Meet Malcolm, the man defending his town from the rising seas

As the seas rise, the government is doing little to help those whose homes are being engulfed beneath the waves.

Guy Shrubsole
4 December 2014

openDemocracy has teamed up with Friends of the Earth to commission a series, 'Tales from Britain's climate change front line', about how people in the UK are already experiencing the impacts of global warming - and what can be done about it.


"There's where we lost a whole street, 26 homes", says Malcolm, gesturing towards the sea. I look: there's nothing there now save a precipitous, crumbling cliff, tumbling down towards the crashing waves thirty feet below. We peer over the cliff edge, gingerly.

 Malcolm Kerby is not your typical campaigner. Born in Blackheath, his South London accent still with him, he moved here to Happisburgh in North Norfolk many years ago. He drove lorries, ran an insulation business, and used to sell fast cars to rich businessmen. Now in his seventies, he only recently sold his motorbike. And for the past fifteen years, he has campaigned tirelessly to protect his town being engulfed by the sea.

Happisburgh is a small coastal town, situated on a stretch of coastline that is eroding at an alarming rate. This part of the coast would erode naturally anyway - its shore is soft alluvial soils rather than hard rock - but after the Great Flood of 1953 it was fortified with defences that slowed the depredations of the waves. Yet in the past twenty years, two things have changed that. First, rising sea levels and increased storminess in the North Sea have accelerated the pace of erosion. And second, the defences have been allowed to collapse - resulting in the sea claiming hundreds of metres of shore, including 35 homes.

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As we walk along the eroding cliffs, staring down at Happisburgh's wrecked defences languishing in the sea, Malcolm tells us about his campaigns. His anecdotes are countless and hilarious: from the battles he's waged with Ministers ('that one was totally useless'; 'Owen Paterson? He was a complete walking disaster'), to his frustrations with pettifogging bureaucracy and his delight at once pretending to know a Lord to prove a point about politicians.

Or like when he stood up at the end of a Parliamentary event and challenged the then Environment Minister to tell him how much funding was being given to defend coastal areas. The Minister had no idea. So Malcolm told him, and when his advisers said no, that number was far too low, he offered to make a public and grovelling apology once they checked their figures. A few days later, he received a letter from Defra. It began: "You are right..."

Malcolm's frustrations - and the plight of places like Happisburgh - stem from an extraordinary and obscure law: the Coast Protection Act 1949. This law made the provision of flood defences entirely voluntary. As a result, the government has always refused to pay any compensation to households who lose their homes to the sea.

That's the raw deal that coastal communities like Happisburgh face: not only might you lose your home and life savings to the ocean (having not been able to get insurance for it in the first place), you stand no chance of recompense afterwards either. To add insult to injury, in the mid-2000s, the government proposed something even worse. In 2004 new plans for managing the North Norfolk coast were leaked, and they contained a bombshell. They proposed that continuing to defend the coast against rising seas was untenable in the long run, and that instead the government should abandon a huge stretch of the Norfolk coast. Understandably, this sparked uproar.

Malcolm and the community group he helped found, Coastal Concern Action Group, campaigned vociferously against the plan - and after organising packed public meetings, generating national coverage and embarrassing the then Labour government, the plans were dropped.

Malcolm isn't against abandoning sections of coast to rising seas (or 'managed realignment' as it is rather euphemistically called); it's how it's managed that he takes issue with. People need time to adapt to climate change, and adaptation needs to be done fairly. So it understandably irks when communities are expected to cope with an encroaching sea, but no policy of resettlement from the government. And it grates when some parts of the coast - such as the Bacton gas terminal just north of Happisburgh or Sea Palling just south - get lavished with defences, when Happisburgh residents get none.

What CCAG and Malcolm are proposing isn't pouring more concrete into the sea, but rather a socially just plan for adaptation. They want to see a gradual rollback of homes from the crumbling seafront, with homeowners given support to move to new homes further inland.

Friends of the Earth agrees. We think the government should compensate households who lose their homes to rising seas. It's a matter of social justice, and a vital piece in the jigsaw if we're to adapt the UK properly to climate change. After all, failing to prevent climate change has a huge cost, and it's one that should be borne by the government, not just lumped onto the most vulnerable. And if the politicians balk at the cost of compensation, they'd better knuckle down to preventing climate change from making the problem even bigger. 

You can read more about Friends of the Earth's work on flooding and climate change here.

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