A Coastal Cliff Hanger

1st April 2020

Coastal Erosion. It’s been a hot topic in recent months due to the exceptional wave surges triggered by Storm Ciara and Storm Dennis. Red warnings were issued across the UK, including more than 300 warnings of severe flooding. The battering by storms revealed all too many weaknesses around the UK’s coastline, leaving behind ‘gaping holes’ at Newquay beach Promenade and almost completely removing part of the Cambrian Coast Railway Line on the Welsh coast. Sadly, it seems the residential recipients of such unprecedented extreme weather events are all too quickly forgotten, and are once again, left at their own peril.

Erosion of the lower shoreline, which can be extreme during periods of high wave and tidal action, removes support to the land above, including residential properties, infrastructure and farmland. Rates of erosion differ hugely based on the nature of deposits forming the coastline - hard rocks are more resistant than clay or sand for example. Areas more exposed to wave action may also suffer more rapid erosion. Even the effects of the melting of glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age mean that the southern parts of Britain are sinking by a rate of up to 5cm per century, meaning that these areas are particularly at risk from coastal erosion. The effect of climate change, bringing with it rising sea levels and increased hazardous weather events will make already vulnerable areas even more susceptible to erosion.

Unfortunately, the measures to protect shorelines from coastal erosion are expensive, require a range of environmental and planning consents and need to be continually maintained. Consequently, action by individual landowners is not normally practical and where existing defenses are present ownership and liability for them may be unclear or disputed. Specialist engineering input is also required to decide how the shoreline is defended. ‘Soft’ sea defenses designed to maintain beaches and absorb wave action (like wooden groynes) have less environmental impact but are not suitable for the most vulnerable or exposed areas. However more robust ‘hard’ solutions like concrete sea walls and rock armour are significantly more expensive and much more intrusive.

These complex decisions on how and whether to protect shorelines from coastal erosion are included in Shoreline Management Plans which model rates of erosion and detail the public policy for sea defense. Outcomes in the Shoreline Management Plans range from ‘Hold the Line’ (fully defended) to ‘No Active Intervention’, which might mean leaving areas undefended. These decisions can have dramatic impacts on homeowners who believed that their properties would be protected from erosion.

"Funding - Defra has estimated, on the basis of information from local authorities, that over the next 20 years, 200 homes are likely to be made unsafe due to coastal erosion, with a possible 2,000 more homes at risk. However, this estimate is highly uncertain."

"The government maintains the position that under English law no-one has statutory right to flood or coastal erosion protection and responsibility lies with the purchaser of the property. Futermore, in the UK insurance is not available to protect against coastal erosion."

Quotes taken from the POSTNote on Coastal Management released by Paliamentary Office of Science and Technology, October 2019.

To summarise a document on Coastal Management released by the Parliamentary Office of Science of Technology in 2009, Defra has estimated that 200 homes are likely to be made ‘unsafe’ due to coastal erosion in the next 20 years (2009-2029) with a ‘possible’ 2000 more at risk. However, the Government insists that no one has a statutory right to flood or coastal erosion protection, and responsibility lies with the purchaser of the property, irrelevant of purchase date. It also states that UK Insurance is ‘not available’ to protect property against coastal erosion.

Unfortunately, this means differences in the level of protection from the sea residents can expect. Whilst areas like Boston in Lincolnshire are being protected by £100 million government funded tidal barrier scheme, in areas like Hemsby in Norfolk, residents are taking it upon themselves to implement their own coastal defence measures, having been told they are ‘too small’ to qualify for Government funding. Residents of Green Lane in Skipsea have been told they must agree to ‘compulsory evictions’ if the coast retreats within 9 metres of their homes, or face the reality of paying the demolition and clean-up costs on their own homes, which can amount up to £20,000.

Coastal erosion and its associated devastating impacts are an ongoing battle for residents who live along the UK coastline. When purchasing any property in a coastal area It is vital that to ensure the correct searches are carried out during the conveyancing process, as advised by your solicitor.

Potential purchasers should be able to find what plans are in place regarding flood defenses in the area and the anticipated rates of coastal erosion using the current Shoreline Management plans, the insurance position of the property and subsequent risk to the property and dwelling. A Terrafirma Ground Report will also include information on coastal landslides related to coastal erosion. Terrafirma can provide advice on the next steps where your property may be at risk of instability.

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Aerial photograph of Green Lane, Skipsea.

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Post-glacial rebound map of the British Isles

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BBC News articles covering Coastal Erosion during January and February 2020.

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Blog written by Evy Hughes

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Tel: 0330 900 7500