Current approach to protecting England’s coastal communities from flooding and erosion not fit for purpose as the climate changes

A new, long-term approach to coastal management in England is urgently needed given the expected impacts of climate change, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) says.

Climate change will almost certainly cause sea levels around the UK to increase by 1 metre or more at some point in the future, and this could happen as early as 2100 – within the lifetimes of today’s children.

In a new report, Managing the coast in a changing climate’, the Committee finds that coastal communities, infrastructure and landscapes in England are already under significant pressure from flooding and erosion. These threats will increase in the future.

As a result, some coastal communities and infrastructure are unlikely to be viable in their current form. This problem is not currently being confronted with the required urgency or openness, the Committee’s report shows.

Long-term action to adapt England’s coasts to climate change in a sustainable way is possible and could deliver multiple benefits. However, the Committee finds that plans for the coast are not realistic about the implications of climate change, and are not backed up with funding or legislation.

The report, by the CCC’s Adaptation Committee, highlights that:

  • Today, 520,000 properties in England, including 370,000 homes, are located in areas at risk of damage from coastal flooding and 8,900 properties are in areas at risk of being lost through coastal erosion. Damages from flooding and erosion are over £260million on average each year.
  • By the 2080s, up to 1.5million properties, including 1.2 million homes, may be in areas at significant level of flood risk and over 100,000 properties may be in areas at risk from coastal erosion. In addition, 1,600km of major roads, 650km of railway line, 92 railway stations and 55 historic landfill sites are at risk of coastal flooding or erosion by 2100.
  • The public are not clearly informed about the coastal erosion risk to which they are exposed or how this risk will change in future.
  • Coastal management in England is covered by a complex patchwork of legislation, and is carried out by a variety of organisations with different responsibilities. Conflicting aims mean that coastal erosion and flooding are not getting the attention they deserve. Long-term Shoreline Management Plans for coastal areas in England cannot be relied on to solve the problem as they are not legally-binding and contain unfunded proposals.
  • Implementing current policies to protect England’s coast would cost £18-30 billion depending on the rate of climate change. Existing plans to protect a third of England’s coastline are far less cost-effective than the flood and coastal erosion protection measures that are funded by the Government today.
  • Ambitious actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change could reduce the risk for 400,000-500,000 people in England by 2100. However, the risks of harmful coastal flooding and erosion cannot be eliminated altogether.

The Committee makes five recommendations to the authorities involved in managing England’s coasts:

  • The scale and implications of future coastal change should be acknowledged by those with responsibility for the coast and adequately communicated to people living on the coast.
  • Local Government and the Environment Agency must work with affected communities to develop realistic long-term strategies that are rigorously implemented in Local Plans, regulations and projects.
  • The UK Government’s approach to the management of coastal flooding and erosion risk needs to change. A new approach should be long-term, evidence-based, and include the views of coastal communities.
  • The Government should make long-term funding and investment available to protect coastal cities and infrastructure, restore more coastal habitats and help affected communities cope with inevitable changes.
  • Plans to manage and adapt specific shorelines over the coming century should be realistic and sustainable in economic, social and environmental terms.

Professor Jim Hall, the CCC Adaptation Committee’s expert on flooding and coastal erosion, said: “As the climate changes the current approach to protecting the English coastline is not fit for purpose. It’s time people woke up to the very real challenges ahead. As sea levels rise and flooding and erosion get worse, we have assessed that current plans for around 150 kilometres, or 90 miles, of the coastline are not cost-beneficial to implement. The Government and local authorities need to talk honestly with those affected about the difficult choices they face. 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.”