People sitting on the shoreline

And how can these plans help you assess the risk from climate change of living by or relocating to the coast?

Big challenges facing our coastal communities

Climate change is burdening our coastal communities with the threat of flooding and erosion. By the end of the century (in your grandchildren’s lifetime), global warming and melting polar ice sheets are expected to raise sea levels by up to 1 m across our island nation, which will radically change the nature of our much-loved seaside towns and villages. Combined with extreme weather and more frequent storm surges, the UK’s coastal communities are now on the front line of the climate crisis, and a failure to protect them can lead to loss of life and properties. So just how prepared are we to defend the longest coastline in Europe?

Coastal Flooding

Coastal flooding is when sea level rises above the land height or when coastal defences are overtopped during high tides and storms. Using Climate Central’s map, you can visualise the scale of the problem and how your local area will be affected by rising sea levels if our coasts are undefended. Low-lying, highly-populated cities such as Hull and London are thankfully protected by tidal barriers that shut their gates during intense storm surges. However, these defences have limited sea level capacity. Hull’s tidal surge barrier was dangerously close to being overtopped during a powerful storm surge in 2013. To protect 113,000 homes in the area a new £42million barrier has been built. The Thames Barrier is only expected to provide protection to England’s capital until 2070, after which significant investment will be needed to prevent catastrophic flooding. Low-lying, sparsely-populated areas such as Somerset Levels and the Fens, will be harder to defend due to the costs involved.

Coastal Erosion

Coastal erosion occurs when the shoreline is worn away by sea level rise and wave action, causing landslips and coastal retreat. Erosion is a natural process that occurs over thousands of years, forming the UK’s stunning steep-cliffed coastlines. However, climate change is quickening the pace of natural erosion, and approximately 1,800 km of the UK’s coastline is actively wearing away, with some cliffs eroding by more than 2 m per year. Some of the fastest eroding coastlines in northwest Europe are the soft-rocked cliffs of Norfolk and Yorkshire.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC; the independent body that advises the UK Government on climate risks and opportunities) report on ‘managing the coast in a changing climate’ showed that up to 1.5 million properties may be at risk of coastal flooding, and over 100,000 properties may be at risk from coastal erosion in England by the end of the century. Moreover, a sea level rise of just half a meter is estimated to make 20% of England’s coastal defences vulnerable to failure such as a sea wall washed into the sea during a big storm.

Managing coastal risks

To reduce the risk of damage from coastal change, the UK’s Coastal Groups - made up of the Environment Agency (EA), local authorities and key stakeholders - developed 22 Shoreline Management Plans (SMPs) covering the entire coastline of England and Wales. Each includes an assessment of coastal risks and outlines whether each strip of coastline should be defended or left alone for nature to take its course. If the cost of protecting the coastline outweighs the overall benefits, the land may be left to naturally retreat.

Under the SMPs, a designation is assigned to each stretch of coastline for the short (2005–2025), medium (2026–2055) and long term (2056–2100) depending on the most sustainable and cost-effective option. These policies are:

  1. Hold the Line: (protect) maintaining or upgrading the level of protection provided by sea defences
  2. Managed Realignment: (retreat) moving or allowing the shoreline to retreat or advance in a managed way, and creating tidal habitats where appropriate
  3. No Active Intervention: (do nothing/abandon) a decision not to invest in providing or maintaining sea defences. This requires engagement and adaptation where it affects communities

You can view the SMP policies for each coastline in England and Wales using the EA’s National Coastal Erosion Risk Map (NCERM). The full SMP documents can be downloaded from the UK government website. However, these documents are highly technical and often hundreds of pages long. Some of the Coastal Groups have produced summaries for certain coastal stretches so it’s easier to see the impact on homes, communities and infrastructure for these particular areas:

North East Coastal Group:

East Anglia Coastal Group:

Southern Coastal Group:

South West Coastal Group:

The cost of coastal management under a changing climate

The SMPs are technical documents that outline the most appropriate strategies for the UK’s coastlines. They provide a route map for local authorities to manage future development on the coast, but they are not a legal planning obligation so many developments continue in unsuitable areas. The plans help the government gauge the cost of future coastal defence work.

However, the SMPs are non-statutory, and their implementation depends on the availability of funding. The CCC estimates that delivering all SMPs across all time frames will cost the UK £18–£30 billion depending on the rate of climate change. The policies protecting larger cities with important infrastructure are likely to attract government funding, while smaller coastal communities are most at risk. Even if all SMPs were to be delivered, which is very unlikely, the NCERM predicts that around 2000 properties would still be at risk from erosion by 2060.

Living on the edge

The residents of the coastal town of Fairbourne in North Wales are considered the UK’s first climate refugees. As part of its SMP, Gwynedd Council decided it can no longer afford to maintain the seawall protecting the low-lying village from sea level rise and will begin to relocate residents within 26 years. What’s worse is that the residents are not expected to receive any compensation for the loss of their homes. House prices fell by 40% when the policy of ‘no active intervention’ was announced. Despite this, the village has seen a recent surge of people looking to buy property there, driven mainly by holiday buyers, recent retirees, and those looking for second homes. As a result house prices have increased by 35% in the last year but many struggle to sell their home.

Similarly, the village of Happisburgh in Norfolk is expected to lose almost 100m of its coastline in just 20 years. The villagers have witnessed the loss of at least 30 homes to erosion in the last few decades, and the SMP policy has changed from ‘hold the line’ to ‘managed realignment’. As a result, homeowners who purchased their properties 30 years ago - under the assumption that their properties would be defended - are now being informed that their houses are at risk of falling into the sea.

Relocating to the seaside – a dream or nightmare

Stories like this could make you think twice before choosing to purchase properties on the coast. However, since Covid, many people have rushed to buy properties in coastal communities. Home owners that lose their properties to coastal retreat typically receive no compensation for the damages incurred. For example, a storm that eroded six meters of sand in just two days completely destroyed a clifftop house in Hemsby, Norfolk. Insurers refused to pay out, claiming that the damages were “inevitable” given the coastline’s history of erosion.

Engaging our communities

James Bevan Chief Executive of the EA, Caroline Douglas EA, Rebecca Pow MP
James Bevan Chief Executive of the EA, Caroline Douglas EA, Rebecca Pow MP

These scenarios highlight the lack of public awareness of coastal risks and shoreline strategies, despite efforts to engage coastal communities. In particular, a recent government survey found that only a third of people vulnerable to coastal erosion and flooding believe that their properties are at risk.

Other factors add to the vulnerability of the UK’s coastline communities, such as a higher-than-average elderly population, variability in seasonal income, and low employment rates. Improving the communication of climate change risks to coastal communities must be a priority.

Fortunately, a main objective of the government’s National Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy is to ensure that people will receive the information and support they need to prepare and respond to coastal change by 2030. This includes the continued investment towards online tools so that coastal-risk information reaches a wider audience.

For example, you can assess the flooding and erosion risks in your area using the EA’s Flood Map for Planning and the NCERM, both of which are being updated to include recent climate change predictions. However, it is important to note that the data are estimates and intended for guidance only; they cannot provide the absolute risk for individual properties.

Thanks to a recent collaboration between the EA and Google, live flood warnings now appear on Google Maps just seconds after the warnings are issued. You can also sign up for flood alerts by registering on the government’s website. The EA is also working with mobile phone companies to test whether flood warnings can be sent to people in high-risk areas without the need for registration.

An SMP refresh project has also been underway since 2019; this aims to review SMPs and ensure each remains up to date, reliable, and properly resourced. The project is also commissioning an online digital platform, ‘SMP Explorer’, to be released in 2024, which will host all of the shoreline plans in one place so that the information is easily accessible to the public.

Sea Defences

Despite the threats to the coast, the EA’s £2.6 billion investment towards 700 flood defence projects has successfully protected 300,000 homes from flooding and erosion since 2015. Further, the government has doubled its flooding investment to £5.2 billion to fund 2000 new flood defence schemes and better protect a further 360,000 homes over the next six years.

Coastal adaptation involves accepting that not all UK coastlines can be saved so homes will be lost and communities will need to be moved. As the Chief Executive of the EA James Bevan said at Flood and Coast Conference:

"in the long term, climate change means that some of our communities cannot stay where they are. That is because there is no coming back for land that coastal erosion has taken away or which a rising sea level has put permanently or frequently under water. Which means that in some places the right answer - in economic, strategic and human terms - will have to be to move communities away from danger rather than to try and protect them from the inevitable impacts of a rising sea level."

Sea level rise continues to accelerate and controlling the rate of this depends on significantly reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. To live more sustainably and reduce your environmental footprint check out One Home’s top ten tips.

We cannot hold back the rising sea but with adequate planning and improved public engagement, we can ensure that coastal communities are sufficiently informed to make timely decisions on their homes and livelihoods.

 

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