Published On: June 14, 2021

As an island nation, the UK and its coastal communities face a turbulent future at the hands of climate change. This article looks at some of the challenges ahead. 

A 2018 report by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) noted that in England by the 2080s around 1.8 million homes will be at risk of coastal flooding and erosion. The current direct economic damage to property alone stands in the order of £260m per year but the overall costs are expected to be much higher. With climate projections for the UK showing that sea-level rise is expected to increase by possibly 80cm by 2100, we can expect the bill for UK’s coastal damage to increase similarly.

The CCC found in its report ‘Managing the coast in a changing climate’ that coastal communities, infrastructure and landscapes in England are already under significant pressure from flooding and erosion and that these threats will only increase in the future. The report has shown that this problem is not currently being confronted with the required urgency or openness.

According to the CCC, coastal management in England is covered by a complex patchwork of legislation, with varying bodies carrying out different responsibilities. This, in turn, leads to conflicting aims with none of the organisations working effectively together. Furthermore, ‘implementing current policies to protect England’s coast would cost £18-30bn depending on the rate of climate change’.

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) has suggested that communities need to be given the appropriate support to work to build climate change resilience beyond ineffective, unaffordable wall defences. The NEF refers to a previous case study, the National Trust solution at Birling Gap, in which communities are encouraged to work with designers to look at different types of buildings and infrastructure that could be relocated as the coast erodes.

From a preparedness and resilience perspective, climate change, sea-level rise, flooding, coastal erosion and increasing severe weather events are not the only factors increasing the vulnerability of the UK’s coastal communities. Research conducted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2011 cited socio-economic challenges such as youth emigration, ageing populations, low employment levels, reliance on seasonal income, poor transportation links and poor-quality housing as some of the factors that add to the vulnerability of Britain’s coastal populations.

Another point highlighted in the popular BBC series Cornwall: This Fishing Life is the issue of second homeownership and the effect that is having on local communities. As explained in a recent Guardian article, second homeownership along the UK coastline is not a new phenomenon. However, what it does to a local community could hardly be considered positive. Increasing house prices drive locals out of the market and often further away from their place of business. Second homeownership also contributes to the increased seasonality of UK coastal communities, packed in the summer and quiet in the winter, and this does have an effect on any communities’ social capital.

Emma Howard Boyd, Chair of the Environment Agency, has said that ‘we can’t win a war against water by building infinitely high flood defences’ and while true it also speaks to a need for awareness of all other factors which create vulnerability in the UK’s coastal communities. These are vulnerabilities which are not necessarily attributed to climate change but can and will be exposed by them. When we look at coastal resilience in the UK, we should perhaps look beyond just sea walls, flood defences and physical mitigation to protect these communities with long standing, rich and proud histories.

A recent programme launched by the Environment Agency, The Flood and Coastal Resilience innovation programme has committed £150m out of £200m worth of funding to 25 local areas that are developing projects which aim to demonstrate practical solutions to improve resilience to flooding and coastal erosion. On average, each area will receive £6m of funding between April 2021 and March 2027 to support their resilience actions. These actions may consist of individual or combined projects which could include: nature-based solutions, sustainable drainage systems, approaches for making existing properties more flood resilient, encouraging local businesses to improve their flood resilience, and building community and voluntary sector capacity to respond and recover. This comes at the end of the UK Government’s £2.6bn flood and coastal erosion programme, which according to Emma Howard Boyd’s blog, has seen ‘700 projects better protecting 300,000 homes, nearly 600,000 acres of agricultural land, thousands of businesses and major pieces of infrastructure’.

While it is encouraging to see projects utilising nature-based solutions receiving funding and innovation being triumphed to tackle UK coastal vulnerability to climate change, is there a bigger picture view which is missing: a view that takes into account the socio-economic challenges faced on Britain’s coast? Some of these concerns are raised in a report by the House of Lords in 2019 titled The Future of Seaside Towns. This highlighted declining industries, housing, youth disenfranchisement, poor infrastructure as some of the deep-rooted disadvantages coastal communities face. The government’s response to the report can be read here.

It is clear that climate change will not wait for us to get our act together. If anything, we could be accused of waiting for climate change so we might consider getting our act together. We are at a point now where the imperative to act is stronger than ever if we are to begin to step back from the climatic changes anticipated. We will have to commit to both mitigation and adaptation efforts as a nation.

In tandem with this, as an island, we need to consider, as is mentioned in the House of Lords’ report, that the communities that sit on the periphery of our country should not sit at the periphery of our economy. Coastal communities are those which will be most vulnerable to the incoming tides of climate change. However, the existing vulnerabilities they face, not created by climate change, ought to be addressed before they are further exacerbated by climate-related risk. If these communities are to face the brunt of what is to come, efforts should be made to ensure that they are both protected and prepared. This will require a combination of both hard (physical mitigation) and soft (adaptive, social-capital building) measures which take climate and socio-economic vulnerabilities into account.

Authors: Ed Persson and Larna Brooks are Executive Assistants with the National Preparedness Commission.

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