Global warm­ing, bird flu, nu­clear dis­as­ter … is nowhere in Bri­tain safe for hu­man habi­ta­tion? Ross Clark seeks se­cu­rity in to­mor­row’s world

The Daily Telegraph - Property - - Front Page -

Buy­ing a house in the right place used to be a rel­a­tively sim­ple task of look­ing near a Tube sta­tion and in the catch­ment area of a good school. But that was be­fore we started wor­ry­ing about global warm­ing and other en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems. Now – as­sum­ing you want to avoid storm, tem­pest and earth­quake – it is a good deal tougher.

Where to start? A fort­night ago, the In­ter­na­tional Panel of Cli­mate Change (IPCC) pub­lished its fourth as­sess­ment re­port – the most com­pre­hen­sive fore­cast yet of the changes we can ex­pect to see in the earth’s cli­mate by the end of the cen­tury. The 2,500 sci­en­tists who con­trib­uted to the re­port con­cluded that the most likely sce­nario is for a 4C rise in tem­per­a­ture by 2100. As a tem­per­ate coun­try, Bri­tain is likely to come off rel­a­tively lightly, but that will be of lit­tle con­so­la­tion if your dream home dis­ap­pears be­neath the waves. Many of the pre­dicted changes are al­ready wor­ry­ing house­hold­ers – the ef­fects of drought and floods, for ex­am­ple. And now there’s bird flu, too.

The rise in sea lev­els, as it hap­pens, is just about the least fright­en­ing part of the fore­cast. In con­trast to the pop­u­lar idea of bib­li­cal floods, the IPCC fore­sees that lev­els will rise by half a me­tre by 2100. This is not enough to force the evac­u­a­tion of cen­tral Lon­don, or even of the Fens, large parts of which al­ready lie be­neath a me­tre be­low sea level but are pro­tected by sturdy em­bank­ments and drainage pumps. It will, how­ever, in­crease the risk of storm surges, such as that of 1953 which killed 300 peo­ple and flooded 280 square miles around the East Anglian coast and in the Thames Es­tu­ary. That was caused by a tide three me­tres higher than nor­mal – an ex­tra half-me­tre will make a re­cur­rence rather more com­mon. Need­less to say, in a typ­i­cal piece of joined-up gov­ern­ment, much of the new hous­ing planned for the South­East has been ear­marked for some of the most vul­ner­a­ble ar­eas in the Thames Es­tu­ary.

Higher sea lev­els will also speed coastal ero­sion – mak­ing any prop­erty along the mud cliffs of Nor­folk, Suf­folk, Dorset and the Isle of Wight a haz­ardous busi­ness. But that isn’t all: last year’s Stern Re­port, com­mis­sioned by the Gov­ern­ment to study the eco­nomic ef­fects of cli­mate change, warned that longer pe­ri­ods of dry weather will in­crease the risk of sub­si­dence. Ar­eas most at risk are on the clay­lands of south­east Eng­land – cov­er­ing most of Greater Lon­don (the worst sub­si­dence blackspot be­ing Har­row), the east coast of East Anglia, the So­lent and much of Kent and Sus­sex.

Flood­ing is one thing; but what about drought? The Stern Re­port warned of longer pe­ri­ods of dry, as well as wet, weather. Whether or not th­ese fears are jus­ti­fied, wa­ter sup­ply is al­ready strug­gling the keep up with de­mand. Last year the En­vi­ron­ment Agency pub­lished a list of what it calls ar­eas of “wa­ter stress”, where res­i­dents face acute short­ages in the near fu­ture. Top of the list were Folkestone and Dover, though most of the South-East also made the list.

The Stern Re­port also warned of the risk of death from heat­wave. In gen­eral, the rises in tem­per­a­ture will merely give Bri­tain the cli­mate presently en­joyed by the South of France (where many Bri­tons hap­pily spend their sum­mer hol­i­days). But the warm­ing ef­fect will be ex­ag­ger­ated in Greater Lon­don, which be­haves as a “heat is­land” – warm­ing up much more in hot weather than the sur­round­ing coun­try­side due to build­ings and ve­hi­cle ex­hausts. If global

tem­per­a­tures rise by 3C, Lon­don­ers can ex­pect tem­per­a­tures to rise by 7C. In other words, the peak tem­per­a­ture of 37C mea­sured in Lon­don in the heat­wave of 2003 would be 44C by 2100 – highly dan­ger­ous to the old and the very young with­out air con­di­tion­ing.

There is also the mat­ter of tor­na­does. It is not clear that global warm­ing will cause an in­crease in th­ese phe­nom­ena, yet Birm­ing­ham in 2005, and north-west Lon­don in 2005, suf­fered se­ri­ous struc­tural dam­age from them. Ac­cord­ing to the Tor­nado and Storm Re­search Or­gan­i­sa­tion, Bri­tain suf­fers 35 to 40 tor­na­does a year, mostly in the South-East, the Mid­lands and East Anglia. Wales, Scot­land and North­ern Ire­land are low-risk, al­though a tor­nado has been sug­gested as the cause of the Tay Bridge dis­as­ter of 1879.

So far, there seems to be one mes­sage for any­one wor­ried about the ef­fects of cli­mate change: get out of the South-East – and fast. Or maybe not so fast. Last week’s out­break of bird flu in Suf­folk has alerted us to the dan­gers posed by poul­try farms. Were a hu­man form of the H5N1 virus to de­velop, the Gov­ern­ment cal­cu­lated in 2005, it could kill up to 700,000 Bri­tons. Not sur­pris­ingly, Bernard Matthews’s Nor­folk is a black spot for poul­try. But don’t think you can get away from it all just by flee­ing west of the A1: maps of poul­try den­sity com­piled by Defra show large con­cen­tra­tions of farms in the West Mid­lands, the South-West and along the South Coast. In fact, you have to move to Wales, Cum­bria or Scot­land to be truly be­yond reach of a chicken’s sneeze.

But even if you avoid bird flu, you might still be run­ning the risk of con­tract­ing lung can­cer. Maps plot­ted for the Na­tional At­mo­spheric Emis­sions In­ven­tory (www.naei.org. uk) for var­i­ous air pol­lu­tants in­clud­ing ni­trous ox­ides (emit­ted by car ex­hausts), PM10s (soot par­ti­cles emit­ted by diesel en­gines) and heavy met­als show, not sur­pris­ingly, that all ur­ban ar­eas are emis­sion hotspots. But the maps also show that few coun­try ar­eas can claim to have truly fresh air, ex­cept pos­si­bly the High­lands of Scot­land – and even then there are sig­nif­i­cant lev­els of ar­senic and cad­mium drift­ing on the breeze.

What the Gov­ern­ment’s map doesn’t show is pos­si­ble fall­out from a nu­clear dis­as­ter. While nu­clear power in Bri­tain has an im­pres­sive safety record, it would be rash to as­sume that the in­dus­try can es­cape a dis­as­ter for ever. And if it did hap­pen, the eco­nomic con­se­quences in a tightly packed coun­try like Bri­tain could be cat­a­strophic. If, for ex­am­ple, the Old­bury nu­clear power sta­tion suf­fered an ac­ci­dent on the scale of that of Ch­er­nobyl – around which was im­posed a 30 kilo­me­tre to­tal ex­clu­sion zone – it would mean the evac­u­a­tion of Bris­tol and its 400,000 in­hab­i­tants.

The pres­sure group no2nu­clear power (www.no2nu­cle­ar­power.org.uk) has de­vised an interactiv­e map that su­per­im­poses the map of fall­out from Ch­er­nobyl from each of Bri­tain’s nine ac­tive nu­clear sites. The re­sult is that there is barely a square inch of the Bri­tish main­land that does not risk fall-out in the range one to five curies per km - a level of con­tam­i­na­tion which would re­quire strict ra­di­o­log­i­cal con­trol. The only places far enough away from nu­clear power sta­tions not to worry are Orkney and Shet­land.

Given that Shet­land has been com­pro­mised by the oil in­dus­try – a tanker came to grief just off the is­lands in 1992 – that per­haps leaves the chron­i­cally wor­ried with only one place to live: Orkneys. Bar­ring nu­clear war, there is vir­tu­ally noth­ing to fear at the Old St Ni­cholas Manse, on East Holm, Orkney, a four-bed­room house with one acre of walled gar­dens, for sale through Dr­ever and Hed­dle (01856 872216) for £419,000. In­deed, the only thing to keep you awake at night are the seals, which have es­tab­lished a colony 150 me­tres from the house.

And the worst place to live, from an en­vi­ron­men­tal point of view? In­evitably, cen­tral Lon­don shows up as a blackspot. But, per­haps more sur­pris­ingly, it is run a close sec­ond by the east Suf­folk coast. If you are a house-hunter of a ner­vous dis­po­si­tion, that has just about ev­ery­thing to make you faint: crum­bling cliffs and low­ly­ing es­tu­ar­ies, bird flu, a nu­clear power sta­tion, wa­ter short­ages and shrink­able clay to dis­turb your foun­da­tions. Other than that, it is jolly nice – which is why one buyer re­cently paid £955,000 for a house atop the crum­bling cliffs at Thor­pe­ness, in the shadow of the white dome of Sizewell nu­clear power sta­tion. It un­der­lines how much we re­ally worry about en­vi­ron­men­tal Ar­maged­don.

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