National Trust abandons the battle against sea's power

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The Independent Online

For more than a century, it has been a by-word for the preservation of Britain's heritage into perpetuity. But now the National Trust has admitted large swaths of its coastal beauty spots must be surrendered to the sea.

For more than a century, it has been a by-word for the preservation of Britain's heritage into perpetuity. But now the National Trust has admitted large swaths of its coastal beauty spots must be surrendered to the sea.

The Trust, Britain's largest private landowner maintaining more than 700 miles of coastline, has accepted that over the next century, global warming will cause conservation areas several hundred metres inland to be inundated because of rising sea levels.

Managers of the organisation, which has 3.4 million members and an annual income of £30m, warned that spending on coastal defences was largely counter-productive and "human hardship" from allowing nature to take its course cannot be avoided.

Under its new policy of "managed retreat", tracts of Trust land and buildings at an estimated 50 sites, ranging from beach huts in Dorset to coastguard cottages, in Sussex, will be covered by the tides reshaping the British coast.

A study this spring will catalogue the extent of coastal erosion on beaches and cliffs on the 18 per cent of the coastline of England, Wales and Northern Ireland owned by the charity.

Tony Burton, the director of policy and strategy, said: "We can already demonstrate the effects of climate change. It is not some far-off possibility; the effects are happening today somewhere near you.

"The debate is about managing that change. In some cases we will reinforce and maintain sea defences but in others we must accept tens and in some case hundreds of metres of coastline will disappear into the sea."

The decision puts the Trust, which owns some 300 sites from country estates to coastal mud flats, at the forefront of those arguing that efforts to hold back the sea with concrete defences should be used sparingly and nature should be allowed to take its course. A 60-strong body of experts warned last year that even without changing planning laws and creating flood zones in towns and cities, some four million people are already at risk of inundation in Britain. Sea levels are expected to rise by at least one metre by 2080 and flooding will cost the country £27bn a year by the end of the century.

The Government has already indicated its acceptance that some sea defences can no longer be maintained and stated that up to £250m of property will be lost by 2090.

But although the Trust admits to "significant overlaps" between its stance and Whitehall thinking, it is critical of what it sees as a lack of co-ordinated action to counteract the effects of coastal erosion.

A spokesman said: "There are 26 separate agencies in charge of maintaining and defending the coastline. It is a fragmented administration and there is a lack of integration." The 110-year-old Trust has vastly increased its coastal holdings in the past 40 years.

Through its Neptune campaign, it has raised £45m to buy some 52,000 hectares of coastline, including 63 per cent of the coast of Devon and Cornwall. But senior Trust staff warned that measures to accommodate rising sea levels will have knock-on effects for coastal communities.

Fiona Reynolds, the charity's director general, said: "We need to recognise that there is a natural process we cannot stop. These are challenging messages and they will involve human hardship."

Sources indicated that parts of up to 50 Trust sites could eventually be lost to the waves, including harbour-front cottages on Brownsea Island at Poole Harbour.

The Trust is already resisting efforts to stop eight former coastguard cottagesvanishing over a cliff at Birling Gap in East Sussex. The Trust owns four of the properties and residents lost a legal attempt to force the Trust to build a sea wall to shore up the 128-year-old houses.


East Head, Chichester Harbour, West Sussex

This dune connecting a large sandbank with the mainland at the entrance to Chichester harbour is regularly breached by the sea. Some conservationists believe the breach should be left to allow the coast to reshape itself but others say it will silt up deep-water channels used by pleasure craft.

Studland Beach, near Swanage, Dorset

This protected headland on the Isle of Purbeck, home to Britain's largest naturist beach, is at serious risk from erosion by storms and tides. During each of the past five years, three metres of land has been lost. But the rate accelerated late last year when 3.5 metres of shingle disappeared in three weeks.

West Wight Cliffs, Isle of Wight These chalk cliffs near the Needles have been suffering from rock slips for decades. Elsewhere on the island, limestone revetments have been built to prevent landslides which threaten housing. But it is likely nature will take its course in this nature reserve.