Time to wave goodbye?

30th August 2019


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Michael Revill

Flood managers and planners must think the unthinkable and get ready to tell people to relocate because of rising sea levels, reports Huw Morris

The Welsh coastal village of Fairbourne, Gwynedd, was established a century ago, built on land reclaimed from the sea. By the middle of the next century, the sea is likely to take that land back. If the warnings about a one-metre sea level rise are accurate, Fairbourne's residents will become the UK's first climate refugees.

The village is low-lying, bounded by a shingle beach, with many bungalows and an elderly population. Add in rising seas, storm surges and shoreline movement and it is a prime candidate for 'decommissioning' by 2045 – too expensive and difficult to defend.

“The scale of the threat may be so significant that recovery will not always be the best long-term solution“

According to the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), England has a problem, too. Areas susceptible to coastal erosion include those with soft, eroding shores in the south and east, low-lying areas in East Anglia, Lincolnshire, parts of the south-west (including the Somerset Levels) and some of the Liverpool-Blackpool coast.

The Environment Agency has consulted on a flood strategy for England, arguing that public and private spending needs to be at least £1bn annually for the next 50 years. Government spending has been £2.6bn in the past six years.

Agency chair Emma Howard Boyd has said that government policy should ensure all publicly funded infrastructure is resilient to flooding and coastal change by 2050. “We can't win a war against water by building away climate change with high flood defences,“ she added. In some places, “the scale of the threat may be so significant that recovery will not always be the best long-term solution“ and communities would need help to “move out of harm's way“. The Environment Agency thinks that at least 183km of coastline cannot be protected, and that more than 1,800km is at risk of erosion.

The scale of the problem

Flooding and coastal erosion has long been accepted as a challenge for the planning system, but nowhere near the scale now anticipated. The decanting of whole communities will be part of its response. Combine that with the CCC's bleak warning that around 1.5m properties are at risk and the UK's strategic planning has a serious headache.

The National Flood Resilience Review says as many as 530 key infrastructure sites across England alone are vulnerable to flooding. The Environment Agency also calculates that for every person who suffers flooding, around 16 more are affected by loss of services such as power, transport and telecommunications.

For its part, the CCC estimates 7,500km of road, 520km of railway line, 205,000ha of good or excellent farmland and 3,400ha of historic landfill sites are at greater risk of coastal flooding in any given year.

Coastal defences are also likely to be at risk of failure as sea levels rise. A rise of 0.5m is projected to make a further 20% of England's coastal defences vulnerable. That risk is greater if the current rates of salt marsh, sand dune and shingle beach deterioration continue.

Lack of communication

The response will require a major rethink of government planning policy, which is currently slanted towards growth and housing development. “What we haven't had from the government is clarity and oversight about how to resolve tensions between where growth occurs and where climate risks are,“ says Royal Town Planning Institute planning policy and networks manager James Harris. “There is a fragmented approach, by departments that don't speak to each other too much.“

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which oversees planning, broadly leaves development to the market. “The planning system is there to respond to these signals and enable growth where the market sees fit,“ Harris adds. Defra, the Environment Agency and the CCC consider the areas under environmental pressure, which, by implication, are not suitable for growth.

“For a long time, those two bits of government haven't talked to each other effectively, so you end up with local situations where these tensions play out – which is where planners will come in,“ Harris adds. “But we need top-down thinking and intervention by government. What is the view from government about where we can safely enable housing and economic growth, and where is it more sensible to be talking about the restoration of natural flood risk management areas and managed retreat?“

Confronting the crisis

This leaves local planning with two challenges: ensuring local plans are fit to face the crisis, and talking to communities about relocation options and the risks of staying. CCC board member Julia King says councils must have honest discussions with people.

“Getting planners and other professionals to do outreach will be very important, because it's up to people to decide what risk they are comfortable living with,“ says Harris. “Unless it's somewhere with a good strategic plan in place that covers a wider area than a local authority, you are talking about the big relocation of communities and retirement of important infrastructure, and that requires a steer from central government. Planners can help with that, but decisions need to be taken higher up the chain.“

Huw Morris is a freelance journalist.

Image credit: Getty Images


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