CIWEM Column

Have we lost the instinct to value and protect all that is best about our wonderful coastline? Is managed retreat just a euphemism for throwing in the towel and walking away? CIWEM executive director Nick Reeves asks if we should be disturbed by the King Canute factor that seems to influence thinking on coastal defence.....

King Canute, as every school child knows, was the Danish king of England who was carried on his throne to the sea and commanded the waves to retreat – and was thought completely mad. Of course, the point he was trying to make was that when faced with the forces of nature there is a limit to what mere mortals can do.

Government ministers, faced with the same forces of nature and reports of crumbling coastline, go into Canute mode and ask why taxpayers should fund short-term solutions when the sea will, ultimately have its way and do its worst – which is fair enough. It is entirely right to ask if the public interest is best served by pouring concrete (and public money) into shoring up a coastline or cliff.

No-one doubts more questions of this kind will have to be asked as we are forced to deal with the impact of climate change and rising sea levels. However, all the talk of ‘managed realignment’ in Making Space For Water, the government’s recent consultation paper on coastal flooding, is causing concern. Not least because it fails to use straight language. The title really means ‘flooding’.

The subject is important and will be of real interest to those whose lives and property are the subject of managed retreat, and those who have wider public interest in the heritage, ecology and recreational aspects of our coastline. We deserve to be ‘given it straight’. The flooding of land is seldom an ‘act of God’ these days.

It is the result of decisions not to reinforce existing sea walls and the consequence of development decisions. No-one disputes the need to defend London from flooding. If we did not, lives, heritage and billions of pounds worth of property would be lost to floods. But what about our rural coastline, some of it not far from London? It is a much harder call deciding which bits should be abandoned.

The factors involved are complex and hard to quantify in strict financial and economic terms. Some pundits are suspicious government has invented a formula for ‘scoring’ proposed coastal defence schemes that is not a system for coastal defence at all. They see it as a treasury-driven excuse for doing absolutely nothing where something has been done before.

I have been reminded of the case of the Martello tower – a landmark I know quite well and which deserves wider appreciation. The tower sits on the Suffolk coast at Bawdsley and is a Napoleonic fort that is also a scheduled monument. It is on moveable shingle coastline in an area of outstanding natural beauty and attracts a lot of wildlife. It is on a key strategic point of the whole coast, just as it was in Napoleonic times and in both world wars.

In 1997, around 50 yards of beach was washed away and there is every chance the crumbling concrete walls and rock will be breached this winter. If this happens, the tide will roll inland for miles and Aldeburgh could become an island. At the same time, the port of Felixstowe, ten miles to the south, could be completely clogged up.

Flood defence experts agree the policy for the area should be to hold the line and initiate immediate and urgent works. Unfortunately, the government’s scoring system (designed, some say, to divert funds from the coast to protect new communities in flood plains proposed as part of the unsustainable Sustainable Communities Plan) means there is no money to fund the urgent work required. There is no fall-back position, no plan, no nothing. The policy looks like unmanaged retreat. Privately, I and others have been told by officials the scoring system has no robust way of evaluating things like history, heritage, visual attractiveness, local community attitudes and recreational value. To the great unwashed, it looks like a treasury-driven solution that is patently inadequate for defending the realm.

Hopefully, once these inadequacies are understood the scoring system will not last as long as the crumbling sea defences at Bawdsley. King Canute, having secured the throne of England, spent most of his time expanding and protecting his interests abroad. Fast forward to 2005 and has anything really changed?

Flood defence is an emotive issue and has attracted its fair share of national press hyperbole. However, I believe it is fair to say that Ministers in successive governments, like King Canute, have spent several fortunes defending our ‘interests’ overseas while forgetting to defend much that is unique and beautiful about our interests and assets at home.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie