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20 April 2022

Why British coastal communities are being abandoned to the sea

New funding for parts of the UK’s most vulnerable coastline rehashes government dilemmas on erosion defences.

By Sebastian Shehadi and Jack Jeffery

The serenity of a sea-view property depends on how well protected you are from the powers of the ocean. This is the unavoidable caveat of homeownership along north Norfolk’s gentle coastline, a region almost constantly conceding territory to the encroaching North Sea.

When Nicola Bayless’s parents moved to the Norfolk seaside village of Happisburgh in the early 2000s, they were told by solicitors they had at least 150 years before their property would be swallowed up by the incoming sea. Twenty years on their house, once safely buffered by a field and a car park, now backs onto the ocean, protected only by dilapidated 1950s revetments languishing in the lapping waves.

“We have lost a whole road nearby. I’m the next one in line,” Bayless says.

She, along with her neighbours in a terrace on Happisburgh’s beach road, know one bad winter could rob them of their properties. The village has lost 35 homes over the last 20 years to coastal erosion, with strips of the beachfront regressing as much as six metres a year.

The east coast of England has been eroding for the last 5,000 years. The soft sandstone cliff faces of Norfolk and East Yorkshire are naturally prone to erosion, having been forged from non-durable sand, silt and clay deposits left behind by the retreating North Sea glacier during the end of the last ice age, says Thomas Coulthard, professor of geology at the University of Hull.

The rate of coastal erosion in Happisburgh and other areas in East Anglia has, in recent decades, exceeded forecasts. The reasons for this, Coulthard says, are the rapid rise of sea levels and intensification of winter storms brought about by climate change. 

Last year it was the villages of Winterton-on-Sea and Hemsby, south-east of Happisburgh, that suffered most from the bad weather. Roger Rolph, from the Winterton Coastwatch service, estimated that his village conceded more than 70 meters of clifftop following a series of storms between October and November 2021.

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Nearly all Norfolk’s rural seafronts fall under the Environment Agency’s policies of “managed realignment” or “no active intervention”, meaning it effectively allows nature to take its course. Only some of Norfolk’s seaside towns (Sheringham, Cromer and Mundesley) are protected by the “hold the line” policy against the incoming North Sea. 

In March the Environment Agency launched a £36 million accelerator programme, intended to support communities in north Norfolk and East Yorkshire. The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs says the programme will include property relocation schemes, replacing community infrastructure and repurposing land. However, it will not include new sea defences, and local residents are doubtful it will do much, if anything, to save their homes. “From [my experience], they will probably waste the money on meetings and preparations,” says Bayless.

The Climate Change Committee, an independent advisory body, estimates that 1.5 million UK properties may be in areas of significant flood risk come 2080. Over the same time, a further 100,000 properties may be directly threatened by coastal erosion. Data mapping from a US-based research group, Climate Central, shows that eastern areas of England will be most at risk. Its modelling predicts that, even with moderate countermeasures, large areas of Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and Norfolk — as well as Merseyside — could be under water by 2050.  

Investing in comprehensive sea defences to mitigate the problem is possible, but hugely costly. The Netherlands, the world leader in water defence technology, reserves €1bn of its annual budget to manage its seas and rivers. Much of this goes towards maintaining state-of-the-art storm surge barriers and underwater sand dune barricades known as “sand engines”, which fortify most of the country’s northern coastline.

It is an investment the Dutch government and its taxpayers believe is proportionate to the grave threat the sea poses to their society. More than 30 per cent of the country lies below sea level, including major economic centres such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam. 

Comparatively, the economic value of the land in the UK at risk from flooding is minuscule, and so it is harder to make the case that defending entire coastlines with modern sea defences is economically or politically justifiable. For evidence of the difficulty, politicians only have to look to Sea Palling’s rock reef, brought to the north Norfolk village in the mid-1990s. It has protected a three-kilometre stretch of beach front at a cost of more than £16 million.

“If you were to spend billions of pounds on a UK high-speed rail network loads of people would use it every day,” says Coulthard. “However, if you spent billions on building more east coast sea defences, most people would not even know it’s there.”

This sentiment is doubtless correct but residents remain angry, left alone to simply prepare for the worst. Bayless says that she plans to move to a bungalow she lets out further inland for her retirement. “It’s getting too close for comfort now. I don’t want to be one of those people whose house hangs off the edge of the cliff.”

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