Exeter, Devon UK • Apr 18, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home Features Coastal Erosion in Norfolk

Coastal Erosion in Norfolk

Hannah Fraser explores the community impact of coastal erosion in the Norfolk village of Hemsby, and the future of coastal protection in the UK.
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Photo by Keith Green on Unsplash

Hannah Fraser explores the community impact of coastal erosion in the Norfolk village of Hemsby, and the future of coastal protection in the UK.

The unwavering onslaught of coastal erosion has devastated the Norfolk seaside village of Hemsby once again as five more local homes are demolished to ensure the safety of local residents and visitors.

Hemsby residents have been campaigning for government funding to protect their shoreline from the ongoing threat of coastal erosion for almost a decade. Since ‘Save Hemsby Coastline’ was founded by local landlady Lorna Bevan in 2013, the organisation has led fundraising campaigns, government bids and petitions to protect this tight-knit community’s way of life — all of which have caught the attention of national and international press but have ultimately resulted in little to no support from the government. In 2015 the government rejected a £2.3 million bid for sea defences, resulting in the village and Norfolk County Council raising £120,000 to build their own. At the end of February 2023 little seems to have changed as Keith Kyriacou, chairman of Hemsby Parish Council explained: ‘we just want the Government to help us, but we don’t seem to be getting anywhere fast.’

The demolition of houses highlights the emotional as well as financial cost of this ongoing saga of erosion, destruction and demolition that has become synonymous with life in Hemsby

The local lifeboat volunteer crew had no choice but to close the beach, a popular tourist attraction, on 25 February after 10ft (3m) of land eroded away in just two days, creating a 9ft sheer drop onto the beach which made it impossible for volunteers to launch the lifeboat into the sea. By March 17, cliff-top residents had been evacuated, five homes demolished by Great Yarmouth Borough Council to prevent any safety risks caused by falling debris onto the beach below, and one home pulled back 6.6ft (2m) from the edge. One of the home-owners described watching their house being torn down as ‘soul-destroying’, highlighting the emotional as well as financial cost of this ongoing saga of erosion, destruction and demolition that has become synonymous with life in Hemsby.

Unfortunately, coastal erosion poses a risk to more than Hemsby’s homes. The village, which was mentioned in the Domesday book, is a popular tourist and holidaymaker destination with a rich cultural heritage. Its sandy beaches and dunes, as well as seaside eateries and annual ‘Herring Festival’ are just some of the reasons why the local population increases fivefold during the summer season. Tourism accounts for 85 per cent of the village’s income, meaning that the closure of the beach and ongoing safety concerns puts the local economy and livelihoods at risk; causing significant stress and leaving the future of the village and community uncertain. 

To ensure its survival, Hemsby has been campaigning for a berm (a raised barrier) to be constructed on the beach to reinforce the coastline. Mr Brennan, spoke about plans for a 2km berm as far back as March 2019, and four years later construction of a 1.3km berm has just begun. After years of campaigning and tireless hard work, this is a true testament to the resilience and determination of the people of Hemsby. It does, however, raise questions about the efficacy and efficiency of the local and national governments’ policies and involvement in helping to tackle a problem that will not be going away anytime soon.

Climate change has only worsened the situation as already vulnerable coastlines, like in East Anglia, are now having to contend with rising sea levels, high tides and more frequent extreme weather events — all of which have sped up a process which has contributed to Britain’s beaches for millennia. Ian Brennan, chairman of Save Hemsby Coastline recalled that the community was told in 2013 that erosion on this scale would be ‘once in a lifetime’ but after the destruction caused by the Beast from the East in 2018, he realised that ‘this could potentially continue every couple of years,’ which is exactly what has happened.

Some seaside villages are in danger of being ‘decommissioned’, a decision which would set in motion the mass relocation of entire communities, creating the UK’s first ever ‘climate refugees’

The latest figures show that there are 21 communities at risk of erosion by 2100 in England.  To combat this, the UK government announced that ‘the amount invested in flood and coastal erosion schemes would be doubled in England to £5.2 billion between 2021 and 2027, providing around 2,000 flood defences.’ However, with defences for Hemsby alone being quoted at £15 million, and these defences possibly only lasting for the next 25 years, it seems likely that funding will have to continue long after 2027.

Fairbourne in Gwynedd, North Wales is fighting for its very existence as flood and erosion risks have put the seaside village in danger of being ‘decommissioned’, a decision which would set in motion the mass relocation of entire communities, making them the UK’s first ever ‘climate refugees.’ This would not only cost the government millions but would also cause unquantifiable distress to Fairbourne residents. This community is still not giving up, however, and has been involved in finding new engineering solutions to keep Fairbourne above water. For the village where no one has been able to secure a mortgage for 10 years — a stark reality for villages and towns at risk of eroding into the sea along the UK coastline— the fight is nowhere near over.

Hemsby’s recent home losses have shown the consequences for coastal communities when the UK  government does not  tackle coastal erosion quickly and effectively. The village’s recent victory is the result of years of hard work, determination and community spirit but unfortunately came too late for some. As other communities like Fairbourne also fight for their future, it is more important than ever that local and national governments listen to these coastal towns and villages so that their policies are innovative and effective enough to make sure that no one else will have to suffer the ordeal of  losing their home in the battle against coastal erosion.

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