Modern 'Canute' fights the sea – and the law – to save home

Retired engineer in High Court challenge to ban on his coastal defences

You could call him a latter-day Canute: like the legendary Danish king of England, Peter Boggis is bidding the North Sea to retreat.

But while the Viking monarch tried to stop the incoming waves to show fawning courtiers that even the power of kings had its limitations, Mr Boggis is deadly serious. Those same waves are rapidly eroding the cliffs in front of his home in Easton Bavents, near Southwold in Suffolk, and since the Second World War have claimed 14 of the 28 houses that made up the small seaside community. His own home is now only 80 metres from the cliff edge, which is getting closer every year.

Mr Boggis's response has been to organise his own sea defences – a kilometre-long embankment at the foot of the cliffs made up largely of 250,000 tonnes of building waste, brought in over several years by lorry. These are "soft" sea defences which themselves erode every year and need to be topped up – but while they are there, the erosion of the cliffs is halted.

However, Mr Boggis has fallen foul of Natural England, the Government's wildlife conservation body, which in its previous incarnation as English Nature declared the cliffs a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for their geological value – they are a rich source of fossils. That means his topping-up of the sea defences with more waste soil and building materials is regarded as a "potentially damaging operation" to the site – and is illegal, and has had to stop.

Mr Boggis, 77, has sought refuge in the law, and this week he has been at the High Court in London seeking a judicial review of the decision to make the cliffs an SSSI. He has expressed outrage with an official policy he says will force him to allow his home to be destroyed. Much of his anger is directed at the current thinking behind coastal defence in East Anglia, which maintains that the sea cannot be held back in some areas – especially with future sea-level rise due to global climate change – and prescribes a course to be followed of "managed realignment" or "managed retreat".

"The idea of 'managed retreat' I find anathema," he said "and this because of the fact that, as I have frequently argued, there is no management involved in running away from the sea. It's a cowardly policy. They are a lot of yellow dogs running away with their tails between their legs."

Mr Boggis, a retired engineer, said that in 1991 – when his home was 50m further away from the cliff edge than it is now – he informed his local authority, Waveney District Council, that if it was not prepared to protect that section of the coast, he would do it himself. He began to work on pilot schemes for soft sea defences, and when it became apparent that they would work, he eventually set in train the major construction operation – at his own expense. The force of the SSSI notification is that the defences will have to be abandoned. His challenge to it was this week being heard before Mr Justice Blair, with judgment expected to be reserved.

"The outcome of this judgment is extremely critical for the freedom of British communities to live on the coastline of this country, because we are fighting for the right to conserve our land and home," Mr Boggis said. "If I lose this case, it will prove that Natural England has been given the dictatorial power to destroy the homes of people on the coast of Britain. It will also prove, contrary to the beliefs of most normal people, that the word 'conservation' no longer means to preserve. It can now be used to insist upon the unnecessary destruction of this nation."

Natural England declined to comment while the case was in progress.

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