Living on the Edge: Coastal homeowners are treated like outcasts

As I stand on the edge of the garden of a clifftop house on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, I’m warned to back off. The cliff, like much on the UK coast, is eroding and in danger of collapsing.

The house belongs to 72-year-old Malcolm Newell. He warns me that the ground under my feet could give way at any moment. He’s not exaggerating.

Two years ago, his neighbor had seen her family’s £195,000 home destroyed in a landslide. An attached buttock and swimming pool is now all that remains of this impressive five bedroom property.

What happens on the Isle of Sheppey offers a glimpse into the future.

Danger: The house next door to Malcolm Newell’s was destroyed in a landslide two years ago

Around 200,000 coastal properties across the country are at risk of land erosion over the next 30 years, according to research from the Tyndall Center at the University of East Anglia. Victims of sea level rise – a direct result of climate change.

Just last month, coastal erosion in Suffolk forced the couple to abandon their £2m clifftop holiday home in the popular village of Thorpeness after their back garden was bulldozed – rendering it worthless.

In August, 4,000 tons of stone fell into the sea on a 1,000-foot stretch of coast near Sidmouth in Devon.

Retired lumberjack Malcolm fears his £150,000 three-bedroom house and 40ft garden could collapse into the sea at any time. Yet he is not afraid – just angry.

He is angry that the local council has so far refused to fund a £1m sea defensive barrier, condemning his and 47 other homes in the village of Eastchurch to end up at sea.

“We are treated like untouchables,” he says. “When my neighbor’s house collapsed, some of my employers came and asked me to leave because it was too dangerous to stay.”

I’m going anywhere. If the house slides down the cliff, I’ll live out my days at the beach

Kent homeowner Malcolm Newell

He adds: ‘They said I would pay £6,000 to demolish my house. When I said no, they ordered me out. I refused – he would have left me homeless without a penny.

I will not go anywhere. If the house slides down the cliff, I’ll live out my days at the beach.

Malcolm moved to Eastchurch in 2001 as a result of his wife’s failing health. She died five years ago, leaving six children, 14 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren – many of whom still love to come to the village and enjoy the sea.

Both Swale Borough Council and the Environment Agency have agreed on an “active hands-off” stance when it comes to coastal defences. Locals believe that the concrete barrier for the 700-foot stretch of front needed to save the community would cost no more than £1 million.

But the council does not agree. It claims that what is needed is spending £24m to protect homes, including 1,000 caravans, on a four-mile stretch of coastline.

Sadly, the wooden ‘groynes’ installed in Victorian times to stop coastal drift erosion have been destroyed or stolen – and have not been replaced.

Coastal homes are “abandoned” by lenders and insurance companies

“There is no going back for the land that coastal erosion has taken,” says James Bevan, chief executive of the Environment Agency.

The government’s £5.2bn scheme announced two years ago to help communities over the next decade has so far earmarked just £140m to provide ‘benefits for families at risk of coastal erosion’ – with most of the rest going inland for inland flood defences.

With large stretches of coastline in Norfolk, Suffolk, the Yorkshire East Riding, parts of Wales, Devon and other areas of Kent under threat, money to support coastal communities will be spread thinly.

Coastal real estate is not only being abandoned by local authorities, but by mortgage lenders and insurance companies.

Landslide: A dramatic slide in Sidmouth, Devon, earlier this year sent 4,000 tonnes of stone falling into the sea

Landslide: A dramatic slide in Sidmouth, Devon, earlier this year sent 4,000 tonnes of stone falling into the sea

Malcolm is one of thousands of homeowners unable to obtain a mortgage on a beachfront property and struggles every year to obtain buildings insurance. Flood victims whose homes and businesses were destroyed in the storms through the government-supported “Flood Re” scheme.

This is designed to help half a million people living in flood risk areas to get insurance coverage. The £180m a year service is funded by the insurance industry and allows homeowners to claim against damage or destruction caused by floods – but it does not include coastal erosion.

‘If you have a property where there is a risk of storm damage, you can still get cover – but you won’t be covered against coastal erosion,’ says Malcolm Tarling, spokesperson for the Association of British Insurers.

People looking to buy a home by the sea need to understand this.

The stretch of shoreline threatening Malcolm Newell’s home was not expected to erode at such a rapid rate until a giant 20-foot-wide hole suddenly appeared in May 2020. Locals believe that bursting water pipes may have made the problem worse in the clay-rich coastal soil. The local council ordered the residents not to fill in the hole.

Malcolm’s experience provides a stark warning to those considering a home near the coast – the vagaries of the sea are unpredictable and can be financially devastating.

Think carefully before buying a house by the sea

  • The survey will highlight any possible problems with the property before you buy it. You might pay anything from £500 for a basic condition report, to £750 for a home buyers survey, and up to £1,500 for a full building survey. Those considering coastal property should opt for the latter because it involves an in-depth background study.
  • If you are not a cash buyer, be aware that mortgage providers are wary about lending coastal real estate. Home insurance providers are also not as keen because the risks to the property are higher.
  • Do not allow the heart to rule the head. If in doubt, get opinions from high-ranking friends — and from someone involved in the real estate or construction industries. Make multiple visits to find reasons not to buy.
  • You can get a bargain when it comes to buying a house near the sea, but you are effectively playing roulette. For example, the owner of the £195,000 five-bedroom family home that fell into the sea two years ago bought it for cash two years ago. Coastal erosion was not expected to be a problem for 40 years.

Best mortgages

Some of the links in this article may be affiliate links. If you click on it, we may earn a small commission. This helps us fund This Is Money, and keep it free to use. We do not write articles to promote products. We do not allow any commercial relationship to influence our editorial independence.