Climate change causing Britain to shrink with some coastal communities condemned to be swallowed by the sea

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Some British coastal communities will "inevitably" be forced from their homes as climate change eats away at their shores, the head of England's Environment Agency (EA) will warn today.

EA chief executive Sir James Bevan is expected to say rising sea levels - fuelled by warmer oceans and melting ice - will mean "some of our communities - both in this country and around the world - cannot stay where they are".

"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," Sir James will say at a speech at the Flood and Coast Conference in Telford.

He will argue that although the aim should be to keep communities where they are, in some places it will make economic and humane sense to move them from danger rather than attempt to protect them from "the growing threat of flooding from rivers, the sea, and surface water as well as coastal erosion".

Sir James's acknowledgement of a planned retreat was welcomed by climate scientists who warn that sea levels will continue creeping up - in some areas beyond our ability to adapt.

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Professor Robert Nicholls, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research called it a "timely official recognition of a major problem that has been predictable for some time but easy to ignore as it only slowly becomes apparent".

Professor Ilan Kelman, Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, said leaving a community is "devastating" but "nothing new for England and Wales".

Welsh village Fairbourne has been told it will have to move as Gywnedd Council cannot maintain flood defences indefinitely. The low-lying Fens in eastern England, which account for 7% of England's agricultural production, lies partly below sea level due to drainage.

A recent report from the IPCC - the United Nations' international group of climate scientists - projected that coastal flood damage in Europe will increase at least ten times by the end of this century, and even more so if we do not change the way people live in those areas.

In the UK, one million people are expected to be exposed to annual coastal flooding by the end of this century.

Sir James's remarks come as the EA launches a new plan to prepare England for flooding and coastal change.

The body is aiming to improve assessments and mapping of flood risk, as well as information on investment decisions. It is also channelling £150 million into 25 new innovative projects to tackle the threat of flood and coastal change.

Jim Hall, professor of climate and environmental Risks at Oxford University said: "Even if the Environment Agency could afford to build coast protection everywhere - which they cannot - the things that many people cherish about the coast, like beaches and sand dunes, will eventually become submerged, unless we start to plan now for how the coastline can adjust to rising sea levels."

He called for "honest conversations" within coastal communities about the future, and a strategic approach to managing the coast sustainably.

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