NFU opinion: Neglecting sea defences could prove costly

Essex farmer Robert Stacey

Essex farmer Robert Stacey - Credit: Archant

What would you consider to be the most vital asset that this nation of ours possesses? Could it be the NHS and our welfare system, maybe the monarchy or the fact that we live in a democracy? writes NFU council delegate Robert Stacey.

Sea splashing on sea wall at Ness Point.

Sea splashing on sea wall at Ness Point. - Credit:

One thing I’m sure that very few people will mention is sea walls and our coastal defences. As an island population we have always battled against the sea and many of our sea walls date back hundreds of years. The purpose they served then is even more important now. Population increases mean that the pressure on land has never been greater, whether it’s for building homes, factories, roads, railways, providing a habitat for wildlife or even just producing food.

We must never forget that this land is a finite and precious resource. In the eastern counties about three quarters of our grade one land is below sea level and in the county where I live, Essex, we have the longest coastline of any in England.

However, all is not well. The cost of maintaining our sea defences comes at a price and, when it comes to spending public money, I’m afraid our coastline is not exactly near the top of the list. Against a backdrop of rising sea levels, changing weather patterns, EU habitat and wildlife directives, not to mention unaccountable bureaucracy and health and safety, it is little wonder that many coastal landowners are very worried about their, and the next generation’s, futures.

Spending public money has to show an economical return on the investment, hence most sea wall spending is allocated to areas that have a high asset value, such as a large number of properties and population. For farmland this cost ratio is deemed to be not to the benefit of the public purse, which I believe is very short-sighted. It shouldn’t be a question of “should we be protecting our coastline?” but rather who should pay to protect our coastline?

In Essex we have local funding through Essex County Council and Essex farmers of around £2million, plus national government funds for the very big projects but this is not nearly enough as our walls continue to fall into disrepair. It seems that, due to EU legislation, water voles can have more protection from flooding than people. For example, it cost £165,000 to rehome 55 voles in Somerset two years ago, before any remedial work could be done. My biggest worry is that, one day, we will have a repeat of the storm surge in the North Sea that resulted in the devastating floods of 1953 but this time, due to the neglect of the coastline, the results will be far worse.

So what is our most vital asset? Without question for me it’s our sea defences.

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Robert Stacey is a fourth generation farmer from Chelmsford, Essex, working in a family partnership of 1000 acres growing combinable crops. He is NFU council delegate for Essex.