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Rising sea levels could force towns to relocate, Environment Agency head warns

Houses on the coastline in Skipsea, East Yorkshire (PA)
Houses on the coastline in Skipsea, East Yorkshire (PA)

Some of the UK’s coastal towns and villages may have to be relocated due to rising sea levels and erosion, the head of the Environment Agency will warn.

Sir James Bevan will tell a flooding and coastal erosion conference that the “hardest of all inconvenient truths” is that “in the long term, climate change means that some of our communities – both in this country and around the world – cannot stay where they are”.

“That is because while we can come back safely and build back better after most river flooding, there is no coming back for land that coastal erosion has taken away or which a rising sea level has put permanently or frequently under water.

“Which means that in some places the right answer – in economic, strategic and human terms – will have to be to move communities away from danger rather than to try and protect them from the inevitable impacts of a rising sea level.”

Sir James, who has been chief executive of the Environment Agency since 2015, is set to say it is “far too early to say which communities are likely to need to move in due course, still less make any decisions”.

He will tell the Flood and Coast Conference, in Telford, that “when we do eventually get to decisions on any relocation of communities, they must take full account of the views of the people who live there: no one should be forced from their homes against their will”.

While the aim will be to help communities to remain where they are, “we do need to start the conversation now about the options, not least because we owe it to the threatened communities themselves to help them decide what they want their long-term future to be”, Sir James will say.

Coastal erosion in Norfolk
Houses sit on the cliff edge on The Marrams in Hemsby, Norfolk (PA)

In places like Happisburgh on the north Norfolk coast and parts of the coastline of the East Riding of Yorkshire, the Environment Agency is working with local authorities and residents to plan for the long term.

Schemes include restoring and creating habitats to include green buffer zones, and replacing public or community-owned buildings in areas at risk with removable, modular, or other innovative buildings.

Sir James will say that “if we stick together I am confident that we can turn the climate crisis into an opportunity to create better places and a better future for all”.