Coastal erosion - a call for help

PUBLISHED: 07:33 09 November 2010 | UPDATED: 18:08 20 February 2013

Coastal erosion - a call for help

Coastal erosion - a call for help

The Sussex coast is in the front line of the battle against global warming and what seems to be an inevitable rise in sea levels, writes Barry Pickthall

The life changing problems of coastal erosion are being faced right along the Jurassic coast, the chalk and clay cliffs of Sussex and Kent and the low lying Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk coastlines.
Even the West Country, where the hard granite cliffs provide a seemingly impenetrable barrier to the sea, is in danger. Phil Dyke, coastal and marine adviser at the National Trust admits: Our coast is changing, even in areas such as the South West where the perception is that the hard rock might offer us some protection. But we know from our research that some of the National Trust's coastline is either soft rock, and vulnerable to erosion or low-lying, and vulnerable to flooding.
The Environment Agency faces a stark choice: to plough millions of pounds into shoring up doomed defences, or abandon huge swathes of coastline to the encroaching sea.

Pagham Harbour
At Pagham harbour, a natural bird sanctuary and beauty spot, Arun District Council has shipped in 30,000 cubic metres of shingle to shore up the sea defences. But as Brian Holland, one of Aruns coastal engineers, explains: This is a short time solution. We are now working with the Environment Agency on a long-term study. The Pagham Spit is acknowledge by Natural England as a unique structure, so we are looking at ways to defend this area of coastline for the next 100 years.
The problem, of course, is cost. The Governments much vaunted autumn spending review is seeking 20-25% cuts across the board. DEFRA has doubled spending on flood and coastal erosion over the past decade to some 600 million last year and, budgets willing, plans to spend a further 2.15billion over the next three years. However, in a recent review the agency has said that unless the Government invests 1 billion a year into sea defences the battle will be lost in some areas. We have to look very closely at the cost benefit ratio, says Holland. If it costs 1m to save 5m then possibly OK, but if the ratio is the other way round there is no chance. Even spending 1m to save 1m is a no go.
Britains first climate change refugees to be forced from their homes were expected to be in northeast Norfolk where plans had been drawn up by Natural England for a managed retreat. A 25square mile section of the low-lying Norfolk Broads, taking in the villages of Eccles, Hickling, Potter Heigham and Winterton and thousands of acres of rich farmland would have been lost to the sea.
The plan drew outrage from hundreds of home owners who saw the value of their properties become almost worthless overnight, and protests from thousands more in the Fells region who saw this managed retreat as the thin edge of the wedge.
Now, in a major u-turn that will encourage protestors across Sussex to pursue their rights, Natural England has been forced to drop their controversial managed retreat plan for Norfolk and agreed to continue holding the line of sea defences along the coast between Eccles and Winterton for the next 50 years.
For some however, this is too little too late. Robert Atyeo, a long-time Winterton resident told his local newspaper: In the past few years, 60 metres have eroded. If it continues at this rate, the caf, car park and toilets will be in the sea within five years.
At Happisburgh in Norfolk, the policy of managed retreat is already in practice. Erosion has been happening so fast that crops planted in the autumn were lost before they could be harvested in the summer. The lifeboat launch ramp was washed away and homes left deserted after back gardens slipped down the cliff face. With defences abandoned, the sea has been allowed to sweep in across farmland to form a new bay.

The same problem is being faced at Climping, west of Littlehampton, which is also designated as a lost cause. The seas are already flooding farmland owned by John Baird and he and other homeowners are holding the Environment Agency to ancient legal agreements binding it to maintain the sea defences in perpetuity.
But the Government, already cash-strapped by the credit crunch, can offer little hope. The Environment Agency has already ruled out funding long-term sea defences such as those guarding the Blyth estuary near Southwold. Further plans propose abandoning the sea defences around the Blackwater and Colne estuaries The problem here is that the North Sea is rising by as much as 3mm a year, and the east coast lowlands are sinking by 5mm. The Environment Agency already accepts that the Thames Barrier, which protects London from flooding, will have to be altered or replaced by 2070.

Cuckmere estuary and East Head
Back on the South coast, the decisions have already been taken to allow the Cuckmere estuary and East Head, guarding Chichester Harbour to flood. At Cuckmere, the sea defences are just not high enough to withstand the predicted rise in sea levels, and over the next 15 years the area will revert to the floodplain it was back in the early 1800s. Andrew Pearce, the Environment Agency manager for Kent and East Sussex says: Climate change is presenting us with many challenges and the way we manage flood risk here has to change. Restoring the Cuckmere to a tidal floodplain will allow the area to adapt to climate change and will bring with it great opportunities and benefits for visitors and wildlife.
Local groups are not so sure. The Cuckmere Estuary Partnership representing local councils, heritage groups and conservationists are fighting for a more managed approach. Kate Cole, a spokesperson for the partnership suggests: A managed realignment process would be best for wildlife, residents, visitors and the local economy.
At Chichester, experts believe that if the seas are allowed to breech sand dunes at East Head, this favourite anchorage for hundreds of boats during summer weekends will, within a few years, be swept away altogether, opening up the protected harbour to the full onslaught of south westerly gales. If this is allowed to happen, Pilsey Island guarding the Thorney channel will also disappear.
Flood and erosion are real risks facing people and their properties along the Pagham to East Head stretch of coastline in West Sussex, says Lucy Harding, from the Environment Agency. Within 100 years, we predict that more than 2,200 houses and businesses in the low lying areas could flood each year as sea levels rise. At the same time, erosion could cause almost 1,500 properties to be lost to the sea.
Further west, the National Trust has pinpointed 173 miles of coastline, 2,105 acres of land, 142 ancient landmarks and 111 listed buildings as being in danger in the south west of England alone. These include the causeway leading across to St Michaels Mount, Studland Bay and Brownsea Island within Poole Harbour.
Perhaps, we should also be asking what the Dutch are doing about rising sea levels? The Netherlands has even more to lose. Have they any cost-effective answers?

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