Flooding threat hangs over region

If things remain as they are, much of East Anglia's coastline could disappear under water, according to a new Government-backed report published yesterday.

Only a change in policies, a cut in greenhouse gases and enhanced long-term flood management will help control a crisis of massive environ-mental and financial proportions, according to the Foresight Flood and Coastal Defence report.

Although the grim message is not new, the weight this report has been given is evident in the immediate action of the Government by using it as part of a draft Flood and Coastal Protection Plan, due out later this year.

The Department of Trade and Industry's Foresight project gathered the 60 experts in climate change, engineering and economics to examine possible risks for the UK from flooding and coastal erosion in the next 30 to 100 years.

Sarah Cornell, a senior researcher at the Tyndall Centre, based at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, was part of the team.

“Some of the report does make for grim reading but that is if things stay as they are or a worst-case scenario. We have to make sure people, and not just the Government, are part of the decision-making process for their own patch but also for the nation,” she said.

“The report shows that we have to make clear choices now to manage future flood risk. This includes reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, such as Norfolk's CRed project is doing.”

It reveals that the cost of damage from flooding and coastal erosion in Britain could rise by 20 times over the next century – from about £1bn a year to more than £20bn by 2080.

Up to four million Britons could face the prospect of their homes being swallowed by water both from rivers and the sea, particularly in parts of low-lying East Anglia.

As well as the financial impact for residents – including being unable to insure property – there is also the damage to sites of natural beauty such as the Broads.

The report found that climate change and increased flooding could alter the effectiveness of drains and sewers in towns and cities, but it needs more research.

The Government currently spends £500m per year on flood management but in this report the emphasis is not solely on its shoulders but also local council planners, developers and the public.

Four scenarios, depending on things such as climate change, economic development and Government structure, have been put forward.

There is one certainty; things cannot stay the same because the risks grow to “unacceptable levels”.

And even in the best scenario for the next 75 years – where local people take control of their areas and manage floods with strong environmental and social control – the financial risk is still double what it is today, at £2bn a year.

Although it is a national report, the findings are particularly applicable to the east.

Dr Cornell added: “We looked back at flood and coastal defences in the past because we wanted to plan for the future. It is not a forecast for the UK in the sense of a weather forecast but what we wanted to do was put forward a set of what if? situations.

“From Yorkshire to Essex, communities are at risk of flooding because of sea-level and sinking land. In addition, our coasts are soft and vulnerable to erosion and storms can also have unexpected impacts, as seen with the big flood of 1953.”

Sir David King, the Government's chief scientist, said: “This Foresight report is the most wide-ranging analysis of future flood risk ever made in the UK. Flooding can have a devastating effect on people's homes and businesses. There are currently about £200bn worth of assets and 1.7 million properties in flood-risk areas in England and Wales.

“The scenarios in the Future Flooding report may seem a long way off, but the challenge of increased flood risk needs to be considered now.”

It is something the Government is obviously taking seriously, having already used findings of the report.

Elliot Morley, Environment Minister, said: “Managing future flood risk, including the latest climate-change predictions, is a challenge Defra is addressing as it works on its new strategy for flood and coastal protection.

“Foresight's important predictive insights mean that part of Defra's work is already done – the report's conclusions will be incorporated into the draft strategy, to be published for consultation later this year.

“Government spending on flood and coastal defence has risen significantly in the last three years and the UK is firmly committed to combating climate change. But this very useful what if? report underlines the need for the Government's flood-management programme to keep evolving to face up to new potential risks and challenges.”

The Government has no legal obligation to defend property or land and the only way it will intervene is when it is “sustainable” to do so and where the defence is “economically, technically and environmentally sound”.

Developers and those who work in the building industry have also welcomed the report.

Chris Ward, director in charge of hydrology for TA Millard consulting engineers, based in Norwich, said: “I welcome this report. I think it says what hydrologists and engineers have been saying for years. One of the East Anglian angles is coastal realignment – where the coastline is not defended and there is a managed retreat – which is particularly unpopular in areas like Happisburgh. Although the report makes some comments about it, it does not say whether it is in favour of it or not – just that it is in the tool kit as something that can mitigate the effects of flooding.”

An on-going action plan has been drawn up which also involves making use of the report in specific parts of the country.

The full report can be found at www.foresight.gov.uk