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Compensate the coast


Most of us are fortunate to witness climate change, global warming and sea level rise in a relatively abstract, armchair manner.

Yes we are aware that spring keeps arriving early, that it rains less often, but harder, that April was hotter than normal and that White Christmas is now increasingly just a song by Bing Crosby.

Not so for our coastal dwellers. Millions of people in the UK live, day in, day out with the very real and ever increasing threat of losing their home and possessions as a result of our changing world.

Rising sea levels, plus the increasing frequency and ferocity of storms, have put the UK coastlines - particularly around East Anglia and Kent - on the climate change frontline.

But just for a moment, let's forget the macro level politics of what's behind this increasing threat to our coastal communities. While certainly there is a huge amount that we should be doing on a national and global level to slow or even halt the ultimate causes of their problems, it is unlikely that George Bush and the rest of the G8 will reach any meaningful agreements in Germany this week to radically change the lives of the residents of Happisburgh or Jury's Gap.

Instead, let's focus on the micro politics - on what we as engineers and as a society are doing in response to the threat.

Sadly, the answer appears to be that we are doing very little.

This week we highlight some of the many people affected by the government's current coast defence policy, and for any professional managing the public realm it makes for uncomfortable reading.

To quote environment minister Ian Pearson: 'I am conscious of the distress that can be caused when people are faced with the loss of their homes as a result of coastal erosion, particularly when they had previous expectations of continuing public investment in defences.' While I'm sure that it is comforting for the UK's coastal dwellers to hear that the minister is aware of their distress, it is not really the kind of statement that will bring a great deal of relief or joy.

Yes, it is hard, if not impossible, to make an economic argument to continue to defend the entire UK coastline in the face of the known trends. And yes, it is tricky in most cases to construct reasonable social argument to continue protecting all of our coastal communities.

But that is no reason for central government to simply walk away from the problem. No matter how sensible the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' new Making Space for Water strategy may be - and generally it is - it is not socially just for ministers to simply abandon policies which affect people's lives and pretend that they have no responsibilities towards them.

As residents tell NCE this week, government would not claim private land or impact people's lives to build a road, railway, power station or any other piece of infrastructure without compensation. Yet for some reason when it comes to coastal defence, the policy is different.

Engineers are in the firing line once again over this issue.

Regardless of the truth, we are seen by the public as the people calling the shots and making the policy. If the policy is wrong or unjust then we must say so or be party to the injustice.

The policy to not defend may well be just. This policy not to compensate those affected most certainly is not.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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