As sea levels rise, Fairbourne, sandwiched between mountains and the beach, is being returned to the waves. But where will its residents go?
— It is an almost perfect spring day. The sky is milky blue and there is barely a ripple on the mirror-flat expanse of Barmouth Bay. The sunshine is warm and the mountains are beginning to turn from slate-grey to luscious green. Bev Wilkins, a former businesswoman, launches a ball down the beach for her beloved German shepherd rescue dog, Lottie. In a blur of legs and black fur, the dog dashes into the frothy surf. “It is a lovely spot when the sun comes out,” she says, welcoming her dripping pet back with an affectionate rub. “Horrible when it rains.”
This is how Wilkins, 67, expected to spend her retirement when she sold her family home in Warwick and moved to Fairbourne, in north Wales, in 2002. For many years it was blissful: she spent her summers swimming in the sea and drying off in the back garden. Winters were harder, although she always had the views of Snowdonia’s rugged slopes to lift her spirits. But if Wilkins lasts nearly as long as her mother, who is 98 and also lives in the village, she could be among the first residents to be moved out: Gwynedd council has decided it can no longer defend her home from rising sea levels driven by increasing global temperatures.
“This is a wake-up call for the country,” she says, making her way up the steep shingle bank to the wall that protects her white bungalow from the waves. “This is going to happen elsewhere. Sometimes you have to see someone else go through it – we just happen to be the first.”
In 26 years – or sooner, if forecasts worsen or a storm breaches the sea defences – a taskforce led by Gwynedd council will begin to move the 850 residents of Fairbourne out of their homes. The whole village – houses, shops, roads, sewers, gas pipes and electricity pylons – will then be dismantled, turning the site back into a tidal salt marsh.
It will become the first community in the UK to be decommissioned as a result of climate change; while other villages along England’s crumbling east coast have lost houses to accelerating erosion, none have been abandoned. It may also create hundreds of British climate refugees: the residents of Fairbourne are not expected to receive any compensation for the loss of their homes, and resettlement plans are unclear.
It will not be the last village to meet this fate. Sea levels around the UK have risen by 15.4cm since 1900, and the Met Office expects them to rise by as much as 1.12m from modern levels by 2100, putting at risk communities in coastal floodplains and on sea cliffs, which are found around much of the east and south coast of England. The west of Wales and north-west England are also vulnerable. Even if the world’s governments succeed in reversing increasing emissions in line with their Paris climate commitments, sea levels are set to rise for centuries, as the impact of higher global temperature and warmer oceans takes effect.
Fairbourne rises, somewhat improbably, from reedy mudflats that slide into the Irish Sea. A straggle of white bungalows, holiday cottages and Victorian apartments, the village spreads out between the brackish waters of the Mawddach estuary mouth and the pale uplands of the Snowdonia national park. On a bright day, with birdsong carrying on the warm breeze, it is easy to understand why the Victorian flour merchant Arthur McDougall chose this spot to build his ideal seaside resort in the late 1890s.
Since then, it has developed sporadically into a thriving and joyously eccentric English-speaking village of about 410 homes, with a shop, deli, chippy, butchers, campsite and a popular model railway. Many retired couples moved here from industrial towns and cities in the Midlands, inspired by vivid memories of childhood holidays in north Wales. Others were attracted by the spectacular landscape and the uncrowded beaches – along with relatively affordable house prices.
Gwynedd council decided it could not afford to defend the village indefinitely in 2013. But the first time most local people heard about the new shoreline management plan was the following year, when BBC Wales’s investigative television series, Week In Week Out, highlighted parts of it in the wake of ferocious storms. The village, which is barely above sea level, is protected by a sea wall, earth banks and a network of drainage channels. These defences were recently improved as part of a £6.8m scheme to extend the life of the village; but from the middle of the century, increasingly regular flooding could render Fairbourne unhabitable. A breach of the wall during a storm surge could sweep away houses and drown villagers.
As word of the council’s decision spread, house sales fell through and prices collapsed. Some residents simply stopped maintaining their homes and gardens. Others formed a campaign group, claiming that the reporting of the plan was misleading, and that the village had been unfairly singled out by Gwynedd. They argued that flooding was much worse in Aberystwyth, Barmouth and Borth in 2014.
The campaign petered out when key members moved away, but much of the bitterness remains. Wilkins, one of the original campaigners, feels the village has been badly treated. “There are hundreds of residents in Fairbourne,” she says, as we talk in her living room. “We’ve got the little railway. We’ve got the shops. We’ve got a post office. We are a thriving community, and that’s all going to be wiped out. I don’t like to think about it.”
Houses have started to sell again, but only to cash buyers looking for bargains; some calculate they can make a profit from rental income in the time Fairbourne has left. However, many of the villagers cannot drop their asking prices £40,000 or £50,000 below the already depressed market rate for the area, because they could not afford to buy anywhere else.
“The situation is a timebomb. It is not going to be affordable to protect large stretches of coast”
Halfway along a quiet, sun-dappled cul-de-sac, Cathy Bowen, 83, and George Bowen, 76, are struggling to sell their two-bedroom bungalow for £125,000. The couple moved to the village from Staffordshire 18 years ago after falling in love with the area on family caravan holidays. But they want to sell because George, a cancer survivor who has type 2 diabetes, needs to be near a hospital. “We want to move because George is not very well and I’m 83,” says Cathy, perched on a stool in their cosy lounge. “I won’t be able to look after him for long.” There has been no interest so far. “It’s been on for three months and not a soul has been here to see it,” she says, glumly.
For Mike Thrussell, 64, a well-known angling journalist, this is the untold story of Fairbourne. Thrussell lives in one of the older, McDougall-era properties just below the sea wall, and claims the council has abandoned the villagers without any solutions. “There are a lot of people in my position. I’ve been here 38 years. My house is paid for. I’m two and half years away from retirement,” he says. “And then this comes along.”
Thrussell, who used to co-present BBC Five Live’s Fish on Five, says houses in Fairbourne have lost a good 40% of their value – and are bound to drop further as the decommissioning date approaches. “People who want to sell are taking very cheap cash deals. I can’t do that. Where am I going to go? I wouldn’t get enough money to get another house,” he says, slamming his kitchen table in frustration. Many villagers, he explains, had been planning to use their homes to pay for their care. “How the authorities can sit there and push this forward with no solutions beggars belief,” he says.
Elsewhere in the village there is a mixture of sadness, denial and confusion about the long-term threat. Standing at the bow of his boat, Barmouth’s former harbourmaster, Julian Kirkham, is adamant that he will not leave his home and says even scientists can’t agree on sea-level rises. “It is just panic,” he says. “There has been so much waffle that nobody knows what will happen.”
Younger residents will almost certainly experience the decommissioning of the village – although many question the likelihood of flooding. Julia Walker, 32, who is buying groceries in the local shop, tells me she cannot move out. “Our house is nice, but the thought that you might be in negative equity isn’t great when you have a young family starting out.” She has three children, and is pregnant with a fourth. The villagers feel powerless, she says. “We don’t have options. We are just pawns.”
Shane Healy, 27, is leaning on a post outside the shop. His mother moved to the village from Sutton Coldfield in the Midlands shortly before he was born. “It will be a shame to lose everything. It has been built up from scratch and to watch it go under water would be heartbreaking for a lot of people,” he says.
Benjamin Winfer, 18, is walking his two dogs along the beach. He works in a nearby chocolate factory. He would like to buy, but banks refuse to lend in Fairbourne. “I love it here,” he says, over the crackle of the tide dragging the shingle back and forth. “I want to live here for the rest of my life, but I can’t get a mortgage.”
Despite the uncertain future, some people are moving into Fairbourne. One of the new arrivals is Angie Brown, a retired tax officer. She parks outside the shop and dashes in to pick up some beer for an impromptu barbecue. “This is la-la land – flooding is not going to happen,” she says. “Yes, the prices will continue to drop, but we will get the pleasure of living here in the meantime.”
Next day, the weather turns. The sea is wild and frothy. A bitter wind blasts the village and hailstones the size of boiled sweets pound the beach. The engineer responsible for maintaining Fairbourne’s flood defences, Gareth Evens, is sensibly waiting in his Natural Resources Wales van. He knows better than anyone the multiple risks the village faces. “At high tide you can see how vulnerable Fairbourne is,” he says. “There are not many places where the houses are almost lower than the level of sea. If the sea defence fails then people are at risk straightaway. It would be catastrophic.”
Evens says that, while other areas along the coast might appear to have a worse history of flooding, rising sea levels make it hard to defend Fairbourne in the long run. “It is a low-lying area. It is kept dry by sea defences, tidal defences and a network of ditches,” he says. The tide is predicted to reach ever higher up the beach as the century progresses. This makes it more likely that waves could come over the top or break the concrete sea wall, which sits on a single bank that is steadily being swept away. “If the defence is breached, there would be an immediate torrent of water. We are talking about loss of life, because the houses are built just behind,” Evens says.
The threat doesn’t just come from the sea. Rainwater pours off the mountains and water surges up and down the estuary. Higher tides mean the water cannot always drain away through tidal flaps and backs up in the village. “You have almost got a basin in Fairbourne. All the runoff water naturally wants to come here,” he says. Would Evens buy a house here? “Knowing what I know, I probably would not,” he says.
As hail drums on roofs and wind rakes the beach, the council officer tasked with the decommissioning, Lisa Goodier, arrives in her car. She has grown to know the area well since she was appointed to work with the community in 2014, and is greeted warmly by a few brave dog walkers. “It is sad to think this will all be gone,” she remarks after taking cover in a seafront cafe. “But I hope it will be a big moment in this country for taking climate change seriously.”
Goodier has been drawing up a masterplan covering the timetable for decommissioning the village. “Based on the current rates of sea-level rise, we are planning to start in 2045,” she says. This will involve removing all trace of human existence. “It means we would eventually return this land to the sea,” Goodier says. “We would have to move everybody out, and then every ounce of infrastructure to return it to a salt marsh over time.”
However, the plan is on “a piece of elastic”: the process may have to be brought forward immediately if the sea wall is breached and inundated. “If we have an early breach in the next two years then we need to be able to condense that very quickly,” she says, cradling a cup of takeaway tea.
Goodier says the villagers are “unlikely” to get any compensation but will receive help to resettle. “The idea is to work with the community to gradually move them out and provide solutions that we can all live with. They will not be great solutions, given where we are financially,” she says. Gwynedd council has been cutting spending for more than a decade and is facing a shortfall of £13m in 2019/20.
Goodier is aware that the stakes are high for residents who may end up with no assets. “What we don’t want to do is create a bunch of climate refugees, because Fairbourne is at risk of that,” she warns. There are no plans to rebuild the village elsewhere, not least because there is no land available in the Snowdonia national park. Instead, residents are likely to be placed in existing towns and villages in north Wales. Goodier admits that this will be challenging: “Are those places capable of absorbing that number of people?” Added to this is the risk that Welsh-speaking communities may not accept them. “Do people want to go there, and do people want to receive people from Fairbourne? Fairbourne is unusual because it is an English-speaking community in the most Welsh county in the whole of Wales,” Goodier says.
This is uncharted territory for local authorities. There has never been a similar decommissioning project in the UK, and there is no fund to manage the impact of climate change, Goodier says. She has searched in vain for international precedents, but found only a flood-prone Alaskan village that was voluntarily relocated in 2016.
The Welsh minister responsible for flooding, Lesley Griffiths, is sympathetic to the villagers’ plight but says the government is under no legal obligation to provide compensation. “I know that sounds hard, but we don’t want to raise expectations that financial support could be available,” she says. Griffiths admits that rising sea levels could mean that other Welsh communities are given up to the sea. “There may come a time when it is not sustainable or safe to try to continue to defend low-lying areas, if our seas rise as predicted,” she says.
Talk of decommissioning angers the Arthog community council, the equivalent of an English parish council. Stuart Eves, the council’s vice-chair, lives in a rambling stone farmhouse on the outskirts of Fairbourne. He arrived from Buckinghamshire 40 years ago and runs the 30-pitch caravan park, which fills up every weekend throughout the summer. “Goodier is wrong to say she is going to decommission the village. You decommission a factory or something like that. We are not a factory – the village is full of humans who have spent their life’s money to come and live here because it is such a beautiful place,” he says in his living room, which is infused with the rich tang of wood smoke.
The community council is opposed to Gwynedd’s plans for Fairbourne. “We are going to object strongly to this masterplan. There are no hard facts,” he says, leaning forward in his chair. “Nobody can really say if the sea level is going to increase or decrease.”
Other communities are likely to face similar battles in the coming decades. While cities and areas with important industries are likely to be defended, smaller coastal communities are most at risk. Norfolk villages such as Happisburgh, which has lost 35 homes to the sea, and Hemsby, which has lost 18 homes, are on the frontline of accelerating coastal erosion. But these are not facing decommissioning because only the outskirts are threatened at present; in a few cases, demolished homes have been relocated further inland. There’s no such option in Fairbourne, caught between the sea and the mountains.
A report for the government Committee on Climate Change (CCC) last year found nearly 530,000 properties at risk along the English coast. By the 2080s, up to 1.5m homes will be at risk of flooding, with more than 100,000 homes at risk from coastal erosion. In Wales, 104,000 properties are at risk of coastal flooding. The lead author of the CCC report, Jim Hall, says existing plans to protect the coast are unfunded and unrealistic, and that the public are being kept in the dark about the real risks. “The situation on the coast is a timebomb,” he says down the line from Oxford University, where he is professor of climate and environmental risk. “About half the coast of England is protected with sea walls, promenades and other coastal defences. But many of these are reaching the end of their lives. It is just not going to be affordable to continue to protect large stretches of coastline.”
Hall argues that the chancellor will have to foot the bill to defend densely populated areas with important industries; he says the CCC’s analysis shows councils are claiming wrongly that they can afford to protect at least 185km of England’s coastline. “Some coastal communities are being told by councils that they can hold the line for part or all of the century,” he says. “But funding for these locations is unlikely.”
Hall would like local authorities to lead difficult conversations in these threatened communities, which could include the relocation of existing homes and limiting the approval of new properties. “We need to start making hard choices now,” he says. “This needs to be an inclusive process with some accompanying funding because communities need to be supported if they are going to adapt.” Instead of making impossible promises to build bigger defences, authorities should allow a new coastline to form, to protect communities further inland. “Coastlines are naturally resilient. They roll backwards. Beaches, wetlands, mudflats provide a natural buffer against storms and waves,” Hall says.
The Environment Agency’s new flood and coastal erosion strategy for England, published earlier this month, admits its engineers cannot win a war against water and accepts some coastal communities will have to be moved. But it doesn’t propose any funding streams.
While rising sea levels will be far more devastating for the millions living in low-lying regions in the developing world, British coastal communities still need help to adapt. “Poor, densely populated, coastal mega-cities like Lagos [in Nigeria] are less able to invest in defences and cope with flooding,” Hall says. “But climate change will create many victims in the UK, too – and we do not have those excuses.”
The residents of Fairbourne never expected to be test cases for the capacity of climate change to tear a community apart, but in 26 years’ time they will witness the end of a village that has existed for more than a century. Mike Thrussell, the angling writer, takes a walk along the top of the darkening sea wall. The wind is searing, turning his skin red. He scans the line of homes below and searches for the right way to encapsulate the mood of the village. “It gives you an inner feeling of doom. It is despondency. Everything you do is futile,” he eventually says. “I cannot pass my home on to my son – it is lost. What have I worked for?”
But Thrussell knows their pain will soon be felt by others on Britain’s rapidly changing coastline. “It is not just a Fairbourne problem. You’ve got all these other communities in Wales and England – where the hell are they going to go?”
by Tom Wall | The Guardian