Going Under: 200,000 homes and businesses at risk of rising sea levels

Nearly 200,000 English properties are at risk of being abandoned by the 2050s due to climate change-induced sea level rise, according to a major new study published today.

Average sea levels around England are expected to be around 35cm higher by 2050 than their historical level and will continue to rise as increasing global temperatures melt glaciers and ice caps and cause ocean waters to expand as they warm.

The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Oceans and Coastal Management, identifies 20 local authorities across England which have at least 2,000 properties at risk of being lost to sea level rise, including North Somerset, Sedgemoor, Eastbourne, Wyre, North East Lincolnshire , Warrington, Swale, Dover, and Portsmouth.

With the value of the average coastal home now standing at £287,000, the total value of the properties at risk is likely to reach tens of billions of pounds.

“Significant sea level rise is now inevitable,” said Paul Sayers, an expert on flood and catastrophic risks who works with the Tyndall Center at University of East Anglia and advises the Climate Change Committee. “For many of our larger cities at the coast protection will continue to be provided, but for some coastal communities this may not be possible. We need a serious national debate about the scale of the threat to these communities and what represents a fair and sustainable response, including how to help people to relocate.”

The types of areas most at risk include single communities which contain a large number of properties but whose floodplains and shorelines are so complex that the cost of maintaining defences is too great.

Other at-risk areas are those communities containing dispersed clusters of properties on a long floodplain, such as the Somerset levels and areas along the east coast, and narrow floodplains with properties on that are constrained between the shoreline and raising ground, such as Dawlish in Devon. Small quay and coastal harbors communities, such as many found across Cornwall, could also face increasing flood and storm damage risks.

Climate and Environmental Risks expert Professor Jim Hall, former director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, called for “honest conversations with coastal communities” about the extent to which they could be protected from rising sea levels.

“These changes are coming sooner than we might think and we need to plan now for how we can adjust, including a nationwide strategic approach to deciding how to manage the coast sustainably in the future,” he said.

In March 2020, 41 per cent of mortgages had terms longer than 25 years, with the median first-time buyer mortgage now lasts for 30 years. The study warns that many people may be buying houses or paying off mortgages on properties which will not be habitable or will be within a few years of being abandoned by the end of the mortgage term. Most people who are likely to be in this situation will be unaware of the risk and there is currently no government scheme to help them, it added.

Earlier this year, the government and the Environment Agency announced the launch of a new £36m program to help coastal communities respond to escalating climate-related flood and erosion risks.

The Coastal Transition Accelerator Program forms part of the government’s wider £200m flood and coast innovation program and will initially focus on areas in the East Riding of Yorkshire and North Norfolk.

However, environmental campaigners and the insurance industry maintain that such schemes need to be rapidly expanded so as to bolter climate resilience in areas that can be protected from rising sea levels and manage the retreat from areas that could become uninhabitable.

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