Britain on the slide after record rainfall

We think we live on solid ground - but this winter has already seen 500 landslips, including last week's tragedy in Wales
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The Independent Online

A record number of landslides in Britain over the winter has led MPs to demand that full geological surveys should be carried out on all major planning applications.

A record number of landslides in Britain over the winter has led MPs to demand that full geological surveys should be carried out on all major planning applications.

More than 500 landslips have occurred since October, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Months of heavy rain have weakened ancient landslides left over from the Ice Age, making them susceptible to further collapses.

The map produced in today's Independent on Sunday, based on the British Geological Survey's national landslide database, reveals the true extent of the problem and the wide areas of the country affected. It shows that it is not just Britain's coastline that is in danger of crumbling away.

The map shows the locations of landslides recorded in modern times. At least 11 people have been killed by landslips since 1970, most of them on the English south coast - an area particularly vulnerable to landslides and rock falls.

The Rhondda Valley is also prone to slides. Most infamously, at Aberfan, 116 children and 28 adults died when a slag heap collapsed on the village school.

Mam Tor, in Derbyshire, is, according to experts, the scene of the greatest landslide activity in the UK - so much so that a road that ran through the area was closed for good in 1979 after more than a century of vain attempts to keep it open. Geologists warn that roads and railways built on unstable rock are putting the lives of travellers in peril and cite a number of road closures over the Christmas period.

"People just don't realise the danger they are in," said Alan Forster, the principal engineering geologist with the British Geological Survey. "I would estimate there have been a record 500 slides in the winter period.

"Many of these will be small and in remote areas but at a conservative estimate I would say there have been 50 landslides which have affected infrastructures causing train and road closures."

Shirley Race, 58, was killed last week when her car was dragged over a cliff by a landslide at Nefyn on the North Wales coast. Her husband, Donald, was seriously injured. The couple had stopped to check the tide when their car began to slide over a 40ft cliff.

Just a few days earlier a great chunk of the coast at Charmouth in Dorset dramatically collapsed, the biggest landslip on England's vulnerable south coast in 50 years. More than 1 million tons of clay soil plunged into the sea. That was followed by the destruction of an ice cream shack and holiday chalets in the village of Beer, Devon, caused by the collapse of a cliff.

The record number of landslides has prompted MPs to call for a tightening of planning regulations. A meeting of the All Party Earth Sciences Group took up the issue at the end of last year in a discussion called "Losing Your Constituency". It will issue a confidential briefing paper later this month to be circulated among ministers.

Allan Rogers, the chairman of the group and the only professional geologist in parliament, said: "I would like to see a geological survey on every major planning application. It is my experience that the underlying geology is not fully taken into account as it should be.

"What the Government ought to do is to identify the dangerous landslide areas," said Professor Rogers, the MP for Rhondda. "This happened after the Aberfan disaster when the coal board was required to carry out surveys and investigations of coal tips to assess their stability. This needs to be done for train lines and for major roads."

The rise in landslides is due to the rain sweeping across Britain. As a slope becomes more saturated, it gets heavier, the pressure rises and and it becomes more lubricated, making it more likely to slip.

The difficulty for scientists trying to prevent land slippage is one of King Canute proportions. Britain's coastline is receding at a rate of up to four feet a year. The problem is most acute on England's south coast because the British Isles are gently tilting, with Scotland rising and England sinking.

One of the towns at greatest risk is Lyme Regis, just down the coast from Charmouth, scene of the massive landslide just before the New Year.

West Dorset district council voted last week to ask the Government for £20m for cliff drainage, new sea walls and slope strengthening. Seventy houses in the town received council letters last month warning residents that tests had detected signs of movement and warned of further landslides.

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