near Beachey Head.

The residents of a hamlet of coastguard cottages have begun a battle to save their homes from crashing into the sea near Beachey Head.

The tiny community, whose properties perch on an ever-crumbling coastline at a protected beauty spot, started its fight yesterday to force the landowner, the National Trust, to build a sea defence.

The trust, however, is determined to allow nature to take its course - even if it means sacrificing the homes at Birling Gap, East Sussex.

As he arrived for a public inquiry in nearby Alfriston, the residents' spokesman, Alan Edgar, a chartered planner, vowed to fight the trust with his "sling shot against their Uzi machine-guns and missiles".

Each year, residents of the 19th-century cottages have watched the coastline in front of their doors crumble away by as much as three feet.

The first house in the row had to be demolished 15 years ago. The next in line is now only feet from the edge. All of the buildings, seven cottages and a hotel, are expected to perish within 20 years.

The hamlet's plight has captured the imagination of locals and tourists alike. More than 57,000 people have signed a petition calling for Birling Gap to be saved. The solution, the residents of Crangon Cottages say, is to build a 185-metre sea defence but both the trust and English Nature have opposed the proposed French limestone wall, arguing that the revetment will not stop the ultimate erosion. Wealden District Council, which blocked the residents' original bid, later backed plans for a 30-metre sea defence.

The public inquiry was ordered by John Prescott, the Secretary of State for the Environment, to decide which, if either, plan will be allowed.

Should a plan be approved, the residents - who include Lord Howie of Troon - believe that the National Trust should foot the estimated £300,000 bill for the project.

The hearing was told that half of the six remaining habitable cottages at the South Downs spot near Eastbourne were privately owned while the rest belong to the trust.

Mr Edgar appealed to Alan Boyland, the inspector leading the inquiry, to protect the human rights of the cottage owners. "I shall attempt to prove that the interpretation of planning policy is flawed and that the revetment will not be seen," he said.

Sasha White, representing Wealden District Council, insisted there was no easy solution to the problem. "One naturally recoils from watching property fall into the sea. But one cannot underestimate or ignore the importance and uniqueness of the geological and geomorphological characteristics that are present here."

John Popham, of the National Trust, said the sea defence would be insufficient to protect the cliff from the natural forces of nature. "Erosion is an important part of the character and significance of Birling Gap and surrounding cliffs.

"At 10 years, the crests of the revetments would be visible. At 20 years, they would be entirely visible. They would introduce a man-made hazard on to the beach," he said.

The inquiry continues.