As an island nation, it has long been part of the national psyche to defend the coastline at all costs. But increased understanding of the reality of sea-level rise is leading the government to question those costs and look for other solutions, including managed realignment.
Managed realignment, or retreat as it is less positively known, involves breaching sea defences to allow the coastline to recede to a new line of flood banks further inland. The idea has been discussed and tentatively tried out in the UK since the early 1990s.
The first project of a significant size was at Tollesbury on Essex’s Blackwater Estuary in 1995, where the sea was let onto 21ha of land to improve flood defences and create new coastal wildlife habitat (see map, p 39).
Other schemes have followed in Norfolk, Suffolk, Lincolnshire, Devon and Scotland. The bulk of projects have focused on England’s east coast, where soft geology and sea level rise combine with the fact that the land itself is sinking into the sea by two millimetres a year. The entire island is still readjusting to having a vast weight of frozen water removed following the end of the last ice age, with the north west rising and the south east falling. Our North Sea neighbours, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark, have also trialled several schemes.
Implementation of the idea has so far been piecemeal. However, recent years have seen government policy on coastal erosion and flood risk moving away from the traditional stance of maintaining hard defences towards working with nature.
A realisation of the challenge and enormous costs of sea level rise is one of the main drivers. The 2004 Foresight Future Flooding report from the Government’s Office of Science and Technology estimated that £130 billion of homes and businesses were at risk of coastal flooding and at least £10 billion of assets at risk of coastal erosion.
The study predicted that climate change could lead to annual losses due to flooding increasing to between two and 20 times current values and coastal erosion annual losses rising by three to eight times.
Risks associated with coastal erosion and sea level rise are assessed in shoreline management plans (SMPs). These are non-statutory documents produced by seaside local councils in England and Wales, with several working together along a stretch of coastline (see box, p 38).
The Environment Department (DEFRA) wants the second round of these plans, due for completion by 2010, to categorise sea defences according to where there is a clear economic case to continue maintenance to reduce risk to people and property, or where they are needed to protect internationally designated environmental features - mainly feeding and breeding grounds for birds.
It recommends that the Agency, which was given the role of strategic overview for coastal defences from April 1 this year, should begin to withdraw maintenance from defences that do not fit these criteria as soon as possible.
DEFRA also wants local authorities to consider a much longer timescale in the SMPs than before - 100 years rather than 50. This could boost opportunities for managed realignment because savings on maintaining traditional "hard" defences like sea walls mount up over time.
"We cannot save every inch of the English coast and that’s a fact," DEFRA minister for climate change adaptation Joan Ruddock told an Agency conference on climate change adaptation in March. Realignment needs to be discussed publicly without "horror stories and total panic," she said. "We might or might not get public assent, but we’ve got to be mature about it."
A report for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) suggested that managed realignment was feasible on 330 square kilometres of coastal land, an area the size of a large UK city but equivalent to only about 0.1% of mainland Britain. This, it said, would be sufficient to ensure no net loss of intertidal habitat for almost 60 years. As existing salt marshes and mudflats are lost to the rising sea, new ones would be created as the coastline moves inland. It could also save the taxpayer £1.37 million a year in reduced flood defence maintenance costs, it estimated.
There are also significant legal drivers behind the increased use of managed realignment. The EU Water Framework Directive, which came into force in 2000, places a duty on the UK to bringbodies of inland and coastal waters into "good chemical and ecological status" by 2015. Although wetland areas are not directly included in the directive, they can contribute towards the objectives, for example, by abating pollution, helping mitigate the effects of droughts and floods and promoting groundwater recharge.
This is tied in with the birds and habitats Directives, under which alternative habitat must be provided to compensate for areas that are lost. The UK loses about 100ha of saltmarsh to sea level rise each year. DEFRA has placed a duty on the Agency to provide 800ha of new wildlife habitats over three years under its Biodiversity Action Plans. The largest portion of this, 300ha, must be intertidal saltmarshes and mudflats.
But the Agency has found it hard to find sites and has failed to hit this target for some time. Data compiled by the RSPB found that only 411ha of intertidal habitat had been created between 1995 and 2005. The net loss over the same period was put at 700ha.
Realignment in the Humber
One area where managed realignment is used extensively is the Humber Estuary, where an area of 900 square kilometres and a population of 400,000 are at risk of flooding. Many of the flood defences, hastily erected after the catastrophic 1953 floods, are now in a dilapidated state. The Agency’s strategy, on which it has just consulted, anticipates a 0.3m sea level rise in the next 50 years and up to one metre in the next 100.
If the Agency takes no action, none of the estuary’s defences will protect the area beyond a one in three-year chance of flooding by 2080. It plans to spend £50 million a year on sea defences over 25 years in the area, which should protect 99% of residents. However, it has identified 2,000 homes in areas where defences will not be economically justifiable into the long term. These are mainly stand-alone homes or a cluster in an area of flat farmland.
The Agency is planning managed realignment in six locations on the estuary. Two have been completed, at Paull Holme Strays and Alkborough. The latter scheme, at 450ha, is the largest flood storage scheme in Europe, allowing water from the estuary to run over the Alkborough Flats into a massive storage area when levels are high. It cost £10.2 million and will protect 300,000 people from flooding. This saved £18 million compared with using traditional defences to protect the same number of homes.
The new habitats the scheme created were immediately colonised by wading birds, attracting up to 10,000 lapwing and 6,000 golden plover. The Agency has installed footpaths and hides around the site. North Lincolnshire Council hopes that Alkborough will act as a major tourism draw and persuade more people to stay in the area.
The scheme is located on farmland and thus escaped major criticism from local people. However, the rash of hostile headlines which followed the leak of a study by the government’s nature conservation agency Natural England on the Norfolk coast demonstrates that managed realignment will be significantly harder to implement once people’s homes are involved. The benefits of such schemes are not easy to communicate to a public resistant to change and untrusting of the government.
This study considered how climate change could affect four areas of the UK, including the Norfolk Broads. One scenario proposed the realignment of almost 15km of coastline between Eccles and Winterton. This stretch would be flooded inland for about eight kilometres, as far as the villages of Potter Heigham and Stalham, to create a new bay. Around 600 homes, 6,500ha of agricultural land and about an eighth of the Norfolk Broads National Park, including Hinkling Broad, would be lost.
David Viner, principal specialist on climate change at Natural England, insisted that the study merely investigated different scenarios and was not intended to feed into local policy. "We’re not advocating any of these options," he said.
The Environment Agency is in fact spending £7 million on coastal protection in the area over the next two years and has committed to maintaining the Broads’ defences for at least the next 50 years.
However, the time will come when hard decisions will have to be made. Sea defences are "expensive or gratuitously expensive," Mr Viner said. And even if huge resources were available to save the villages, the reality is that they would need large concrete defences. "If we want to maintain the beauty of the area, pouring concrete everywhere doesn’t help. It would create a semi-industrial landscape. There’s also the potential of it having a knock-on effect up or down the coast - you can’t predict exactly what will happen," he said.
As for Hinkling Broad, "all the sea defences in the world" will not stop it salinating. "Climate change is going to change the landscape. We could do nothing, or we could look at long-term adaptation measures. We have to start dealing with it now. We can’t put our heads into the sand and pretend it won’t happen."
Simon Hooton, director of conservation and countryside management at the Broads Authority, which guards the National Park, said that current policy was to "hold the line". There was no clear view on what course of action would be taken in the longer term. The Broads have so far not suffered any breaches, though similar storm surges to those that caused the devastating 1953 floods have occurred 15 times since. Fortunately they have never coincided with a high spring tide.
"The critical thing is that what is expected over 20, 50 or 100 years is a very complex picture. It’s a changing science and there are elements of chaos and uncertainty over the top of that.
"There are difficult areas to explore into the future, but the fact that the debate has started is good," Mr Hooton said.
Natural England is to consider the costs and impacts on society of its climate change scenarios and report to government in the autumn. Whether the ideas are ever implemented, the outrage provoked by the notion that this part of the coast may change forever demonstrates the acute sensitivities of realignment.
Elsewhere on the east coast, local authorities have been facing similar controversy and angst from local residents for some years. North Norfolk District Council has drawn up a plan for the shoreline to the east of the village of Kelling. This highlighted that human intervention will not halt the process of erosion and there is no value in a long-term plan that has policies driven by short-term politics and will not be economically justified in the future.
The plan would see up to 80 homes and five commercial properties lost to the sea, although the council points out that if it took no action at all, nearly 200 homes and five commercial properties would be lost. Managed realignment has been suggested beyond 50 years at the villages of Mundesley, Overstrand, Caister, Hopton and Corton.
Objections from the local community mean that the authority’s politicians refused to adopt it last year. Other partners in the SMP area are split over the issues, with Great Yarmouth Borough Council making its own changes, Waveney District Council adopting the plan as it stands and the Agency as yet undecided.
North Norfolk District Council is striving to get a document that all will sign up to, but in the meantime, it has agreed to invest around £2 million on the continued maintenance of the coastal defences for key areas of the shoreline, which should extend its life for another ten years.
One major stumbling block for local politicians generally is the lack of compensation for people who stand to lose their homes. The 1949 Coast Protection Act stipulates that the government does not need to compensate people for losses due to the encroachment of the sea. Local authorities including North Norfolk District Council and East Riding of Yorkshire Council have been lobbying the government on this issue for some time.
Landowners can receive payments from agri-environment schemes that recognise the environmental benefits of the change in use of the land. Homeowners, however, are entitled to nothing. This has enraged local people, who want to be treated the same as those affected by other infrastructure schemes such as airport expansion, where compensation is given. France, Germany and the Netherlands all provide compensation at 100% of the market value to those whose homes are to be abandoned to the sea.
A spokeswoman for DEFRA refused to discuss whether the government was reviewing its position. "We recognise the impact that the changing climate has on our coastline, which is why we are developing a range of approaches to help communities adapt to the changing coastline," she said.
Spending on flooding and coastal erosion has been boosted to £800 million between 2010 and 2011 from £600 million last year. The pre-budget report also promised a £10 million annual fund for "adaptation", though details of how this will be made available have not yet been published.
Compensation is bound to be a thorny issue. Why should taxpayer’s money be used to compensate people who have bought a home on a coastline known to have been suffering from erosion for hundreds of years? The government is clear that it has never actually had any legal duty to provide protection against sea flooding and erosion - the work that is done by the agency and local councils is "permissive".
However, many homeowners will have assumed that existing defences would be retained. Local people have been campaigning for years for a policy to compensate those who bought their homes in good faith. DEFRA held a high-level meeting last month to discuss this idea with the Agency, Natural England, local planners, Ofwat, the National Farmers Union and representatives of coastal action groups.
Resolving the issue of compensation is key to bringing coastal communities around to ideas such as managed realignment. "Compensation is a major issue for us," said Mark Ashwell, senior planning officer at North Norfolk District Council. "We want to see it linked to managed realignment from the outset."
Malcolm Kerby, co-ordinator of Coastal Concern Action Group - which has been lobbying for compensation for nearly a decade - said: "We can no longer have a meaningful debate about the effects of climate change because the government is trying to get us to discuss it with a gun at our temple."
Early communication with local people is crucial to avoid opposition to schemes. The National Trust, which cares for over 1,000 kilometres of coastline, has a policy to work with natural processes and favours realignment, but has experienced objections from local people on schemes in the South West. "Understanding the science is half the story, but communicating the message is the other half. The schemes that go ahead will be the ones that have good resources behind the communications of change," said the Trust’s coast and marine officer, Phil Dyke.
Another borough having to face up to these realities is the East Riding of Yorkshire. The local authority is challenged with one of the fastest eroding coastlines in north-west Europe, with an average loss rate of 1.8 metres a year. Its first shoreline management plan a decade ago ran into considerable opposition from residents, many of whom were not happy with the idea of letting nature take its course. The plan was never adopted.
Since then, East Riding of Yorkshire Council has introduced policies to help local people whose homes and businesses cannot be defended. The "roll back" policy allows them the possibility of applying for planning permission on sites that would not normally be considered for development. The policy was introduced in 2004 but the council was unable to say how many homes or businesses had moved.
North Norfolk District Council is hoping to adopt a similar policy this summer. However, Mr Ashwell said there was no specific funding available for people who want to take advantage of the new rule. "It’s a bit difficult to see how the policy will be practically implemented. But it’s a step in the right direction," he said.
Such policies may go some way to making the bitter pill of losing a home to managed realignment easier to swallow. But without government compensation it is difficult to see how many people would be able to afford the huge cost of relocating their homes and lives.