Coastal flooding and erosion, and adaptation to climate change: Interim Report Contents

2Adaptation to sea-level rise and coastal change

9.In her introduction to the Environment Agency’s 2019 Draft National Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy for England, its Chair wrote:

Climate change increases the risks and means we need to build on our progress [strengthening flood defences], but we can’t do so infinitely. It is not realistic to try to manage more increasingly intense flooding and sea level rise with limitlessly high walls and barriers.17

The strategy called for the adoption of a “different philosophy” to ensure that “we can all live in climate resilient places that are able to manage and adapt to flooding”.18

10.Adaptation to flooding is not new. According to Rachael Bice from Cornwall Council, “in Boscastle [which was seriously flooded in 2004] prior to 1850, many of the buildings were designed in a way that water would flow through them. After 1850, they started to be built across where the flood water would flow. When there was a big flood, that blocked up water and made the flood much worse.19

11.How to achieve such adaptation effectively but also in an equitable way and with the support of affected communities that might see their homes or land at greater risk of flooding or being lost to the sea was a major theme throughout the evidence we received. Malcom Kerby summarised his experience as a resident of Happisburgh, which has lost 35 properties to coastal erosion, of the initial consultations on revisions to the local SMP:

All we have had thus far is the Government machine coming along, doing a shoreline management plan and saying, “Sorry, guys, we are no longer going to protect you although we have done so for 50 years. Bye”. That is not adaptation; that is abandonment.20

A focus on protecting homes

12.According to the Environment Agency, UK Government Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management (FCERM) Grant in Aid (GiA), will amount to £2.6 billion between 2015 and 2021 across England to “better protect at least 300,000 homes” from all flood risk and coastal erosion, with £1.2 billion spent on coastal erosion and sea flooding schemes.21 Several organisations raised concerns about what they saw as too narrow a focus in Government coastal change policy on protecting residential properties.22 They were concerned that this approach restricted the scope for adaptation, and overlooked many other important considerations such as the needs of business or the environment.

13.Coastal Partnership East told us that the focus on achieving the objective of reducing flood risk for 300,000 houses, meant “there is no mechanism available suitable for climate change adaptation”.23 The National Farmers Union (NFU) said the Government’s approach prioritises “the protection of people, property and protected habitats”, undervaluing “the wider public benefit and national strategic importance of protecting high quality agricultural land”, including associated environmental benefits and those of protecting railways, road, electricity and water supply infrastructure.24 Julian Whittle from the Cumbria Chamber of Commerce told us “not enough cognizance [is] given to the needs of business”, and although DEFRA’s cost-benefit model which coastal authorities use to make GiA-funding decisions allows business to be taken into account, the funding calculator “is purely prioritised on residential”.25 Rachael Bice from Cornwall Council considered that “We need different mechanisms of assessment that account for good engineering but also good ecological and natural processes” and “recognition that infrastructure and livelihoods are as important to the economy as homes, if not sometimes more so”.26

National and local leadership on adaptation

14.The evidence suggested there is a need for clear national leadership from the UK Government and the Environment Agency, and locally from coastal authorities. Some respondents were concerned about the lack of national support for adaptation. For example, East Riding of Yorkshire Council said that although “there is a push from national Government for local authorities to deliver adaptation schemes, there has been no practical guidance as to when or how this should be delivered”.27 Also, no statutory duty exists to provide coastal defences or adaptation, so each local authority decides when to support or withdraw from coastal adaptation measures, which is influenced by local priorities and availability of funding.28

15.Increased awareness about adaptation has led to it being “on the agenda of many sectors”, according to the Local Government Association (LGA) but “a better understanding is needed of resilient communities, as distinct from the separate necessity to improve resilience at property level”.29 The LGA said it needed “significant governmental legislative, regulatory and financial changes to become a widespread robust practicality”.30 However, such action may be being held up by what Coastal Partnership East characterised as “a policy void and lack of RMA [Risk Management Authority] capacity for coastal adaptation”; because while the Environment Agency has “the strategic overview of the coast, no RMA is specifically identified as having either the lead role or resources to deliver adaptation and therefore this locally often falls to local authorities, but without clear policy leads of or the capacity / resources to respond”.31

A delivery mechanism for adaptation

16.DEFRA funded a Coastal Pathfinder programme between 2009 to 2011 in 15 local authority areas.32 It was, according to Coastal Partnership East, “the only recent and significant trial of innovation in coastal adaptation”.33 The Partnership described how the £3m North Norfolk District Council received in 2010 enabled a “highly effective ‘rollback’ approach” to be delivered at the village of Happisburgh, which had suffered severe coastal erosion.34 Instead of traditional coastal defences which were considered uneconomic; it used “innovative land use planning policies with some Pathfinder funding to pursue several local projects. This involved purchase and demolishing of vulnerable residential properties and facilitating development of the same number of properties outside of the risk area.”35 It also facilitated the relocation of a holiday caravan site that was central to the village’s continued economic viability, from the edge of the clifftop further inland.36 The Partnership said a Pathfinder-trial in Suffolk also “developed innovative approaches to the development of temporary or movable housing” that could be more easily relocated (or “rolled back”) as the coastline changed, but did not progress as far as intended because of a lack of funding.37 It added that “replicating the approach elsewhere is not possible without funding.”38

Consent to adaptation and effective public engagement

17.A strong theme in the evidence about Happisburgh, reinforced by our visit, was the importance of effective early engagement with the community, and the consequences when that failed. In 2006, the revised local SMP proposed moving to “managed realignment” or “no active intervention” for areas that until then had been defended under a “hold the line” policy.39 This caused much concern amongst local communities “because many important questions went unanswered about how and when such changes might be made, and whether any support would be provided to affected communities and individuals.”40 Malcolm Kerby of the local residents’ Coastal Concern Action Group (CCAG) told us about the atmosphere when proposals to end the policy of “holding the line” emerged:

When I came into it, it was already war. The local authority engineer and the coastal manager did not like coming to Happisburgh. They would be stoned to death. It was awful… Because we were pitched into a situation… [where] we were already too late. They were too late, and we were too late.41

The National Trust explained that at Studland Bay in Dorset it had “taken three years and an awful lot of money to persuade that community just to relocate a café”.42

18.The need to engage with coastal communities was explained by Terry Fuller of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM):

On a lot of our coastline, we have legacy. People and communities have enjoyed a certain protection policy and hold-the-line policy. To then convince that community that perhaps we need to look at things in a slightly different way takes time and needs to be dealt with sensitively. We are talking about people here, not about properties. We are talking about homes, livelihoods, memories and family, and all those sorts of things, so more sensitivity is required.43

19.Understandably, “people can feel daunted to the point of disengagement and inaction” by large environmental issues such as climate change and sea level rise.44 Public engagement therefore needs to be meaningful and proactive. Dr George Revill of the Open University who led a multi-year engagement project in Norfolk told us:

We need to engage people fairly early in the process … we have to find ways of working with local communities such that the knowledge they have in those local places actually means something and makes a difference in the planning process … When engagements come late in the day, they tend to create a more antagonistic and oppositional attitude simply because the proposals are more firmed up, so people have to oppose them in order to get themselves heard.45

20.Longer-term support to enable local communities depends on funding and resources. For example, Cornwall Council said funding and resources need to be “made available for community acceptance and engagement” before decisions and work are started.46 Similarly, the University of Southampton stated that “removing support is a staged process, and can lead to fierce public opposition. When something is taken away, an alternative needs to be provided to ensure wider blight does not occur”.47

21.It is also important that resources for community engagement needs are combined with a proactive approach, but this is often difficult because the only available funding for engagement comes attached to an already agreed project. Karen Thomas from Coastal Partnership East explained:

The biggest challenge we have on the back of what happened at Happisburgh is that we are still in a position where we are only really engaging with people in this conversation about coastal change when it is already happening to them … That automatically puts us into these crisis conflict discussions with people, when actually… we would like to move into the planning discussions with people about what may happen in the future… Engaging with people and building trust needs to happen before this happens to them, and that means either you have to pay for it from a local authority pot, because you resource it up, or you have a project running.48

22.In contrast Cornwall Council told us:

At the beginning of the shoreline management plan process, there was a decade planned in to give people time to work with communities, to understand what is deliverable. Because there has not been funding to go with that, that engagement process has only been done in a piecemeal way and often in response to emergency events that have happened.49

We have a willing partner in the Environment Agency, but its hands are tied with much of its funding, particularly because it is mainly capital funding that it can access, rather than revenue … that is what is needed to unlock conversations with communities that are early enough and creative enough to create the solutions that make funds available for small communities with only small numbers of residential properties at risk. We do not have the resources to do that. The money the local authority puts into one community, say Looe, cannot go to another.50

23.It is clear that in the face of sea-level rise, the national approach to managing coastal flooding and erosion for many areas will need to increasingly move away from “holding the line” towards supporting people and communities to adapt to change and mitigate the harms. This will not be easy. The costs, both economic and social, to some coastal communities and the people living and working there will be substantial and should not be forgotten in the national debate. In their response, the Government and Environment Agency should explain:


21 Environment Agency (FCC0007) para 5.1

22 For example: Q62 [Julian Whittle]; Essex County Council (FCC0028) para 4.1; and Cornwall Council (FCC0021) p 2

23 Coastal Partnership East (FCC0010), para 2.4.1

24 National Farmers Union (NFU) (FCC0019) para 7

27 East Riding of Yorkshire Council (FCC0014) para 6.1

28 East Riding of Yorkshire Council (FCC0014), para 6.2

29 The Local Government Association Coastal Special Interest Group (FCC0022) paras 1.5 – 1.6

30 The Local Government Association Coastal Special Interest Group (FCC0022), para 1.6

31 Coastal Partnership East (FCC0010) para 2.3.2

32 DEFRA, Coastal Change Pathfinder Review Final Report (January 2012) para 1

33 Coastal Partnership East (FCC0010) para 2.2.4

34 Coastal Partnership East (FCC0010) para 2.2.4; DEFRA, Coastal Change Pathfinder Review Final Report (January 2012) para 3; the Committee learnt about how coastal erosion had affected Happisburgh during its visit to North Norfolk.

35 Coastal Partnership East (FCC0010) para 2.2.4

36 The Committee learnt about how and why the caravan site at Happisburgh had been relocated during its visit to North Norfolk.

37 Coastal Partnership East (FCC0010) para 2.2.4; Coastal Partnership (FCC0036) para 17

38 Coastal Partnership East (FCC0010) para 2.2.4

40 East Anglia Coastal Group, Kelling to Lowestoft Ness Shoreline Management Plan, Appendix B (i): Stakeholder Engagement Addendum page B3

44 Open University/ AHRC Research Project (FCC0015) para 14

46 Cornwall Council (FCC0021) page 3

47 University of Southampton (FCC0020) para 24

48 Q96 [Karen Thomas]




Published: 1 November 2019