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Coastal Flood Defences

Volume 475: debated on Thursday 1 May 2008

Overall, spending in England for flood and coastal erosion risk management will rise from £600 million this year to a minimum of £650 million in 2008-09, £700 million in 2009-10 and £800 million in 2010-11.

The Environment Agency expects to spend approximately £90 million on capital works to address coastal flooding in this period, excluding maintenance work. At least £110 million has been allocated to local authorities for coastal protection, flooding and associated studies in the next three years.

But despite that, the Minister will be aware of the considerable concerns among landowners that the Government intend to abandon the maintenance of some areas of sea wall. Is he also aware that if a landowner wishes to carry out the repairs himself, he is required to obtain permission from the Environment Agency, from Natural England and, in some cases, even from the Marine Fisheries Agency? If the Government are not going to maintain the sea walls, will they please make it easier for landowners to do so?

I take the important point that the hon. Gentleman raises; it is incumbent on us to deal with it. The difficulty is—and I know he understands this because he has made this point—the fact that the schemes interact. A scheme on one part of the coast can impact further down the coast. The Environment Agency and Natural England have different considerations and there is the potential impact on marine life. However, he makes an important point and it is one that we need to address. I will come back to him on it.

Fifteen million people in Britain live near the coastline, which is being eaten away slowly by the impact of erosion, storms and rising sea levels. The Minister has said that he does not read the Telegraph, but did he read the article in The Guardian two weeks ago that suggested that Natural England plans to abandon in the medium term a nine-mile stretch of coastline in Norfolk, much visited by the people of the east midlands and Leicestershire, between the villages of Eccles and Winterton? Therefore, many homes will be lost in that vicinity. Will he deny those reports? We cherish the Wintertons in this place; we should cherish Winterton in Norfolk as well.

First of all, I can assure the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) that there is nothing personal in this.

I choose my words carefully as I look at the Gallery upstairs. I did read that article in The Guardian, but I do not read the paper everyday; I cannot do the crossword in The Guardian. I read the article and it caused some upset and worry. It is not the role of Natural England to take such decisions; responsibility is with the Environment Agency. The Government work closely with the other bodies, and this goes back to the point that the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) made on the previous question. I can give the reassurance that my hon. Friend is looking for. There is no question of an abandonment of the nature that the article suggested.

I thank the Minister for his conciliatory response to my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), but may I reinforce the point that my hon. Friend made? There is a ludicrous complication that requires farmers to obtain a waste licence to deposit inert waste on to a sea wall. This is bureaucracy gone mad. Can the Minister confirm that he has received representations on the issue from the National Farmers Union? What action is he taking to resolve this question?

In all honesty, I cannot recall seeing representations from the NFU and I will immediately check the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. I see that there may be a reason for some controls, because not everybody plays by the rules or by the intent of the rules. This is not a partisan point. If farmers are reporting to him that there is a problem, we need to address it and I will do so.

The Minister will know that, like many Labour-led organisations, the Environment Agency is seen as arrogant, undemocratic and unaccountable. Flood-hit communities in the East Riding are enraged by the agency’s insistence that its failure in basic maintenance did not contribute to the extent and damage of last year’s flooding. Will he and the Secretary of State undertake to break up the agency and ensure that those who carry out flood defence in our local communities are democratically accountable and seen to be so?

I do not think that the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), if he were in the Chamber, would accept the premise of the question. The Environment Agency has had broad support for many years; the accusation that it is partisan is unfair. As for the accusation that it is undemocratic, it has a job to do, and part of that job is consultation, but not everybody will agree. I have visited the constituency of the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart), as he knows, and we are to have a further meeting on the points that he raises. The fact of the matter is that not everybody agrees on the way forward; there are disagreements among the different interest groups. The Environment Agency does a difficult job, and I am more than happy to defend it. On the specifics that the hon. Gentleman raised, we are due to discuss them, and I look forward to that meeting.

May I remind the Minister that in 1953, when the Lincolnshire sea coast defences were last seriously breached, thousands of lives were lost? Considerable numbers of my constituents live in homes that are below high sea levels, and they are not all readers of The Daily Telegraph. Will he give an assurance that the east Lincolnshire coastline defences will remain fully maintained?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his reminder of the events of 1953. The lessons learned then were built into our plans for defence against the recent tidal surge. Thank goodness, the fine county of Lincolnshire was protected. The Government’s policy regarding the coast is of course made more difficult by the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) raised: by erosion, tilting, which is causing a gradual increase in sea level, and the impact of climate change. That has meant that since 1953 we have had to revisit the policy. That is why the outcome measures, as they are called—I would call them the criteria used—have recently been changed. I think that the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) will find, if he studies the criteria, that they are beneficial to his constituents. I am grateful to him for raising the point.

Those who live in coastal communities, especially those communities that are slightly more coastal than they were when people first moved in, want certainty on two points. The first is the issue of abandonment. The Minister’s apparently quite clear statement of a few seconds ago is clearly at variance with what other Government bodies are at least considering as an alternative, so does he speak with the authority of the full Government, and will none of the coastal communities be abandoned? The second point on which people want clarity is compensation. Given that the future of peoples’ homes is entirely dependent on government policy, to the extent that anybody can do anything about the problem, surely there is an issue of compensation. We are talking about individuals who may well have lived in one place for generations. If they choose to live there, do the Government say, “Well, that’s tough; if you live on the coast, you take the consequences”?

The hon. Gentleman raises two very important points. We have the strategy, through the adaptation toolkit, which we are working on, including by having discussions with hon. Members in all parts of the House and local authorities. That is about what specific measures we need to take to ensure that bureaucracies do not get in the way of protecting people’s communities. The adaptation toolkit is very important; I know that it does not sound it, but it is. Secondly, on abandonment, the difficulty in this debate is that, as I said before, the protection of one area of coastline can have an impact on another. It is simply not possible to protect everywhere. The word “abandonment” is, of course, very emotive.

The natural erosion of the coast, or increased erosion caused by climate change, is something that the Government could not stop in every instance, no matter how much money they spent. We need a fair set of criteria that are transparent and acceptable to the House, and that is the policy on which we are working. One can never talk about not abandoning areas if it is nature that is the problem. On the point about compensation, in the adaptation toolkit—

Order. I must try to get through the Order Paper. I ask hon. Members to appreciate that I must try to call those whose names are on the Order Paper.