Coastal conundrums and climate change

Ten years ago the National Trust investigated how the coastline was likely to change over the next 100 years, and we concluded in our Shifting Shores report that, as a nation, we can no longer rely solely on building our way out of trouble at the coast. Today, our new report Shifting Shores – playing our part at the coast reaffirms that approach, and, as we face the challenge of climate change, urges us all to go further and faster.

Adapting to change - the recently acquired heathland at Dunwich Heath, Suffolk where we have long term plans to create new habitats to secure the future of this stretch of the coastline. Credit Justin Minns

Adapting to change – the recently acquired heathland at Dunwich Heath, Suffolk where we have long term plans to create new habitats to secure the future of this stretch of the coastline. Credit Justin Minns.

National Trust at the coast – from creeping urbanisation to climate change

The first ever National Trust property was at the coast, a tiny patch of hillside behind Barmouth, gifted to the Trust in 1895 to protect it from development as this seaside resort grew. The early part of the 20th Century saw the Trust acquiring more coast to give protection to wildlife, at a time when legislation to achieve this was still missing. Through the 1960s to the mid 80s and with huge public support, the Trust was again acquiring pristine coast, to protect it from inappropriate development , a coast still under pressure in spite of a stronger planning system – see our Mapping our Shores report for more on this. Today, there are question marks once again around the strength of the planning system but the biggest challenge for the future is tackling the impacts of climate change at the coast.

Within our 775 miles of coastline we’ve got rocky cliff, soft cliff, salt marsh, sand dune, mud flats – all the different landscapes that make up the coast. They will all be impacted differently in the future by climate change, in particular sea-level rise, increased erosion and flooding. Dependant on greenhouse gas emissions, global warming could lead to a rise in sea levels on a range between 0.39m and 1m over the course of 21st century. We need to plan for this and in the National Trust we are doing this this under the banner of our Shifting Shores initiative.

Working with nature - Gupton Farm, Pembrokeshire, where we're working on a landscape scale Freshwater West Project to restore and extend reed beds, fen meadows and dune grasslands. Credit Joe Cornish.

Working with nature – Gupton Farm, Pembrokeshire, where we’re working on a landscape scale Freshwater West Project to restore and extend reed beds, fen meadows and dune grasslands. Credit Joe Cornish.

Shifting Shores – 10 years on

In 2005 Shifting Shores committed the Trust to an adaptive response to coastal change, which, put simply, means moving buildings and other infrastructure out of harm’s way where we can do this. Adaptation can also have great benefits for nature, by creating new habitats such as saltmarsh and dunes, which can act as great natural flood defences in their own right. Adaptation also means thinking about how we continue to provide great access for people to our coastline as the coast changes, through ensuring footpaths can roll back. Today we commit to having Coastal Adaptation Strategies in place at each of the National Trust’s 80 coastal change hotspots by 2020 – working with local communities and others to achieve this.

We are also making a series of recommendations on how, as a wider society, we can move towards a more adaptive approach to coastal change. In Northern Ireland, we want to see a system of Shoreline Management Planning established. In England and Wales, Government has put this process and other good policies in place but much more needs to be done to implement these, and to involve local councils and communities.

Working with others - Formby, Liverpool, the fastest eroding place in the Trust's care. We're developing a coastal adaption strategy and involving the local community at every stage of our plans. Credit Joe Cornish.

Working with others – Formby, Liverpool, the fastest eroding place in the Trust’s care. We’re developing a coastal adaption strategy and involving the local community at every stage of our plans. Credit Joe Cornish.

What’s happening on the ground

In the ten years since we launched Shifting Shores, a range of potentially helpful public policies have been agreed, but not yet fully implemented.

Research we commissioned from consultants CH2M tells us that around a third of English councils have put Coastal Change Management Areas in place – a forward planning tool to help ensure we don’t build in risky areas, and adapt existing structures in these places to prepare them for future change. CCMAs were introduced in 2010. A further third of councils have some other form of coastal management policy in place. Even in the third of council areas that have no proactive plans of their own, Shoreline Management Plans (Which cover the entire coastline of England and Wales) give an overarching framework for decision-making.

The research also suggests we may be ignoring the known risks. Over the last 10 years in England, more than 12,000 new buildings have been built in areas at medium to high risk from coastal change. Many good policies have been introduced since 2005, and it takes time for these to bed in. Hopefully, in another 10 years, the increase would be much reduced – as it doesn’t make sense to continue to build new homes and businesses on eroding coastlines, unless we can roll these back cost-effectively.

What we want to happen

We feel the following key challenges need to be addressed by all those concerned with coastal management:

  • Embrace long term planning over short term fixes
  • Value and resource coastal adaptation as an effective approach to managing coastal change – alongside traditional hard defences
  • Ensure effective partnership working across Government departments and agencies, to deliver tangible action on the ground
  • Empower local authorities to lead on coastal adaptation
  • Support innovation in coastal risk management – ensuring we understand all the approaches and choices available for communities
  • Develop new financial products and mechanism that help manage risk to property, and enable vulnerable communities to adapt cost effectively.

Read more about our work at the coast on our website.

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