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Sea Defences (East Coast)

Volume 463: debated on Thursday 19 July 2007

2. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of sea defences on the east coast; and if he will make a statement. (150586)

The level of protection provided by sea defences along the east coast of England varies, depending on the level of risk and the type of land use which would be affected by any flooding. However, the indicative standard of protection for urban areas against sea flooding, as set out in Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs guidance, is typically to protect against a once in 200 years-type event. It is for the Environment Agency and other operating authorities to assess the risk and fully consider improvements to defences.

Is the Minister aware that the Environment Agency map shows some 2,600 properties around Maldon alone to be at risk from flooding, not to mention the Secretary of State’s ancestral home? Does the Minister agree that the risk he describes is increasing, owing to rising sea levels, greater storm pressure and a subsiding land mass? Does he accept that much more money needs to be spent on sea defences and that if money is spent now the sums needed are likely to be far less than the catastrophic losses that would be incurred if a flood were to occur?

It is of course recognised that there is a growing risk and threat, which is why the Government have provided extra resources for defences—I know that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that we have done so. One cannot provide against all eventualities, but extra resources have been provided for his region and the area he represents.

I welcome the Minister’s comments and the fact that the Government have substantially increased the amount of money invested in coastal and flood defences. However, will the Minister consider providing compensation for home owners and businesses who might lose their properties as they are in areas where there will be a managed retreat because it is no longer affordable to defend the coastline?

It is no coincidence that such questions have been raised by Members of both main parties representing constituencies in the eastern region. The Government are fully aware of the risks and the future decisions that will have to be taken. My hon. Friend’s request will certainly be considered, but he would not expect me to give any pledges today.

Will the new ministerial team urgently look at the need to strengthen or replace the Thames barrier at some point in the next decade, as current predictions are that its design-life probably will not extend beyond 2020 at the latest? Given the pressures from flooding risks and the Government’s worries about global warming, is there not an urgent need to manage the consequences of such developments, and could we not link a new barrier to reclaiming land from the estuary so that we create valuable land for building?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the defences, and that is being considered. All those issues are a question of balance. Judgments have to be made on the types of defences and where they should be. We should not confuse—I know that he is not doing so—the need to protect against floods and the various causes of floods and coastal erosion, which has already been mentioned as it affects the eastern region.

After the events in Sheffield, Doncaster and Hull, the last of which was well protected against coastal flooding but not against surface water flooding, do the Government still agree with their response to the autumn 2004 “Making Space for Water” consultation, which said that

“to facilitate an holistic approach that is risk-driven, the Government will work towards giving the Environment Agency an overarching strategic overview across all flooding and coastal erosion risks”?

That was meant to happen by the end of 2006, according to the timeline at the back of the Government’s response. Will Ministers now tell the devastated householders of Hull, Sheffield and Doncaster when the Government will deliver on their promised flooding overview?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the strategy set out in “Making Space for Water”. I have to point out to the House that the floods, especially in the east Yorkshire and Hull area, were exceptional and would not have been prevented by an implementation of the policy that he raises. Having said that, it is important to acknowledge that that is the Government’s policy. Decisions and announcements in that area will be made by the Environment Agency, which is today publishing its consultation document on the specific aspects of the issue, and by the Government later in the year.

I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. Will he join me and my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) in commiserating with the people of Filey, who suffered overnight from unprecedented rainfall, which led to major evacuations? The effect of the rainfall was compounded by recent development and inadequate drainage, but the clear message is that more has to be spent on flood defences. Is the Minister aware that the chairman of the Yorkshire and Humber region flood defence committee has written to him, calling his attention to the fact that flood spending in the region will fall next year from £15.2 million to only £11.7 million? That is not the right message to send to people who have lost their homes and possessions in those unprecedented floods.

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. I know that she has great expertise on these issues, not least because of her constituency experience in Vale of York. I am, of course, aware of the events in Filey, which were similar in cause to those at Boscastle a few years ago. Anyone who knows Filey will be shocked to learn of the floods there.

On the resources that have been made available, we have to caution against taking too specific a view, because we have to consider the trend which in flood defence spending has been one of significant increases over the years. The time scales for all capital projects, and especially flood defence spending, mean that the wrong impression can be given by taking a figure out of context. However, I will of course reply to the chairman in full detail.