A future where defence is the last resort

Studland middle beach after the storm © Mike Collins

Studland middle beach after the storm

Latest update 11.04.2014 14:05

A clear national strategy is urgently needed to help coastal areas adapt to the twin pressures of rising sea levels and extreme weather, according to our new report published today.

As one of the UK’s biggest coastal owners, we've seen many of our sites battered by the winter storms or hit hard by the high tides – with one, Birling Gap in East Sussex, experiencing seven years of erosion this winter.

These impacts have meant that we've had to fast-forward many decisions about land and buildings in our care, looking at how to adapt coastal places in the months ahead, rather than years or decades.

The report, Shifting Shores – adapting to change, highlights case studies of special places affected by the storms, including stretches of the wildlife-rich Norfolk coast at Brancaster and Blakeney Freshes, which saw significant changes as a result of a tidal surge in December, and the sand dunes at Murlough in Northern Ireland which suffered their worst erosion in living memory.

Simon Pryor, our natural environment director, said: 'There is a natural inclination to want to defend the coastline with concrete, but our coastline is dynamic and the forces of nature that have formed it are part of its beauty.

'Hard defences will always have their place, but the winter storms that hit many coastal places hard have provided a valuable reminder that they have a limited life.

'Where we can we need to give natural processes that have formed our coast the space to work, and create areas where the coastline can realign as the sea levels rise. Natural habitats such as sand-dunes and salt marshes can act as buffer zones that absorb the impact of storms and very high tides.

Details of the report

'The report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last week clearly demonstrates some of the big changes ahead and re-inforces the urgency of having a workable plan for the long-term management of the coastline.

'In parallel to adapting our coast to cope with climate change there is a clear need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid further accelerating climate change and the risk of even more dramatic storm damage.

'Communities living on the coast, landowners, government agencies and local and central government all need to work together now to find solutions based around an adaptation approach to help future-proof the coastline.

'Much of the framework to make this happen is in place but Government needs to act now to make sure that it’s implemented and the support is there for coastal communities to begin planning to adapt.'

More widely, there is a need for governments in England and Wales to work creatively to get their good planning policies on managing change into practice at the coast. The Trust argues that Ministers should consider a fresh programme of pilots of the Coastal Change Management Area approach to demonstrate its value, and consider toughening up the guidance if responsible authorities aren’t acting on it.

In Northern Ireland, the Executive is yet to establish a system of shoreline planning, and we hope Ministers there will address this significant policy gap.

Impact on our coastline

In the 20th century global sea levels rose by nineteen centimetres and the predictions for this century suggests that this figure could be four times higher. This will have major implications for the shape of the coastline that millions of us visit every year with coastal places changing in our own lifetimes.

We care for 742 miles of coast in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and will have adaptation strategies in place for our 70 coastal places most at risk of erosion or flooding by 2020.

Around 60 per cent of the land that we care for on the coastline is at risk of erosion in the twenty-first century – with 15 per cent of these sites potentially losing more than 100 metres of land to the sea.

This will involve looking at future-proofing buildings on the coast, where car parks should be located, creating access to beaches that can change, and the creation of new habitats for wildlife.

Professor Andrew Cooper, a coastal expert from the University of Ulster, said: 'The approach to coastal change management being adopted by the Trust is exactly the type of adaptive approach that we will need to embrace as we face extremes of weather set against the backdrop of a changing climate and rising sea level.

'We cannot afford to, nor is it desirable, to try and engineer our way out of this.'

As part of a new project, in partnership with the Arts University Bournemouth, students are looking at designing ‘future proof’ beach huts at Studland in Dorset – that can withstand extreme weather and a constantly changing coastline. Some of the 275 beach huts at Studland have already had to be moved three times and the recent winter storms left some perilously close to the water’s edge as the footpath was washed away.

Elli MacDonald, project manager on Studland, said: 'The storms in February were a reminder of how vulnerable the Studland peninsula is to extreme weather.

'Beach huts have been popular with families since Victorian times and are an important part of the special character of the British coastline. That’s why we’re trying to find a practical solution so that these symbols of the seaside can be enjoyed by generations to come.'

At Birling Gap in East Sussex rapid erosion during the winter means thinking now about the future of the café and shop which is located metres from the chalk cliffs. The long-term plan is to move it back and then review in 20 or 30 years’ time.

Part of the footpath down to the golden sands of Rhossili on Gower, recently voted one of the top ten beaches in the world, has been washed away by the storms. With hundreds of thousands of visitors coming to this magical coastline we're looking at solutions to create a footpath that is flexible enough to cope with rapid erosion rather than re-building the original route to the beach.

There has been a connection with the coast since the founding of the National Trust in 1895 – our first ever acquisition was a small area of coastal cliff above Barmouth in north Wales. We now care for one in three miles of the South West coast of England and two years ago huge public support enabled us to acquire a one-mile stretch of the White Cliffs of Dover.

Money raised by our Neptune Coastline Campaign will help us to adapt many of our much-loved coastal places for the challenges of the 21st century.