Protections for England’s coastal communities ‘not fit for purpose’ as sea levels rise, say government climate advisers

'We want to get things right now in order to make it easier to manage climate change in the future'

Josh Gabbatiss
Science Correspondent
Friday 26 October 2018 00:17 BST
Properties in Hemsby, Norfolk, have fallen into the sea in recent years due to coastal erosion
Properties in Hemsby, Norfolk, have fallen into the sea in recent years due to coastal erosion (Getty)

A new strategy to resist sea level rise is urgently needed as regular floods and erosion batter the English coast, according to government climate advisers.

Communities in vulnerable areas such as north Norfolk and south Devon have already seen these devastating events play out, with homes left inundated with water and cliff-top buildings sent crashing into the waves.

Experts have warned that this will only get worse as the effects of climate change play out across the country in coming decades, and many coastal areas will be left uninhabitable.

Around 1.2 million homes will be at significant risk of flooding and 100,000 properties will face coastal erosion by the 2080s, according to a new report from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC).

There will also be dozens of major roads, train stations and landfill sites left exposed to the sea, triggering significant disruptions to local infrastructure.

Climate change is expected to cause sea levels around the UK to rise by at least 1 metre by around 2100, and the advisers warned the government that the time to act is now.

“The end of this century isn’t all that far away, it’s in the lifetime of children who are alive today,” said Professor Jim Hall, the CCC adaptation committee’s expert on flooding and coastal erosion.

“We want to get things right now in order to make it easier to manage climate change in the future.”

England’s coastlines have always been risky places to live. In 2013 Storm Xaver struck and caused over £1.6bn of damage, and earlier this year parts of the Norfolk coastline vanished so quickly that several homes in the town of Hemsby collapsed into the sea.

Though steps have been taken to tackle such events, the government’s current “shoreline management plans” were dismissed by the CCC as insufficient, as they are neither legally binding or properly funded.

A proper strategy to prepare for the changes to come would likely cost between £18-30bn, but this would depend on the rate of climate change.

Many of the country’s coastal defences are expected to fail in the near future, and there is an urgent need to strengthen the resilience of seaside towns and restore habitats that can act as buffers against the rising tides.

While sustainable adaptation strategies are possible, the CCC warned that maintaining the status quo by building ever higher flood defences would be far too expensive for up to 185km (115 miles) of England’s coastline. As a result, some smaller communities may have to be abandoned.

Crucially, the report found that not enough had been done to communicate these issues, and Professor Hall said the dangers of coastal living should be acknowledged by authorities and discussed with people – especially those considering moving to these areas.

“They are buying properties without a full understanding of the risk,” he said.

The report concluded that money must be made available for a campaign to broadcast these risks to people, as well as large-scale restoration projects for beaches, dunes and salt marshes that provide natural protection for coastlines.

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“As the climate changes the current approach to protecting the English coastline is not fit for purpose,” said Professor Hall.

“Climate change is not going away: action is needed now to improve the way England’s coasts are managed today and in the future, to reduce the polluting emissions which cause climate change, and to prepare seaside communities for the realities of a warming world.”

Responding to the report, a government spokesperson said: “The environment secretary has been very clear – we will take the action required to ensure our country is resilient and prepared for the challenges the changing climate brings.

“The government has already committed £1.2bn of investment in coastal erosion and sea flooding projects over the next six years to better protect 170,000 homes.

“We welcome the committee’s report which will inform our work to tackle increasing flood and coastal erosion risks, ahead of the publication of our government policy statement on flooding and coastal erosion next year.”

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