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Coastal Flooding

Volume 454: debated on Wednesday 6 December 2006

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Huw Irranca-Davies.]

May I start by saying how pleased I am to see you in the Chair, Mr. Conway, and thanking Mr. Speaker for selecting this important debate? I am aware that it is of significant concern to Members of all parties, particularly those who represent constituencies along the east coast of England.

As the much-talked-about Stern report confirms, the evidence for climate change is now overwhelming and global warming poses a serious risk. Stern has calculated that if action is not taken soon, the earth’s temperature will rise by 2° C by 2035. Not only could climate change shrink the global economy by 20 per cent., but it could reduce crop yields. North sea storm surges, increasingly unpredictable weather and dramatic sea-level rises will put millions of homes and businesses at risk of flooding on an unprecedented scale. We in Britain must take action not only to mitigate future climate change, but to adapt to the damage already done. That will require detailed planning and investment in Britain’s flood defences to safeguard our coastal areas.

I shall put some stark statistics on the record to provide an overarching context for this debate. A 40 cm rise in sea levels, which could happen by 2040, will put an extra 130,000 properties at risk of flooding. In total, 400,000 properties will be at risk, counting only those that exist today and not those constructed in the future. Some 2.5 million people, 82,000 businesses and 2 million acres of agricultural land are also at risk from coastal flooding and erosion. Without improvements to existing flood defences, the cost of a single major coastal flood could soar by 400 per cent. to as much as £16 billion.

In view of the statistics that my hon. Friend has given, would he agree that the Government are negligent in seeking to put so many thousands more houses on the Thames estuary flood plain?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, which I shall put in context. The reduction in resource allocation to coastal flood defences is significant. It could be detrimental to his constituency and mine. The Government’s new funding regime for the internal drainage boards that take precipitation off the land, particularly land below sea level—I shall come to it in some detail later—could also have a significant and damaging impact not only on coastal erosion but on the safety of the people with businesses, livelihoods and homes in the areas that we are discussing, especially on the east coast of Lincolnshire.

It is not just the extra construction that my hon. Friend highlighted but essential services that are at risk: 15 per cent. of fire and ambulance stations and 12 per cent. of hospitals and schools are in areas likely to be flooded. As many as one in five could be affected following sea level rises. The elderly will be particularly affected, as the number of those over 75 living on or moving to the coast is expected to double by 2028.

To exacerbate the problem, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has recently announced that it is cutting £15 million of the £428 million flood defence budget. The budget constraints are partly a result of the Government’s mismanagement of single farm payments but also, I accept, of the unexpected expenditure of preparing for avian flu. The Government also have yet to agree the Environment Agency’s budget for 2007-08. We must ensure that they do not reduce any further the funding for coastal flood protection and therefore the security of livelihoods in the United Kingdom.

The statistics paint a bleak picture for many coastal communities in Britain that rely completely upon coastal flood defences for their survival. That is particularly true in my constituency, which lies entirely on a flood plain, much of it below sea level. The Environment Agency produced for every Member of Parliament a map demonstrating the impact of flooding on their constituency. I know that we are not allowed to use props, Mr. Conway, but has the Minister has seen the map and the effect that flooding would have on my constituency? It will be completely underwater unless sufficient resources are given to both coastal flood defences and internal drainage boards. The flood risk in Lincolnshire extends as far as Woodhall Spa, which is 25 miles inland. Much of the high-quality agricultural land making up my constituency was reclaimed from the sea in the past 400 years or so, but with the North sea continuing to rise by about 6 mm per year, it is once again at severe risk. Indeed, one report indicated a net sea level rise on the east coast of up to 34 cm by the middle of this century.

I pay tribute to the excellent work of numerous organisations that ensure that Lincolnshire is protected from flooding. Without their expertise, the majority of my constituency and some of the country’s finest agricultural land would be underwater. Given sufficient resource allocation and their skills and knowledge, it is difficult to envisage any circumstances in which inland flooding would occur as a result of precipitation alone. The internal drainage boards, in particular, play a vital role in monitoring and controlling water flow in Lincolnshire and the fenlands. I recognise the importance of the Boston combined strategy, which will manage the risk to Boston of tidal flooding. I also recognise that although this debate is on coastal flooding, inland and sea flood defences in east Lincolnshire are inextricably linked and must be considered together.

Extreme coastal flooding has occurred. In 1953, numerous people were killed when flood waters reached many kilometres inland, destroying homes, businesses and infrastructure and salinating many square miles of high-quality agricultural land. It was the worst natural disaster to hit northern Europe in 200 years.

We do not want that to recur. If it did, the situation would be far worse and far more serious. On the east Lincolnshire coast between Skegness and Mablethorpe, there are 26,000 mobile homes, most of which would be seriously affected by any breach of the sea defences. The economic impact would also be substantial, as the tourist industry so vital to the coast would be devastated. Most of the areas that would be affected are areas of socio-economic deprivation, with a working population of 56 per cent. compared with the national average of 62 per cent. More than 40 per cent. of employment on the coast is part-time, compared with 32 per cent. nationally; 26 per cent. of residents are aged 65 or over, compared with 16 per cent. nationally; and 19 per cent. of residents have no qualifications, compared with 14.3 per cent. nationally. The area requires investment, but investment is unlikely without sound flood defences financed in the long term and with adequate maintenance budgets, as 40 per cent. of all flood defences currently require maintenance.

Flooding would submerge acres of high-quality agricultural land, destroying crops and having a long-term impact on soil productivity. Lincolnshire produces 20 per cent. of our national food supply, saving billions of pounds of imports and incalculable food miles. Loss of that important agricultural land would devastate the local economy and community, but would also have a wider impact on the national economy and national food security as well as carbon emissions.

My constituency has two very different types of coast—the Wash and the open coast—which require different solutions. The Wash is recognised as a site of special scientific interest and a special area of conservation for its international importance for wildlife. It is mainly natural salt marsh, which provides an effective buffer to wave action. Steps are being taken to create more natural salt marsh, which will increase the area’s ability to absorb water, but future schemes are highly dependent on funding from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs through the Environment Agency or the new higher-level environmental stewardship scheme. However, both funding instruments have been cut, and I would like the Minister’s assurance that all higher-level schemes protecting the shoreline will be adequately funded.

I welcome shoreline management plans, which are a useful tool for co-ordinating the various groups responsible for protecting our coast from flooding. I understand that they are currently being revised and urge the Minister to ensure that organisations involved with the second generation of shoreline management plans take into account local concerns and provide a robust and detailed assessment of economic, environmental and social factors. I also urge him to consider managed retreat—the example in my constituency is Freiston Shore—and the expansion of flood defences.

Would my hon. Friend agree that, in considering the form of flood defences that are to be taken forward, it is also vital to consider the amenity value of the area that is to be protected? Whether a coastal area is an area of natural beauty and environmental importance or a built environment, such as in my constituency, we must find a solution that is not just an engineering solution, but one that preserves the character and the amenity value of the place that we are trying to conserve.

My hon. Friend makes a good point and he is absolutely right. The solution will be different in each local circumstance in our coastal regions in different parts of the country.

My hon. Friend is most generous in giving way a second time. Does he accept that building a barrier to defend one community from flooding may affect another community on the other side of that barrier? That is particularly important in the Thames estuary. Placing a barrier downstream of Canvey Island would have a massive impact on the island, yet putting one upstream of the island could cost £5 billion.

I am not an expert on the flood defences for Canvey Island, but my hon. Friend makes a good point that I am sure the Minister and his officials will note.

The first generation of shoreline management plans were 50-year plans. I urge the organisations that are now drafting them to take a longer-term view and to take account of the likely impact of climate change going into the next century. It would be helpful if the Minister could provide more detail about the improvements that are expected in the second generation of shoreline management plans, when they are expected to be completed and when they will be put into the public domain.

The other part of the coastline in my constituency is the open sea coast around Skegness, which is eroding naturally, thereby putting property and infrastructure at increased risk. The Lincolnshire project of dredging sand from offshore to recharge the beaches as a line of defence will cost more than £8 million this financial year, and future funding is not secure. It would be helpful if the Minister could provide an assurance, either this morning or in writing, that the Environment Agency will continue that dredging to protect the east Lincolnshire coast.

I am also deeply concerned by the recent announcement from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that it is to cut £15 million from the flood defence budget. I accept that that comes in the context of increases in funding since the Government came to power. However, the cut could have a detrimental impact on flood defences around the country, as funding may not be available for important capital projects. Additionally, the Government have yet to agree the Environment Agency’s budget, so it would be helpful if the Minister could provide an assurance that there will be no further reduction in funding for flood protection. The Association of British Insurers has calculated that an extra £8 billion needs to be spent over the next 25 to 30 years to improve coastal defences along the east coast alone, and that spending on flood defences needs to rise from the current level of £570 million a year to £750 million by 2011, which is an increase of around 10 per cent. a year.

The reductions in the revenue support grant for the flood defence service hit the areas that can least afford it. The demands of the service bear heavily on some councils, which have to meet the special levies payable to internal drainage boards, which in turn play a vital role in managing local water levels. The scaling factor within the revenue support grant system has fallen from 1.032 in 2000-01 to 0.870 in 2005-06. For some councils, particularly along the Lincolnshire coast, that outcome is severe and reduces their capacity to provide other services.

The revenue support grant funds revenue expenditure, special levies paid to the internal drainage boards and levies paid to the Environment Agency. However, those services have been increasingly underfunded through the scaling factor, with a shortfall of around £4 million in 2005-06. I do not want to get too technical, but that will be carried forward into the new four block model from 2006-07. Following the review of the formula grant in 2005, the four block grant model was introduced from 2006-07. The previous underfunding has effectively been embodied in the new funding system. The scaling factor for flood defence expenditure is the most severe under the new grant arrangements.

People might ask what the impact of that is. The result for local authorities is that they are obliged to pass the cost of flood defence expenditure on to the council tax payer. In 2005-06, East Lindsey district council, which is responsible for the Skegness and, further north, Mablethorpe parts of the east Lincolnshire coast, was expected to spend nearly £2.6 million on flood defences, yet received only £2.1 million in revenue support grant, which leaves a shortfall of just over £400,000 to be met by the taxpayer. Similarly, the flood defences in Boston will cost £1,579,000, yet the revenue support grant provided only £1,321,000, leaving a shortfall of £258,000. The impact of that on council tax is an increase of £14.19 in band D, which is a significant percentage in an area of socio-economic deprivation in a low-wage, low-skill part of the country.

The problem is exacerbated by the Government’s policy of capping council tax increases at 5 per cent. As expenditure on flood defences rises more rapidly, local councils face a stark choice: cut expenditure in other areas of service provision or leave the area vulnerable to flooding. Such cuts or tax rises could have a devastating impact in an area that already suffers from socio-economic deprivation and in which people already struggle to pay ever-increasing council tax bills. Yet spending pressures continue to rise. Inflationary pressures, additional demands to maintain current waterways, riparian recharges and the need for adequately serviced land for housing and economic development all demand additional resources.

My hon. Friend makes his case extremely eloquently. I should like to add one more point to his list, which is that the consequences of coastal flooding are not limited to the areas to which the sea level may rise. Above that level, the consequences are erosion, rotational slip in my constituency, and damage to housing, infrastructure, roads, sewers and so on. They need to be added to the list of problems with which local authorities have to deal.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. As always, he is an assiduous Member of the House, with the interests of his constituency at the forefront of his mind. I am sure that the Minister and his officials will take on board what he has said.

I should like an assurance from the Minister today that the revenue support grant for both Boston borough council and East Lindsey district council will be increased in the next financial year to ensure that they receive sufficient resources for coastal flood defences and the internal drainage boards, and are not forced to make the terrible choice of raising council taxes, cutting public services or increasing the likelihood of flooding.

In addition, there is a moratorium on the approval of capital schemes for both internal drainage boards and local authorities, because the funding demand is greater than the funding available. It would be helpful if the Minister could provide further information on when the moratorium is likely to be lifted and about the backlog of applications for funding capital schemes. Internal drainage boards play a vital role in protecting Lincolnshire from flooding, but they will require significant capital investment in the near future, as many still operate with technology from the 1930s and 1940s that is reaching the end of its usable life. In the long run, that capital investment will result in efficiencies, but discussions need to be had now about how those funds are found.

I am also keen to ensure that the internal drainage boards retain their local control. In the past, it has been suggested that the Environment Agency should take control of the management of the boards. I am strongly opposed to that idea, as are the internal drainage boards, as they need to retain their detailed local knowledge and expertise. I should welcome a reassurance from the Minister that that suggestion is completely off the agenda.

Many of my constituents have contacted me concerning their nervousness about obtaining insurance for domestic properties and businesses in areas at risk of flooding. An excellent recent report by the Association of British Insurers raises concerns, of which I am sure the Minister is aware, about its statement of principles with DEFRA. The statement is an agreement between the Government and insurers to ensure that, in the long term, as the former continues to invest in flood protection, the latter will continueto provide cover to homeowners and small businesses. However, many members of the ABI will not insure any new building unless it has only a 0.5 per cent. chance of flooding or less, and the statement of principles covers only the majority of properties. The Government must work further with the ABI and its members to ensure that flood insurance is provided at a reasonable cost to as many homes and businesses as possible, particularly in areas of socio-economic deprivation, such as coastal Lincolnshire, where, for many businesses and individuals, the net financial cost of getting insurance constitutes a significant part of their outlays. Unavailable and expensive insurance could have a negative impact on the economy of the east Lincolnshire coast. The local authorities are keen to diversify the economy away from its traditional agricultural base, but without guaranteed insurance and the long-term protection of land, developers will struggle to attract new investment and new businesses into the area. The Government and the Environment Agency must do more to ensure that such security can be offered, so that new businesses feel confident in developing and investing in east Lincolnshire and other coastal strips across the country, providing sustainable, non-seasonal employment and stimulating economic regeneration and wealth creation.

The Government must ensure that flood defences—both hard, such as sea walls, and soft, such as salt marshes—are fully funded and maintained. That will require sufficient funding for the Environment Agency in the comprehensive spending review, and the revenue support grant to each council must be sufficient and appropriate for the financing of flood defences without cuts in public services.

The Environment Agency must give a clear commitment to maintaining the defences and, if necessary, when sea-level rise occurs, improving and increasing the defences to protect communities and valuable farm land in Lincolnshire and elsewhere. Currently, the ambiguity on the part of the Environment Agency is a major barrier to inward investment and is leading to a confused policy area, as other Government Departments push to improve economic growth, make social and educational improvements and make the quality of life better for residents in the area.

The Stern report provides evidence that global warming presents a serious threat and the Government must match not only taxation but expenditure to the threat of climate change. Nowhere is that more important and appropriate than in south and east Lincolnshire. I conclude by quoting Professor Sir David King, chief scientific adviser to Her Majesty’s Government and head of the Office of Science and Technology:

“Continuing with existing policies is not an option. We must either invest more in sustainable approaches to flood and coastal management or live with increased flooding.”

I assure the Minister that this is not the time for cuts.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) on securing this debate on flooding, one of many in which I have participated in the past few years. I am sure that there will be many more in future. I concur with many of the points that he made.

I shall be relatively brief, because I do not want to go over again what has been discussed before. I want to relay the views held in my constituency of Great Yarmouth as a result of recent flooding. Although it was not to do with coastal flooding, we must be aware that such events will increase because of climate change. For four or five weeks, we had such heavy rainfall that some places in town were flooded on three separate occasions. One particular instance was regarded as a one-in-100-year event, although for the residents who suffered from that flood, that is no excuse. Many are still suffering from its effects.

Given the onslaught of climate change, had that event happened at the same time as the high tides and high winds that we experienced two or three weeks later, the borough of Great Yarmouth would, I suggest, have been severely flooded. We need to look clearly at the question of flood defences around the entirety of the east coast in particular—certainly my part of the region.

Three or four separate consultations are going on at the moment, including the shoreline management plan, which has proved controversial in my part of the region and in north Norfolk. The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) is not here, but I know that he is sincerely worried about the effects of coastal erosion in the area. The broadland rivers catchment flood management plan or CFMP mentions that any breaches in sea defences at Winterton or further north could flood and have a severe effect on the Norfolk broads; obviously the River Thurne would be covered by that as well. The CFNP relies on the shoreline management plan to put sea defences in place to prevent that happening, yet the shoreline management plan does not suggest further improvements to that shoreline. Two consultative documents are considering their own areas, but do not seem to be working together to find a solution. There was also the broadlands flood alleviation project.

My constituency is surrounded by water: the sea to the east and the broads to the west. Great Yarmouth itself has the River Yare as well. We are really up against the problems associated with coastal flooding. Part of the shoreline management plan is about managed retreat. Although I accept that there is concern about the agricultural land that may well be destined to be flooded, I am sure—or, at least, I hope—that a part of that plan will take the relevant effects into account.

My concern is really for my communities, which range from Winterton in the north to Hopton in the south. The northern part of the parishes—Winterton, California, Hemsby, Scratby—are seriously under threat, and action teams are trying to raise the profile of the problem of coastal erosion.

I accept that we cannot stop the force of nature. Unfortunately, climate change has gone so far that it will be very difficult to reverse the trend. However, there are things that we can do. It is significant that the Association of British Insurers, representatives of which I met recently for discussions after the flooding in Great Yarmouth, is calling clearly for a 10 per cent. increase in funding year on year for the next 15 or 20 years, to take into account the necessity of improving our flood defences.

The human and financial costs are clear from the statistics of a number of years. The ABI report says that claims for storm and flood damage in the UK in 1998 to 2003 were £6.2 billion, double the figure for the previous five years, and it estimates that the figures could triple by 2050. That is a real problem. In January and February 1990, storms and coastal flooding led to £2.1 billion in insurance claims alone. In 1998, floods cost the insurance industry £500 million, and in 2000—the wettest autumn for almost 300 years—they led to insurance claims of almost £1 billion. We can see some of the issues that are coming forward. We should not take such issues lightly, but take on board the effects on communities.

I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that successive reports of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Committee and its successor, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, have talked about managed retreat, but also about the need to pay farmers to allow their fields to flood when flood water needs to be removed. I do not know how far we have got with that; to me, it seems a very sensible use of the single farm payment. It would add certainty. Like my hon. Friend, I have talked to the ABI. Bringing that idea forward would be an appropriate way of using the single farm payment and protecting the land that we want to protect. Does he agree?

Absolutely; my hon. Friend makes a valid point, which I am sure the National Farmers Union, many of my constituents and others throughout Norfolk would welcome as an initiative. I hope that the Minister will respond directly to the point and take the issue forward.

It would be remiss of me if I did not say that although there will be criticism of the fact that we do not spend enough on coastal flooding, the Government clearly have a feather in their cap: since 1997, they have taken the issue seriously. Just recently, there was an increase.

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s points about his area. Will he clarify something? There is a fundamental difference, particularly for agriculture, between coastal flooding from the sea and inland flooding. Obviously, the flooding of productive land by salt water, as opposed to seasonal water, has horrific long-term consequences. Was he suggesting that farmers in his area should welcome seawater on their land as a part of the new arrangement?

No, absolutely not. What I am suggesting is that, if we accept that there has to be managed retreat and farmers accept that there will be a negotiated settlement with suitable compensation for agricultural and other land, I do not see why we should not go forward on that basis. What I do not accept is the premise that we should accept that we will have flooding—it may well be inland flooding, which occurs when river levels rise over a number of years—and that landowners will, unfortunately, probably be flooded inadvertently. Following the recent heavy rains, the ingress of salt water into the fresh water riverways did a huge amount of environmental damage and destroyed an awful lot of fish in the rivers in the Norfolk broads. There are therefore concerns about the issue, and I accept that there is possibly a need for managed retreat, but I also suggest that there must be relevant compensation. If the single payment fund is used following negotiations—and provisions have to be accepted on that basis—I see no problem with going ahead in that way.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the World Wide Fund for Nature, to give it its new title, has suggested that there might be environmental benefits to carefully managed retreat, such as increasing the potential for fish nurseries and new wetlands?

Absolutely. I agree that that is perhaps another avenue that needs to be looked at. Indeed, one of the proposals for urban regeneration in my constituency is to form a new wetland just outside the town. The proposal has certainly received positive comments, and I see it as a positive way forward. If we can have a dialogue with all the interested parties, I see no problem with accepting that as the way forward. However, I disagree with people—whether the Government or any of the other agencies—who come along and say, “This is what is going to happen, whether you like it or not.” That is not the attitude that we need. We need to put clearly in place the funding strategy that is needed to protect areas with large communities and, indeed, many valuable environmental areas, such as the Norfolk broads, from an ingress of water; that must be the priority.

I welcomed the Government’s increase in funding for flood defences against coastal and inland flooding, but I am a bit perturbed that there is an element of cuts when we should be moving forward year on year. The ABI’s recommendation of a 10 per cent. increase should not be considered as too far out of the way—there is too much for us to lose.

While we are talking about flooding, I want to return to one of my pet subjects, which I have been going on about in such debates for many years. Part of the coastal erosion that we are seeing is really down to some of the dredging activities in the North sea. My area of the coastline has certainly seen significant licences awarded in recent months and years, which seems a bit perverse. To use an analogy, I used to go on to Yarmouth beach as a lad to dig holes in the sand near the sea, but as soon as the water came in, the sand at the side of the hole filled it in. If we dredge millions of tonnes of aggregate and sand from the sea, something has to fill the hole, and, over the years, that material will come from the edges. It seems a bit perverse to talk about replenishing beaches with sand that we have dredged from the North sea, when that sand will presumably go back into the hole and when we are paying significant sums in the process. Once again, I call on the Government to at least consider stopping the export of aggregate and sand. That would prevent the dredging activities in the North sea or at least cut back a significant part of them. I know that the scientists will argue among themselves and say, “Yes, dredging has an effect” or “No, it doesn’t have an effect.” However, we really should have a significant report on the issue, because I still consider that dredging has an effect on coastal erosion. The problem is that when we find out that it has had an effect, it will be too late.

Before I finish, I have one question that I really want to ask the Minister. Has any authority in my constituency put in any capital applications in the past 12 months in relation to looking at coastal defences? Thank you.

I am grateful that we are having this debate, because coastal flooding is a major issue for people in my constituency.

In some way, the ABI’s report “Coastal Flood Risk—Thinking for tomorrow, acting today” precipitated this debate, and it is a useful contribution to the overall debate on coastal flooding. It was particularly useful for me, because Southend was pinpointed as one of the areas that would be under increased risk of flooding in the coming years.

Let us get things straight: this is not a hypothetical issue, but a real concern, which is faced by all our constituents. The great storm in 1953, which was mentioned in the report and by my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds), killed nine individuals from around Southend, Great Wakering and Foulness. The total death toll around the UK was 309. There is a vivid living memory of that event in my constituency, and no one wants to see it repeated.

The ABI predicts that, with the existing defences in my constituency, 1,400 residential and commercial properties would face significant flooding if the 1953 storms were repeated, causing losses of anything up to £86 million. Let us look at what would happen if, as the ABI predicts, sea levels rose by 40 cm. With the current levels of protection, the same storm would significantly increase the number of properties flooded to more than 24,000—a huge increase. The financial cost would go up to more than £330 million.

On top of all that, the Government are planning to develop the Thames Gateway, with 160,000 houses planned by 2016—the 120,000 originally planned are not sufficient. Some 35 per cent. of the developments are planned for the flood plain in south Essex, which makes absolutely no sense to me. A very worrying picture is building up.

We also need to look at communication. Charles Beardall, the eastern region manager at the Environment Agency, has been making a lot of effort to keep me and the local community informed and updated about the projects that the agency is running. Indeed, the agency ran a public consultation, as part of which it held a successful event in the village hall at Great Wakering. Local people could come along and talk to the experts about what was happening, and I look forward to the outcome of that consultation.

However, there is no real money to deliver the projects; indeed, there was none even before the cuts at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Flood risk management at DEFRA has seen funding cuts to the tune of £14.9 million, and there is no doubt that the Environment Agency will suffer and that individuals will suffer as a result. As the Minister will know, I am a member of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. As recently as Monday we took oral evidence in public from Helen Ghosh, the permanent secretary at DEFRA, as part of our inquiry into its annual report. We talked about the impact of the cuts, and it would be fair to say that it might be as follows: there will be reductions in the rate of repairs on flood defences; in channel clearing and maintenance; in asset management plans and structural asset services, which are so important; in risk-based assessments; in flood warnings; in flood mapping; and in studies and the collection of data, which is essential. There will also be a reduction in the number of pre-feasibility studies, or else existing feasibility studies will be slowed down. In many cases, catchment flood management plans will be delayed. Action on water level management plans, where they affect sites of special scientific interest, will be reduced and delayed.

I do not think there is any doubt that the Environment Agency’s services will be harmed, and it is vital that the agency should be given necessary funding. It is also important that it should be made a statutory consultee on proposed developments. Planning policy statement 25 on development and flood risk still has not been published. There was a consultation on it a year ago, which indeed proposed that the Environment Agency should be a statutory consultee, but the promised statement has yet to be delivered.

Would the hon. Gentleman be interested to know that my latest information is that the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government is currently consulting on whether that consultation should take place?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that information, which I am sure the Minister will note with interest.

In the Select Committee inquiry the agency noted that it already lacked the appropriate resources to carry out basic planning applications, so this year’s budget cuts do not bode well, especially if the consultee status is indeed delivered.

The ABI has made it clear that insurers do not want to insure new developments on flood plain lands in high risk areas. That will put off the private sector, which will not want to go into the development of projects and properties that it will not be able to sell. Perhaps we will be saved, after all, in the Thames Gateway, as the plan falls flat on its face because the Government have not done their homework on flooding, and consequently have scared off investors. That issue has not escaped the academic world. Writing in Regeneration and Renewal, Professor Sir Peter Hall of University college London noted that according to the interim plan published last week, most of the Thames Gateway jobs will be at the London end:

“But beyond that there was little indication, because of one key problem dogging the project: flood risk.”

He goes on to say:

“The report casually mentions that the Environment Agency will complete a draft assessment by 2008—a year after the plan is to be finalised. This is crucial because many sites proposed for large-scale development, especially in Essex, are at risk.”

The whole Thames Gateway development faces a very watery grave—I hope that the Minister will forgive the pun. We in south Essex are deeply concerned about the Government’s plans and would like the Government to reconsider the position before hard-working families move into properties that will ultimately be flooded.

As to infrastructure, the bulk of flooding that the ABI has predicted in applying its catastrophic model will take place at the eastern end of Southend and Shoeburyness. For hon. Members who are not entirely au fait with the constituency map, Shoeburyness is literally at the end of the line, following the Thames on the northern banks. If a major storm occurs there will be a disruption in rail links between Southend and Shoeburyness, and flooding on the main roads linking those two areas. That would have a severe impact on local residents at the very time when infrastructure links would be vital. The floods in New Orleans following hurricane Katrina showed dramatically what happens when the right infrastructure is not there. In particular it showed the human impact of flooding and the disproportionate impact on vulnerable groups, which my hon. Friend has already highlighted. In Shoeburyness not only would residents be cut off, but a large proportion of those residents would be elderly and frail, and there would be a lower proportion of young and able-bodied people to assist them.

In summary, I shudder when I think of the ABI catastrophic impact scenario playing out in my area. People in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia face such floods today. This debate is not the place for a plea for assistance for them; but what is happening in those places is evidence that climate change is happening now. When it reaches us it will not be pretty. I am very grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate.

My remarks will be brief, as time is getting on. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) on securing this timely debate. So far it has necessarily, and perhaps rightly, focused on the east coast of the country, but I want to say a few words about the other side, the west coast.

Our country has one of the longest coastlines in Europe. Wales, with about 6 per cent. of the UK population, has about 10 per cent. of its coastline. My constituency of Ceredigion has 50 miles of that coastline, with towns such as Aberystwyth, Aberaeron, New Quay and Borth, to name a few, lying within the sea’s reach. In my brief speech I hope to develop the theme of how funding decisions taken in recent months by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will impinge on the capacity of the Environment Agency Wales to provide the coastal protection that we seek. The Environment Agency Wales is funded by the National Assembly, but is still part of the larger Environment Agency of England and Wales.

The natural strength and unpredictability of the seas and seasonal changes have always meant that living by the sea is a risk. The sandbags have been out in my communities for the past few months. Year in, year out, that risk is always present. However, the realities of climate change and the resulting rises in sea level have made the threat even more potent. The Government-funded UK climate impacts programme predicts that sea levels on the Welsh coast could rise by as much as 74 cm by 2080, and the Stern report, which was hailed by the Prime Minister as the great wake-up call, alerts us all to the need to adapt and to prepare for the impact of climate change. That message has not been lost on my constituents or other people in Wales: there has been a 28 per cent. increase in registrations—that is 15,000 new customers—for the Environment Agency’s flood warning service in Wales.

Constituents of mine have for years faced the rough edge of nature’s sword. In November 2005 the river harbour wall in the town of Aberaeron collapsed under the weight of flood waters. Other areas of my community are under threat, and three priority projects still await funding. Other hon. Members have alluded to the funding shortfall; it is estimated that the total spend required on capital projects is £69.7 million, yet I am told that the Environment Agency Wales has £6 million in its coastal defence budget. I appreciate that the funding of flood and coastal defences is a devolved matter, but by my calculations the proposed £15 million cuts to the Environment Agency’s flood defence maintenance budget may mean—I seek clarification from the Minister—a corresponding cut in the Assembly’s block grant of anything up to £900,000. That would be lamentable. The Minister shakes his head; I seek reassurance that that will not happen.

Clearly, any cuts in the Assembly’s budget would have to result in savings elsewhere. We are told that the cuts are for one year only, and that may be so; nevertheless, they go completely against the grain of the Government’s commitments on the effects of climate change. I congratulate the Government on their 35 per cent. increase in spending since 1997—it would be churlish to do otherwise—but this year is not the time to reverse that trend. That was borne out by the report of the Association of British Insurers last month, which made it crystal clear, as other hon. Members including the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) have said, that we should be hoping to increase spending by 10 per cent. a year, to £750 million by 2011, to combat flood risk. The Environment Agency Wales has similarly called for increases in resources to take account of the risk.

It is particularly galling to my constituents and others that the cuts seem to have been forced on DEFRA by the cost of the mismanagement of the single farm payment. As a result, the Welsh block grant and other DEFRA services provided to England and Wales at UK-wide level, such as the state veterinary service, will lose funding. As a point of principle it is wrong that we in Wales and people elsewhere should face serious shortfalls in budgets because of those decisions. So far the effect of DEFRA’s summer budget review in respect of Wales and the Welsh block grant has yet to be fully identified, but I ask the Minister to prove me wrong—I sincerely hope that he can—and to make a clear statement on how cuts to the flood maintenance budget, and the savings more generally, will affect us on the west coast, in Wales, and, of course, people on the east coast as well.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Conway, for calling me to speak near the end of the debate. I represent an urban constituency that is8 miles from the sea, but it is on a tidal river and anything that happens at the coast could have an impact on urban areas upriver. Indeed, a barrier had to be constructed across the River Colne a few years ago to prevent surge tides from coming up and flooding the lower areas of Colchester. A mini-Thames barrier is the best way that I can describe it.

On the one hand, I congratulate the Government, but on the other, I strongly criticise them. I congratulate them on their work on managed retreats in coastal areas, where that can be achieved. At Abbotts Hall, the Essex Wildlife Trust has developed just such a policy by allowing the tide to breach the sea wall and come in and create new salt-meadow marshes. That is something to be praised. The hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), when he was a Minister, came to Abbotts Hall for the formal opening. It was quite an occasion to watch the tide come through the breached sea wall to engulf what only the week before had been a ploughed field; the corn crop had been harvested for the last time. Such developments are how coastal flooding can be dealt with in some places, certainly for a generation or two.

However, I echo the sentiments of the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge), because there are potential flooding problems in the north of the county that have been caused by Government decisions to allow housing to be built on areas prone to flooding that I can only describe as stark staring bonkers. Only three weeks ago, on appeal, a Government inspector allowed a housing development right next to the River Colne in an area that is known to be prone to flooding. Just as in the Thames Gateway area, it is not fair to build houses in such areas—it is not fair to the people who will be obliged to live there. I suspect that in many cases social housing will be put on such land, because the private sector may well take the view that such areas are not the place to build.

Therefore, although we can praise the Government for their work on managed retreat, as illustrated by the Essex Wildlife Trust at Abbotts Hall, I urge the Minister and his colleagues to take very seriously the point made by the hon. Gentleman and Southend, East, by me and, I am sure, by hon. Members up and down the country who represent not only coastal areas, but areas where tidal and other rivers have a habit of flooding on to surrounding land. Building houses on such land is not acceptable, and I hope that the Minister will work with his colleagues to stop such nonsense.

I hope also that the Minister will be able to stop the development on the flood plain in my town. The borough council, knowing the area, unanimously refused the application, but then an inspector was persuaded to allow it by experts who, it seems, will prostitute themselves and give evidence either for or against something, depending on who is paying. It is the community that ends up paying the ultimate price. The experts, planning inspectors and highly paid legal executives leave, having given their evidence. I ask the Minister, please, to work for common sense and to stop the building of houses on flood plains.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) on securing the debate on an important but extremely sensitive issue. It demands honesty and political courage and, even more challenging, it sometimes demands support for the Government if they do the right thing and act realistically. However, realism also is demanded of the Government, and sometimes they must admit that some of the policies that they have espoused in the past may not be viable in the light of what we now know about flood plains. The remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) reinforce that.

The context is clear. We all know the statistics on climate change, so I shall not go over them again. However, as well as considering shorter-term rises in sea level, it may be worth our while to look at the longer-term scenarios. The most apocalyptic version that I know of involves the complete melting of the Antarctic ice cap, which would lead to a truly biblical rise in sea levels of some 60 m, but thankfully that is unlikely. However, a long-term scenario in which the Greenland ice cap melts over a century or so and leads to a rise of some 7 m is not beyond the realms of possibility if we do not take sufficient action on climate change worldwide. I am happy to say that Cheltenham, being on the edge of the Cotswolds, would be safe even in those circumstances, but I suspect that the constituencies of many current Members would be under water.

I do have one question for the Minister about the situation in Gloucestershire. In the scenario that I have outlined, the area containing Berkeley nuclear power station would be surrounded by water, which has two implications. The proposed time scale for decommissioning nuclear power station sites is some 100 years—the so-called deferred site clearance strategy. Have the Government taken climate change into account in planning the decommissioning of nuclear power stations?

The other obvious implication is for the next generation of nuclear power stations that the Government are planning. I cannot know the future, but I suspect that planning permission for many of those stations will be requested for sites that already have clearance for nuclear power stations. That is clearly where public opposition will be most limited because, in one sense, the planning arguments have already have been won. However, those sites are often in coastal positions or on flood plains. In the long term, which is what we have to think of with nuclear power stations, stations such as Berkeley would be threatened by the type of sea level rises that I have described. I would therefore be grateful for the Minister’s reassurance that he is discussing those implications with the Department of Trade and Industry.

The shorter-term scenarios offer various predictions for rises in sea level—for example, a 40 cm rise by 2040 from the Association of British Insurers, and a range of 20 to 80 cm in the Stern report. In evidence to the Communities and Local Government Committee, of which I am a member, the Environment Agency warned of a 30 cm rise by the 2080s, but said that that equated to an increase in the storm surge from the North sea of more than 1 m. Even though the absolute level of rise may not be very great, sometimes the storm surge amount may be much greater and have greater implications than is at first apparent. The Environment Agency admits that even that is a conservative estimate. In its evidence to the Select Committee, it stated:

“At present the Environment Agency does not plan for the worst case scenario when allowing for future climate change, as this would make most costs prohibitive.”

In a sense, the agency is ruling out the worst answers before it has even asked the questions.

In a brief that it gave to hon. Members, the Environment Agency stated that the foresight future flooding report, which was published in April 2004, estimated that the risk of flooding from rivers and the sea will at least double by the 2080s and could increase by up to 20 times. There is a huge range of uncertainty. At the same time, the number of people at a high risk from flooding could increase from 1.5 million to between 2.3 million and 3.5 million. An enormous number of people could be affected. In its evidence to the Select Committee, the Environment Agency said that even those figures may be underestimates. It stated:

“Recent research by a number of establishments indicates that the sea level predictions used within the Foresight report…and the last United Kingdom Climate Impacts Programme (UKCIP) reports (2002) were underestimated.

In addition the impacts of such factors as polar and glacial melt on storminess and risk of tidal surge were not well understood and probably underestimated.”

Yet again, our discussions about scenarios may well prove to be over-optimistic.

The warning bells that have been rung have been well expanded on by various hon. Members and I will not go over them all again. They include the fact that the potential costs to which the ABI has alerted us are very high. In terms of the people on whom flooding is likely to impact, one of the most worrying things that the ABI said was that insurers cannot guarantee that they will maintain cover in areas where there is a greater than 1.3 per cent. annual probability of flooding, which equates to one major flood event in 75 years, yet the foresight report said that by 2080 the UK could be facing major flood events that once happened once in 100 years once every three years. That is clearly an enormously increased potential cost. The foresight report said, too, that the cost of the annual damage from flooding could rise from £1 billion a year to a range between £1.5 billion and £21 billion a year. The false economy of cutting back on flood defence budgets when all the experts are screaming for more resources and warning of the much greater potential costs of doing nothing should be obvious to everybody.

We are now talking about an adaptation scenario. David King of the Environment Agency made it clear in his evidence to the Select Committee that that was what we should be thinking about. We are moving from a strategy based purely on flood defence to a more holistic policy based, I hope, on three points: realistic and sustainable solutions, adequate funding, and fairness to affected communities. On realistic and sustainable solutions, we may complain about the way in which the making space for water plan was launched, complete with maps that instantly reduced people’s house prices—I think that my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) complained vociferously at the time—but there is no doubt that an integrated approach that includes some acceptance of coastal realignment and the creation of new wetlands, carefully managed, must be right. The recent “Blueprint for Water”, published by an impressive range of non-governmental organisations, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and other environmental groups, welcomes that holistic approach.

If the Government demand such realism from coastal communities, we need to demand realism from them. The evidence that hon. Members have referred to about the Thames Gateway is very clear. Again, I refer to the evidence given to the Communities and Local Government Committee by the Environment Agency, which stated that

“1.25 million people, £80bn of property and major infrastructure are already sited with the Thames Estuary floodplain. However the location, layout and design of the existing developments do not incorporate flood management measures, other than the reliance on estuary-side walls and barrier.”

The agency also pointed out:

“Over half of the area of the Thames Gateway lies within the floodplain of the Thames Estuary, the majority of the proposed development sites are on brownfield sites on the riverside. The area is currently protected to a high standard, often in excess of a 1:1000 year annual probability however, as a result of sea level rise and deteriorating assets the risk of flooding is likely to increase. By 2080 we expect the sea level in the Thames to rise by an average of 26cm to 86cm, with extreme surge conditions adding another 2 metres.”

The agency is trying to be tactful to the Government, but it could have said that the Thames Gateway development is a disaster in the making—

The Minister shakes his head, but he needs to read the evidence that came to the Select Committee. It is pretty clear. The agency highlighted the Thames Gateway as an area for concern, and the Department for Communities and Local Government needs urgently to rethink its policy. The fact that the Department is only consulting on whether the Environment Agency should be a statutory consultee, as I pointed out to the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge), shows that it is fiddling while Rome burns—or perhaps floods.

Secondly, on the issue of adequate funding—time is short, so I will not go into it at length—the Environment Agency suggested that, based on the foresight report, funding should rise to £1 billion a year. It said,

“certainly we believe that there should be an upward trajectory in investment.”

But do we have an upward trajectory? No, we have a downward one.

Finally, in a changing policy environment when we are talking more about adaptation and flood risk management than about flood defence, it is important that we remember the human dimension—we must consider the families from Happisburgh to Skegness to Canvey Island whose homes, savings and livelihoods are at risk. Consideration should be given to all the various proposals that have been discussed—the community development approach, the buy out and leaseback schemes that might protect house values and investment in those houses, the insurance and assurance schemes, and the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) that single farm payments could be used imaginatively. Mr. Rothwell of the Environment Agency told the Select Committee that the agency was due to report back by the end of the year on how it would recommend that the approach be developed. The end of the year is fast approaching and I would like the Minister to say whether there is any sign of a scheme that represents fairness to individuals and will not place the entire burden on coastal communities and their council tax payers. We urgently need to see action from the Government that is based on sustainable and realistic policy, adequate funding and fairness. At present, they are scoring one out of three, at best.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) after that extensive speech. He raised many sensible points with which I agree.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) on securing the debate. He spoke powerfully about the threat of flooding and the issues that are converging to make the subject all the more urgent and topical at the end of 2006. I was struck during the debate by the intelligent way in which the representatives of coastal towns and communities are tackling the subject. We heard no Canute-like insistence that the tide must be turned, but a much more thoughtful analysis of the problems. The representatives and the communities on the coast are willing to engage with the Government in an intelligent way that acknowledges the force of rising sea levels, if, in turn, the Government are responsible in their actions.

We are starting to see that coastal communities accept some degree of incursion from the sea and are willing to adapt to it. However, they will not stick at any price ministerial incompetence and mismanagement that results in cuts to budgets at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that are totally avoidable and unnecessary. That is the point of today’s debate. On the one hand, we have an intelligent thoughtful response from coastal communities, and on the other, we have unthoughtful, poor management at DEFRA that results in budget cuts to much needed services.

It is not only the budget cuts at DEFRA that make the debate pertinent, but climate change as a whole. The Stern review published a couple of weeks ago brings together both the economics and the science of climate change in an unprecedented fashion and serves as a stark warning to us as a nation of communities and as an economy that we have to take action and simply cannot ignore the effects of man-made climate change. Climate change is happening, sea level rises are inevitable, and no one needs to take that on board more than coastal communities. As public policy makers, we have a duty to act decisively to prevent the most extreme impacts of man-made climate change. That requires the whole nation—the whole global community—to act together, but we must also work to adapt in our coastal areas, which will be in the front line of the effects of climate change as sea levels start, not to begin to rise, but to rise more quickly.

My hon. Friend graphically outlined the dangers to coastal communities along the east coast of Lincolnshire. He proved himself a champion not only of Boston and Skegness but of the whole of the east coast of England, highlighting the fact that by 2040 400,000 properties in eastern England could be at risk from coastal flooding. What is more, 15 per cent. of ambulance stations and 12 per cent. of schools and hospitals are increasingly at risk, and that could rise to one in four. He made the important point that inland flooding and sea defences must be linked—they must be treated as part of the whole. He also made an extremely good point about the severe impact that flooding could have on the huge population of mobile home residents in his part of the world, for whom flooding would be catastrophic. The water would not simply come in and then recede; it would wipe out their homes. Sound defences are an absolute prerequisite to giving peace of mind to those living in such communities.

As well as engineered defences, there is growing acceptance of the need to work with nature, turning over parts of the land to natural incursion, creating natural wave breaks and using shoreline management plans. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) emphasised the need to preserve the amenity value of our coastlands as well as using engineered solutions.

The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) made a thoughtful speech. I was grateful for his clarification on managed retreat. He said that it would require a more flexible and imaginative use of agricultural subsidy. I have not heard of the subject being raised before—certainly not on the Floor of the House—but it will certainly bear a lot more discussion. Coastal wetlands can enhance the amenity value and ecological benefits of coastal areas, but such a policy would need to be carefully managed as part of a deliberate process rather than it being a knee-jerk reaction to the sudden flooding of productive farmland or freshwater inland waterways.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge), who is a member of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, made a powerful speech. He spoke not only for his own constituency but for the many communities in Essex and the Thames Gateway. He drew attention to the Association of British Insurers report “Coastal Flood Risk—Thinking for tomorrow, acting today”, a welcome report that has greatly informed our debate. I was struck by its comprehensive analysis of the flood risks that we face. It is worth noting that that report states:

“Sea levels are already rising at a faster rate than was predicted—latest research shows a 3 cm rise in the last ten years. Latest estimates from the UK Climate Impacts Programme suggest that the East Coast could see further rises in relative sea levels of 40 cm by 2050 and 80 cm by 2080. At the same time, climate change is making it likely that storm surges will occur more frequently, and that they will be more destructive when they do.”

A number of Members referred to the flooding of 1953—the worst natural disaster in northern Europe for two centuries, when flood water broke through the coastal defences on the east coast in 1,200 places. That was this country’s glimpse of what happened in New Orleans, but the situation could get substantially worse. What the ABI report has to say on North sea storm surges is particularly worth noting. It states:

“Although sea level rise is an important influence on coastal flood risk, storm surges (i.e. abnormally high sea levels) pose the greatest threat. Storm surges are caused by low air pressure which raises the height of the sea, combined with onshore winds which push the sea. Shallow waters, as on the continental shelf, magnify these effects; the shape of the North Sea produces a funnelling effect, concentrating the surge in a decreasing area.”

We are all aware of what the Thames barrier does to protect London, but whole swathes of our eastern coast are unprotected by such great engineering works. It is crucial that the Government should not seem to be protecting only London; they should protect all who are vulnerable to sea flooding.

I hope that the Minister will reassure the House that the gross mismanagement by DEFRA of rural payments—the single farm payment fiasco—was a one-off and that the Department is now managing its budget.

The hon. Member has made some valid points about the ABI report and the cuts and I concur with his comments. Does he agree with me that the 10 per cent. per year growth suggested by the ABI should be forthcoming? What is his position, and does his party accept that commitment to year-on-growth?

I understand the ABI’s point of view, but because of where we are in our policy process I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a clear answer. The commitment may be more than 10 per cent. or it may be less, but we certainly understand the rationale for it. Well before the next general election, we will produce robust plans that will be fully funded. There will be no repeat under the next Conservative Government of the sort of fiasco that we saw at DEFRA, with knee-jerk cuts being made to vital services.

I hope that the Minister will reassure the House that DEFRA is back under control and that there will be no more robbing Peter to pay Paul. We cannot afford to ignore the risk of flooding.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Conway. I congratulate the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) on securing this debate. I appreciate the importance of coastal flood risk to his constituents and his concern that it should be managed effectively.

The hon. Gentleman was right to start and end his speech by referring to the Stern report on the need not only to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions but to adapt to climate change. I welcome the debate; it is timely in view of our current active policy development in that area, particularly in the context of climate change.

The problem of coastal flooding is serious and challenging. We estimate that £130 billion of assets and 1 million homes are at varying levels of risk from sea and tidal flooding; and events in other countries—for example, in New Orleans last year—have graphically demonstrated the potential for loss of life.

Ever more people are aware of the threat posed by climate change—and, I hope, of the Government’s success in reducing domestic greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels. We are one of the few countries to have met that Kyoto commitment; in fact, we have almost doubled it. However, no matter how successful we are in tackling climate change, we are locked into a certain amount of climate change by past emissions. That will increase the problem of flood risk over the coming century, both inland and on the coast.

Not in view of the time, as I need to answer the detailed comments made by the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness.

A number of hon. Members pointed out that, both on the coast and in tidal rivers, we have the key problem of the rising sea level. We recently revised our estimates of sea level rise, and we encourage operating authorities to factor it into their decisions on future defences. Those estimates recognise that relative sea level rise—including the effect of land tilt—is likely to accelerate from between 2.5 mm and 4 mm a year, depending on location, to between 13 mm and 15 mm a year by the end of the century. Clearly there are significant uncertainties, but current guidance is based on the best available science.

We need to manage and adapt to that increase in risk. The coastline has always changed over time, and it will not be sustainable to try to hold the line against flooding and erosion everywhere—something that hon. Members seem to accept. We are supporting a large capital improvement programme, with many projects to reduce flood risk on the coast.

I shall deal with hon. Members’ comments on budget matters in a moment, but I emphasise that current projections are that we will exceed our target of reducing the risk to 100,000 households both on the coast and inland between 2005-06 and 2007-08. However, we need to look at a range of options for managing flood risk in order to make the best use of public resources and to avoid burdening future generations with the cost of maintaining unsustainable defences.

The current review of shoreline management plans is intended to develop the sustainable strategic direction for each coastal length. The review also aims to look ahead over the next 100 years and to take into account climate change and the impact on sea level rise. Public consultation will be a key part of the review, which was a point raised by the hon. Gentleman. I can confirm that all shoreline management plans will be in the public domain and all plans should be completed by 2010—obviously some are at a more advanced stage than others.

In addition to the large investment increases of recent years, we are engaged in a thorough review of policy further to develop a broad range of responses to the cross-government “making space for water” programme. Operating authorities will have to take some difficult decisions in cases where defence against the sea may not be sustainable in the long term. I recognise that there can be social justice issues associated with the decision-making process and we are looking at ways in which such communities can be helped to adapt to a changing climate.

The Environment Agency is considering realignment possibilities and how we might promote the environmental benefits that would accrue from that—for example through our high level stewardship scheme. On the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright), I can inform him that agri-environment funding is available at the moment to landowners who make their land available. Realignment can produce some good habitat benefits in terms in salt marshes and improvements to biodiversity. I went to Aldbrough recently, just north of the Humber, which is a great example of a management alignment scheme. By allowing occasional flooding of a thousand acres of farmland, a high level of protection is provided for people in the Humber and the Humber estuary area. At the same time, a wonderful marine environment has been created.

We have just consulted on proposals for the Environment Agency to have a strategic overview of sea flooding and coastal erosion risk management. Whatever role we decide the agency should perform following that consultation, I expect it to work in close partnership with local authorities in relation to long-term planning strategies and in determining and delivering works programmes. I plan to announce conclusions on that in the spring.

The hon. Gentleman and a number of other hon. Members raised the issues in the recent ABI report. Clearly, we are well aware of the report and I would not want hon. Members to think that detailed work is not taking place on that. The Environment Agency is already looking at the key locations identified in the report. For example, as part of its Thames estuary 2100 project, the agency considered the management of flood risk in London and the Thames estuary over the next 100 years. On the Humber estuary, we are considering the agency’s strategy proposals for£1 billion of investment, again, over the next 100 years. I am aware of the ABI’s call for more funds to be made available and recently met ABI representatives to discuss Government commitments associated with its statement of principles. I can confirm that we are on target to exceed commitments that we made to the ABI as part of the statement of principles.

I only have a short time left.

Including projects to reduce coastal erosion, many of which also protect against flooding, investment in coastal projects will be more than £110 million this year—some 40 per cent. of total capital investment. Further large sums will be spent on maintenance and operations. We recognise the need for investment along the east coast, but that must be prioritised in a national context.

The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness also raised the issue of internal drainage boards. I recognise the valuable contribution of IDBs to flood risk management in low-lying areas of the country. As part of our commitment to managing the flood risk management service as effectively as possible, we want to ensure that all boards, as public bodies, are efficient and accountable. We also wish to ensure that in delivering flood management and their other responsibilities, all boards are representative of the interests of the drainage rate payers and of wider interests. We engaged consultants last year to review those issues and their conclusions were published on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs website in March. We are working on an implementation plan that I expect to announce in the spring.

We have transferred responsibility, as the hon. Gentleman will know, for higher-risk water courses from local authorities and IDBs to the Environment Agency. We will consider arrangements for the agency to have an inland strategic overview of flood risk management as well as on the coast. For some IDBs that may not be viable and they will need to be amalgamated with other boards, but there are no plans for them to be subsumed into the Environment Agency. I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance he seeks on that.

Local authority expenditure on flood and coastal erosion risk management, including the levies they pay to the Environment Agency and IDBs, is supported by a revenue support grant from the Department for Communities and Local Government. The hon. Gentleman raised that issue and I recognise that there are concerns that expenditure is not fully supported. We will consider that alongside other pressures as part of the forthcoming comprehensive spending review. However, when setting levies, we expect IDBs to engage with the levy-paying councils about the affordability of work programmes. Local authority representatives on boards should then communicate that affordability to their councils in relation to the IDB’s decisions.

Over the past 20 years, more than £100 million has been invested in sea defences along the Lincolnshire coast, which have provided protection for much of that coastline against tidal events with an annual probability of one in 200 or greater. An additional £17 million is planned to be invested over the next three years. I can also confirm that the Environment Agency intends to continue beach recharge using dredged material, which will help to protect the hon. Gentleman’s constituency at a cost of around £5 million a year. I recognise that further work is needed to improve protection in Boston as is set out in the Boston combined strategy. The work will be prioritised, but I understand the Environment Agency is hoping to start next year.

A number of hon. Members raised the issue of cuts to the Environment Agency budget and I have spoken about that before. We do not take delight in making cuts, but like other Departments, we have to live within our budget. It is not just the Rural Payments Agency that has created this problem; it is a result of other budgetary pressures. I can confirm that the capital budget has not been cut and that there will be a minimum impact on the agency’s ability to respond to serious flooding.

Development in the Thames Gateway was also mentioned by a number of hon. Members and I think that some of their comments were ill-judged—I hope on reflection they agree. Most of the Thames Gateway areas are afforded a level of risk protection higher than anywhere else in the country. The Environment Agency has worked closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Greater London authority, the London Development Agency, the Thames Gateway London Partnership, other local delivery vehicles, local authorities, and developers to ensure that new developments in the Thames Gateway take account of flood risk. People need to recognise that substantial work is taking place.

The Environment Agency is already a statutory consultee—we are not simply in discussion with it. We hope that planning policy guidance note 25 will make further improvements to ensuring that developments take place only where flood risk is at a minimum level. The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) raised a point about development plans in his constituency. The Environment Agency objected to the development yet, as he said, the planning inspector allowed it to go ahead. I hope and expect PPG25 to allow for such cases to be raised with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, which would provide additional powers to ensure that there is not inappropriate development in the future.

It is important to recognise that the Government are addressing the issue of coastal flood risk in a number of different ways. There have been substantial budget increases since 1997 for flood and coastal risk management—up by 35 per cent. in real terms. Of course, there are always pressures on the Government to do more, and we will endeavour to make further progress.