Suffolk and Essex seaside: Why it’s valuable and why we must stop it being eaten away, says Prof Jules Pretty
With pressing issues such as job security and petrol prices playing on our minds, it’s easy to forget about our precious coastline. Its champions say we need to act if we want to save it. Steven Russell speaks to one of them
WHEN we spoke to him two years ago, Jules Pretty expected it wouldn’t be long before his book The Luminous Coast rolled off the presses.
But then the recession bit deeply and dreams were put on hold. Still, delayed publication hasn’t all been unhelpful, for it now coincides with the coastline being in the news.
This week has seen major simulations across the country – Exercise Watermark – to test our response to emergencies such as big storm surges. Then there’s a report from The Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The charity says disadvantaged coastal communities are vulnerable to the consequences of climate change – floods, sea level rise and erosion – and that people, economies and industry could face difficult times as a result.
So a book encouraging us to think about what we’ve got, what we cherish and what we could lose is actually coming out at a good time, thanks to serendipity.
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“It is timely,” its author agrees. “We can’t assume that things will go on the same.”
Prof Jules Pretty, who went to primary school in Southwold, is Pro-vice-chancellor (sustainability and resources) at the University of Essex and is also responsible for the Faculty of Science and Engineering. He set up the Centre for Environment and Society there and in 2006 received the OBE for services to sustainable agriculture.
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The following year he began the process that fuelled the book: a 500-mile journey, in stages, around the coast of Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk. About 400 miles were covered on foot and 100 in a variety of boats.
It took him over seawalls of dried grass, besides fields of golden cereal, past white sails cutting along creeks, and under wide skies that were playgrounds to curlews, redshanks and skylarks.
This Luminous Coast – now happily picked up and published officially in 10 days by Suffolk-based Full Circle Editions – celebrates the wildness, people, buildings, wildlife, beaches, dunes, marshes, shingle banks and everything else that dwells on the edge of East Anglia, both embracing the sea and yet vulnerable to it.
The book is a clarion call. We need to think about the coast and what it means to us. If we want to preserve it, we must decide on a solution. But we must have the debate – about options such as sacrificing some land (and perhaps houses) to the waves, or spending money to build new defences.
Jules says the threat is real.
“Fossil fuels that drive our industrial economy, which in turn brings so much, have topped up the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other waste gases. These absorb reflected light from the earth and warm up, and more atmospheric energy provokes climate change,” he writes, in neat summary.
“A warmer world also makes water expand. And for the 70% of the earth’s surface covered by oceans and seas this means one thing: 1.3 billion cubic kilometres of water have to go somewhere…
“And as if this is not enough, East Anglia is sinking too. It seems doubly unfair, but since the glaciers retreated from northern Britain, the land there has been bouncing upwards and thus levering down the south-east.”
By now, people shouldn’t doubt that difficult days are ahead, he tells the EADT.
“The certainty about climate change and its effects grows every year. There’s not suddenly some major piece of evidence that says ‘Ooh, we got it all wrong; it’s not going to happen.’ Every little brick is helping to build a large piece of evidence. Of course, it won’t play out exactly as supposed, but everything’s moving in that direction.”
So has anything significant happened, with regard to our coastline, since he did his walks in 2007 and 2008?
“I think the main thing that has changed has been the gradual lack of attention – the assumption that ‘We’ll let things go a bit…’ – but, at the same time, (there’s) a growing of local opposition and concern.
“I think, at the time I was doing it, the authorities were kind of assuming they could let areas go and people would quietly agree to it – which they didn’t. Just because there are only a few people living in an area doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. I think we should have a slightly higher-level view on this.
“Where ‘managed retreat’ has worked well, such as Abbott’s Hall Farm (on the Blackwater Estuary in Essex) or the one at Tollesbury, they produce new habitat and people are generally content; but, also, they were of a scale that is entirely manageable.
“The assumption in certain areas to a) let river walls go, or b) continue to allow the softer cliffs to go, such as around Happisburgh (Norfolk) or just north of Southwold – Easton Bavents and those kinds of areas – it’s pretty mean, actually. Mean-spirited. Because the amount of money required, on the bigger scale, is not large.
“It’s symptomatic of something that is not quite right for an island nation. The people of Britain pay �130million out of their pockets to run lifeboats every year – it’s a completely charitable exercise; Government doesn’t put anything into it whatsoever – and many landlubbers are happy to do that, even though they know they’ll never be close to being rescued themselves.
“Caister and Sea Palling (both in Norfolk) and others around the coast run their own lifeboats. It’s remarkable. People feel a strong sense of identity for their place, but also for doing the right thing.
“I would see that as a symptom of how strongly people feel when they feel a bit betrayed by Government – local, regional, national, or whatever – in not doing the right thing to help them.”
As with most things, decisions about sea and river defences turn on money, influence and the number of chimney-pots. Not that it should, he laments.
Has the climate of austerity made it harder to win that argument?
“At that level, yes. In the bigger picture, we should step back and ask ‘What do we want from our coastlines and why are they important to us? Do we want to maintain them as they are or do we want to do something different?’
“I don’t really see that sort of strategic discussion. We tend to have technical discussions about engineering or seawalls, or this much flood and that much water, but they don’t connect with local people.
“What people are concerned about is identity and place and memories – places that are important to them because that’s where they go for walks or feel is home. Those rather more diffuse kinds of concepts don’t sit well with the more technical language. I’d like to see those connect up better, and ask ‘What is it we really want and what can we do about it?’
“The long and short of it is that if we do want to maintain our habitats and coastlines and environments and communities largely as they are, we’re going to have to spend money. There’s just no way out of it.
“The sooner we start talking about these things – not in a particularly alarmist way, because I don’t think that helps, but just to say ‘Look, roughly 700 miles of coastline, if you count the inlets and rivers and so forth around Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk, what do we want to do to keep them largely as they are, because they’re important to people’ – then you could start working out how much it would cost.
“It’s still going to be small compared to the overall scheme of things. Government has cut flood protection budget, though, so… It’s also tended to divert it to inland flooding, because that’s been the more recent problem – flooding from rivers. Boscastle in Cornwall was a river; that and the flooding along the Severn and Wye are the ones in people’s minds.
“The problems that happened in ’53 (terrible east coast flooding that claimed more than 300 lives), and almost in 2007, which actually brought water up higher than in 1953, we haven’t had recent memories of that sort of flooding.”
The risk of flooding from rivers and sea should be of equal concern and merit equal attention, Jules argues. Crude methods of weighing up costs and benefits – which often come down to a large number of urban homes under threat, versus a handful of rural houses – can skew resources.
“The argument should be ‘What’s the absolute importance of each area?’ Happisburgh’s still falling into the sea and nobody seems to be doing much about that. If water gets into the lowlands there, it’s potentially heading for Norwich. And that’s when people would wake up – and realise they should have done something about it 10 years earlier.”
Traditional patterns of travel to the seaside don’t help the coastline’s general profile, he reckons.
Jules likens the coast to the rim of a wheel, with visitors getting there by travelling along the “spokes”. We often go to one place by the sea, and then simply home again. Because there’s invariably no long coastal road, we don’t get to know the land in between the places we normally visit.
“It’s easy to forget those communities, politically and culturally. It’s easy to assume they’re on the edge, and therefore convenient to forget. Of course, being on the edge and away from things is also part of the charm… but, politically, it plays against them.”
What does he think about critics of climate change theory – vociferous in the past year or so. Incidents such as the row about University of East Anglia emails gave them prime ammunition, didn’t it?
(Critics alleged the leaked Climatic Research Unit communications showed scientists had manipulated results to fit their hypotheses. An inquiry did criticise scientists for a lack of openness, which fanned public distrust of their work, but it ruled that the “rigour and honesty” of the experts was “not in doubt”. There was no evidence of scientific malpractice. Nevertheless, the episode must have sown the seeds of doubt in some minds that the case for human-inspired global warming was overstated.)
“I think there’s a latent anti-science sentiment about, which I think you could say applies (more) to some other big areas that people have got concerns about, like GM (genetically-modified) crops or nuclear power,” says Jules.
“People think there might be a conspiracy out there and the UEA incident played into those hands.
“But, of course, the various inquiries that followed all said, actually, that what they were saying might have looked a bit bad but there wasn’t any deliberate manipulation of data.”
In the scientific community, in any case, the emphasis is on proving theories by attempting to disprove them – so processes and findings have generally been through rigorous testing.
Jules thinks any doubts have eased. “And the general public are not dim. They know, by looking at the weather, that we’re more prone to sticking to single weather for longer periods of time: when it’s wet, it’s going to be wet for a month, and when it’s cold it’s going to be really cold – and then dry for longer periods.
“In this part of the world we’re going to feel it, because it’s drier than any part of the country; so water-stress, I think, is going to come to us.”
Mass consumption is still the biggest underlying cause of the threat to the planet, he says.
Recession, too, has applied the brakes. When he visited Las Vegas a couple of years ago, the population of the metropolitan sprawl was growing at 80,000 people a year. That’s dried up, “and now Las Vegas is full of empty suburbs, boarded-up buildings, people living in the storm-drains – an alternative community that’s been completely dispossessed”.
The answer to the big question, of course, is that the planet has to wean itself off fossil fuels, sharpish. “Can we do it? Yeah, we could, actually. Many of the ideas and resources are there.”
The Pretty family home on the Suffolk/Essex border, for instance, now has roof panels capturing the free energy of the sun, selling it to the grid. “One would say ‘Just look at all those roof spaces around: houses and businesses. If they were covered with solar panels, we would need to burn much less oil and gas and coal to generate our electricity.”
We’d need to find the resources to put the plan into action, to support our new way of thinking.
“We are the fourth-largest economy in the world. We could make those choices,” he added.
• This Luminous Coast is published by Full Circle Editions at �25, but a special EADT deal offers it at �22.50,including postage. Send a cheque, made out to Full Circle Editions, to Full Circle Editions, Parham House Barn, Brick Lane, Framlingham, Suffolk, IP13 9LQ or call 01728 723 321 and quote “EADT offer”.
Celebrate the launch of This Luminous Coast at a Full Circle Literary Lunch. Jules Pretty will be joined by nature writer Richard Mabey on Friday, April 8, at Snape Maltings.
Tickets (�25 per person) include two-course lunch with wine and coffee.
For information call 01728 723 321 or visit www.fullcircle- editions.co.uk