Campaigners' fury over coastal defence

COASTAL campaigners in Suffolk have hit out after the new head of the Environment Agency said it would be an “impossible task” to defend parts of Britain's coastline.

Anthony Bond

COASTAL campaigners in Suffolk have hit out after the new head of the Environment Agency said it would be an “impossible task” to defend parts of Britain's coastline.

Lord Smith of Finsbury acknowledged that Suffolk and parts of north-east Norfolk faced the most immediate danger from coastal erosion and rising sea-levels. But he said Britain faced hard choices over which areas of the coast to defend and which to allow the sea to reclaim.

Speaking to a national newspaper he said: “We are almost certainly not going to be able to defend absolutely every bit of coast - it would simply be an impossible task both in financial terms and engineering terms.”

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Lord Smith promised to do his “level best to try to defend communities where there are significant numbers of properties under threat and where it's possible to find engineering solutions”.

The Environment Agency and DEFRA have proposed a withdrawal of funding for future maintenance of sea and river defences along the Blyth Estuary.

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And coastal campaigners in Suffolk have been left angered by Lord Smith's comments.

Graham Henderson, chairman of Suffolk Coast Against Retreat (SCAR), said monitoring of the coastline should continue for 20 years and said Lord Smith's comments were negative.

“We do not believe there is sufficient knowledge with regard to climate change and the predicted sea level rises. We want 20 years of maintaining what we have on the coastline of Suffolk and East Anglia and the whole of the UK until more knowledge has been gained.”

He added: “We have always said that we need time and to take an attitude of abandonment to the coastline is very negative. They do not know the outcome of abandoning part of the coastline because water has a habit of finding its way into all sorts of places once the sea defence has gone.”

David Andren, chairman of the Alde and Ore Association, said the group would be looking for a meeting with Lord Smith. “We are obviously alarmed by these comments. It is disappointing as there was some indication that DEFRA and the Environment Agency were beginning to pursue a different plan and Barbara Follett (East of England minister) said plans to abandon flood defences would not go-ahead without the support of the community. This seems to be a backward step. It seems the Environment Agency is going back to taking a hard line approach.”

Suffolk Coastal MP John Gummer, a former Secretary of State for the Environment, added: “Chris Smith's wide ranging speech must be taken seriously. The government must listen to the concerns of the people of Suffolk and the rest of the east coast. We want managed defence, not managed retreat. This must not be the first government in history to abandon Britain to the sea.”

Lord Smith said the agency would publish details next year of the work that has been done and where it thinks the threats to the coastline are. He said the Environment Agency would talk to communities where it thinks defence is not a viable option.

A spokesman for the Environment Agency said it would be investing more than £27m on the East Anglian coast this year.

“Lord Smith has again drawn attention to the fact that, as a nation, we have to make hard decisions about how to deal with the problem of coastal erosion and sea level rise. He is highlighting the need for government to consider the major implications that changes to our coastline could have and look seriously at how we deal with these in the longer term.

“In the East of England we continue, as we have for the past few years, to be in discussion with local communities about how we manage shorelines and we have already published or are talking to people about plans for flood risk management in their area.”

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