Bottom up Adaptation Strategies for a Sustainable Europe

United Kingdom: What to do at the South Devon Coast?

This winter, the coast in South West England was heavily battered during several storms (of which the most damaging storm was on 5 February 2014). An area of the South Devon coast which was severely hit, is part of one of the coastal case studies being investigated in the BASE project. Crucially the types of storms in observed in the winter 2014 are expected to increase under climate change predictions. The actual impacts of the extreme winter storms in 2014 provides a very useful backdrop for understanding how anticipation to climate change impacts is being discussed and considered for this area.

At this part of the South Devon coast, a railway line runs closely along the shore. This is a rocky cliff shore which suffers from erosion. This railway line is the only train line which connects Cornwall and the west of Devon to London and the rest of England. The seawall which supports the railway tracks along the village of Dawlish, and which protects the village against flooding, has proved to be particularly vulnerable. Part of it dramatically failed and was breached during the storm on 5 February. It led to the evacuation of nearby homes, and 2 months of repairs to fix this part of the railway. The economic consequences for the region have been estimated to be very high (in the millions of pounds), as both tourism and commuters were hampered for two months.

The coast at Dawlish before the winter storms (Photo credit: Duncan Russel, University of Exeter)
The recent events of this part of the coast raised considerable media attention. Spectacular “before and after” photos were published, and leading newspapers such as the Guardian, the Times and the Independent, discussed the 2 months’ closure of the railway line for repairs (indicated as a ‘Herculan effort’), the evacuations of the houses behind the sea wall, and the impact on the economy of the South West of England resulting from the disrupted rail service. The events also sparked discussion on how to deal with this vulnerable and vital part of the railway. Several options are being discussed to reroute (parts of) the railway more inlands. For example, the BBC News website published a news item on 'How to fix the Dawlish problem?'.
According to the media, the United Kingdom Department for Transport has asked Network Rail as the body responsible for the UK railway infrastructure “to look at options for Dawlish including a review for securing the coastal line and the feasibility of alternative routes” (click here for a BBC article on the subject). Network Rail is expected to report back a first proposal around June/July 2014, and formally in autumn 2014. In February 2014, Network Rail presented three preliminary alternative options. Including an option to reopen a line closed in 1967, an option to create a new line connecting existing freight lines, and an option to create new tunnels to bypass the vulnerable part around Dawlish. Additionally, an option to make the coastal railway more resilient, was also mentioned (click here for a Network Rail presentation on the subject).
Parts of the coastline have been closed to the public because of damage to the railway and seawall (Photo credit: Roos den Uyl, University of Exeter)
However, ideas for flood risk management seems to be rather absent from the discussion about the future of the Dawlish coast. This lack of discussion is even more striking considering the influence of coastal erosion, and heightened climate-related risks including sea level rise, and possible increase in storm events, flood risks may increase for this part of the shore. Moreover, it is not immediately clear who will be in charge of maintaining the seawall at Dawlish if the railway were to be relocated. In the case of the South Devon Coast around Dawlish, Network Rail is currently in charge of managing the seawall and the flood risks. Network Rail is a government-owned company which owns and operates the railway infrastructure in the UK. In the UK, the Environment Agency is in charge of managing flood risks in the cases where another body or organisation is not doing so. The Environment Agency is a body at ‘arms’ length’ of the national DEFRA department (i.e. Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs). If Network Rail would relocate the railway, they might choose not to maintain the seawall anymore to support the railway tracks. Which means the responsibility for managing the flood risks would somewhere along the line shift to the Environment Agency. Thus there is the danger that rerouting could reduce the incentive to maintain the seawall if it would no longer need to support the railway tracks. 
In this case study for BASE, we aim to understand why certain priorities emerge (in this case it appears that infrastructure guarantee is receiving more priority than flood risk management), and why expected climate change impacts and possible adaptation actions are considered or not. For example, what are the implications of a fragmented institutional setting on flood risk management for climate change adaptation, such as the case for the South Devon Coast? What do decisions made by the national government on flood risk policies mean for considering adaptation actions at local level? Also, we aim to understand whether the UK national adaptation strategy influences considering adaptation actions for the South Devon Coast. And if so, in which way the UK national adaptation strategy helps or hinders adaptation actions at local level.

By: Roos den Uyl (University of Exeter)

Roos den Uyl is a postdoc working on the BASE project with the University of Exeter. Vist her blog here to read more about her experiences working with BASE!

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