‘No coming back from erosion’: UK coastal towns will need to relocate due to climate crisis

·3-min read
Erosion of the Norfolk sandy cliffs and sand dunes has caused many buildings and farmland to be lost to the sea (Getty Images)
Erosion of the Norfolk sandy cliffs and sand dunes has caused many buildings and farmland to be lost to the sea (Getty Images)

The climate crisis will inevitably mean British coastal communities will have to move elsewhere, according to the leader of England’s environment body.

Sir James Bevan gave a stark assessment of how flooding and cliff erosion will shape the outer edges of the country in a speech on Tuesday.

Both are increasing threats to coastal communities as the climate crisis causes sea levels to rise and extreme weather events to become more frequent.

Sir James, the chief executive of the Environment Agency, told a conference some may have to end up relocating in the end.

“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,” he told delegates in Telford on Tuesday.

“That is because 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.”

He added: “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 told the Flood and Coast Conference how the Environment Agency strategy to flooding risk involves three elements: protection, resilience and adaptation.

Holiday chalets abandoned due to coastal erosion wait to be demolished or taken by the sea in the village of Withernsea in the East Riding of Yorkshire in 2020 (Getty Images)
Holiday chalets abandoned due to coastal erosion wait to be demolished or taken by the sea in the village of Withernsea in the East Riding of Yorkshire in 2020 (Getty Images)

The latter is where relocating communities may come into play. He said it recognised the climate crisis means that “in the face of climate change we will need to adapt both how and sometimes where we live”.

Experts agree this is looking set to be part of England’s future in a warmer world.

“Flooding along our rivers and coasts is one of the key risks of climate change in the UK,” said Professor Daniela Schmidt from the University of Bristol.

She added: “While early warning systems can reduce risks, managed retreat is a reality which we need to face. Nature, helping to protect us from flooding, is itself under threat from climate change but also from decisions we take to protect our infrastructure and homes.”

The UK was battered by three storms in a row earlier this year (AFP via Getty Images)
The UK was battered by three storms in a row earlier this year (AFP via Getty Images)

Professor Ilan Kelman from University College London said: “Climate change’s sea-level rise is accelerating coastal inundation and making it worse. It is also expanding the communities which must consider relocating as coastlines move inland.

“Realigning our shoreline homes to live with the ever-changing sea is devastating. It is nothing new for England and Wales.”

A Welsh council has already announced its intention to abandon the village of Fairbourne to the sea in 2054.

Others across the UK have already lost their homes – or predict they will disappear within decades – due to coastal erosion.

The end of a tarmac road shows the devastation caused by coastal erosion of the cliff face in the village of Happisburgh in 2019 (Getty Images)
The end of a tarmac road shows the devastation caused by coastal erosion of the cliff face in the village of Happisburgh in 2019 (Getty Images)

The Climate Change Committee, which advises the government, predicts more than 100,000 properties could be at risk of coastal erosion by 2080.

Professor Richard Betts from the Met Office and University of Exeter said: “The Environment Agency is recognising that the coast is inevitably going to be impacted by sea level rise.”

“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.”

Earlier this year, Emma Howard Boyd from the Environment Agency warned it may become too expensive to protect homes at risk of flooding or coastal erosion due to the climate crisis.

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