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Avoiding the climate ‘lock-in’ on the coast


With coastal areas under threat as a result of climate change, planners need to step up and use their skills and powers to protect the nation's coasts and coastal communities, says Andrew Coleman

As councils all over Britain declare a climate emergency and take real action to reduce their own carbon emissions and (hopefully) find a way to reduce emissions from new development, it is essential that they don’t forget that we need to up our game on adapting to the changing climate.

This particularly applies to coastal communities where sea level rise is ‘locked in’ because of the time delay between past and current pollution that causes sea level rise. Sea level rise and bigger storm surges will also worsen existing coastal erosion risks.

Last year, the Committee on Climate Change reported that 520,000 properties are at risk of coastal flooding and 8,900 are at risk of coastal erosion in England and that these numbers could increase to 1.2 million and 100,000 by 2100.

The Committee on Climate Change report Managing the coast in a changing climate and other research over the last two years have shone a light on the organisational, technical, financial and communication challenges which suggest that planners and other professionals are not adequately preparing for a different coastline. Some of the most pressing concerns are that:

  • Shoreline management plans (SMPs) drawn up by coastal partnerships of local risk management authorities (normally districts and unitaries) are often not taking a technically, financially or environmentally realistic view of the long term (up to 100 years) likelihood of coasts being defended in future
  • SMPs are the ‘principal evidence base’ used by planners preparing local plans – although the degree to which this is happening is patchy – yet planners appear to be seldom involved in their preparation
  • By assuming that currently defended (‘Hold The Line’) coastlines will remain defended in spite of climate change increasing the cost of this, planners are allocating land for development and granting permission for new building behind defences and ‘locking in’ current and future risks
  • The NPPF’s useful coastal change management area tool for restricting development types and lifetime in areas at risk of coastal erosion is very unlikely to be used in areas where ‘Hold The Line’ is the preferred SMP policy
  • Coastal communities are among the most deprived in the country which makes it more challenging to attract public and private funding for schemes and risks increasing ‘flood disadvantage’
  • There are huge communication challenges of preparing ‘at risk’ communities for the prospect of defences not being improved and the resulting threat to homes, livelihoods and sometimes iconic landscapes.

In response to these challenges, I believe that:

  • The Environment Agency should be empowered and funded to take a more robust approach to SMPs and local plans in that are not taking a realistic approach to current and future risks 
  • Planners need to be involved more in SMP formulation – talk to your local coastal engineer and get involved in the next round of SMPs which are being prepared now by coastal partnerships!
  • SMPs should be independently tested to ensure they are delivering meeting they are realistic and are also helping to deliver the environmental benefits set out in the 25 Year Environment Plan
  • MHCLG should change policy and guidance: coastal change management areas should be the ‘go to’ option over more of coastline, regardless of SMP aspirations; and planning inspectors should more rigorously check and enforce the exemption to the presumption in favour of sustainable development that applies to flooding and coastal change policies
  • Planners will need to develop new adaptive approaches, skills and language on the coast and use some of the existing good guidance.

Andrew Coleman MRTPI is senior lecturer on the RTPI-accredited MSc Town Planning course at the University of Brighton and also an independent consultant. This is a summary of the presentation that Andrew gave to the European Council of Towns and Town Planners 13th Biennial Conference in Plymouth on 13th September 2019. Views expressed are personal.

Photo | Shutterstock



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