The National Trust’s approach to coastal management

Children running through the dunes at Studland's beachesThe National Trust owns and manages some 78 kms in Somerset and Dorset, 17% of the coast of Dorset and 10% of theSomersetcoast. The Trust manages a myriad of coastal features from cliffs, beaches, mudflats, saltmarsh, dunes, farmland and estuaries to islands, headlands and coves; and a wide range of infrastructure such as harbours, settlements, sea walls and lighthouses. The extent of the coastal holdings gives the Trust a unique window on the issues of coastal change.

The coast is an immensely dynamic environment. Sea-level rise and climate change are forecast to increase the scale and pace of coastal change. To help plan for the future the Trust commissioned research to assess how the coastline is likely to change over the next 100 years. The results suggest that many of the Trust’s important sites are at risk from coastal erosion and flooding. As a result they face some difficult choices in managing this change, and need to make well-informed decisions that stand the test of time. Learning from experience, the Trust policy now favours adaptation, to give time and space to change with the coast and work with the forces of nature.

The Trust has learned five key lessons about managing a changing coastline.

1. Long-term planning is essential

 To adapt effectively to sea-level rise and climate change we need to plan at least 50 to 100 years ahead. In many cases it will be necessary to relocate people habitats and buildings and to do so cost-effectively requires early action. The future is inherently unpredictable, even more so with climate change and a dynamic coastal environment, so we need to allow flexibility in our management and planning.

Poole Harbour from above2. Think and act in a wider context

 The boundaries of the Trust’s coastal sites take no account of the real boundaries of the ‘coastal cells’* in which coastal processes operate. In order to take a flexible and responsive approach to dealing with coastal change, we need to think and act in a much wider spatial context, managing our sites within freshwater catchments and coastal cells.

* A ‘coastal cell’ is a section of coastline which reflects the natural physical processes acting along it – where the movement of coarse sediment (sand and shingle) is largely self-contained.

3. Work with nature not against it

 Our experience has demonstrated that working with natural processes is the most sustainable approach. In some cases this will mean undoing past mistakes, taking out hard defences and letting the coast realign naturally. In others we will need to phase our approach, buying time with temporary solutions while finding space to allow natural defences to form.

 A long line of people walking and dancing along the beach 4. Solutions need partnership

 We cannot operate in isolation as the decisions we make nearly always impact beyond the immediate site. Tackling the problems facing our sites also requires action by others, especially neighbouring coastal owners and managers. Finding mutually beneficial solutions like large-scale realignment projects requires a strong partnership approach.

5. Involving the public is critical

Raising awareness of the impacts on our coastal sites is vital to winning public confidence. Any form of realignment of the coast can create uncertainty and even hostility. Building consensus and providing information takes time and effort, but is crucial to finding sustainable solutions.

Adapted from National Trust Shifting Shore report, for more information on the National Trust’s coastal management approach see National Trust Shifting Shores report