Chris Blunkell

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I'm married to Claire and together, with our son Lewis, we live in Seasalter - just outside Whitstable, Kent, in the south east of England.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Loss of coastal homes - time we knew the big picture

Beyond definitional quagmires and patchy data
Coastal communities and authority – partnership or conflict?

There is plenty I remain unclear about when it comes to the implications of rising sea levels and related policy decisions for those English and Welsh coastal dwellers whose homes are expected to be lost over time.  

I know that government is not minded to compensate losers, but also that it has trialled payments to those facing imminent loss through recent Coastal Pathfinder projects[1]. I don’t know what this means for policy, however – Pathfinders were initiated under a different government with, arguably, a rather different take on how risks should be shared between society and the individual.

I do know that, to a significant extent, government considers the achievement of just outcomes in this context to be predicated on communities’ exertion of influence on decision-making. DEFRA-commissioned guidance states that “communities that are most at risk to coastal change (sic) must be informed, engaged, and empowered to take an active part in what happens locally.”[2] (p.7) However, I am concerned that statements such as “The risk management authorities should work in partnership with communities to understand the community perspective of flooding and coastal erosion…and encourage them to have direct involvement in decision-making and risk management actions” (2011, p.14) threaten to obscure difficulties worthy of attention. 

 Leaving aside for one moment issues over precisely what is meant by terms such as ‘community’, and what the solution of problems might look like, there is evidence – as yet not particularly well-developed - of conflict between authorities and coastal ‘losers’. A recent analysis of national adaptation strategies[3] in European countries, referring to the UK, states that “The debate about the extent to which sea defences should be strengthened or ‘managed realignment’ planned for has been very controversial in some places.” (p.266) This was subsequently echoed by The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST)[4], which highlighted “friction between government policy and local communities”, observing that “In places where the perceived threat to property and community vitality is high, community action groups have formed to seek policy change or compensation for loss.” (p.4) I wonder just how much conflict such encounters can accommodate and still be considered ‘partnerships, and remain curious as the scale and nature of such encounters and related conflict give that the bigger picture with regard to the loss of property over time remains unclear. 

Loss of homes - the big picture

I do know that government estimates that “In England, in 2009, around 5.2 million, or one in six, residential and commercial properties were identified as being in areas at risk of flooding from rivers, the sea and surface water. In addition, approximately 200 properties are assessed as being vulnerable at present, and 2,000 may become vulnerable, to coastal erosion over the next 20 years.”[5] (p.5) But I don’t know the scale of the problem as it applies the projected loss of coastal homes in England and Wales over time, and it is worth noting that the statement above only covers England, when Shoreline Management Plans (SMPs) set top level policy for sea defence in both England and Wales. Second, no distinction is made between risks from river flooding and risks from sea flooding. Third, what ‘vulnerable’ means in this context is not clear to me. However, on the grounds that it is distinguished from simply being ‘at risk of flooding’, I assume a suggestion of property likely to be lost to the sea. Finally, I’m not sure whether this applies to residential property only, or covers commercial/industrial and other buildings.

Finding consistent and comprehensive information on residential coastal properties likely to be lost to the sea under government preferred policies is difficult, if not impossible. A recent Internet trawl for data relevant contained in all second generation SMPs threw up various difficulties:

·         Far from all second generation SMPs had been published on-line by the relevant Operating Authorities when I searched them in November 2011, and of those that were published some were in draft form.

·         Where SMPs contained data on properties at risk under preferred policies, this was codified inconsistently. For example, some reported in terms of the financial value of properties concerned, whereas others report in terms of the number of properties. Others still were content to report simply that there are potential effects on property, without enumerating.  

·         A similar problem applies in terms of timeframes – whereas most SMPs that reported at all did so using short-, medium- and long-term analyses, one reported only over the whole 0-100 year period.

·         Finally, some SMPs were coy on the numbers of properties likely to be lost as investment in defence by affected communities remains to be negotiated.

I do know, however, that a detailed picture of homes likely to be lost is anticipated by officials imminently, and that it is expected to cover not only predicted erosion for the coasts of England and Wales but also the number of homes lost to the sea under government’s preferred policies in both the short term (0-20 years), medium term (20-50 years) and long term (50-100 years). A comprehensive understanding of homes expected to be lost under government policies, and the people and communities who inhabit them with a view to achieving just outcomes, is overdue.

It is imperative that government propels this information into the public domain and encourages its consideration. The public needs to know the numbers, and I want to know who is to shoulder these losses, where they are, and what kinds of settlements they live in. This, I suggest, may be closely related to their ability to negotiate acceptable outcomes with authority.

[2] DEFRA 2009c. Guidance for Community Adaptation Planning and Engagement (CAPE) on the Coast, working paper, Scott Wilson/Defra 2009.

[3] Swart, R., Biesbroek, R., Binnerup, S., Carter, T., Cowan, C., Henrichs, T.,
Loquen, S., Mela, H., Morecroft, M., Reese, M. and Rey, D. 2009. Europe Adapts to Climate Change: Comparing National Adaptation Strategies. PEER Report No 1. Helsinki: Partnership for European Environmental Research.

[4] Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. 2010. Postnote Number 363.
[5] Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs & the Environment Agency. 2011. Understanding the risks, empowering communities, building resilience: the national flood and coastal erosion risk management strategy for England. London: The Stationery Office.

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