We can't hold back mother nature

STARK choices will have to be made over the defence of our coastline, and some areas ultimately might have to be surrendered to the sea, environment secretary Hilary Benn warned yesterday .

STARK choices will have to be made over the defence of our coastline, and some areas ultimately might have to be surrendered to the sea, environment secretary Hilary Benn warned yesterday .

Mr Benn said the government had increased spending on flood defences, but that it could prove uneconomical to protect some places from rising sea levels, warning: “Nature is more powerful than all of us.”

He was quizzed on BBC radio over draft proposals by government conservation advisers Natural England that would involve surrendering 25sq miles of Norfolk to the sea.

If adopted, the proposals, one of four options, would involve the loss of hundreds of homes, thousands of acres of agricultural land and internationally important wildlife reserves, including Hickling Broad and Horsey Mere.

The other options are to do nothing, hold the line of current sea defences or to adapt the line by moving defences slightly inland.

Mr Benn was speaking as three public meetings were announced in villages that would be wiped off the map were the scheme to surrender 25sq miles ever to be approved.

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“Natural England is thinking about the future,” Mr Benn told BBC Radio Five Live.

“We know that sea levels are rising - you have just been talking about climate change - and if we don't deal with that the scientists tell us that sea levels are going to rise potentially a lot further, and nature is more powerful than all of us.

“We're putting more money into flood and coastal defence. We had the terrible floods in the summer and I announced a couple of weeks into the job that over the next three years we're going to increase spending from £600m to £800m, and we have doubled spending in the last 10 years, but we are going to need to do more.

“And there are some very difficult decisions that are going to have to be taken. The Environment Agency has got the responsibility as it's looking at the coast - looking at each bit of land, each stretch of coastline - saying 'Well, here are areas that we really, really do need to protect and here are some other areas where, over time, it may be difficult to protect for ever from a rising sea level.'

“It's very difficult for people living there; for farmers, for communities. In the end it's partly about how much money we are prepared to spend as a country but it's also about what nature in the end makes happen.”

His comments came as chief executive of the Environment Agency, Lady Young, said: “I understand how worried people living on the coast, especially in the Broads area, must be.

“We have committed to trying to 'hold the line' for the next 50 years, but after this there are difficult decisions to make. We have to look at all the options and of course, extreme weather could cause over-topping of defences and flooding before then.”

Interviewer Simon Mayo asked Mr Benn: “People are listening to this in Norfolk and indeed Suffolk, where there's a lot of concern about coastal defences. You're saying that there may well be some parts of the coastline that will disappear because we can't protect them because nature is too strong?”

Mr Benn replied: “It will depend in the end what the rise in sea level is, and I can't predict that with any certainty and nor can you and nor can anybody else, but it does make sense to start to think about what the consequences of that are and what we do to protect.

“Part of the answer is how much as a society are we prepared to invest in trying to build those defences even higher? There may be areas of agricultural land which it's more difficult in terms of cost-effectiveness to protect.”

Eric Lindo, chairman of the Stalham with Happing Partnership, which works to regenerate a large area of north-east Norfolk, said the cost of defending land from the sea was tiny compared with the value of what would be lost.

He estimates the value of the farmland and homes lost would total nearly £500m or more.

“What we want is a commitment from government to spend money to tackle the problem once and for all and we're not looking for huge sums. I don't yet see that commitment from government,” he said.

“We're looking to protect the whole of the East Anglian coast. It's a very small amount compared with government expenditure elsewhere.

“It's just as important we defend this country from the sea as from any other threat. If a foreign power was to try to invade this country we would spend billions fighting it, but as soon as the sea starts lapping at the ankles of these quango members they are running for cover.”

Environment Agency coastal manager Steve Hayman said it would cost between £1.5m and £2m a year to maintain sea defences between Eccles and Winterton, which protect the Upper Thurne area.

“In economic terms it's well-justified. We do have problems getting that funding: if you look at it nationwide, there's a lot of demand for work on flood defences and only so much money in the government pot, so we have to argue our case,” he said.

“In the context of climate change we have to bear in mind all the evidence is it's going to get a lot more difficult to maintain defences. We believe we can do it for another 50 years but beyond that time we will have to look at other options.

“In the short and medium term, of 0 to 20 and 0 to 50 years, we intend to hold the line. Beyond 50 years it will probably not be sustainable.”