Some people living in towns and villages near the sea may have to be moved inland in the future as "it will not be possible" to protect all of the coast from erosion, it has been warned.

Sir James Bevan, head of the Environment Agency, told a flooding and coastal erosion conference that “in the long term, climate change means that some of our communities – both in this country and around the world – cannot stay where they are”.

The boss of the organisation in charge of managing Suffolk's coastline admitted some people may have to relocate "to prevent loss of homes and livelihoods".

But, she said, the organisation was "already working closely" with coastal communities to make them more resilient, and added no towns or villages would be moved without "the full involvement of that community".

Sir James told the Flood and Coast Conference, in Telford, that: "There is no coming back for land that coastal erosion has taken away or which a rising sea level has put permanently or frequently under water.

East Anglian Daily Times: Sir James Bevan, head of the Environment Agency at the Ipswich Tidal Barrier.Sir James Bevan, head of the Environment Agency at the Ipswich Tidal Barrier. (Image: SARAH LUCY BROWN)

“Which means that in some places the right answer – in economic, strategic and human terms – will have to be to move communities away from danger rather than to try and protect them from the inevitable impacts of a rising sea level.”

However, he said it is “far too early to say which communities are likely to need to move in due course, still less make any decisions”.

Karen Thomas, head of Coastal Partnership East, which manages the coastline from North Norfolk to Felixstowe, welcomed Sir James' speech. She said: "However, whilst it is easy to say that communities need to move away from the coast, at the moment we do not have the mechanisms or tools to support that approach.

East Anglian Daily Times: Jon Wilkins, a Waldringfield flood warden, and Karen Thomas by the saltmarshes in Waldringfield.Jon Wilkins, a Waldringfield flood warden, and Karen Thomas by the saltmarshes in Waldringfield. (Image: SARAH LUCY BROWN)

"Norfolk and Suffolk have some of the fastest eroding coast in north-western Europe. With a changing climate, resulting in rising sea levels and more extreme weather, it will not be possible to protect the whole coast against erosion in the longer term.

“We are already working closely with our coastal communities using the latest evidence and data to make sure that we plan together for a more resilient future.

"This may mean that, in some cases, a community needs to move away from the erosion to prevent loss of homes and livelihoods, but this will only be done with the full involvement of that community."

One area where work is being done to protect communities is on the Alde and Ore estuary.

Tim Beach, chairman of the Alde & Ore Community Partnership, said plans were being agreed to protect places like Orford, Snape and Aldeburgh.

East Anglian Daily Times: Tim Beach, chairman of the Alde & Ore Community PartnershipTim Beach, chairman of the Alde & Ore Community Partnership (Image: SARAH LUCY BROWN)

He said: "It's about resilience. You maybe can't stop it all, it's about reducing the impact so that we can protect more people, more businesses and people can recover more quickly."

He cited the example of the Harbour Inn pub in Southwold as a business that had developed resilience to repeated flooding.

Mr Beach said that ultimately protecting Suffolk's coast would be "a combination of building better flood defences and maybe moving some communities."

"But at the minute that's a conversation that's still to be had properly," he said.

"The Alde & Ore Community Partnership has started planning and has tried to take into account both coastal erosion and flood risk as well and rising sea levels. And that is, in effect, an attempt to buy time to think through those longer-term and more complex solutions."

A significant amount of money has already been allocated to help protects the coast of East Anglia.

Ms Thomas said: “Coastal Partnership East, on behalf of East Suffolk Council and Great Yarmouth Borough Council, have been awarded £8.4m to develop ways to help communities to adapt and become more resilient to the challenges of flooding and erosion.

"Our Resilient Coasts project, part of the Government’s £200m Flood and Coastal Risk Innovations Programme, will be working with the most at-risk communities to develop and co-create adaptation plans together.”