When Roman rule in Britain ended around 400 AD, Pevensey Castle was by the sea and a good proportion of what is now Eastbourne was under water. The sea subsequently retreated and today the castle is two miles inland – but now the sea is returning.
The Environment Agency estimates that by the turn of this century the sea around the UK Southeast coast will have risen by 0.7m – more if global heating accelerates. If no action is taken the sea will then overtop the existing sea defences in Eastbourne.
Over half a million seaside properties in England at risk
Scientists at the UEA Tyndall Centre estimate that by 2050 a third of England’s coastline – up to 1900 km – will be under pressure from sea level rise. This coastal area is estimated to contain 544,000 residential properties and 72,000 other properties. The latter include industrial sites and infrastructure like sewerage works, electricity sub stations, waste tips, heritage sites, key road and rail transport links and nuclear power plants. In Eastbourne, sea level rise threatens the operation of the current Waste-Water Treatment Works and potentially will flood the main road and the railway lines in and out of the town.
But Eastbourne is lucky, being one the few coastal areas in the UK where a decision has already been taken to re-enforce the sea defences. The Pevensey Bay to Eastbourne Coastal Management Scheme started gathering information a couple of years ago and a long list of proposals for enhanced defences from Beachy Head in the West to Cooden in East has been developed. As yet the list has not been made public.
While current plans for Eastbourne are concerned with overtopping or breaches of the sea defences when the sea level rises, that rise threatens the land in other ways. Pressure from the sea forces water up under the land causing a host of problems. The rising water table leads to increased pumping out – which exacerbates land subsidence. The foundations and bedding under roads and railways erode, making them difficult to maintain. Increasing salt makes the land unfit for agriculture. Buried toxic pollutants may be released. Increased water pressure on joints in drainage and sewage systems can lead to such systems being inundated.
As storm events increase due to global warming, maintaining existing sea defences is likely to become more costly. In addition, the Environment Agency estimates that currently over two thirds of properties in England are served by infrastructure located in, or dependent on, other infrastructure in areas at risk of flooding.
Scientists at the Tyndall centre question whether it will be possible to “hold the line” over a third of England coastline but as yet there is little public debate about how to support communities which are affected, or how to deal with industrial sites or degradation of key infrastructure. How are the effects of sea level rise to be funded in a Britain which the government argues is cash strapped? The government no longer wants sea defences to be funded entirely from public taxation and is expecting to enter into a number of “partnership funding” arrangements with key industries – the water industry, manufacturing, agriculture and ports – to contribute to the cost of sea defences.
Will residents in affected areas face increased bills?
However, in some places there are indications that this partnership funding strategy will not pan out well for all. For example, housing complexes with many thousand residents have been built around privately owned yacht marinas. In some of these complexes, residents have been required to pay towards the current cost of sea defences through estate charges. Will these residents be required to foot the major increase in costs for enhanced sea defences as charges are passed down from the private land owners?
The arrangements for funding laid out in the National Flood and Coastal Erosion Strategy published in 2020 need serious public attention as they are likely to increase inequality and social division. We have seen to our cost the effects of lack of investment in adequate sewage disposal by privatised water industries. Can we believe the private funding of sea defences will be any different? Successive governments have eroded rigorous regulation of crucial infrastructure, and the protection of the privatised water and power infrastructures is crucial. Would an overseas investor in UK infrastructure want its profits diminished to fund UK sea defences?
And what about us? Will the residents and businesses in areas at risk of flooding suffer financial hardship from directly imposed costs if enhanced sea defences are not funded through general taxation? As the sea rises, so do the number of questions that need to be urgently addressed for the protection of our coastal communities.