The plan to save Norfolk coast will only put off the inevitable

The coast near Bacton, Norfolk. Image: Getty.

This summer, the UK’s Norfolk coast underwent a transformation that has only been seen once in the world before. A giant sandscaping scheme saw 1.8m cubic metres of sand added to the area’s beaches to reshape them as a way of reducing coastal erosion. This is an amazing engineering defence, designed to increase the resilience of the adjacent cliffs to erosion. But it may have a sting in its tail in a generation’s time.

Bacton cliff was created from a mixture of debris left by large ice sheets thousands of years ago. Unprotected, the cliffs erode at a rate of a metre a year. The area’s current sea defences including groynes – barriers that stretch out from the shore to limit the movement of sediment – slow down the erosion, but don’t stop it. This means that during extreme storm events, such as in 2013-2014, some five metres to ten metres of cliff can be lost overnight.

Perilously close to the cliff edge is a nationally important Bacton gas terminal, supplying up to one third of the UK’s natural gas after it is brought ashore from the North Sea gas fields. Years of erosion have left just 15 metres between the terminal and the cliff edge. Coastal oil and gas facilities threatened by erosion often have hard rock armouring or groynes placed immediately in front of the cliffs they sit on.

However, history tell us this can actually increase erosion on the adjacent coast. Sand gets trapped between groynes and cannot move to offer protection elsewhere. This means engineers cannot simply build more or bigger groynes in front of the Bacton terminal.

The Zand Motor (or Sand Engine) in the Netherlands. Image: Zand Motor/Flickr.

A common alternative solution is to nourish beaches with extra sand or shingle. This helps build a bigger beach to stop the waves reaching the cliff and so reduces erosion. But this only lasts a short period of time before the new sand is washed away.

In 2011, the Netherlands piloted mega-sand nourishment or “sandscaping”, known as the Zand Motor (or Sand Engine), creating a new 1km by 2km beach near The Hague. The 21.5m cubic metres of sand was designed to protect the coast for 20 years, but is now expected to last longer. The Zand Motor also brought some unexpected benefits. Instead of just being seem as a giant coastal protection scheme, it also has become a place for recreation such jogging or kite surfing.

Bacton is now attempting a similar sandscaping. If all the sand being used were piled a metre high, it would cover an area the size of 200 football pitches. In practice, the sand dune will be built up to seven metres high in places.

The benefits of the scheme are immense. Although principally protecting the gas terminal, the dune will extend up and down the coastline around it, protecting 100 homes and the coastal road to the south. Tourism may also increase, with benefits and business opportunities for those nearby.

Yet while resilience to erosion and flooding will increase for now, the sand will slowly be moved by the waves, and in a few decades the sandscape will be gone. Local residents and businesses may expect that a second sandscaping project will follow. But, presently, no such security exists. The long-term issues of a retreating coastline will manifest itself once again in a generation’s time.

The council’s Shoreline Management Plan includes options to try to take further measures to hold the current coastline, do nothing, or realign the coastline landwards of its present position by removing defences as they reach the end of their life. The long-term plan for Bacton and nearby villages in 40 to 90 years is for coastal retreat. This means defunct defences will be removed and the coast will be allowed to erode naturally. Part of the coastal road and nearby homes will be lost to the sea.

This will be preceded by a transition period, which will be vital to allow local residents to adjust to the idea of coastal change. But the sandscaping project could do exactly the opposite as it raises expectations of long-term protection and could discourage people from coming to terms with the problem.

Community adjustment

The local authority is all too aware of the issues of retreating from the coast. Time and money is needed to assess the options and invest in coastal communities, so they can better cope with the transition. At nearby Trimmingham, a new village hall and community hub opened in 2018 to replace one near the cliff edge. Elsewhere, government support to relocate or “roll back” dwellings is helping householders or small businesses with the practicalities of adapting to the eroding coast.

The sandscaping project may raise the hopes of other coastal communities outside Norfolk that similar schemes could help them too. But the huge costs mean sandscaping is only likely where there is significant non-government investment – £12m of the £22m cost of the Bacton sandscaping scheme was funded by the gas terminal operators. This means we may only see sandscaping next to large, nationally important infrastructure.

Managing the coastline will only get harder as sea levels rise and budgets are squeezed. Engineers can’t keep protecting the whole coast indefinitely, and difficult decisions will have to be made over what to protect, how and for how long. The Bacton sandscaping can buy time to prepare people for a slow, dignified retreat. But while the community may have won the battle against erosion, it will ultimately lose the war.

The Conversation

Sally Brown, Senior Research Fellow, University of Southampton.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 

There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.