I live about 5 miles from the coast, in a low lying strip of Suffolk bounded by the rivers Alde and Ore. It is a beautiful and in winter desolate landscape. The easterly winds batter the fragile habitats of the Sandlings and salt marsh. The place is also one of the most popular tourist destinations in the region. Towns and villages like Aldeburgh, Orford and Snape welcome thousands of visitors each year and village communities are peppered with second homes and holiday cottages. The natural landscape is much used by walkers, cyclists, and horse riders. Moreover this is a working landscape with farmers making a decent living from rearing livestock and arable. However what characterises this landscape is its fragility and the fact that it is at the mercy of the sea. For 2000 years the coastline has been shifting. If nature takes its course the sea wall at Aldeburgh will be breached in 20 years, flooding thousands of acres of marshland, salinating farmland and turning the land on which the town sits into a peninsula.
The consequences of change are far reaching. Farmland flooded by seawater becomes unusable, nearly a hundred people will lose their homes and areas of landscape used for recreation by thousands will become inaccessible. Each year the Environment Agency spends millions of pounds maintaining the status quo by playing King Canute and upgrading sea defences. Several years ago the Agency sought to adopt a new strategy of ‘managed retreat’ whereby the sea will gradually encroach and alter the landscape slowly just as it had done until the 1950 when the first serious sea defences were installed.
For a large number of local people and (especially it seems the second home owners who see their property at threat) managed retreat is an anathema. Organisations like the Alde and Ore Association have lobbied the Environment Agency to continue to protect the coastline at all costs. Not unreasonably landowners and local businesses are short-termist. A major event like a breach in the sea-wall would destroy productivity of farmland and restrict access to tourists on whom many businesses rely. Most of the public bodies take a rather longer view , far easier as the livelihoods of their people are not directly affected.
In order to move away from these polarised views the public bodies in the area have embarked on Integrated Coastal Zone Management programme. This brings together statutory bodies like Natural England, the local authorities, interest groups like RSPB, National Trust and representatives of leisure users, (ramblers, riders, cyclists) local businesses , landowners, artists and members of the local community. The ambition is to try and ‘de-polarise’ viewpoints and consider a long term solution to ensure these communities are still sustainable twenty and fifty years hence.
I’m chairing a group examining the how the landscape can be sustained whilst maintaining the balance of fragile bio-diversity and its use as recreational space. Changing landscapes may provide new habitats for species but might make whole swathes of the countryside inaccessible for the public. Paradoxically, flooding would make inland sailing impossible because the rivers will silt up. However the change is managed a ‘business as usual’ approach is untenable. Balancing the interest of the landscape, local people and the economy, might mean less access for some. Being allowed to come and go as you like in the places you want to go may no longer be possible.
This process does also offer new opportunities for establishing new forms of stewardship. At present, it’s the Environment Agency’s responsibility to manage landscapes– paid for by the taxpayer. One option is for communities to pay landowners to upgrade defences. This gives more responsibility to local people and makes landowners directly accountable to their communities.
Whilst devising a future for the Alde and Ore is incredibly complex, the problem is not intractable. The issues in this corner of Suffolk are a microcosm of the challenges of climate change facing the planet. We have to take an ‘all round’ view in order to sustain strong communities and an environment we can live in. This means having less of the things we are used to and more of the stuff we don’t yet value. It means renegotiating the relationship between the citizen and the state, relying less on central planning and more on local solutions. Above all it means turning old habits and the usual solutions on their head and looking very differently at our place in the world.
The findings of the first stage of ICZM programme will be published in the late Spring.