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Dr Martin Parsons is a former aid worker in Afghanistan and Pakistan and has a PhD in Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations.

At the end of October the government’s Climate Change Committee published its report on how the UK should respond to sea level rise. Not terribly interested? – well you should be because the small print in this report is political dynamite for some of the most disadvantaged communities, who guess what – overwhelmingly voted for Brexit and include a significant proportion of the marginal seats Conservatives need to hold to win the next election.

The purpose of this article is not take issue with the science – it’s what the report recommends the government does that is so politically toxic. The science is fairly straightforward – sea level has risen by around 15 cm since 1900 (actually if you live south of a line from Middlesbrough to Liverpool it’s probably more due to land sinking relative to the sea). At current rates it is likely to rise by a further 50 cm and possibly 80 cm by 2100 i.e. within the lifetime of children living today.

That means that storm surges will overtop existing sea defences more frequently – and the biggest surges will inundate much bigger areas of land. At the moment around half a million properties, including 370,000 homes are vulnerable to flooding. The report estimates this will increase to 1.2 million homes by 2080.

Higher sea levels also increase coastal erosion and the report estimates the number of homes vulnerable to erosion will increase from 8,900 to 100,000 over the same period.

So what does the report suggest we do about it? Well some infrastructure will need to be relocated – including some roads, railway lines and even three railway stations. Once they get damaged by storm surges on more than a couple of occasions it becomes more economic to move them than repair them.

However, the really politically toxic bit of the report deals with coastal communities. It says, because major urban areas and infrastructure will require better sea defences – and there is only so much money available, that is where money should be spent. However, for coastal communities in towns and villages – it is worse than that. The report recommends that 149-185 km of coast which is currently designated as ‘hold the line’ in shoreline management plans should be redesignated as ‘managed retreat’.

Let me explain what that means. Shoreline Management Plans (SMPs) designate each part of the coast as one of four categories:

  • Advance the line (never used – although significant parts of the coast were reclaimed from the sea by previous generations)
  • Hold the Line (i.e. protect the existing shoreline)
  • No Active intervention (i.e. do nothing – including not repairing any existing sea defences)
  • Managed Realignment (also known as ‘managed retreat’ – deliberately breaching existing sea defences, for example, to allow farmland to be turned into salt marsh)

In other words, the report recommends not simply saving money by not repairing sea defences, but deliberately breaching them. The justification it offers for this is twofold:

“It has advantages in removing long-term financial commitments to maintain defences and in restoring natural environments and processes. Managed realignment can create new habitat area that acts as a natural buffer to coastal waves and is much cheaper to maintain over the long-term.”

However, the advantages it talks of are clearly not for the local community who sea defences are supposed to “defend”. The advantages are in reducing the cost to the Treasury and creating “new habitat”.

Yet the cost to the local community is extraordinarily high. The report gives as an example of the sort of strategy they envisage, a village in Wales of 1,000 people. Despite a consultation having been done on the latest SMP, most of the residents were shocked to discover somewhat later that their village would only be protected until 2025 which would be followed by a period of working towards ‘decommissioning’ the village in 2055.

Can you imagine what that does to a whole community?

It’s far worse than planning blight – at least then there is the possibility of compensation from a compulsory purchase order. However, with ‘decommissioning’ a village to prepare for managed retreat – every house becomes valueless, unsaleable – and there is absolutely no compensation. That’s right – no compensation – if your land becomes part of the seabed you lose everything and no one pays you anything. And your mortgage – well yes you could default on it and let the building society pick up the tab. But if you do then don’t expect to ever get another mortgage. This is a huge social justice issue.

Think it won’t happen? Well – here’s the sting in the tail – the Climate Change Committee’s report laments the fact that:

“Even the modest amount of managed realignment envisaged in the SMPs is not being implemented at the rate set out in the plans.”

To address this it then immediately calls for Shoreline Management Plans to be placed on a statutory basis so that the plans have to be implemented. That means that if the SMP places your village under managed retreat then the Environment Agency would have a legal duty to breach the sea defences and flood it. The report suggests the current environment and agriculture legislation be amended to do this.

Even aside from the massive social injustice this represents let me spell out why else the government should categorically reject these recommendations:

  1. The report itself admits that ‘Many coastal communities are particularly vulnerable because populations in coastal areas are often poorer and older than the UK average.’ Despite this, it effectively recommends removing funding for sea defence repairs from them in order to spend it on large urban areas, which already get more public spending per person.
  2. It justifies this by claiming it will reduce costs and ‘create habitats’. I’m sorry but we’ve been here before – one of the reasons villages in the Somerset Levels remained cut off by floods for a month in 2014 was because the Environment Agency had prioritised nature conservation and so kept the water levels artificially high and not dredged the rivers. Like most Conservatives I am a natural conservationist – but people come first.
  3. The report’s recommendations significantly increase vulnerability to flooding.  This is despite the report itself admitting that coastal flooding will increase to 1.2 million homes by 2080 and that of all natural disasters coastal flooding claims more lives than almost any other event and in the UK there is a long history of coastal floods leading to many deaths.

While breaching sea walls – which is what managed retreat means – may create salt marsh which could act as a temporary buffer to coastal erosion, it also removes significant protection against the much higher risk of coastal flooding. Replacing a 2m sea wall with a ‘sea level’ salt marsh significantly reduces existing flood protection – at a time when sea levels are rising. This itself reveals the ideological bias of the report which purports to be a response to rising sea levels.

However, this is also a politically toxic issue because so much comes down to money. The report actually says that if the government paid for all the existing sea defences (i.e. hold the line) in shoreline management plans at today’s prices – it would cost between £6.9 and 9.2 billion.

Now try telling those seaside towns and villages, a great many of which are marginal constituencies, that they can’t have that money and that some of their villages are even going to be ‘decommissioned’. While at the same time telling these coastal communities most of which voted Brexit – that we are talking about whether to give four or five times that amount of money to the EU in exchange for what may be little more than the promise of talks about a future trade deal. That’s not just toxic – it’s politically explosive for any government…

56 comments for: Martin Parsons: The politically explosive small print in the Climate Change Committee’s report on sea defence

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