National Trust calls for urgent action to manage threats to coastline

Trust wants halt to concrete sea defences, with buildings and infrastructure moved inland in high risk places.

Pembrokeshire Coast

The National Trust is calling for urgent action from Government and agencies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to ensure all coastal areas are ready for the enormous challenges presented by severe storms and rising sea levels.

Twelve and a half thousand new homes and businesses have been built in coastal areas at risk of significant erosion or flooding over the last decade despite a range of national guidance strongly advising against such developments, a report for the conservation charity has found.

“We need to actively transition from maintaining old defences to working with natural processes, where and when it’s appropriate, to conserve the beauty and wildlife of our coastline" - Phil Dyke, National Trust

Only one in three coastal planning authorities in England have the most up-to-date planning policy in place to deal with rising sea levels and more frequent storms, the Trust said.

And it pointed out that in 2013 and 2014, the coastline was battered by a series of storms and high tides which resulted in levels of erosion and flooding experts would usually expect to see every five to 15 years.  “In the coming years extreme weather events are likely to become more frequent, affecting people and natural habitats putting coastal wildlife at risk” said the Trust.

In its new report –“Shifting Shores – playing our part at the coast" put together with the help of CH2M, the Trust calls for a bold and imaginative approach to coastline management, involving an understanding of how nature works, moving towards adaptation and away from maintaining engineered defences, where appropriate, while being sensitive to community needs. 

This includes ending the ineffective cycle of continually rebuilding concrete sea defences and instead relocating buildings, infrastructure and habitats to safe areas further inland at some at risk locations.

The Trust, which cares for 775 miles of coastline for the nation, will be putting this approach into practice with its commitment to have plans in place for 80 of the coastal areas it cares for by 2020.

“We know from our own experience how difficult taking the adaptive approach can be, despite all the good policy guidance that now exists. But action is now needed by all coastal stakeholders to manage the threats to our beautiful and diverse coast to prevent us drifting into a future where our coast is a rim of concrete,” said National Trust coastal marine adviser Phil Dyke.

“In order to manage our coasts for the future, including the impacts of climate change, we need to work with the grain of nature and not against it" - Lord Krebs, chair of adaptation subcommittee, Committee on Climate Change

“We need to actively transition from maintaining old defences to working with natural processes, where and when it’s appropriate, to conserve the beauty and wildlife of our coastline.

“Recreating a naturally functioning shoreline will free us from the sea defence cycle of construct, fail and reconstruct and lessen the impacts of severe weather.”

At coastal areas at risk the Trust also wants to ensure there is space and land to help with a managed realignment; rolling back and relocating buildings, infrastructure, shoreline and habitats.  For example, it has recently acquired Dunsbury Farm on the Isle of Wight to allow for the rolling back of Compton Bay to secure continued coastal access and for new wildlife-friendly habitats for any displaced species.

The Trust also favours a landscape-scale style approach, where large areas of the coast are viewed as a whole to create more joined up and better managed stretches of coastline. It is also committed to working in partnership with a wide range of local landowners, communities and groups to deliver a joined up approach to managing coastal change, which works for all the parties involved.

This approach is already starting to work at Gupton Farm in Pembrokeshire, it said. Here, large areas of the farm are only 50 centimetres above the high tide mark with precious freshwater wetlands, which sit behind the coastal road, at risk of being swamped by the sea. By working in partnership with the local community, neighbours and other organisations, the reed beds, fen meadows and dune grasslands are gradually being restored and extended; farming and wildlife are adapting and thriving hand-in-hand.

Peter Nixon, Director of Land, Landscape and Nature at the National Trust said: “The harsh truth is that our natural environment is in poor health – wildlife is in decline, over-worked soils are being washed out to sea and climate change is becoming an increasing threat.

“The Trust has always been about much more than simply looking after the place it manages.

“The complex and ever-changing challenges we face on the coastline can only be addressed by working in partnership with others. We can’t and won’t ever succeed on our own.

“Above all we need to understand the forces of nature at work, so that we can all make well-informed choices about whether and where to continue maintaining hard defences or to adapt to and work with natural processes.”

Lord Krebs, Chair of the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Committee on Climate Change said: “In order to manage our coasts for the future, including the impacts of climate change, we need to work with the grain of nature and not against it. A long term vision, with action to reduce risk and create new habitats for wildlife, will protect inland regions from flooding and ensure that future generations can enjoy the coastline as we do today.”

Key recommendations

The trust wants government to:

  • Develop a national policy and delivery framework for a clear Coastal Vision that supports adaptive coastal change management – on an equal footing with engineered defences
  • Ensure local authorities have the lead role in driving adaptive coastal change management and giving support to local communities – and that the funds are in place to support them in playing this role
  • Revise planning guidance to make Coastal Change Management Areas a requirement for local plans, where risk areas are identified
  • Undertake a review of the role and function of coastal groups
  • Provide greater detail on coastal risk/ change management in planning guidance – including for Neighbourhood Plans
  • Promote regional coastal forums as a vehicle to ensure coastal change management is considered within the context of wider issues
  • Defra to develop an ‘innovative funding’ approach on coastal adaptation similar to the scheme being developed by Welsh Government.


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