NI coastline 'rimmed in concrete'
Much of Northern Ireland's coastline risks becoming "rimmed in concrete" because of over-reliance on sea defences, experts have claimed.
Rising sea levels means concern has been growing to protect property from erosion, according to a University of Ulster report.
Professor of coastal studies Andrew Cooper argued it was preferable to retreat in many areas and allow coastlines to adjust. That could involve the relocation of buildings and diversion of roads and railway lines.
He said: "In the current dispensation, the only option available is defence and this would ultimately lead to a rim of concrete around the whole coast of Northern Ireland, at least that part with beaches and soft cliffs.
"Large stretches of the Northern Ireland coast are being degraded by the proliferation of sea defences. Without a strategic vision, this will continue until much of the coast is rimmed by concrete."
Professor Cooper recently briefed assembly members about the threat.
He acknowledged areas where property and infrastructure must be defended at all costs.
"There are many others where it would be in the public interest to retreat and permit the coastline to adjust. There is, however, no strategic overview of that situation, nor is there a mechanism to allow retreat to be selected as an option.
"Retreat is, however, essential if the scenic beauty and values of the coast are to be preserved."
Beaches are natural storm buffers and move inland in response to erosion caused by the weather.
Professor Cooper said that for over 50 years erosion prevention was concerned solely with the protection of property and paid no heed to the consequences of works.
Each application for sea defences was considered on its own merits in a purely responsive approach.
"Almost all applications related to shoreline change are for defence works and there is no mechanism to explore alternative, sustainable options, nor to proactively remove damaging structures erected before licensing came into place."
He called for a deliberate and structured strategic approach providing clarification for property owners, developers, planners and the public.
"It would enable targeting of resources for sea defences where they are most necessary and it would enable the preservation of the coastal attributes for which Northern Ireland is renowned and which underpin significant economic activity."
Using planning conditions to prevent ill-sited development or compulsory purchase to remove threatened buildings could shift the burden from coastal defences towards retreat.
Professor Cooper added: "It is essential that people are informed of the impacts of various options and that the social justice aspects of these decisions be addressed.
"For example, is defence of some private property behind a beach more important than maintenance of the beach for the enjoyment of the population as a whole?
"Is immediate defence of a car park more important than preservation of a beach for future generations?"
SDLP South Down MP Margaret Ritchie called on the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to urgently tackle erosion.
She said: "Flood defence spending is failing to keep apace of climate change and spending is at least £500 million below what is needed."
She added: "There is absolutely no recognition that building sea defences can protect and safeguard a natural asset for economic development and tourism purposes.
"We must invest in advanced defences against flooding and erosion or face even more irreversible damage to our natural landscape."
Environment minister Mark H Durkan said he did not underestimate the impact that coastal erosion can have on those directly affected by it but added most people accepted it was a natural process and was going to continue.
"So the challenge for everyone involved, including the Executive, comes in managing that inevitability, and to do so in a strategic way."
The Executive's position on coastal erosion and, where appropriate, protection from it, is commonly referred to as the Bateman Formula, whereby central Government departments have a responsibility to construct, maintain and repair the coastal defences in their possession.
"For my department's part, it has a very specific role solely as the marine licensing authority, where it considers any construction/development proposals below the high water mark.
"Of course, the potential implications for the adjacent coastline, and for coastal processes, is an important consideration in ensuring that robust decisions are taken.
"The role of planning is also essential, and here too my department will ensure that it continues to play its part in relation to coastal development with, for example, publication of a strategic planning policy statement shortly. Local councils are, of course, now responsible for determining any planning applications for development along the coast.
"I will continue to do everything I can within my powers, and those of my department, to contribute to the management of and mitigation of coastal erosion."