Millions of UK Homes Could Be Lost to Flooding in the Next 80 Years

The UK is critically underprepared for the impacts of rising sea levels due to climate change, an investigation by VICE News has found.
September 25, 2020, 3:26pm
Millions of UK Homes Could Be Lost to Flooding in the Next 80 Years
People wade through floodwater as they pass houses on a flooded street in Doncaster, following flash flooding in 2019. Photo: OLI SCARFF / AFP via Getty Images

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Analysis of government and NGO reports, shore management plans and current climate change predictions have shown that millions of homes, key pieces of transport, energy and waste infrastructure – and potentially hundreds of lives – are at risk from now inevitable rises in sea levels and extreme weather events due to climate change. VICE News has found that, even with tens of billions of pounds in investment, these threats remain in place with anything but the most optimistic climate change scenario. 

A recent report from the Environment Agency predicts that the UK could see a 1.15 metre rise in sea levels by 2100 in a scenario in which the world warms by two degrees centigrade. Even if carbon emissions are brought under control, sea levels are expected to continue to rise up to the year 2300, due to how slowly the oceans respond to changes in emissions. Met Office analysis has found that levels could rise by as much as 4.42 metres in London and Cardiff by 2300 under a high emissions scenario. Their research also found that the likelihood of a once in 10,000 year flood event would increase to more than once a year. 

Carbon emissions heat the earth, which causes sea levels to rise in two key ways. The most obvious is that glaciers and ice sheets are melting worldwide, adding water to our oceans. The second is that water expands as it heats, so warmer oceans means bigger oceans. Warmer oceans also means more severe storms. In 2014, the Met Office’s chief scientist, Dame Julia Slingo drew a line between the UK’s increasingly extreme weather and climate change, noting that “all the evidence suggests there is a link”.

The most real and urgent threat in the UK is coastal flooding, and it was ranked as the second highest risk of civil emergency (after pandemic influenza) in the National Risk Register 2015. A 2013 storm surge saw widespread flooding along the English coast with houses and vulnerable cliffs swept out to sea along with key rail infrastructure between Cornwall and Devon. Speaking at the time, Devon County Council leader John Hart said, “The time has come for the government to take more action to make sure that Devon and Cornwall don’t get cut off for weeks every winter”.

The Committee for Climate Change (CCC), an independent statutory body established after the 2008 Climate Change Act, released a report in October of 2018 that found huge swathes of the country’s coastlines were at risk. Just a 0.5 metre rise in sea levels, it noted, would render a further 20 percent of England’s flood defences vulnerable to failure. They stated that nearly 530,000 properties are currently at risk of flooding, with that number increasing to up to 1.5 million by the 2080s.

The 2019 Conservative party manifesto promised £4 billion for flood defences to protect from both coastal and inland flooding. But those at the Environment Agency think they need to go much further. They estimated a required spend of £1 billion per year over the next 50 years to mitigate the risks. Further still, the CCC report found that councils across England are wrongly claiming they can afford to protect at least 185 kilometres of coastline. According to Local Government Association figures, councils have seen a reduction of £16 billion in central government funding, which equates to 60p in every £1 they previously received.

“Currently, we’re not doing enough as a nation to deal with the threat we face at the coast, let alone future levels of risk,” Brendan Freeman, senior analyst at the Committee on Climate Change told VICE news. “We need to see realistic long-term plans to manage our coastline, investment in a range of measures from flood defences to more natural solutions like creating salt marshes on the coast, and more awareness in coastal communities about the scale of change coming down the track.”

For some, these changes aren’t coming down the track, but already happening before their eyes. In 2013, the village of Fairbourne in west Wales became the first to be decommissioned due to climate change. Gwynedd council decided that it could no longer afford to protect the village from rising sea levels and so, from 2045, they will begin relocating residents before dismantling the buildings and infrastructure and allowing the sea to reclaim the land. In the aftermath of the announcement, house prices in the village plummeted. There are currently no plans to compensate those affected, with the Welsh government stating there was no legal obligation to do so.

On the east coast of England, a decades long fight against coastal erosion has been ongoing. In the village of Hemsby on the Norfolk coast, properties dangle perilously close to the edge of the cliff. In 2018, 13 chalets were rendered uninhabitable and 15 people were made homeless following storms and heavy rain. A further 30 houses were said to be in danger. 

According to the Shoreline Management Plan for the area, the current policy is to hold the line of the coast for a minimal amount of time to allow for “social mitigation” of the effects of erosion before eventually withdrawing interventions and allowing a “naturally-functioning coast to develop”. The plan will see the loss of between 55 and 150 properties, as well as holiday developments, associated infrastructure and local link roads.

The threat to the county’s coastlines doesn’t just endanger homes, it will damage wildlife too. The coast of Norfolk protects the low-lying land behind it, which includes the Broads National Park, home to more than a quarter of the country’s rarest animals and plants. According to flood mapping predictions, even a one metre rise in sea levels will see the rivers, lakes and marshland that make up the park underwater, as well as many of the adjoining towns and villages. Much of Norfolk’s tourism industry – which represents 18.7 percent of all employment and contributes £3.3 billion per year to the local economy – is based on the coast or in the Broads. 

Karen Thomas is the head of Coastal Partnership East, who manage coastal erosion in North Norfolk, Great Yarmouth and East Suffolk. She told VICE News: “It is clear that in the face of sea level rise, the national approach to managing coastal flooding and erosion for many areas will need to increasingly move away from holding the line towards supporting people and communities to adapt to change and mitigate the harms. This will not be easy. The costs, both economic and social, to some coastal communities and the people living and working there will be substantial.”

Further down the coast in the Thames Estuary, rising sea levels threaten large parts of London. Flood mapping software shows widespread flooding, subject to a one-metre rise in sea levels. With a two-metre rise, both the City Airport and the Royal Docks would be flooded, the latter of which mayor Sadiq Khan has earmarked for a potential site of a new City Hall. Any further rise in sea levels would see more extensive flooding in the east of the city and along the river, potentially seeing parts of the Houses of Parliament underwater in the next 80 years. 

In 2012, the Environment Agency launched the Thames Estuary 2100 plan to set out flood management plans in the area up until the end of the century. Those plans include the need to replace the Thames barrier in 2070. The cost of the entire plan, which is separate to those included in the Shoreline Management Plan, is estimated to be around £10 billion including £6-7 billion for the new barrier. The plan states: “Without effective climate change mitigation sea level rise will continue to accelerate. If this happens, in the next century London and the Thames estuary may have to deal with sea levels which exceed our above-2.7 metre extreme scenario.”

The Conservative government has come under widespread criticism for failing to take climate change seriously. In the three months up to March 2020, the party received £1.5 million in donations from polluting industries and climate change deniers. The government has been criticised for bailing out heavily polluting industries with billions of pounds of public money without attaching any environmental stipulations to the money. The party’s aim for carbon neutrality by 2050 represents one of the least ambitious climate policies in Europe and has been widely condemned by climate scientists as it shows they are likely to miss many of their own key targets. 

A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) spokesperson told VICE News: “We know climate change is making the UK warmer and wetter, and that flooding can have an awful impact on people, businesses and the environment. In the most comprehensive update to the national effort to tackle flooding in a decade, the government earlier this year published plans to invest £5.2 billion in tackling flooding and coastal erosion. This will better protect 336,000 properties across England, and ensure that when flooding does happen people can get back on their feet more quickly.”

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