People from seaside communities will become climate refugees, warns Green MEP
Hunstanton promenade during the high tides last month. Credit: Darren Green

Green Party Member of the European Parliament for the East of England Catherine Rowett has called for greater measures to help people living on East Anglia’s coasts adapt to sea level rise, following a report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on how key questions about coastal erosion and flood risk management remain unanswered.

The interim report is an inquiry into coastal flooding, coastal erosion and climate change and was published on the 30 October ahead of the early General Election in December.

The Committee were concerned about the impact of rising sea levels and how they will exacerbate the risk to coastal communities, businesses and infrastructure from coastal flooding.

They cite the Environment Agency’s 2018 ‘Climate change impacts and adaptation’ report which concludes that maintaining current coastal flood defences over the next 100 years is unsustainable and that around 5,000 properties could be affected over the next 20 years without interventions to save them.

Most applicably, the interim report notes that for people living in coastal areas, coastal flooding can represent a serious risk to life, homes and wellbeing. In fact, coastal flood risk was second only to pandemic flu in the Government’s 2017 National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies.

A particularly startling statistic to emerge from the report is that a total of 1.8 million homes in England are at risk of coastal flooding and erosion and that between £120 to £150 billion worth of assets are estimated to be at risk, including roads, railway stations, ports, schools, care homes, power stations and landfill sites. Critical national infrastructure such as the Bacton Gas Terminal, which handles 30 per cent of the UK’s gas supply, is included in this figure.

According to the Environment Agency, a UK government grant will amount to £2.6 billion between 2015 and 2021, with £1.2 billion spent on coastal erosion and sea flooding schemes.

The report notes that Norfolk is particularly at risk and uses the village of Happisburgh as a case study, where they find that residents are unhappy at the lack of central government provision to help people at risk of losing their homes. Malcom Kerby, of the Happisburgh Coastal Concern Action Group, said the Government’s current approach was one of “abandonment”, “not adaptation”.

The report concludes that in the face of sea-level rise, the national approach to managing coastal flooding and erosion will need to move away from “holding the line” – a wait and monitor approach – to support people and communities to adapt and change. However, they note that such a task will not be easy and will be costly both economically and socially to coastal communities.

According to the Environment Agency, there are three main sources of funding for coastal flood and erosion management; UK Government spending, Local levy (in 2019/20, £60m was allocated to Flood and Coastal Management (FCERM) in England, and Government partnership funding (over £586m of partnership funding had been spent or secured for the period of 2015-2021 by June 2019).

The Borough Council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk responded that “feedback from local communities is that coastal erosion and flooding should be funded centrally and not left to local communities to fund”.

Long-term, the Environment Agency suggests an average annual spend of over £1 billion is needed (on maintenance and capital investment) to manage flooding and coastal change for the next 50 years.

The report implores the Government to explain how the repeated cycle of cuts to funding to below sustainable levels, only to then be reversed after major flood events, will be ended and prevented from re-occurring. They also suggest an explanation into how they intend to fund adaptation to coastal changes and sea-level rise. Finally, they suggest the Environment Agency provide a timetable for revisions of Shoreline Management Plans and that the Government ought to demonstrate its seriousness in attracting private sector funding.

Responding to the report, Catherine Rowett MEP said:

“East Anglia is now on the frontline of climate breakdown in the UK, and we could soon see people being made refugees as the pace of sea level rise and flooding speeds up and homes and businesses are lost. And it is not only the settlements that are at risk—the Bacton Gas Terminal and the nuclear power plant at Sizewell could be struck, posing a risk to human health from leaks.

“Yet the Government is acting as if the problem didn’t exist, by continuing to subsidise the fossil fuels that are contributing to the crisis, and repeatedly cutting funding for flood preparedness. Unless we start acting now, we face a future in which the people of seaside communities will become climate refugees.

“The Government has to start listening to local people’s concerns and has to prioritise real action that addresses the climate emergency.”

The report closely follows the high tides that occurred locally from September 28 to October 2 which have resulted in some cliffing and damage to the shingle ridge at Heacham and Snettisham. Local residents have voiced their concerns that emergency repairs would be needed before the annual recycling works in February/March.

Consequently, the Environment Agency has assessed the damage and has determined that there is no need for any urgent or emergency works at this time, and that subject to no further damage, normal recycling works will commence as usual in 2020. The Environment Agency will continue to monitor the shingle ridge and re-assess if required.