In recent years government has gone in for a process known as Shoreline Management Planning, with the second generation of plans now more or less complete. Whereas it was once broadly the case that government would look to defend wherever needed defending (despite being under no legal obligation to do so), it has been observed that the new orthodoxy is to look for areas of coastline that might be allowed to ‘realign’ in natural fashion. The second round of Shoreline Management Plans, then, sets sea defence policy for the entire coast of England and Wales – both by area and over the short (0-20yrs), medium (20-50yrs) and long (50-100yrs) terms. One of four options is possible for each of area (or policy unit) over each of these epochs, although essentially these boil down to whether the area will continue to be defended or not. For example, where I live will see a policy of ‘Hold the Line’ pursued in the short and medium terms – meaning that the coast will be protected to the current standard for a minimum of 50 years – with a switch to a policy of ‘managed realignment’ some times after that. What will happen, or when, is unclear. However, we have been told we can expect to lose our homes – a fate that awaits many others. What happens to us ‘losers’ is also less than clear. Until recently we could expect to be presented with a bill for the cost of demolishing our homes, although that policy was recently withdrawn. A report is also due on Coastal Pathfinder projects which explored ‘adaptation’ schemes, one of which saw payments made to those losing their homes in North Norfolk. Whether or not this will become an orthodoxy (and for whom), however, I have no idea.
Having been introduced in sharp fashion to the question of what happens to people whom government policy suggests can expect to lose their homes to the sea at some point in the future, and met many others who have been similarly perplexed at the prospect of this, I've developed an interest in what might be considered 'fair' in this context. For example, is it fair that the public purse should stand the burden of either defending or compensating the relatively few individuals whose homes rising sea levels are likely to claim? The utilitarian logic favoured by government says not, and many agree. Conversely, however, we might argue that we relatively few individuals are ultimately the victims of sea level rise caused by the polluting activities of the developed world - a view for which support might be found in the relevant policy literature. In this case, does a utlitarian logic suffice, or do we need to look at models of social justice that foreground the needs of the vulnerable rather than the well-being of the majority?