With the imperative to work in or near cities lessening due to our new hybrid working arrangements, more and more people are seeking the opportunity to move further afield, into the countryside perhaps, or along the coast, where the views are stunning, and the fresh sea air is invigorating.

According to a survey from Rightmove published last year, enquiries for homes by the coast increased by 115% since before the pandemic hit, and the average sell time for houses by the coast dropped from 71 days in 2019, to 51 in 2021.

A life by the seaside has always been seen as a British idyll, but according to Dr Tim Farewell, Director of Science and Communication at our partner Terrafirma, a Dye and Durham Solution, despite being a picturesque destination for property buyers, the risk of coastal erosion is increasing, putting thousands of properties at risk.  I sat down with Tim to discuss why properties by the coast are at an increased risk, and crucially how insurers can understand the extent of the risk on their books.

Tim, why are we seeing such a large increase in coastal erosion?

TF: Coastal erosion has always occurred – it is a natural process.  However, it is increasingly clear that our climate is already changing. Weather patterns are shifting, extreme weather events are becoming more common and global temperatures are already on the rise. This impacts the coastline in two ways; firstly, more frequent severe weather events, including storm surges hit coastlines.  Secondly, mean sea levels are already rising, and some estimates predict a rise of 39 cm by 2050 around parts of the UK.  Such increases could result in permanent loss of coastal and estuarine areas, leading to the loss of biodiversity, land and infrastructure.

Are there any areas particularly at risk around the UK’s coastline?

TF: Unfortunately, yes. England is known for its vast expanses of white chalk cliffs, predominantly seen across the east coast; Flamborough Head, Beachy Head and the White Cliffs of Dover are all famously beautiful spots characterised by their dazzling white chalk formation.  In 2016, research by the University of Glasgow indicated that some cliffs were now retreating by up to 30 cm each year, and they calculate this is significantly faster than the past century.  Just last February, an enormous chunk of the White Cliffs of Dover collapsed into the sea.  Other parts of the UK, especially around East Anglia, have very low-lying coasts with highly erodible geology. These places are also seeing some incredibly fast rates of coastal retreat. This is not a problem we can afford to ignore.

How many properties do you believe could be at risk?

TF: Modelling future climate scenarios is a complex process due to uncertainties around how different populations will respond and take action to slow the effects of climate change.  At Terrafirma, we use a variety of best to worst case scenarios to understand the extent of the coastal erosion threat. Our Terrafirma NGRM: Climate modelling has identified over 30,000 properties which are within 20 metres of predicted coastal erosion by 2080. That’s a significant number of lives heading for disruption, and a massive financial cost to homeowners and insurers.

For insurers, these predictions will make for worrying reading. Though many will cover for sudden landslip under buildings insurance, for homes built in areas known for coastal erosion, the event of the property being damaged in a landslip event becomes more certainty than chance. They may want to adjust premium or introduce certain exclusions accordingly.

To shore up their own defences against coastal erosion, insurers must have a clear picture of whether and how many properties on their books are situated in at risk areas, both now, and in the coming years as coastlines continue to recede.

The difficulty is that many insurers use postcodes to identify where the risk is located, this information alone is not enough to tell the insurer, with any real accuracy, how close that property is to the edge of the cliff, and whether it is at significant risk of being exposed to coastal erosion either now or in the coming years.

A partnership approach to understanding risk

We understand these difficulties, and financial impact of an inaccurate address, so we take a different approach.  Our AddressFirst database places accurate property risk information in the hands of our clients, allowing them to instantly access over 29 million addresses across the UK and Ireland, these values have been generated via geo-coding which enables us to get a rooftop level view of the risk in hand.

In addition to location accuracy, we have developed a new Intelligence Service (Intel API), this collates data on a wide range of perils such as subsidence, flood and crime, all sourced from commercial providers, such as Terrafirma, and government sources.  Our partnership with Terrafirma in particular, allows us to tap into innovative geographical modelling techniques, developed by experts, that give our customers highly detailed insights into the risks they’re placing on cover.

Find out more about geo-coding here.

Visit Terrafirma’s website to find out more about their expertise in ground hazards.