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Cornwall's coastline

Exeter team brief government on threats to coastal communities

University of Exeter scientists have been commissioned by the Government to write a briefing paper on the health and wellbeing of people living in coastal cities, towns and villages.

In the evidence review commissioned by the Government Office of Science, the University of Exeter Medical School researchers identified threats to the health of occupants of sea-side towns including from climate change, rising sea levels, flooding and increasingly-polluted seas. 

Around 17 per cent of the UK’s population lives in coastal communities and coastal industries make a major contribution to the UK economy.

Tourism to coastal towns and villages generates around £17 billion a year. But the desirability of living on the coast and it’s popularity as a retirement destination is pricing many local people out of the housing market, the report has found.

Despite the out-door lifestyle that coastal dwelling affords, over-development, the reduction of the fishing industry and a transient, seasonal workforce is also affecting coastal communities and their health services.

The review of evidence by academics including Professor Michael Depledge and Dr Rebecca Lovell, has been published on the Government Office for Science website as part of its Foresight Future of the Seas series. Foresight projects give evidence to policy-makers “to help them make policies that are more resilient to the future.”

The paper also sets out the many benefits of coastal living and the importance of protecting coastal environments.

The team point out that action can be taken to protect health. For instance, avoiding ‘inappropriate’ coastal development could have multiple benefits and sensitive development, responding to local needs, would enhance protection of vital natural ecosystems which help defend coastal communities from extreme events.

The threats the research team, based at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter Medical School, identify include:

·     More than 11 million people live in coastal areas, but the population is older than in the general population. A sample of 274 coastal communities found 20 per cent were 65 or over, compared to 16 per cent nationally.

·     A higher proportion of residents in coastal towns rent privately or live in shared houses or converted guest houses and hotels compared to other communities.

·     Patterns of young people leaving seaside towns and pensioners retiring to the coast is putting pressure on the health services and boosting house prices.

·     In England and Wales, 113,000 residential properties, 9,000 commercial properties and 5,000 hectares of agricultural land are at risk of coastal erosion.  The total capital value of these assets is £7.7 billion.

·     Degradation of coastal wetlands and poor urban planning exacerbates the impact of coastal flooding.

·     Pollution of the sea by industrial, domestic and medical chemicals and waste poses a health threat to people living in coastal areas. Bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites from the discharge of human sewage and animal waste can cause gastrointestinal, respiratory, and skin diseases,

·     Climate change by 2080 will ‘pose a significant threat’, with sea level rise of up to one metre, increasing winter storms, coastal flooding, rising temperatures, further coastal erosion and the reworking of sediment.

Professor Michael Depledge, who led the study, said: “The dilemma facing Governments around the World is that more and more people are choosing to live near or by the coast where outdoor lifestyles foster better health. Unfortunately this also exposes them to health growing threats from the sea as climate change proceeds. We hope that this report will aid policymakers to develop strategies to capture benefits while minimising the dangers”.


Date: 6 September 2017

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