Britain Already Has Its Own Climate Refugees

Coastal erosion is forcing people from their homes.

by Nicholas Beuret

22 June 2023

A house that fell into the sea during a storm surge in Hemsby, Norfolk, December 2013. Darren Staples/Reuters

“I’ve lived here all my life and I wouldn’t have thought it would possibly have eroded so much and as quickly as it has done.”

Kenny Chaney lives in the village of Hemsby on the Norfolk coast. Hemsby has been under threat from the sea for over a decade. But, as Chaney told the BBC earlier this year, coastal erosion is accelerating, with a growing number of homes being lost – three in March alone. There are currently 35 homes at risk in Hemsby, with this number set to rise to 90 in the near future.

Hemsby, of course, is not unusual. “There has to be a wider discussion about this, not just for Hemsby, but for coastal resorts all over the UK,” James Bensly, a Great Yarmouth borough councillor, recently told the Guardian. “This challenge that Hemsby is now facing is going to be all around the country.”

Hemsby, Happisburgh and Fairbourne – these are among the 21 towns at high risk in England because of coastal flooding. While climate change often seems to arrive as sudden disasters – from smoked-filled air in New York this month to floods in Pakistan last year – along England’s coast, people are being forced to move because of its slower, steadier effects.

Forced from home.

In 2022, 32.6 million people were forced from their homes by disasters. The vast majority live in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, with India, China, Bangladesh and the Philippines consistently hosting millions of displaced people.

While not yet at the same scale, across Europe and the US, millions of people are now annually displaced by flood and fire. Last year, 3.3 million people in the US and over a hundred thousand in Europe were forced from their homes. Whilst 2022 was a relatively calm year in Europe, 2021 saw more than double that number who had to move.

These numbers are expected to grow. In Europe alone, by 2100 there will be an additional 15 million people exposed to fire risk, 500,000 people at risk from river flooding, and 2.2 million people at risk of coastal flooding. 

While polling tells us the climate crisis is consistently rated as an immediate concern for most Europeans, recent years have seen the emergence of a fusion of anti-green politics and the ‘weird right’, bringing together everything from anti-low traffic measure rallies (against ‘climate lockdowns’) to mass protests against the banning of oil fuelled boilers. What we’re seeing is an emerging politics of adaptation, where the question of who gets the resources to adapt to the climate crisis and who gets left behind has become the frontline of class politics.

Across England, 1.4 million people currently face a risk of flooding in any given year. This will rise to 1.7 million in a few decades when we reach 2C of global warming. Along the coast, there are 520,000 properties in England in areas at risk from flooding, and 8,900 in areas at risk of being lost through erosion. Worryingly, only one in three people who live in at-risk properties believe their property is at risk.

Where’s the money?

Maps showing which parts of London will be “underwater within a decade” make for compelling news stories. But while anxious Londoners worry about how much they’ll have to pay to live in a submerged bedsit in Zone 4, the capital isn’t actually at any real risk. There’s money to defend it, and plans to do so are constantly updated. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for much of England’s coastline.

Responsibility for producing plans for managing flooding lies with the Environment Agency (EA). Working with local government, the EA produces “shoreline management plans” setting out what should be done along England’s coast. But these plans aren’t binding, and often contain unfunded elements. And while it’s the EA that produces the plans, it’s local government that must implement them.

One third of England’s coastline is designated as “no active intervention”, meaning there are no plans to defend it from erosion. One reason for this is that defending a coastline costs money – money that local government doesn’t have. 

Take Hemsby, for example. Activists in Hemsby have been campaigning for new sea defences since 2013. Great Yarmouth Borough Council started work on new defences this year, but has put in only 40 metres of a 0.8 mile rock berm barrier due to lack of funds. It isn’t yet clear if more money will be found for what the local council is calling a “temporary solution”.

In short, central government isn’t providing the funds needed for flood defences. Between 2015 and 2020, the EA allocated £492m to local councils and other bodies to manage flooding. During that period, local councils spent almost £1.1bn on necessary infrastructure projects and existing defences – a gap of £604m over five years.

At the same time, local governments had their core grants reduced collectively by £16bn, and saw their per resident funding drop by 25%. Local governments currently face a £3bn budgetary gap between what they receive and what they spend, with this set to increase to £5.28bn by 2024/25.

This gap – between what is available and what is needed – means that the building and maintenance of flood defences in many places isn’t keeping pace with increasing risk.

The cost of implementing all of the current proposals is only between £18-30bn. The EA has suggested that £1bn a year over the next 50 years will be needed to maintain coastal defences. Yet both the EA plans and the Climate Change Committee have argued that existing coastal defence plans often aren’t cost effective.

Where will we lose?

Not everywhere is marked for no active intervention, however. London will have its flooding defences constantly upgraded and maintained, and anywhere of sufficient economic value, such as expensive urban areas and infrastructure, will be protected.

The places that will suffer are those areas that are already the most deprived – coastal towns, rural areas, and ex-urban suburbs at the end of occasional train services. Already lacking government infrastructure and council funding, these communities will become “flood risk ghettos”.

Unable to insure their homes, and at higher risk of flooding, people living in these areas will live in fear of flood impacts, unable to move or afford to stay. There are currently 95,000 homes in the most deprived areas at risk of flooding. Despite this, more than 120,000 new homes in England and Wales have been built in flood-prone areas since 2010, with more than 200 planning applications granted for building over 5,000 homes on floodplains in the highest-risk local authorities in England in 2021 alone.

Houses are still for sale in Hemsby, with real estate agents purportedly telling prospective buyers they’ll have at least 15 years before the sea claims their homes. In Happisburgh, another Norfolk town at risk, residents who purchased properties in 2001 were told they’d be secure for 150 years. Just six years later, surveyors gave the properties 25 years. Current residents estimate they in fact have less than ten years before erosion claims the properties.

Where’s the movement?

There’s currently no campaign or movement challenging the lack of government support for flood defences – nor the insurance companies who continue to insure fossil fuel projects whilst refusing to pay for damaged or lost homes. There’s no coordinated effort being made to stop homes being built in flood prone areas. And there’s no campaign group or political party fighting for dedicated support on this issue – or even a plan beyond ‘no active intervention’.

Most people, when asked, don’t wish to leave their homes. Most want the coastline to be defended. When people are moved, it’s often involuntary, and often to worse situations. And because people aren’t being compensated, many of those who’ve lost their homes so far have been unable to afford another.

As the climate crisis intensifies, there’ll be many more homes lost to the sea. Faced with this reality, it’s clear organising efforts need to escalate. Money would solve a lot of immediate issues, but it isn’t enough. We need a plan for managing sea level rise and increased risk – and one that doesn’t abandon people to the whims of the market or the good intentions of insurance companies.

Nicholas Beuret is a lecturer at the University of Essex. His research focuses on climate change, work and the transition to a low carbon economy.


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