Coast villages to be sacrificed to the sea

Whole villages and swathes of agricultural land will be surrendered to the sea because the Government is unwilling to spend billions of pounds on flood defences.

Ministers have admitted privately that they are preparing to evacuate settlements on the east coast within the next 30 years because it is not "cost effective" to save them.

Thousands of acres of farmland will be allowed to flood, potentially jeopardising food production in areas such as East Anglia.

Parts of the Norfolk and Suffolk coastline will not be given a penny for defences because they have been deemed impossible to save, according to leaked details of the Government's coastal flooding and erosion risk assessment.

The study, which is being conducted by the Environment Agency and will report in June next year, uses a points system to decide which parts of coastline will receive flood defences and which will be abandoned.

The plan comes despite warnings that destructive storm surges are becoming more frequent with climate change.

Tens of thousands of householders were put on alert last week for one of the largest tidal surges to strike Britain in 50 years. The threat was so serious that Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, called two meetings of Cobra, the emergency cabinet committee which plans responses to national disasters.

However, a senior government insider told The Sunday Telegraph that the flood assessment under way at present will lead to some areas of Britain being sacrificed.

"The decisions we take in Suffolk and Norfolk about areas of coastline will be about whether or not we can actually save them," the insider said. "There are some areas where we can build defences but there are some areas we will have to let go. The question is which areas do we let go?

"There are some areas we would have to build a 100-mile wall at a cost of billions, but we can't do that. So the fact is because of sea levels rising there will be some areas that fall into the sea over the next 30 years.

"It is very emotive because people want their villages to be saved, but we would just have to move people out."

The comments will provoke deep anger in the affected communities.

John Gummer, the former environment secretary and MP for Suffolk Coastal, accused the Government of taking an "immoral" decision.

He said: "We have been defending this coastline for thousands of years and this is the first government to decide that we will give in. While Holland is defending every square inch we are intending to give up large acreage of land which we desperately need for food security as well as really significant numbers of houses. They are giving up on whole communities.

"It is immoral not to defend our land today, but to leave it for our children to defend in 50 years' time."

Pilot plans drawn up for Norfolk and Kent have already earmarked communities for destruction, including the villages of Overstrand, in Norfolk, Leysdown-on-Sea, in north-east Kent, and Bawdsey, in Suffolk.

Historical sites such as the Martello towers on the Suffolk coast, which were built as look-out posts during the Napoleonic Wars, will slip into the sea.

Other areas will become more vulnerable to flooding, including Aldeburgh, in Suffolk and Aylesford in Kent, while valuable farmland and roads near the coast will be lost. In Bawdsey, the withdrawal of defences will eventually mean 5,000 acres of agricultural land will be flooded, wells poisoned by salt water and irrigation for more land ruined.

Local people are so desperate that they have begun erecting their own defences with a charitable trust helping farmers to sell land in order to fund flood measures.

The Environment Agency has suspended a £25 million protection project in Somerset, which was due to be completed in 2009.

Residents have warned that Kewstoke, Wick St Lawrence, Sand Bay and parts of Worle are now at risk. Diana Wrightson, whose Edwardian home sits about 15 yards from the crumbling cliff edge in Happisburgh, Norfolk, said she will have to abandon it if another four yards of coast are lost. Two yards go every year.

She said: "There used to be defences on the beach to keep the sea from eroding the cliffs, but they are useless now as no money has been spent on them. The Government has really let us down."

Mr Gummer, head of the Conservative's environmental policy group, accused ministers of acting politically by diverting flood defence money inland. "Why are they not pouring money into coastal areas that are almost predominantly Tory? Meanwhile, they are giving money to river defences in marginal seats.

"Could it be that there are no votes for them on the coastline which is almost exclusively Conservative controlled?"

Charles Beardall, the East Anglia area manager at the Environment Agency, said: "We are not abandoning communities. With the limited funding we have, we are trying to protect as many people as possible. This does mean withdrawing protection in rural coastal areas. In East Anglia there are a small number of properties at risk and we are in discussions with individuals about how we can find other options for those areas."

A Defra spokesman said: "Spending on flood and coastal erosion risk management has nearly doubled in cash terms, from £307 million in 1996-97 to an estimated £600 million in 2007-08. The Government will further increase spending to £800 million in 2010-11."