Despite strong advice to the contrary, the UK saw over 12,000 new homes and businesses constructed in coastal areas at risk of significant erosion or flooding over the past decade. One such discerning voice belonged to the National Trust, whose 2005 report Shifting Shores warned against the threats to homes and property in coastal regions. A follow-up report published today – Shifting Shores: Playing our part at the coast – finds that these warnings haven’t been heeded, and instead the number of buildings in England graded at either medium or high risk from coastal change has been allowed to rise to 129,000 – a ten per cent increase.
The report also finds that only one in three coastal planning authorities in England have the most up-to-date planning policy in place to deal with rising sea levels, as well as an increase in extreme storm weather, such as was seen in late 2013 and early 2014, when coastal towns such as Dawlish suffered from severe storms. As a result, the Trust, which cares for a total of 775 miles of coastline across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, is stepping up its commitment to have plans in place for 80 different sites in the country by 2020.
“We’ve got opportunities to create more of a naturally functioning coastline, whilst at the same time absolutely respecting that there are places we will need to defend to the hilt”
‘That was a wake-up call, that winter of storms,’ says Phil Dyke, coastal marine adviser for the National Trust. ‘We’ve been asleep on the watch for the last five years. Prior to that, we had only a dozen or so frameworks in place to manage coastal change, establishing what we know about a particular site. Subsequent to that, we’ve now got about 40 of the sites and we’ve been making some real efforts. It’s really tricky actually, especially in Northern Ireland, where you haven’t even got a floodmap – so there are some good reasons why progress is slow.’
Dyke stresses how incremental sea level rises of 3mm per year, with anything from a 50cm to a one metre rise by the end of the century, are forcing a rethink of our relationship with the nation’s coasts, especially on how forceful we are in trying to fix them permanently to their current positions. ‘What we’ve tended to do over the past century or more,’ he says, ‘is not to accept the sea’s dynamic equilibrium, but to fix a line at the coast – “That’s where the coast is and that’s how it’s going to stay”. In many places, we’ve got opportunities to create more of a naturally functioning coastline, whilst at the same time absolutely respecting that there are places we will need to defend to the hilt. The coast is the canary in the mine for climate change, it’s where you’ll see these impacts first.’
The report highlights a number of the 80 sites in question as case studies, exploring how the National Trust has studied each one separately in order to develop an appropriate bespoke coastal management plan for each. For example, Formby, Merseyside, on the Sefton coast, is the fastest-eroding coastline in the Trust’s portfolio, at around 4m per year. Furthermore, the vulnerability of the coast was visible to all when it lost as much as 10m due to the storms of December 2013. Nevertheless, the Trust recognises that the longshore drift and other natural processes operating at Formby are essential components of the wider coastal environment, meaning that protecting the sand dune habitats, which are currently being squeezed out of existence, is a more complex problem than simply putting up a wall.
‘The natural powers that come into Formby, the wind and the water, are constantly shaping it on a daily, and sometimes an hourly basis,’ says Kate Martin, area ranger for Formby. ‘You can literally see Formby change in front of your eyes.’ Martin explains how the sediment which is removed from the coast at Formby is then carried north, to places such as Stockport, where a salt marsh is forming as the tide loses energy and sediment is deposited.
“The coast is the canary in the mine for climate change, it’s where you’ll see these impacts first”
‘It’s really important for us to remember that the land that we own on the Sefton coast is only a part of a much larger whole,’ she continues. ‘The Sefton coast is over 20 miles of continuous coastline and sand dune systems, and obviously, coast processes that are shaping Formby are also shaping the rest of the coastline as well. So we’ve been working with the other landowners on the Sefton coast, in partnership, for over three decades, to ensure that we’re managing the coastline as a whole, that we’re not all individually managing our little bit, which could have a huge impact on our neighbours.’
With Environment Agency figures estimating that over 700 properties in England could be lost to coastal erosion by around 2030, and a whopping 247,000 homes and businesses at high risk of flooding, Dyke and the National Trust are imploring a longer-term, more forward-thinking strategy for coastal protection, in order to avoid what Dyke calls ‘the nightmare scenario’ – a coastline entirely ringed in concrete.