Steve Maslen JBA’s Head of Environment asks ‘When will we stop building homes in areas of coastal risk?’



The National Trust reported this month that over the last 10 years, 12,500 new homes have been built in coastal areas which are at risk of significant erosion or flooding and that this is despite ‘contrary guidance’.

In attempting to comprehend this staggering and woeful fact it is worth considering it in the context of our own circumstances.  This is not just 12,500 properties – it’s actually homes, inhabited by folk with day-to-day lives just like our own.  As such it actually represents well over 12,500 adults who have made life plans and who have invested energy and money in home-making.  I wonder just how many of these individuals were aware that their hoped for future could feature significant flooding and erosion, ripping up their plans.

To this National Trust figure the immediate screaming question is WHY? One answer is that the housing market is an economic imperfect market.  Or in layman’s terms, has failed, is broken and in places is a scandal.

The market theory suggests that if risks were better understood and these risks were clearly communicated to home buyers, then market pressures would reduce demand in at-risk localities.  This should then push development into less risky areas. 

So, if we want to improve the situation through this market economic approach then market relevant information is a prerequisite. This begs the question, how can we do this?  Personal responsibility by buyers can be counted on when individuals have all the information to make an informed decision; however, importantly they also need market choice.  The housing market has to be able to offer a choice of locations. This is and has been to date the major imperfection in the current market.

Supply side constraints, the numbers of houses built and their locations, have been the defining feature of the UK housing market for nearly 20 years now.  Perhaps this might change but to meet the Government’s target of 200,000 new homes per year over the next five years, how many more thousands of homes will be approved by local councillors, built by businesses in places at coastal risk and then occupied by people with no real choices on offer?

The National Trust in the same report stated that only one in three coastal planning authorities in England have the most up to date planning policy in place to deal with rising sea levels and more frequent storms.  I fear the housing market could stay as firmly imperfect with regard to flood risk as it has for the last decade unless local authorities and the house building industry start taking their responsibilities more seriously.

One interesting and hopeful opportunity for change on this front involves the emerging devolution deals for combined authorities.  The early signs point to the acceptance of a need both locally and centrally by Government for combined authorities to have planning frameworks and be able to jointly plan, including on housing requirements and five year land supply.  I believe it is on this larger scale that issues around infrastructure, environment, and particularly housing requirements, can be resolved and balances of development across local authorities determined.  This might then give individual house buyers a better opportunity to participate in the market a little more fairly.

Author: Steve Maslen