Environment Agency chief warns of 'inconvenient truth' about coastal erosion

Environment Agenecy chief executive Sir James Bevan.

Environment Agency chief executive Sir James Bevan. - Credit: Nick Butcher

Coastal towns and villages may have to be moved due to rising sea levels and erosion, the head of the Environment Agency has warned.

Sir James Bevan said the “hardest of all inconvenient truths” is that “in the long term, climate change means that some of our communities – both in this country and around the world – cannot stay where they are”.

Minister Rebecca Pow speaks at Happisburgh as she announces a £36m erosion fund next to a recent cl

At the announcement of a £36m Coastal Transition Accelerator Programme recent cliff fall in Happisburgh in March. - Credit: DENISE BRADLEY

But Malcolm Kerby, from Happisburgh's Coastal Concern Action Group, said coastal erosion’s inevitable toll had been clear for decades, and a centralised government plan to help communities cope and roll back was long overdue. 

Speaking at a flood and coast conference in Telford, Sir James said: “While we can come back safely and build back better after most river flooding, there is no coming back for land that coastal erosion has taken away or which a rising sea level has put permanently or frequently under water.

Malcolm Kirby from Happisburgh's Coastal Concern Action Group on the beach. Picture: Danielle Booden

Malcolm Kerby from Happisburgh's Coastal Concern Action Group on the beach last year.   - Credit: Danielle Booden

“Which means that in some places the right answer – in economic, strategic and human terms – will have to be to move communities away from danger rather than to try and protect them from the inevitable impacts of a rising sea level.”

Sir James praised a new partnership between the agency and Defra called the Coastal Transition Accelerator Programme, which is exploring “innovative approaches to coastlines where the coastal erosion challenges are really significant”.

He said they were working with residents and local authorities in places like Happisburgh and Yorkshire’s East Riding in trialling measures including repurposing land in erosion zones for uses such as temporary car parks. 

2021: Happisburgh's cliffs are moving further westward as the sea claims more and more land.

Happisburgh's cliffs are moving further westward as the sea claims more and more land. - Credit: Mike Page

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Mr Kerby said he was pleased that it seemed as though some proposals developed years ago to manage the retreat of communities such as Happisburgh from crumbling cliff-lines were finally being taken seriously. 

Mr Kerby called for a more joined-up policy to counter the effects of climate change, co-ordinated and funded by central government. 

He said: “We’ve been banging on about this for 20 years - don’t tell me it’s finally soaking through the non-porous skin of the government. 

“We need a policy to allow coastal communities to adapt to the changing circumstances, and that needs to be adequately managed from the centre.

“We’re all contributing equally to climate change, so why single out coastal dwellers to carry the burden on our own?"

Coastal erosion at Happisburgh. Picture: Danielle Booden

Coastal erosion at Happisburgh. - Credit: Danielle Booden

Mr Kerby said a £3 million plus North Norfolk Coastal Change Pathfinder Project led by the district council 10 years ago had developed measures that could help communities on eroding coastlines cope and move back - and these seemed similar to those mentioned in the accelerator programme.

He said: “The template is already there, it’s done, and it’s transferable to any coastal community around the country.”

The pathfinder measures included creating buffers of open land, acquiring at-risk properties for demolition or for leasing back to their occupiers until they had to be demolished. 

Costal erosion minister Richard Benyon visits Happisburgh to look at the costal erosion

File photo of Malcolm Kirby showing a visiting government minister the effects of coastal erosion. - Credit: Colin Finch

Mr Kerby said: “There were 12 homes at immediate risk, and they were each offered a sum of money to move on. Nine of them took up the offer. 

"That had never been done before in the history of the UK.

“We created a buffer zone. At that time the forecast was they would last about 25 years, but here we are only 10 years on and that buffer zone has almost gone.

"It’s going at a much more rapid pace than we had predicted.”

Speaking on Radio Norfolk, Dr Sophie Day, UEA senior research associate, said it was clear the effects of climate change were accelerating.

Minister Rebecca Pow at one of the cliff erosion sites at Happisburgh as she announced a £36m erosi

Minister Rebecca Pow at one of the cliff erosion sites at Happisburgh. - Credit: DENISE BRADLEY

Dr Day, who has been working on the transition accelerator programme, said: “We do live on one of the fastest eroding coastlines in Europe.

“Our coast has always been dynamic, but what we’re facing now is an acceleration in the rate of likely change, and also a change in policy.

"Whereas before we felt that we could hold the line and that we could build defences and have viable coastlines, now we’re realising that those kind of approaches aren’t going to enable us to have safe coastlines in the long run.”

Sir James added: "We do need to start the conversation now about the options, not least because we owe it to the threatened communities themselves to help them decide what they want their long-term future to be.

"And we do need to explore the biggest possible range of options and be prepared to innovate if we are to offer communities the best set of choices."

Managing erosion: A new plan

Rebecca Pow, MP for Taunton Deane and undersecretary of state at Defra, visited Happisburgh in March to launch the Coastal Transition Accelerator Programme.

She said this would give the district council five years to develop and deliver ideas for management, which could be funded with money from the £36m pot. 

Ms Pow said: “It’s NNDC which will be the lead authority on it, they will work together with the Environment Agency and all other local partners and bodies,” she added.

“They get some initial upfront money to do modelling, project work, then they will come up with the business case, and have to make sure it’s value for money.” 

Angie Fitch-Tillett, the council’s portfolio holder for coast and ward member for Poppyland, said she was delighted that the ideas developed in the pathfinder project were back on the agenda. 
She said: “It has taken a lot of time and persuasion to bring it forward again. 

“I’m thrilled that Defra are taking it seriously. The first year is about working up the proposals and the next four years is delivering.