Rising sea levels 'could force UK coastal towns to relocate'

James Bevan says residents in some areas 'will not' be able to stay where they are

The UK's Environment Agency says more villages, like Happisburgh, face being lost to the sea because of coastal erosion. Bloomberg
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People living in some British coastal towns and villages may have to move because of rising sea levels and erosion, the head of the UK's Environment Agency said.

Sir James Bevan said the “hardest of all inconvenient truths” is that “in the long term, climate change means that some of our communities — both in this country and around the world — cannot stay where they are”.

In a speech to the UK's Flood and Coast conference in Telford, central England, Mr Bevan, who has been chief executive of the Environment Agency since 2015, said there was no recovery from coastal erosion.

“We can come back safely and build back better after most river flooding, [but] there is no coming back for land that coastal erosion has taken away or which a rising sea level has put permanently or frequently under water,” he said.

“Which means that in some places the right answer — in economic, strategic and human terms — will have to be to move communities away from danger rather than to try to protect them from the inevitable impacts of a rising sea level.”

Mr Bevan said it was “far too early to say which communities are likely to need to move in due course, still less make any decisions”.

He told the conference that “when we do eventually get to decisions on any relocation of communities, they must take full account of the views of the people who live there: no one should be forced from their homes against their will”.

While the aim will be to help communities to remain where they are, “we do need to start the conversation now about the options,” Mr Bevan said.

In places like Happisburgh on the north Norfolk coast and parts of the coastline of the East Riding of Yorkshire, the Environment Agency is working with local authorities and residents to plan for the long term.

Schemes include restoring and creating habitats to include green buffer zones, and replacing public or community-owned buildings in areas at risk with removable, modular, or other innovative buildings.

Mr Bevan said that “if we stick together I am confident that we can turn the climate crisis into an opportunity to create better places and a better future for all”.

On Tuesday, the government announced £5.2 billion investment in flood and coastal defences between 2021 and 2027, which it hopes will better protect hundreds of thousands more properties as well as avoid £32bn of wider economic damages.

It has launched a road map setting out practical actions to be taken over the next four years to tackle the growing threat of flooding from rivers, the sea, and surface water as well as coastal erosion.

“This road map sets out how we can build a more resilient nation,” said Rebecca Pow, Minister for Nature Recovery and the Domestic Environment.

“Climate change will only bring more extreme weather and this road map will spur on the timely action required to manage flood and coastal risk, help reduce the costly impacts and manage the risks to people’s homes and businesses across the country.”

Last year the Environment Agency said the UK that it must “adapt or die” as climate change threatens to bring rising sea levels, more pollution and more demand on water supplies.

The agency alone cannot protect everyone from increasing flood and coastal risks, and traditional defences will not be able to prevent all flooding and coastal erosion, it said in a report to the government.

There will be more and worse environmental incidents, such as flooding, water shortages and pollution, it said.

It has said that London's sea level is expected to rise by up to 29 centimetres by the 2050s and by up to 78cm by the 2080s if temperatures significantly rise.

Last year, the Celebrating Our Distinctive Heritage report said parts of Yorkshire’s coastline “cannot be saved” from the effects of flooding and rising sea levels.

England's northern county of Yorkshire has Europe’s fastest eroding coastline and latest research showed about 10 metres of land was lost to the sea in 2019 — more than double the average rate for the area.

More than 30 villages dating back to Roman times, including Out Newton, Dimlington and Monkwike, have now disappeared and hundreds more homes are expected to be lost in the coming decades.

Updated: June 08, 2022, 11:27 AM