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Waving while drowning

With or without global warming, Britain is disappearing into the sea. We must invest more in coastal and river defences

25 September 2010

12:00 AM

25 September 2010

12:00 AM

With or without global warming, Britain is disappearing into the sea. We must invest more in coastal and river defences

I have an idea for saving public money: replace the Department for Energy and Climate Change with one man and a sandwich board carrying the words: ‘Prepare to Meet Thy Doom’. It shouldn’t cost much
more than £40 a day to pay for him to pace up and down Oxford Street. And it would achieve exactly the same as DECC: constantly reminding us of the grim warnings regularly put out by
ministers – while doing sweet Fanny Adams to save us.

Maybe that is just a tad unfair. We do, after all, have the new Committee of Climate Change, established by the Climate Change Act 2008, which last week published its report ‘How Well Prepared is
the UK for Climate Change?’ As is common with these kinds of documents it trots out the familiar scary predictions and somewhat dubious statistics: we are told, for example, that average
temperatures in Britain have risen by 1°C since the 1970s – which is hard to square with another little factlet provided: globally, temperatures have only risen by 0.8°C ‘since the
pre-industrial era’.

But that isn’t my chief gripe. Having ploughed through 72 pages of policy-maker-speak, I am not the least bit wiser as to what we are supposed to be doing to save ourselves from global warming,
beyond constructing something called a ‘ladder of adaptation schemes’. I have a feeling that the Times reporter put on the case was somewhat dissatisfied too, because he had to ask the committee’s
chairman, Lord Krebs, what we might need to do. Lord Krebs replied with two suggestions: we should fit British homes with shutters and plant more trees in the streets so we can walk in the shade.

I don’t know Lord Krebs well enough to tell whether he suffers from a Napoleonic complex: long lines of trees, planted to shade his marching soldiers, were one of the French emperor’s most enduring
legacies to France. But I know a completely pointless quango when I see one. If a stifling sitting room is the worse we can expect from global warming, couldn’t we just draw the curtains?

Never mind global warming, we don’t have a strategy to cope with the climate we already have. Even in the lukewarm temperatures of this summer our roads melted and our railways stopped functioning,
as usual. We had the usual absurd sight of hosepipe bans being enforced in parts of the country when it was pouring with rain. Last winter, as ever, transport services were paralysed by a couple of
inches of snow.

We are left in this position not because of global warming, or even global cooling, but because we under-invest in infrastructure. But our inadequate roads and railways are nothing compared with
the shocking failure to invest in river and flood defences. With or without global warming we need to invest in better defences. The tectonic plate on which Britain sits is gently tilting
south-eastwards, tipping us slowly into the English Channel.

So where is the great river and coastal defence plan? Er, nowhere. In fact, the government has just slashed the coastal defence budget for next year by 17 per cent. Not that it was much of a budget
to start with. The Environment Agency, the Defra offshoot which is charged with building and maintaining river and coastal defences, spent just £282.1 million across England and Wales on
capital works to defend against flooding and erosion – that is less than one thirtieth of the sum being spent on a two-week sporting event in London in two years’ time.

A lot of this money is spent not strictly defending the coast, but on ‘managed retreat’ schemes in which fields are abandoned to become salt marshes. These may sometimes have a beneficial effect in
lessening flood risk upstream, but there is no disguising who they are really for: wading birds. Astonishingly, the 14 members of the Environment Agency’s board include several conservationists –
the former director of the Green Alliance, the former general secretary of the Labour party, the former leader of Kirklees Council – but not a single engineer.

But there is something far more ridiculous than the Environment Agency. While penny-pinching on real coastal defence work, Defra last year – under Labour – shelled out £10.9 million in grants
under something called the Coastal Change Pathfinder scheme. As you might guess from the name, this is not a programme to put up sea walls and establish dunes; it is really no more than an exercise
in counselling people who are going to lose their homes. In East Riding, for example, the money is going towards ‘assisting vulnerable and isolated groups to achieve an enhanced level of quality of
life and wellbeing’.

In Happisburgh, Norfolk, which had effective sea defences until they were dismantled and not replaced in the 1990s, the money will go towards ‘engaging with the community in a project to
understand, record and manage the impacts of coastal change on their heritage’. In other words, shame about the village, parts of which have already disappeared, but we’ll take a few photographs
and bung them in a museum in Norwich.

If the Dutch adopted this approach to coastal defence they would have to abandon a quarter of their country. Even when we do grudgingly build sea walls they are a feeble shadow of those in the
Netherlands. The Dutch build their sea defences to defend against a level of flood expected once in every 10,000 years. In Britain we build them to a one-in-200-year level.

How convenient that our authorities now have global warming to blame for their inaction. Every time a bungalow slides into the North Sea it will be the same: ‘Look, that’s climate change in action.
Don’t say we didn’t warn you about leaving your TV on standby.’

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