Coastal Defences Sixty Years On

Rob Wise, regional adviser with the Country Land & Business Association (CLA) East looks back at the floods of 1953 and forward to the current pressures on flood defence work - an issue which is particularly important to farmers and landowners in East Anglia

NEXT January will be the sixtieth anniversary of the great flood of 1953. 307 lives were lost along the east coast with a further estimated 224 UK deaths at sea. Over 1,860 people lost their lives in Holland and Belgium.

No wonder then that the governments of the affected countries stepped in to rebuild the sea defences and take charge of their future maintenance. From the earliest times centuries before, the draining of the fens and coastal marshes and building and maintenance of sea walls to protect the reclaimed land had been privately undertaken by landowners.

That all changed in early 1953 with central government taking over, and for the last sixty years private landowners and residents have seen government - most recently through the Environment Agency - shoulder the financial and physical responsibility for keeping us all safe from flooding.

But the current financial crisis, putting a strain on central government resources, has seen the hastening of a swing of the pendulum back towards private responsibility. While we can accept some burden sharing it has to be put in place equitably.

The CLA feel that the report on flood risk management published last month by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee is right to highlight that the budget for flood defence is underfunded. Not only that, but the lack of an appropriate and accurate analysis by government of the economic contribution of agriculture, land management and food production in the assessment of what will be funded is already having a serious impact on rural communities.

For example, Suffolk CLA President Sir Edward Greenwell reported recently that in Suffolk’s Alde and Ore estuaries alone, flooding of farmland would lead to the loss of �7m a year to the local economy and the loss of at least 65,000 tonnes of vegetable and potato production.

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This country is not self-sufficient in most of these products, so we must import more if we cannot produce them ourselves. The permanent loss of up to 1687 hectares of farmland in Suffolk, just as world food supplies are becoming tight, would be a disaster.

The CLA understands funding has to be more targeted but those involved with formulating government policy on flood defence must begin to recognise the importance of land-based rural businesses, especially in light of increased population growth and climate change.

Currently, the Environment Agency is follows outdated Treasury rules when implementing government policy. This means it is not considering fully the economic contribution of food production and land-based businesses in its analysis of which defence projects warrant funding.

Defra budgets need to be maintained, not cut, as the overall costs of maintaining defences will continue to rise. If government maintains its commitment, landowners will be prepared to work with them to leverage in more local funding.

Suffolk, and it’s neighbouring coastal counties, have been at the forefront of innovative approaches to securing additional funding for flood defences, over and above that available from central government. Private landowners have been central to these efforts.

One of the most quoted examples of best practice for leverage in private funds is the rebuilding of the defences at Bawdsey. Here, landowners worked with Suffolk Coastal District Council to identify new exception sites in and around Bawdsey for a limited number of new homes. The proceeds of selling the farmland for house building was ploughed into rebuilding the defences.

At Shotley many different private and local government interests came together to fundraise for the rebuilding of defences that fell outside the responsibility of the local authority and the Environment Agency. A mix of funding from all the parties got the defences rebuilt in a very cost effective way.

The Deben Estuary Partnership have recently assisted with work on sea wall maintenance in many parts of the estuary. The sea wall at Martlesham was all brought back up to a 3.2 metres height along a 1450 metres length. The footpath surface has been strengthened with crushed concrete and the Borrow Dyke and newly constructed wildlife scrapes where the clay came from will provide new habitats for reptiles and water voles. Further work at Ramsholt and Pettistree has also recently been completed.

A similar estuary partnership is forming in the Alde and Ore and number of private / public funded initiatives have come forward in the Blyth as well. In some of these cases getting the landowners to do the work, rather than Environment Agency contractors, is bringing the costs of the projects down. The CLA is also exploring whether initiatives like these can be pursued most efficiently through use of the government’s new neighbourhood planning legislation.

So there is no lack of initiative on the part of private landowners to meet the challenges of rising sea levels and falling government budgets. So long as government properly reflects the value of farmland and food production in their equations for calculating value for money when they allocate what budget is available, landowners will play their part in the new world of shared responsibility for coastal defences.