Sea level rise 'puts 200,000 English properties at risk by 2050'

Study calls for urgent national debate on defences of coastal regions

Sea defence work in the southern English resort of Southsea. Getty
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Rising sea levels caused by climate change are helping to put nearly 200,000 homes and businesses in England at risk of being lost in the next 30 years, a study suggests.

Researchers compared the increasing threat coastal flooding is posing to communities with existing policies for managing regions by the sea. They warned there is an urgent need for a national debate about the risks to properties by the sea, and said authorities need to offer clarity on “transformational change” in some areas.

The study, which is published in the journal Oceans And Coastal Management, noted that a sea level rise of around 35cm could be recorded in England, compared to historic levels, by 2050. It could be close to a metre by the end of the century.

The experts said it may be too late to shield some areas from the damage, with the erosion of shores by waves is contributing to the risk.

“Significant sea level rise is now inevitable,” said Paul Sayers, lead author of the study.

“For many of our larger cities at the coast protection will continue to be provided but for some coastal communities this may not be possible.”

Mr Sayers, an engineering consultant who works with the University of East Anglia’s Tyndall Centre and has conducted analysis for the Climate Change Committee, said an urgent conversation about the situation was now vital.

“We need a serious national debate about the scale of the threat to these communities and what represents a fair and sustainable response, including how to help people to relocate,” he said.

Responding to the study, Jim Hall, professor of climate and environmental risks at the University of Oxford, backed Mr Sayers’s call for a countrywide debate on the topic.

“We need to have honest conversations with coastal communities that it will simply not be possible to protect every house and business from sea level rise,” Prof Hall said.

“These changes are coming sooner than we might think and we need to plan now for how we can adjust, including a nationwide strategic approach to deciding how to manage the coast sustainably in the future.”

The current “hold the line” policy in place for a 1,600 to 1,900 kilometres of English coast may need to be reconsidered as it could become unfeasible due to rising costs, or technically impossible, the authors of the study noted.

That accounts for around 30 per cent of the coastline where such a policy has been implemented, and could affect around 120,000 to 160,000 properties — excluding caravans — by the 2050s, with a proportion likely to need relocating.

The figure is on top of the 30,000 to 35,000 properties already identified in areas which have a policy to realign the coast.

The study focuses on the effect of flooding and does not include properties directly at risk from coastal erosion such as clifftop homes.

Areas deemed most at risk included single communities, regions with dispersed clusters of homes and buildings on a long flood plain, places with a narrow space between the shoreline and rising ground, and small quays and coastal harbours.

Cornwall, North Norfolk, the coastal region of Suffolk and North Somerset are among the areas likely to face the largest challenge in responding to rising sea levels, through to the 2050s and 2080s, the study said. The areas are on track to encounter uncertainty regarding their ability to “hold the line” in the longer term.

The study did not look at local features, or nationally important infrastructure such as nuclear power plants, that would mean the immediate coastline will be protected in the long term.

Updated: June 15, 2022, 10:57 AM