Last Chance to Save the Planet: UK not prepared for coastal erosion

ITV News Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana takes a closer look at how climate change is affecting lives in Britain, in the first in a special series of reports in the run up to COP26 in Glasgow

A leading climate change expert has warned that Britain is failing to adequately prepare for the inevitable impact of global warming on its coastlines.

Professor Jim Hall, who advised the government for 10 years as a key member of the Climate Change Committee, told ITV News that coastal erosion and flooding was inevitably going to get more severe, leading to difficult decisions for local communities.

“We can’t afford to protect everywhere,” said Prof Hall, professor of climate and environmental risks at the University of Oxford.

“There have been some unwise decisions about where developments take place, many of them inadvertently.

"Now we are seeing the science of climate change we are recognising that is just not sustainable in the future.“

Prof Hall argued that people were understandably attracted to living by the sea but said many “weren’t really aware of the risks that they were going to be exposed to”.

A house teetering on the coastal edge is destroyed in Hemsby. Credit: PA

Asked what his key warning had been to government as a member of the committee assigned to advising ministers on how to adapt to climate change, he said: “That the risks of climate change on the coast are not really being attended to sufficiently.”

The comments come as ITV News travelled to the Cornish and Norfolk coasts to look into the different ways that communities are trying to adapt to the threat of climate change.

Coastal communities in England and Wales are placed into one of four categories to decide their fates, with the two key options: spending money on expensive sea defences to “hold the line” and protect communities, or “managed realignment” where the coast is allowed to retreat with support for residents likely to lose their homes along the way.

The decision on which group a community falls under comes down to whether an economic or environmental case is made to protect them.  As a result, villages – with fewer homes and therefore a weaker business case – are often placed into the second category.

That has happened to both Happisburgh and Hemsby on the Norfolk coast, where residents feel abandoned, with no new sea defences like neighbouring areas.

In Happisburgh, neighbours Bryony and Nicola live just 30 or 40 metres from where their road comes to an abrupt end, because anything ahead of it has now fallen into the sea.

Bryony told ITV News that her old bungalow had already been lost, but she didn’t move further inland because she wanted to stay in the village and fight to protect it.

Nicola Bayless believes if her home were located elsewhere, it would be saved

Nicola argued that if it was an area deemed “significant” by the government, it would be saved, but “it is significant, it is our home” she said, arguing that ministers failed to value the importance of “village life”.

Her 18-year-old daughter, Darcy, said she was sad that she would never be able to show her children where she grew up, because she expected her house to be lost to the sea within a few years.

In Hemsby, Lance Martin lives in the only remaining home on the edge of the coast, after the council demolished the others following a terrible storm in 2018. He managed to drag his home back 10 metres, and protect it himself with stones. But half of his garden has fallen away. Again, he asked why his home was not protected by authorities while nearby towns were.

Experts said the decisions tended to look at how many houses would be lost and over what period.

Low-lying areas prone to flooding and with bigger towns nearby tended to qualify for defences because of the increased risk.

In Looe, Cornwall, the decision has been taken to “hold the line” because of the size of the town, that is now flooded around 12 times a year, affecting hundreds of properties.

There, a new tidal gate has been proposed that could protect the community for years to come. One local pub landlord said that without it his business would be lost in an instant.

The threat to Britain’s coast is one of many facing the country even if global warming is kept below 2C above pre-industrial levels or ideally 1.5C as was agreed at Paris in 2015.

The fact that the UK is hosting Cop 26 this autumn, means there will be heavy focus on its own plans for both emissions reduction and adaptation.