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Wave of confusion

Analysis - Responsibility for coastal flood protection is heading for confusion.

The only definite conclusion one can draw about the UK's coastline is that managing it is wracked with uncertainty.

There is uncertainty about how much the sea level is rising, how the coastline will react, how much of it we can expect to lose. Confusion also reigns over whether to defend it, how to manage it, how much to spend on it and finally who should make key decisions.

Current design standards anticipate a rise of 5mm per year as the assumed sea level rise.

New Planning Policy Guidance note 25 is expected to use a figure of 12.5mm.

'It is a precaution, ' says Royal Haskoning director of coastal rivers south west, Hamish Hall.

'It is there for developers and is based on the worst case scenario, ' he says, the rationale being that once a developer has completed construction they sell it on and it is someone else's problem if flooding hits.

Whatever the actual rise turns out to be, the biggest problem facing government and at the moment is what to do about it.

Gone are the days when a robust cost benefit analysis would lead to construction of a protective sea wall. The Department for the Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) Making Space for Water strategy outlines a change in philosophy from the government, with managed retreat being promoted as the sustainable solution for shoreline management.

This strategy is to be implemented through a new raft of shoreline management plans (SMPs).

These will be produced by the local authorities managing the coastline, although the new strategy gives the Environment Agency a strategic role in their development.

That is not to say that the Agency will be taking them over.

'At local authority level, the plans are at the mercy of short term political decision making, but handing over all power to the Agency is dangerous as it removes the democratic process. What is really needed is a partnership, ' explains University of East Anglia professor of environmental science Tim O'Riordan.

Importantly the Agency agrees. 'It doesn't matter as long as the plans achieve the right outputs, ' says Agency head of flood risk management policy Phil Rothwell But if the Agency took on the compilation of all SMPs it would require a wealth of extra staff at a time when DEFRA has devolved all operational responsibility to the Agency.

All of this change means that proponents of new flood defence schemes will find it harder than ever to get approval.

Despite flood defence funding doubling over the past 10 years from £300M to £600M per annum DEFRA has declared a moratoruim on approving new schemes for the next two years while funding is reviewed.

By 2008 there will be a backlog of projects seeking funding around the UK but by then it will be the Agency and not DEFRA responsible for awarding the cash.

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