Farmland to be abandoned to the sea

By David GreenTHOUSANDS of acres of low-lying farmland along the East Anglian coast are likely to be abandoned as the Environment Agency develops an “exit strategy” for sea wall maintenance.

By David Green

THOUSANDS of acres of low-lying farmland along the East Anglian coast are likely to be abandoned as the Environment Agency develops an “exit strategy” for sea wall maintenance.

The money saved will be focussed on defending priority areas - including people's homes, infrastructure and internationally-important nature reserves.

It is understood that the Environment Agency may withdraw from the maintenance of defences protecting more than 100 kilometres of the region's coastline between The Wash and south Essex over the next five to 10 years.

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Landowners will have the option of doing the work themselves, butmay find the cost of protecting low-value land uneconomic.

The “exit strategy” is being developed nationally, but East Anglia, the highest-spending region for sea defences, will pilot the policy.

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The Environment Agency pledged yesterday to fully consult landowners and all other people affected by the move, but said no compensation would be given because sea wall maintenance was not a statutory duty.

However, the Country Land and Business Association said compensation was essential, together with “meaningful” consultations.

Just under £19million is being spent on maintaining sea defences in the Anglian region this year along its 1,000 kilometres of coast and estuaries, while another £40m has been allocated for the replacement of old sea walls.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has told the Environment Agency to review its sea wall maintenance policy to take account of increased coastal erosion, set to accelerate as a result of the sea level rise and more storms associated with global warming.

The department has made it clear there was likely to be enough funding in future only to protect homes and infrastructure and fulfil the UK duty to protect coastal nature reserves that have European designations.

The Environment Agency has begun a review process that will result in a new cost-benefit analysis of sea wall maintenance.

Sea walls defending low-value farmland will be abandoned if the cost of maintaining them exceeds the value of the land being protected.

The first areas to come under scrutiny will be the Crouch and Roach estuaries in Essex.

Stephen Worrall, a member of the Environment Agency's national flood risk policy team, said some people expected sea walls to be maintained forever.

But with coastal erosion already accelerating and set to increase further under global warming forecasts, such a policy was not cost-effective.

“Budgets are tight and we have to look carefully at how we invest in these walls and identify where cost exceeds benefit. Some difficult decisions will have to be made,” he warned.

Mr Worrall said sea defence budgets had to be spent where they offered the most benefit, but there would be thorough consultations and a two-year buffer period before maintenance was withdrawn along any stretch.

Landowners would have the option of maintaining the wall themselves, selling the land or taking part in a managed retreat project, attracting annual payments under the Countryside Stewardship scheme.

The latter would involve building a new sea wall further inland in order to create inter-tidal wildlife habitat, an increasingly scarce resource.

Paul Long, East Anglian director of the Country Land and Business Association, said if the Environment Agency's maintenance of sea walls was to be withdrawn, then the process needed careful planning, a proper compensation system and “meaningful” consultations.

“If sea walls are allowed to fall down on their own, we are not going to get the environmental benefits being sought,” he added.

Members of the Environment Agency's Norfolk and Suffolk flood defence committee have also expressed concerns about the “exit strategy” and the public criticism it might attract.

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