Over £1billion worth of property will be allowed to fall into the sea, the Environment Agency has decided, with no compensation paid to the properties owners as it has been deemed too expensive to protect them. However, some councils have been refusing owners planning permission to build coastal defences at their own expense, thanks to government policy which prioritises the environment over property owners rights.
According to an unpublished Environment Agency (EA) document seen by the Guardian, 800 properties, both residential and non-residential, will be lost to coastal erosion in the next 20 years alone. By 2115, that figure is expected to rise to over 7,000 properties under current plans.
Current public documents from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) which merely state that “there are more than 200 homes at risk of complete loss to coastal erosion in the next 20 years,” but the EA’s predictions are more specific. They say that 295 homes are likely to be lost, and put that worst case scenario at 430 homes lost.
In response to an enquiry from the Friends of the Earth, who are demanding compensation for those who lose their homes to coastal erosion, the EA and DEFRA have said “It is not feasible or affordable to protect every household now or in the long term, especially given the likely consequences of sea level rise.
“There is no statutory recourse to compensation for property lost or damaged due to coastal change,” they added.
Friends of the Earth’s Guy Shrubsole has said: “Compensating coastal communities affected by climate change is simply a matter of social justice. At the moment, the government is dumping these costs on individual households and vulnerable communities.”
In December 2013, the biggest tidal surge since 1953 swept along the east coast from Yorkshire to Kent, flooding 1,400 homes along the east coast and pulling many of them into the sea. Some of the homes had been located 50 ft away from the cliff edge until it was torn away from under them.
In the aftermath, a battle raged over whether central government would contribute to the clean-up costs. Norman Lamb, the Member of Parliament for North Norfolk MP said: “My interest is in ensuring all the clean-up costs for North Norfolk are recovered and, if there are infrastructure costs which need to be paid for, if they can be recovered as well. But there is no obvious scheme to help those people in Walcott whose homes have been so badly damaged. I am exploring that, but I do not know what the answer is.”
Coastal erosion expert Professor Rob Duck, at Dundee University, said: “It is a very difficult issue, but we can’t defend everything at all costs. There are just not the resources to do it and keep on doing it. But it is not just about money, often people have lived in places for generations and there is a lot of history and memories.”
However, it may not be about the money for other reasons. A 2013 progress report by the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Committee on Climate Change which is chaired by Rt. Hon John Gummer, Lord Deben, states: “Setting back the defences and restoring coastal habitats, known as ‘managed realignment’, is an important adaptation to rising sea levels. Managed realignment gives coastal habitats space to migrate inland as sea levels rise. Maintenance costs of realigned defences are typically lower than those of the original defences. Realigned defences often have lower construction costs when compared to refurbishing the original defences to cope with higher sea levels.”
“Long-term plans for the coastal zone in England have a goal to realign some 10 percent of the coastline by 2030, rising to nearly 15 percent by 2060. The implementation of these plans, developed by local authorities in partnership with the Environment Agency and community groups, would involve breaching or removing some flood and erosion defences.”
Further into the document, it addresses cliff erosion specifically, saying “Allowing previously defended cliffs to erode naturally in order to restore sediment movement can also be an appropriate adaptation option when benefits downdrift more than outweigh the localised losses to cliffs. … Removing the defences on these cliffs would lead to economic losses on the cliffed coastline, but these losses would be more than outweighed by benefits in flood-prone areas downdrift.”
The consequence is that, even where property owners are willing to finance coastal protection schemes themselves, they are unable to do so. In one example, a group of homeowners living between Calshot and Lymington on the Hampshire Coast, where 70 properties are at risk of being washed into the sea, found that, thanks to the North Solent Shoreline Management Plan, they were prevented from taking action to protect their own homes.
The plan, drawn up by 15 local authorities along the Hampshire and West Sussex coastline designated stretches of the shore as either “Hold the Line”, meaning that action would be taken by the councils to protect the coast, “No Intervention”, or “Managed Retreat”, as dictated by government policy. Under the latter two designations councils must refuse planning permission for any proposal to build coastal defences.
The residents wanted their stretch of coastland to be redesignated as “Hold the Line”, so they formed the North Solent Coastal Group to petition their local council to amend the document. Ralph Montagu, chairman of the group, said: “The area needs to be treated as a single unit because the elements do not recognise man-made boundaries. Erosion or a breach in a stretch abandoned under the plan could have disastrous consequences for neighbouring landowners trying to ‘hold the line’.”
In another example, the owners of 1,300 properties surrounding Pagham Harbour in West Sussex were refused permission to dig a trench in the harbour to direct flood water away from their homes, because the building work may disturb a colony of 20 two millimetre-long Defolin’s lagoon snails, which may or may not be in the harbour.
Andrew Gilham, flood and coastal risk manager at the Environment Agency, said: “The fundamental reason we would not support the cutting of a channel is that we do not believe it is necessary. We don’t want to start work at great public cost which may be deemed unnecessary in the very near future because nature has dealt with the problem on its own.
“We are proposing, through an adaptive management plan, to work very closely with the community to monitor how the harbour evolves naturally, and will have plans in place to take action if and when necessary.”