Rapid Coastal Zone Assessment Surveys (RCZAS)

Heritage assets on the coast are vulnerable to the effects of natural coastal change, (which will accelerate during the 21st century), and to the impacts of coastal management schemes. Besides this, coasts are under pressure from the expansion of new or existing infrastructure and industry, especially at ports, and residential and recreational development.

New Habour at Rye, 1787

New Habour at Rye, 1787 © Peter Murphy 

Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management (FCERM)

For much of the 20th century coastal management was focused on defence.  More recently, the emphasis has shifted towards risk management, long-term sustainability and adaptation, in the light of current climate change projections (Defra 2010; McInnes 2008).  A useful review of issues of governance, legislation and practice associated with FCERM is given in the Coastal Handbook (Environment Agency 2010). Responsibilities for managing flood and coastal erosion risk on the coast are shared between local authorities and the Environment Agency who collaborate in the production of high-level documents known as Shoreline Management Plans (SMPs).

The objectives of an SMP are to define, in general terms, the risks to people and the developed, historic and natural environment within the SMP area; to identify the preferred policies for managing these risks over the next 100 years and their consequences; to ensure that future land use and the development of the shoreline takes due account of the risks and the preferred SMP policies; to comply with international and national conservation legislation and biodiversity obligations; and to develop an action plan.

Generally the SMP is broken down into policy units, and the most appropriate
management approach is identified for each policy unit. The policy options are:

  • Hold the existing line of defence – by maintaining or changing the standard of protection;
  • Advance the existing defence line – by constructing new defences seaward of the original defences;
  • Managed realignment – by allowing the shoreline to move backwards or forwards, with management to control or limit its movement; and
  • No active intervention – where there is to be no national investment in coastal defence assets or operations.

English Heritage has participated in the review of twenty SMPs around England but, of course, the historic environment is only one factor amongst many to be considered during option selection. Consequently protection of all heritage assets, especially in rural areas, is not assured and adaptation options must be considered instead – for example by increasing flood resilience of historic buildings, or by excavating and recording archaeological sites in advance of erosion. SMPs are followed by the development of coastal Strategies, and their conclusions may be implemented by specific Schemes, at which mitigation of impacts is undertaken.

Plainly a comprehensive and reliable record of the coastal historic environment is needed at all stages of FCERM.

Anglo-Saxon fishtrap at Holbrook Bay, Suffolk

Anglo-Saxon fishtrap at Holbrook Bay, Suffolk © Peter Murphy 

A Two-Staged Approach

By the late 1990s it was clear that the coastal historic environment was under-investigated and records in the National Monuments Record (NMR) did not provide an adequate evidence base for responding to these challenges.  Consequently, English Heritage initiated the national RCZAS programme. The RCZAS have two main phases:

Phase 1 (Desk-Based Assessment) draws on data from aerial photographs, LiDAR, historic maps and charts, the local authority Historic Environment Records (HERs), the NMR, and other sources.

Phase 2 (Field Assessment) comprises a rapid walk-over survey, designed to verify records from Phase 1, locate and characterise site types not visible from the air, and assess significance and vulnerability. In some cases additional work, especially scientific dating, has been necessary to characterise sites fully.

By late 2010 surveys had been completed, or were underway, in all parts of the country except the south-west peninsula, where it is hoped survey will begin shortly. The outputs consist of enhanced HER and NMR records, together with client reports for English Heritage.  Results from the RCZAS have already been incorporated into books (e.g. Murphy 2009) and into the forthcoming EH ‘Maritime and Marine Archaeological Research Framework’. Aspects of the results are presented in talks, leaflets, and popular publications (e.g. Hegarty and Newsome 2007).  Volunteer involvement is increasingly encouraged, with a view to establishing local groups who can continue to monitor sites, after the main phases of survey, and report significant new finds. In due course it is intended that a synthesis of the new results will be published to replace Fulford et al. (1997).

The information gained will enable us to make a better-informed input to the FCERM process, and will help to ensure effective mitigation of the effects of coastal change through the 21st century.  It will also provide a data-base for use in further research and in the development control process.


Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). ‘Shoreline Management Plan Guidance’. Volume 1: Aims and Requirements and Volume 2: Procedures, London: Defra, 2006.

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). ‘Adapting to coastal change: developing a policy framework’, London, Defra, May 2010.

Environment Agency, ‘The coastal handbook.  A guide for all those working on the coast.  A collaborative project between the Environment Agency and Maritime Local Authorities’.  London: Environment Agency June 2010.

English Heritage.  ‘Shoreline Management Plan Review and the Historic Environment: English Heritage Guidance’.  London: English Heritage, 2006.

Fulford, M., Champion, T. and Long, A. ‘England’s Coastal Heritage.  English Heritage Archaeological Report 15’ London:  English Heritage and the RCHME, 1997.

Hegarty, C. and Newsome, S.  ‘Suffolk’s Defended Shore.  Coastal Fortifications from the Air’.  London: English Heritage/Suffolk County Council, 2007.

McInnes, R. ‘Coastal Risk Management: a Non-Technical Guide’. Ventnor: Standing Conference on Problems Associated with the Coast (SCOPAC), 2008.

Murphy, P. ‘The English Coast.  A History and a Prospect.’  London: Continuum, 2009.



Risk Assessment

Read the report on English Heritage Coastal Estate Risk Assessment