Terence Blacker: The whiff of defeatism in the face of an old enemy

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Imagine for a moment that a government body has delivered a report which presents, as one of four policy options, the prospect of your house being destroyed as well as your local shops, pub, village and landscape. It could happen within the next decade or so, the experts tell you, or in a century's time. On the other hand, the disaster could take place within a year. And, no, under present legislation, there would be no compensation.

This is the bewildering, mind-boggling situation in which those who live on the north-east coast of Norfolk now find themselves. The sea is rising, the coast continues to erode. At a recent meeting between Natural England, the Environment Agency, Norfolk County Council and the Norfolk Broad Authority, there was general agreement that the future for those living on the seaward side of the Broads, the outlook was grim.

"I think the Norfolk Broads will go. They will definitely salinate," Lady Young, the head of the Environment Agency said after the meeting. In its report, Natural England, the national body responsible for conservation and biodiversity, agreed. Some 25 square miles of land, including the villages of Eccles, Sea Palling, Waxham, Horsey, Hickling and Potter Heigham could be lost over the next century.

One solution to the problem, it suggested, was a policy of managed retreat. Before the sea advanced too far, humanity would retreat inland, ceding that corner of Norfolk to the waves and building a new set of sea defences inland. The sea would eventually win anyway, the argument goes; by relocating houses and businesses in advance of any floods, lives and money will be saved.

Of course, for all the talk of climate change, the problem is not new. For centuries, East Anglia has been whittled away by the elements. Hickling, for example, has been flooded many times throughout history. Down the coast, Dunwich was one of the great European ports of the Middle Ages, with over 50 churches and a large merchant fleet. Much of the city's wealth was spent on fortifications against the sea, but all in vain. One great storm, on New Year's Eve in 1285, destroyed part of the town.

Decades of rebuilding followed but, almost 50 years later, an even greater tempest struck. Over the subsequent centuries, the city gradually slipped into the sea. As WG Sebald wrote in The Rings of Saturn, the people of Dunwich, "abandoned their hopeless struggle, turned their backs on the sea, and, whenever their declining means allowed it, built to the westward in a protracted flight that went on for generations".

At least they resisted. In miserable contrast, there has been something fatalistic, almost bored, in the way that today's Government, whose means are not declining, have addressed what could be a catastrophe for hundreds of families.

A survey was commissioned. A meeting (which did not, incidentally, include representatives of the villages most affected) was held. The possibility of abandoning 25 square miles of inhabited land was leaked out in that tentative, can-we-get-away-with-this? way that the Government favours. The Environment Secretary Hilary Benn invoked climate change, then generously conceded that it would be difficult for those whose homes would be flooded. But in the end, he said, it was a question of how much the country as a whole was prepared to pay for sea defences.

There is a Climate Change Bill before parliament and Lady Young sensibly suggested that adaptation plans for sea flooding should be included in the legislation. The idea was far too daring for the Government. A year after the Bill is passed, we are told that yet another report will be commissioned, "indicating what local authorities could do about adaptation". Then there is the small matter of compensation. Under current law, dating back to 1949, there is no legal recompense for anyone whose house is lost to the sea. The Climate Change minister Joan Ruddock was asked whether, in view of the dire predictions, that legislation would be reviewed. You can guess the reply.

East Anglians are tough but surely, at a time when the gravity of coastal erosion is widely accepted, they could reasonably expect a little more resolve and money from even this most urban of governments. Instead, there is a whiff of equivocation and defeatism in the air.

Those living in one of the most beautiful parts of the country deserve more than mumbled excuses – particularly, perhaps, from a man of privilege like Hilary Benn whose own ancestral home on the Essex coast happens to be solidly protected from the sea. "The east stands for lost causes," Sebald wrote, thinking of Dunwich. The Government, it seems, is of the same view.

terblacker@aol.com

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