Hemsby, Norfolk, near to invasion by the sea

Pat Gowen, Marinet Member, reports 24th January 2017: “Hemsby, Norfolk, and all the properties from Newport to Winterton-on-Sea, are now close to invasion by the sea due to coastal erosion.

Below you can watch James Taylor’s excellent aerial film of the devastated last fronting dune and the threatened properties. This film has been made following the North Sea Surge that came on the evening of Friday 13th January 2017.

What now remains is just one third of the last defending dune, where prior to offshore aggregate dredging three such complete dunes existed fronting it. The government, under the auspices of the Shoreline Management Plan, has refused to provide protection for this stretch of coastline.

There has been an amazing loss of dune protection over the years. We used to have four large dune systems between the Winterton Great Valley and the beach with lots of bungalows atop them, and a long wide deep beach which was steadily growing until the 1950’s.

Now we have only one third left of the last remaining dune.

People pressure, the impact of the Shoreline Management Plan, the loss of sea defences, offshore aggregate dredging, sea rise and a degrading climate have all contributed and combined to bring the present sad situation about.

Pictures painted in the 1800’s show Winterton Lighthouse overlooking the beach which had fishermen’s boats drawn up on it before the dunes formed to make it into a valley. It won’t take many more years now before the valley, which is almost at sea level, reverts to a beach again — unless adequate sea defences are instituted soon.


Marinet observes: The plight of properties at Hemsby and along the adjacent Norfolk coast, and especially the people who live there, is becoming very serious. It will not take long now, if things do not change, before the sea invades them.

This situation — continual coastal erosion — has been brought about by a number of factors. Rising sea levels and North Sea storms, due in part to climate change, have certainly contributed to this. However the one factor that may have contributed the most, and this is an assertion that is contested strongly by the industry and the government which licenses it, is the extraction of sand and gravel from the offshore seabed by the aggregate industry.

Since the 1960s the aggregate industry has been dredging the seabed off Norfolk for sand and gravel. Many millions of tonnes have been removed from the seabed over the years for use in the construction industry, to the point where the construction industry in London and SE England is now nearly wholly dependent on this material. Substantial amounts have also been exported to continental Europe.

The industry and the government claim that this has had no impact on the Norfolk coastline. However prior to the 1960s the beaches and sand dunes along the coast were growing, and since the 1960s they have been shrinking. Marinet has documented this process and the arguments involved, see here.

Whether Marinet is right or wrong scarcely matters to the people who live along this coast. Far more important is the question, is the Government going to do anything to halt the erosion and thus save their properties and way of life?

The short answer is, no. The government has a policy known as “managed retreat”. This means that natural processes — erosion by the sea — is allowed to rule, and people have to retreat in the face of this. Thus the policy is for these homes to be abandoned in the long-term, unless natural processes alter.

There is little prospect of “natural processes” altering, especially given that what is termed as “natural” processes are actually climate change and aggregate dredging — all inspired by man.

In assessing the government’s policy, one has to observe that it has a great deal of retreat attached to it, but very little management.

It does not have to be like this. In Holland where over one-third of the land is below sea level, the government has acted over the years to build adequate sea defences and to continually improve them in the light of rising sea levels and climate change.

Of course, this requires commitment — both of the mind and of financial resources. The UK government has not, and seems unlikely, to bring either of these necessities to the table.

Therefore Marinet expects, and the nation must too, to be listening to news in the near future that the people in Hemsby have had to abandon their homes.

What a woeful, avoidable prospect this is.


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