The impact of dominant trends in public administration, such as decentralisation and privatisation on complex collective challenges is insufficiently understood. This is relevant in settings where climate change impacts become manifest at local level, and where financing power resides at national level but decisions are made more locally in a fragmented institutional setting. This study assists in overcoming this gap by analysing how the institutional context (i.e. a decentralised, privatised, fragmented setting) influences the capacity to address climate change challenges in a vulnerable area (the South Devon coast in the UK). There has been little action to address expected climate change impacts in this vulnerable stretch of coast. A lack of clarity around responsibility for addressing climate impacts and a lack of a deliberative structure between various actors involved, within a context of austerity, hamper climate change adaptation. The findings question whether decentralised decision making is sufficient for addressing climate adaptation challenges.