Britain ruled by the waves as east coast faces 'managed retreat'

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The Independent Online
As global warming raises sea levels around Britain, the first major plans to manage the British shoreline, now close to completion on the wave-battered east coast, are to concede defeat to the sea.

After hundreds of years of fending off flooding and fighting erosion, the Government's strategy for the first time will advocate working with nature, rather than against it.

It will formally recommend a "managed retreat" on some parts of the coast, by abandoning land to the waves, as leading experts warn that it is not practical or economically possible to hold back the tide.

The tidal battering has already made 29 villages disappear along the Yorkshire coast in 70 years. Parts of the Suffolk coast are eroding at up to five metres a year.

The radical shift in policy will mean a more "natural" and environmentally-friendly approach to sea defences, the abandonment of hard concrete bulwarks, the extension of beaches as natural defences and the restoration of traditional coastal habitats, such as salt marshes and mudflats.

One consequence of the new policy will be to throw into question the future of nuclear power stations, such as Sizewell, which were built along the coast but which may find themselves stuck between areas of retreat.

But advocates of the proposals say they are a step forward in the race against rising sea-levels, a problem which is particularly severe on the east coast, where the land is sinking by half a centimetre a year.

Reg Purnell, the Ministry of Agriculture's chief flooding and coastline engineer, said: "I regard it as a quantum leap forward in planning our defences.

"It is the first time we will have an integrated approach, a recognition that a decision at point A will have an impact at point B. It is a realisation we need to work with nature rather than against nature, because it is more powerful than we are."

The plans have been devised by local authorities, with the Ministry of Agriculture (Maff), the Environment Agency (formerly the National Rivers Authority) and public consultation.

They examined whether to hold the current coastal line, retreat, or do nothing along sections of the shoreline. The plans for north Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex are complete. Plans for the Wash, Lincolnshire and Holderness ought to be finished in the next few months.

Mr Purnell said they will make it easier for the public to see what may happen to their coastline and to their homes. The risks were highlighted three years ago, when the Holbeck Hall Hotel, in Scarborough, crumbled down a cliff.

Geoffrey Radley, maritime team engineer for English Nature, said that too often in the past, erecting sea defences on one stretch of coast had had an adverse effect on another stretch. The group has campaigned for five years on behalf of policies which are less harsh to the environment.

"Engineers used to be wedded to hard concrete structures and fixed defences. We've been trying to change that, although there will always be a role for hard structures like the Thames Barrier which you have to have," he said.

Professor John Pethick, of Cambridge University's coastal research unit, said there were inadequacies in the new plan: "There certainly isn't enough radical thinking, but it is a step in the right direction."

He believes that in most cases, it would be impractical to hold the existing sea defence line over a long period. "In the short or middle term you have to hold the line where cities and industries are at risk. In the long-term we ought to evacuate some areas."

Mr Purnell said Maff knew that the shoreline management plans were not a panacea.

"Plans will have to be reviewed every five years. As we get increased knowledge, we will have to feed it back in. There is an awful lot about Mother Nature that we don't know."

Coastal retreat, page 3

The sea battering a 40-mile stretch of Europe's fastest eroding coastline in Yorkshire, which it would cost millions of pounds to control. Twenty-nine villages have disappeared in the last 70 years.

Holbeck Hall Hotel in Scarborough crumbled down a cliff into the sea in 1993 after a landslide. Erosion was already a major problem and cracks in the soil caused by the long, hot summer were the last straw.

Homes have disappeared into the sea at Hemsby near Great Yarmouth where residents along the coast campaigned for years for coastal defences. The council said the cost of shoring up the cliffs could not be justified.