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Villagers warn of becoming 'environmental refugees' due to coastal erosion

Residents in Hemsby, Norfolk, are demanding urgent action to stop their homes from falling into the sea.

Villagers in Hemsby, Norfolk, have seen dozens of homes lost to the sea in recent months. (SWNS)
Villagers in Hemsby, Norfolk, have seen dozens of homes lost to the sea in recent months. (SWNS)

Residents in a seaside village are demanding urgent action to stop their homes from falling into the sea.

Villagers in Hemsby, Norfolk, have seen dozens of homes lost in recent months and are asking for up to £20m in funding for a coastal defence scheme.

On Monday, the Save Hemsby Coastline (SHC) campaign group is due to hand in a petition signed by 17,000 people to 10 Downing Street calling for action. The group warned over 120 homes in the area will be threatened in the next 20 years, but the village has lost 10 in the last 12 months alone.

Ian Brennan, treasurer of SHC, said: "The people of Hemsby are in danger of becoming environmental refugees unless something is done to save the village. This is a terrifying situation we find ourselves in and anyone impacted directly along the seafront knows losing your home is life-altering."

Residents learned last October that no money was being allocated, despite approved planning permission and licences for a sea berm – a granite rock defence. Costs had risen with inflation and the village does not meet the criteria for "sufficient government funding", which looks mainly at residential properties.

Volunteers clearing out the condemned home of a resident shortly before its demolition. (SWNS)
Volunteers clearing out the condemned home of a resident shortly before its demolition. (SWNS)
Ian Brennan, treasurer of Save Hemsby Coastline. (SWNS)
Ian Brennan, treasurer of Save Hemsby Coastline. (SWNS)

In its petition's cover letter, SHC argues that the coastal village and seaside resort put £80m into the Norfolk economy every year. The petition is asking the government to take urgent action to install sea defences and also to take into account tourism and hospitality.

Planning permission was granted in 2023 for the sea berm, which would be 0.8 miles long (1.3km) and cost between £15m and £20m, but SHC claims its local Conservative MP Sir Brandon Lewis has "abandoned" them in their quest to obtain funding.

Simon Measures, the chairman of the campaign group, added: "Brandon Lewis and the government have abandoned us to the North Sea with no plan B and no funding. We said to Sir Brandon's office: 'Pick a date that Mr Lewis can attend as we want him to be there given his support in our campaign.' His office picked the date for us and now we find out he's got a prior engagement.

"I think it's a big excuse – the petition is nothing to do with him as we've had to go through his parliamentary assistant to get this to Number 10. The last few years we've rarely heard from him but before that he did actively help. It's tough."

Sir Brandon Lewis MP responded to his critics: "I have supported Save Hemsby Coastline since their inception, including fundraising for them. I have actively supporting Save Hemsby Coastline in arranging the delivery of this petition to Number 10."

The edge of cliff at Hemsby near Gt Yarmouth in Norfolk. (SWNS)
The edge of cliff at Hemsby near Great Yarmouth in Norfolk. (SWNS)

Coastal erosion hotspots

Around 5.7 million properties were at risk of flooding in England across 2022 and 2023 and this number is set to increase as climate change brings increasingly intense downpours more often. A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, leading to heavier rainfalls during storms.

At the beginning of 2023, 21 "erosion hotspots" were identified across the English coast. The at-risk areas include seaside villages in Cornwall, Cumbria, Dorset, East Yorkshire, Essex, Kent, the Isle of Wight, Northumberland, Norfolk and Sussex.

The list of villages and hamlets at risk was compiled by climate action group One Home. It said 2,218 homes were in danger, with an estimated total worth of £584m.

The Environment Agency (EA) has failed to meet its target of maintaining 98% of "high consequence" flood defences – the most common type – and has had to downgrade the number of properties it aims to protect by 2027 from 336,000 to 200,000.

A lack of resources also means that new developments are being built in flood plains without the Environment Agency or Local Planning Authorities ensuring there are flood risk mitigation measures, which the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) described as "unforgivable".

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said it has invested £1.5bn of its flood defence programme and has improved protection for over 67,000 properties.

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