Fairbourne residents fight UK's first 'climate refugees' label

The local authority decided the 450 homes were so vulnerable to climate change that little could be done to stop it. Wales Reporter Rhys Williams explains

Hemmed in by the mountains of Eryri, the Mawddach Estuary and the Irish Sea, Fairbourne’s appeal is obvious, but so is its vulnerability.

At spring tide, the picturesque village already lies below sea level.

A decade ago, Gwynedd Council decided Fairbourne was so vulnerable that it was to be returned to the sea.

The authority would spend no more money defending it against rising sea levels, committing instead to the ‘managed realignment’ and relocation of its people.

By 2054 it would be the first UK community to be "decommissioned", meaning it would be depopulated and demolished, because of rising sea levels.

House prices plummeted after the council announced the village would be decomissioned. Credit: ITV News

The effect was immediate: homes halved in value, house sales fell through overnight, and journalists descended on Fairbourne eager to talk to the UK’s first "climate refugees," a tag bitterly resented by residents.

No information was given to them on how the decommissioning would work, or whether compensation would be available.

In fact, people were told initially they would have to pay to demolish their own homes.

Feeling unfairly singled out compared to other coastal and riverside communities, residents have been fighting back.

They point out that Fairbourne hasn’t flooded since the 1920s, not even in recent storms which caused extensive damage across the north of Wales.

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Gwynedd Council does appear to be back-pedalling. Recent correspondence with residents suggests officials are ready to drop plans to decommission the village, with a newsletter stating explicitly that there are "no plans" to do so.

Officials are also considering alternative modelling to the report relied upon a decade ago, which wasn’t peer-reviewed.

However, with estimates from the Welsh Government that sea levels will rise by about a metre over the next century, Fairbourne is unlikely to be the last community to find itself in this situation.

If this is a test case for what could happen to other coastal villages, then it’s been a huge failure of public policy.