How hundreds of families could see homes lost to sea

Large swathes of coastal Ireland – including roadways and family homes – are at risk of crumbling into the sea as climate change threatens serious coastal erosion.

Violent winter storms and a warming climate mean that hundreds of properties are already in danger of being washed into the sea. Ireland has a high concentration of coastal communities – some 1.9 million people or 40pc of the population live within 5km of the coast.

Of these, 40,000 live less than 100 metres from the sea and there have been repeated warnings about the risk of erosion. But it has emerged that many local authorities have zoned land in at-risk areas.

And now a report, commissioned by the local authorities themselves, warns of the devastating impact that will be wrought on the landscape, transport and homes.

It says more than 800 properties and 300km of roads are potentially at risk of being washed away, and emphasises the threat faced by coastal communities in counties such as Galway, Louth and Wexford.

Office of Public Works (OPW) Minister Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran said it was a “major threat” because of climate change, but the issue fell between two Government departments.

While the OPW was responsible for flooding, including on the coast, coastal erosion was a matter for the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. The OPW should be assigned responsibility, he said, and he would recommend this in early 2019.

“I’m prepared to step up to the mark. This is something Government needs to get stuck into now,” he said.

“Coastal erosion is a major threat coming down the road.

“There has to be a whole- of-government approach.

“We have to look at doing a study to assess the risk, but I’d need that in 12 to 14 months, and we need to work with the local authorities on schemes. That takes money. I hope to bring something to Cabinet early in the new year.”

The report, ‘Local Authority Coastal Erosion Policy and Practice Audit’ produced by the MaREI Centre in UCC, was commissioned by the County and City Managers Association (CCMA) to assess national policy and practice.

In all, it says some 824 properties are potentially at risk of being washed away across 130 locations, of which 401 are private homes.

It highlights the greatest number of at-risk properties is in Galway at 263, followed by Louth at 239 and Wexford at 151, but that 13 councils in total have identified a risk.

In recent years, homes in Clare, Wicklow and Wexford have been lost. Rates of erosion in some counties could be higher than believed.

“Wexford County Council commissioned a report for the whole Wexford coastline determining erosion rates, however, some areas’ predicted levels have been surpassed,” the report says.

However, it also warns that despite the risk, seven of the 19 coastal local authorities have land zoned in at-risk areas for housing, commercial or industrial use, even where erosion has been identified as an issue.

While eight councils impose a 30-100 metre development buffer from an eroding coastline, just one council – Sligo – reported that no planning applications had been approved in the previous five years.

Others suggested that harbour developments, private extensions and “larger public development” projects had been given the go-ahead.

The report also raises concerns about 38 old landfill sites within 300 metres of the coastline, with six deemed to be at risk. One in Bray, Co Wicklow, is considered high risk, with another at South Park in Galway City considered medium risk, while Tramore in Waterford was low/medium risk. The level of risk is unspecified for Ringsend, Rush and Skerries in Dublin.

More than 300km of road within 100 metres of the coastline is also vulnerable, including 154km in Galway.

“With the acceleration of coastal erosion it’s becoming an issue now, much in the same way that flooding has become an issue,” one source said.

“Because of the inter-agency collaboration needed to solve the problem, it needs to go up the political agenda. Hard decisions will have to be made as to what places are left to fall into the sea, and where is protected.”

The report says coastal erosion should be a “higher priority nationally”, and central government funding is needed for defence works. It also says policy is “less developed” than for other hazards, including flooding, and that methods of assessing erosion vary among councils.

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