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Debate Coastal erosion

Storms cause a huge amount of damage to coastlines and property, but opinion is divided on whether we should protect or neglect scenery and property.

This week we ask: Should we allow nature to take its course and wash Britain's coastline away?


Protection of Britain's coastline implies the need to 'preserve' the status quo of an inherently dynamic system - arguably an unaffordable, undesirable and ultimately unattainable goal.

Of course the question assumes the need to make a choice between two simple alternatives. The reality is less straightforward, but the essential choice is obvious: Do we work with coastal processes or embark on a war of attrition against the power of the sea?

The proposition also implies that if the coastline is washed away then it is lost - this is not true; in reality material eroded from our shores is deposited elsewhere forming new areas of land.

These in turn become natural coastal defences, reducing erosion and even encouraging further accretion. Such a dynamic and self-regulating response is essential if our lengthy coastline is to respond to the implications of climate change.

Many coastal wildlife habitats and landscapes, so much a part of our national heritage, are entirely dependent on the power of the sea to shape them and to maintain their interest. The cliffs of Beachy Head and Seven Sisters would lose their intrinsic interest if protected, the forces driving erosion would not stop and the cost of protection would keep increasing.

There are places where, at least for now, we will choose to provide protection, but this does not stop the forces driving coastal change. Indeed as sealevels continue to rise then these forces will increase.

We need to be mindful of the future, new development on coasts subject to erosion or flooding will only increase the demand for new and ultimately unsustainable coastal defences.

So if we are to achieve effective shoreline management then we need to live with the coastal change rather than embark on an unwinnable war. Future generations will not thank us for leaving them with an expensive and ultimately unsustainable legacy of battle worn defences.


In 1997 a storm breached the shingle ridge which for a number of centuries had formed the sea defence to over 120 acres of farmland near the West Country village of Porlock. The shingle ridge was breached because the quantity of shingle reaching the bay due to littoral transport from the west had reduced.

Sea defence schemes had not been implemented at the site because they involved redistributing shingle along the beach, which was deemed to cause unacceptable environmental damage. The permanent loss was a direct result of allowing nature to take its course.

Rising sea levels, and the possible increase of storms, will lead to demands on our existing coastal defences exceeding their design criteria far more frequently in the future.

The public perception is that our industry is incapable of preventing flooding. We all know this to be untrue and our profession has a duty to ensure that decision makers are aware that any level of sea defence can be provided, but at a cost.

The present position is a politically derived balance of social, environmental, natural resource and economic factors. Engineers must ensure the public is aware that the present balance between these conflicting factors is only one of many. The message from the public and the media following the fluvial flooding is that the balance is wrong.

The insurance industry too has severe doubts. Our profession must play a major part in helping society redefine what is an acceptable balance. To do this requires a change in approach; we must become proactive in directing the debate.

This need not mean a return to a programme of environmentally insensitive engineering projects, but it would require some major engineering interventions. The profession will be letting society down if it allows the 'do nothing' approach to be seen as the only environmentally acceptable option.

The facts

Many of the world's concrete sea defences are more than 100 years old and are at risk of failure, according to the ICE's Water & Maritime Engineering Journal.

Brighton's shingle beach is a natural sea defence, although stones have to be dredged from the eastern end of the beach and transported to the west to protect the sea front.

Extreme floods are expected to become more frequent, as sea levels rise by as much as 88mm by 2010.

Local authorities in flood risk areas are under pressure to increase levies on council tax payers to pay for improved flood defences.

What do you think? This week NCE's debate goes online for the first time. If you want to vote on this week's debate go to NCE's website at We will publish the results next week.

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