Stay or go? Rising seas threaten to chase people from UK coasts

Houses along the partially collapsed coastal road known as The Marrams in Hemsby, England, June 15, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rachel Parsons

Houses along the partially collapsed coastal road known as The Marrams in Hemsby, England, June 15, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rachel Parsons

What’s the context?

Britain's coastal communities face growing climate threat as sea level rise speeds up erosion - and poses dilemma over relocation

  • Climate change impacts speed up coastal erosion in Britain
  • Thousands of people likely to be forced to relocate inland
  • Some communities want to stay and invest in sea defences

HEMSBY, England - When Kevin Jordan bought his small grey cottage in the English coastal village of Hemsby in 2009, a surveyor told him it would be at least 100 years before the sea swallowed his home.

Jordan, then in his mid-fifties, was unfazed - he knew he was moving to an area of eastern England where the coastline has naturally eroded for millennia.

"I thought, well, that will just about see me," the retiree, now 70, said wryly from his home on top of the soft, low sandy cliffs of Norfolk in East Anglia - one of England's most vulnerable regions to coastal erosion, researchers say.

But his humour belies a genuine and growing sense of dread.

When Jordan purchased his home, a tall sand dune blocked his view of the North Sea and the shoreline was about 91 metres (300 feet) away. Now, the cliff edge is roughly 21 metres (70 feet) from his front door and the sand dune has been washed away.

Climate change is causing fiercer storms and fuelling sea level rise, exacerbating coastal erosion. And the pace of that change has taken Hemsby residents by surprise. What experts told Jordan would take a century is close to happening in 14 years.

"I came here as a bit of escape, and with no financial worries," said Jordan. Now, the home he bought for 85,000 pounds($109,000) is "essentially worthless", he said, and he loses sleep worrying about the future.

Despite the rising threat, Britain is only just beginning to reckon with the huge geological and social changes coming at its coastlines, with authorities and communities having to decide whether relocation or bolstering the shore is the best solution.

Fragments of the road damaged in a March storm leading to Kevin Jordan’s home dangle off a cliff edge in Hemsby, England, June 15, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rachel Parsons

Fragments of the road damaged in a March storm leading to Kevin Jordan’s home dangle off a cliff edge in Hemsby, England, June 15, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rachel Parsons

  • 1
  • 2

Authorities 'stuck between a rock and a hard place'

About one in 10 people around the world live less than 10 metres above sea level, according to the United Nations, and rising seas are a threat to coasts from Bangladesh to the United States, and cities from Shanghai to London.

Ocean levels are likely to rise by up to about one metre this century, driven by melting glaciers and ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, the U.N.'s panel of climate experts says.

In Britain alone, thousands of people will be forced to leave their homes and move inland in the near future, says the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), an advisory body to the government.

About 8,900 properties in England are threatened by coastal erosion, a number that could increase more than tenfold by 2080, according to a CCC report published in 2018.

In the coming decades, large parts of the coast will undergo the separate but related processes of "managed realignment" - allowing the coastline to advance inland - and "managed retreat" - moving people and properties away from rising seas.

In Hemsby, many residents are reluctant to relocate, at least in the short-term, citing the area's economic importance as a holiday destination. Tens of thousands of tourists visit each summer for its amusement arcades, theme parks, sand and surf.

Instead, locals in the village of about 2,800 are calling for new sea defences that could buy the community more time.

But solutions and consensus are hard to come by in areas like Hemsby as local authorities - which are responsible for managing coastal erosion risks - are widely under-funded and largely reliant on outdated policy drawn up 25 years ago.

The CCC's report in 2018 said England's coastal management was patchy, had conflicting aims, and was "unsustainable in the face of climate change". Some seaside communities would be unlikely to survive "in their current form", the body warned.

Britain's Environment Agency (EA) said a raft of new policy and national funding initiatives announced in 2020 would help coastal communities adapt to climate change, with 200 million pounds ($258 million) pledged - including relocation support.

However, some coastal residents and officials working on the issue say that cash will not avert the need for tough decisions.

"(People) don't want properties destroyed, and I completely understand that and really feel for them," said Rob Goodliffe, coastal transition manager for North Norfolk District Council, which oversees a swathe of the region just northeast of Hemsby.

"But local authorities are stuck between a rock and a hard place ... the reality is that (sea defences) are either environmentally not the right thing to do, (or) are technically really challenging and economically just unaffordable," he said.

Retreat from the coast or slow down the sea

Norfolk is losing about one metre of its shoreline annually to erosion, while the figure for other parts of the coast ranges from 20cm to 80cm each year, according to John Barlow, a professor at Sussex University's geography department.

But he stressed that average erosion rates "do not really indicate the event-based nature of coastal cliff recession".

Along England's fastest-disappearing coastline, residents in Hemsby have spent over a decade campaigning to raise the cash to build a rock berm - a barrier - to protect the receding beach.

"We're not Luddites, we're not stupid," said Ian Brennan, chairman of Save Hemsby Coastline (SHC), an NGO founded in 2013 to raise money for sea defences. "We know that we can't stop rising water levels, but you can slow it down," he added.

In April, the local government granted planning permission for the berm - estimated to cost up to 14 million pounds - but officials said they do not know where the money will come from given their annual budget is about 12 million pounds.

James Bensly, a local borough councillor, said the council has about 200,000 pounds available for the project.

One major obstacle to raising funds stems from shoreline management plans (SMP) - which were drawn up by the EA and local authorities in coastal communities in 1997. In Hemsby's case, the plan's recommendation was managed realignment.

This permits the breaching of, or refusal to repair, sea defences, allowing the coastline to create saltwater wetlands or other features to guard against storm surges and sea level rise.

The SMPs say some short- to mid-term sea defences may be required to give villages like Hemsby time to retreat. The catch is that once a managed realignment recommendation has been made, it is hard to muster the political will to fund such measures.

Yet Kellie Fisher, a coasts expert with the EA, is hopeful that the government's Coastal Transition Accelerator Programme (CTAP) can address the thorny issues of funding relocation where it is necessary, and achieve long-term stability where possible.

"We're going to be looking at interventions like rollback, relocation, improving and replacing damaged infrastructure and repurposing land in coastal erosion areas for different uses or to create habitats or green buffer zones," Fisher said.

"I think things are going in the right direction."

Riprap, a timber wave break, and wooden groynes protect the beach and trap sediment in Overstrand, England, June 17, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rachel Parsons

Riprap, a timber wave break, and wooden groynes protect the beach and trap sediment in Overstrand, England, June 17, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rachel Parsons

  • 1
  • 2

Nowhere to go?

Even if support for relocation materialises, though, the question for many coastal villages is where to move.

About 22 miles (35 km) northeast of Hemsby, the village of Overstrand is locked between the North Sea on one side and a nationally protected "Area of

Outstanding Natural Beauty" on the other, including nature conservation sites.

As with Hemsby, the SMP recommends managed realignment of the shoreline, which will eventually require the managed retreat - known as rollback - of the village itself.

"Rollback is a real problem for us simply because there's nowhere to roll back to," said Gordon Partridge, a member of the local parish council who has lived in the area since the 1970s.

Partridge estimates a third of Overstrand could be lost to erosion in 50 to 100 years, based on projections in the SMP that say it is likely the village of 1,000-odd people will be cut off from the main coast road linking it to communities to the east.

Overstrand is protected by multiple defences including a concrete sea wall. But the SMP recommends stopping long-term repairs because erosion is carving out the unprotected coastline on either side of the village, turning it into a promontory.

And a promontory - a raised mass of land jutting into the sea - would interfere with the flow of beach-building sediment along Norfolk's coast, further endangering villages like Hemsby.

In Hemsby, campaigners for the rock berm refuse to back down.

"Without a beach here, we'll become an area that needs support," said Lorna Bevan, a member of Save Hemsby Coastline and local pub owner. "(The beach) is hugely important."

Neither the rock berm nor any funding for relocation will come in time for retiree Kevin Jordan.

He said he lives with constant anxiety since his only access road collapsed after a storm in March, cutting him off from emergency services, food deliveries, and oil deliveries for heating.

"There's something that overshadows you, and that is homelessness," he said, sitting in his lounge, gazing at the unobstructed view of the North Sea.

"I can't afford to buy another place."

(Reporting by Rachel Parsons; Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Alister Doyle)

Context is powered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation Newsroom.

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles


  • Extreme weather
  • Adaptation
  • Migration
  • Loss and damage
  • Biodiversity
  • Water

Get our climate newsletter. Free. Every week.

By providing your email, you agree to our Privacy Policy.

Latest on Context