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Flood Defences (Norfolk)

Volume 475: debated on Tuesday 6 May 2008

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Blizzard.]

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Martlew. We almost have a full house of Norfolk MPs, and, from over the border, a Suffolk Whip. Alas, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) is unable to be with us. I suspect that he may still be waiting for his ministerial car.

I requested the debate because flood defences in Norfolk are a crucial local issue. It must be seen, of course, against a wider background. We are all conscious today that whatever problems we face, they pale into insignificance compared with the news of what has happened in Burma, where a cyclone has killed a minimum of 15,000 people. We know that many other low-lying parts of the world face appalling threats. I think in particular of the people of Bangladesh.

For many of us, the Norfolk coast is about being at the seaside. I can recall, when I was a child—it may be difficult for some people to believe that I was once a child—of about seven or eight, with glasses and an incipient moustache, being on the beach at Cromer. Later, I was with my son George, perhaps on the beach at Heacham with the tide out, building sandcastles. As you know, Mr. Martlew, however well one builds sandcastles—as a military historian, I did so in depth, using stone and with as much defensive preparation as possible—when the tide comes in, it always sweeps them away. There could be a sense that the flooding that we face from both the sea and on the land is somehow inevitable, and that there is therefore nothing much that we can do about it. I do not believe that that is so.

My interest in the debate is not because I have coastal land in my constituency; I do not. However, my area will be affected by any surge from the sea and by any flooding of the main rivers—either the River Yare, by Acle, the River Wensum or, of course, the southern broads line. The point of the debate is that significant coverage was given to a Natural England draft report outlining possible responses to the threat posed by climate change and the rise in sea levels overwhelming current coastal defences.

I am from land that is not directly affected, but a lot of Leicestershire people visit north Norfolk and settle there. I raised the matter last Thursday in the House—it is at column 432 of Hansard.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He refers to his times at Cromer, and I am tempted to ask him what Neville Chamberlain was really like. The point that I made on Thursday, to which the Minister replied, was that newspapers have a responsibility to report matters such as these sensitively and accurately, and not unnecessarily to alarm people. Government agencies should not go beyond their remit and into areas that they neither understand nor have responsibility for. That is a fair point, is it not?

I do not necessarily agree with the hon. Gentleman’s inference that the local media somehow reported the matter irresponsibly. The trouble was that considerable angst was produced as a consequence of the Natural England report, the conclusions of which had been trailed in a previous report in 2003.

Interestingly, only today in the Eastern Daily Press, Dr. Viner, Natural England’s principal specialist in climate change, has apologised for any undermining of the morale of people living in north Norfolk and elsewhere. As I hope to show later, it was unfortunate to say the least, and some of the statements that were made gave people in Norfolk the impression that the future of their homes and communities was not necessarily the top priority for some organisations.

I will if the hon. Gentleman intends to stay for the whole debate. Does he intend to do that?

I beg your pardon, Mr. Martlew. Through the Chair, if the hon. Gentleman intends to stay until the winding-up speeches, I shall let him in.

Yes, I intend to do that, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Will he accept that this is one issue for which we cannot blame the media? The buck stops with the Government and their policies. The media are drawing public attention to the need for good public policy that will tackle climate change and prevent the building of more houses on the flood plains in Norfolk and across the whole south-east of England.

The hon. Gentleman is correct that the media, and certainly the Eastern Daily Press and local radio and television, have played an important role in stimulating debate. He is correct in that sense.

Natural England ended up producing four options for dealing with flood defences along the coast: holding the current line; moving the sea wall slightly inland; doing nothing and letting the sea spread in naturally; and, most controversially, maintaining 9 miles of sea defences to the west of Great Yarmouth only at a level sufficient to keep water out for the next 50 years. After that, Natural England concluded, breaches would be opened in the walls and water would flood in. That would mean giving up approximately 25 square miles of Norfolk coast, about 1,000 houses and many historic buildings, as well as valuable farmland. Under existing law, the owners would have no right of compensation. It is interesting that Dr. Viner is quoted in today’s Eastern Daily Press as saying that if that option were ever used, people who lost property or their livelihood should be compensated by the Government. I shall return to that point.

As the Minister knows, the leaked report provoked anger and dismay in the communities immediately affected, where property value has been lost, and throughout the whole of Norfolk. I remind you, Mr. Martlew, that Natural England’s report was basically concerned with the Norfolk broads. Of course, Natural England and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that these were proposals and that nothing had been decided. During departmental questions on 1 May, the Minister said:

“It is not the role of Natural England to take such decisions; responsibility is with the Environment Agency.”—[Official Report, 1 May 2008; Vol. 475, c. 433.]

Nevertheless, the people of Norfolk feel that they are merely bystanders in a debate that dramatically affects their lives and livelihoods while others take decisions.

It may be that the issues need debating in a dramatic way. In the Natural England document, it was obvious that the authors wanted the radical proposal to be leaked. The report actually states that

“by selecting a radical option now, the right message about the scale and severity of the impacts of climate change is delivered to the public.”

It predicts “strong political resistance”. That is probably an understatement. The chairman of Natural England, Sir Martin Doughty—interestingly, he was a Labour councillor at one stage—believes that his organisation is “showing leadership” and facing up to realities. No apology there. He believes that the options that he outlined are stark, and that everybody should address them, particularly politicians.

However, the scientists, environmentalists and administrators may not be taking into account the public opinion that questions some of their assumptions and values. Two senior men of Norfolk have articulated that opinion in public. My old friend General Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff, the professional head of the British Army, a Norfolk resident and this year president of the Royal Norfolk show, said to the Eastern Daily Press on 17 April:

“I think to give up a great chunk of Norfolk to the sea without a fight is something I find quite counter-intuitive and quite difficult to do.

I really think we should continue to invest in the sea defences around there, I think it would be a tragedy to lose a wonderful area of the county by allowing the sea in without a fight.”

Then the Bishop of Norwich, Graham James, who is a great man, said at the launch of the new inshore lifeboat at Sea Palling on Sunday:

“The problem with any long term plan to allow villages around here to be claimed by the sea is that it has given the impression that people don’t matter. The consequential planning blight could make these coastal communities seem like prisons from which there is no escape.”

My hon. Friend makes an important point in quoting the Bishop of Norwich. Is there not underlying this whole debate, in some senses, the notion—semi-articulated—on the part of some of these official bodies that they do not think that people matter that much, and that, if there are wading birds or a rare species of grass or an area of special scientific interest, that counts for more than human beings?

I would like to believe that the official bodies do not believe that and perhaps, in general terms, they do not. However, that is certainly the impression they give. We all know that there is a massive interconnection between the environment, wildlife, human habitat and what we do. Having said that, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) and myself have at times been surprised by the impression given in the debate about whether the Acle straight of the A47 should be dualled. That would involve moving dykes or ditches, and we are still in the process of looking at the environmental impact and the damage that might be done to a few elements of wildlife. I must say that the wrong value system is at work in that debate.

The threats facing the coastal and inland areas of Norfolk are, of course, replicated elsewhere in the United Kingdom, including along the rest of the east coast: in Yorkshire; Lincolnshire; Suffolk, and Essex. More than 15 million people live close to Britain’s coastline. Norfolk is just one of a number of low-lying communities that must confront a series of real threats and dilemmas over the next 50 years, which include the real cost of increased erosion, and the storms and sea level rises exacerbated by global warming. They present local people and the Government with a stark dilemma: is it worth spending billions of pounds to defend homes and livelihoods, or, faced with inexhaustible sea level rises, should expensive coastal defences be abandoned, leading to the evacuation of land and houses?

As my hon. Friend will recall, last Thursday, our hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) said that when the Lincolnshire coast was breached in 1953

“thousands of lives were lost.”—[Official Report, 1 May 2008; Vol. 475, c. 434.]

It was not just homes and livelihoods that were lost, but lives too. Is my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) able to estimate what the worst-case scenario would be in Norfolk?

No, but I thank my hon. Friend for intervening and I will return in a few minutes to the historical context. Although circumstances have changed, that historical context is important.

I want briefly to consider flood defences and Norfolk under six headings: the nature and extent of the threat; what can be done in the short and long terms; the Government’s strategy; Government funding; the Government institutions to deal with floods, and finally and most important of all, the role of local communities and institutions.

First, I shall refer back to the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh). What is the nature and extent of the threat to Norfolk? Norfolk, like other areas of the east coast, has faced serious floods before and I shall cite just two serious floods, and another incident when a serious flood nearly happened. In 1912, due to torrential rain, large parts of Norwich were flooded; indeed, at one stage, Norwich was physically cut off from the rest of the country for about a week. In 1953, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Lincolnshire were flooded, and, of course, the flooding was far worse in Holland. Then, the sea walls were breached, partly because of disrepair dating back to the second world war. It was the usual scenario: a high tide and a major surge. At that time, hundreds of people were killed and wounded, thousands of people had to be evacuated, and tens of thousands of square miles of farm land were ruined. In November 2007, we came very close to another serious flood, when there was another surge that could very well have swamped large parts of Great Yarmouth and could have perhaps breached sea defences and introduced salt into the Norfolk broads, which would have been very unfortunate. We were very lucky indeed that that did not happen at all. So we are well aware of the extent of the danger and the power of natural forces.

Natural England, the Environment Agency, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and many experts argue that the nature and extent of the threat, due to climate change and what we might very well call subsidence on a vast scale involving the eastern part of the United Kingdom, is much greater than any threat faced in previous crises. If the Minister concurs with such assessments which, within 50 years, might see the giving up of vast areas of the coast—not just along the east coast, but perhaps along the north-west coast too—he will recognise that this crisis is of a scale more associated with a major disaster or, indeed, a direct war against the United Kingdom. In that case, and if such assessments are correct, the Government’s response must be of a different order and on a different scale than we have seen before.

The Government’s response to this crisis is something that I assume is being addressed under their national security policy document. However, I must say that I am not convinced that, even if the Government accept the extent of this threat, they have yet to think through a strategy or produce a reorganisation of the relevant institutions, or indeed begun to communicate with public opinion on this subject. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s views on that.

No, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind. Other colleagues wish to take part in the debate.

What can be done in the short and long term? I get a feeling from Ministers and from Baroness Young, who is currently chief executive of the Environment Agency, which of course is the agency taking the lead on coastal flooding, that there is a sense of deep inevitability about the extent of flooding and also, to a certain degree, a pessimistic attitude. I think that I caught that mood in the interview that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs gave to Radio 5 on 4 April, in which he said:

“there are some very difficult decisions that are going to have to be taken. The Environment Agency has got the responsibility as it’s looking at the coast—looking at each bit of land, each stretch of coastline—saying, ‘Well, here are areas that we really, really do need to protect and here are some other areas where, over time, it may be difficult to protect for ever from a rising sea level’…In the end it’s partly about how much money we are prepared to spend as a country but it’s also about what nature in the end makes happen.”

That is hardly a clarion call to arms on this subject, and more like a sort of management, newspeak conclusion.

As I said, Baroness Young is the current chief executive of the Environment Agency. However, I am interested to see that she is about to go off to get another new job; she is down to be the chair of the new Care Quality Commission. That appointment must be agreed, but if she gets the job, she would leave her position with the Environment Agency. I only discovered that she might be getting that new position this morning by reading The House Magazine. That development, of course, would be crucially important. Given the lead role now taken by the Environment Agency, it will be up to the Government to get the best man or woman whom they can possibly find with the type of strategic vision and drive to deal with the major problems that we are facing.

Baroness Young has said:

“We have committed to trying to ‘hold the line’ for the next 50 years, but after this there are difficult decisions to make.”

She had earlier told an internal climate change seminar:

“I think the Norfolk Broads will go. They will definitely salinate.”

So she has already mentally decided that the game is up. I do not think that any of us—certainly those of us here who represent Norfolk constituencies—wish to take that view.

The Government’s strategy in facing the challenge appears to be one of fearing the worst and hoping for the best. We have seen the Pitt review and a plethora of DEFRA statements and policy papers, but I do not get the sense of the Government gripping this problem and providing reassurance to my constituents, those of other Norfolk Members, or those in other parts of the United Kingdom affected by both external and internal flooding.

The situation is not helped by the pseudo-military terminology adopted by many agencies, such as “holding the line” or “managed retreat”, although the latter term has now become “managed realignment”. Sadly, “managed retreat” gives the impression of embracing retreat. Many people in Norfolk lost relatives in the second world war in Singapore and Malaya. When General Percival, the officer commanding there, was faced with an appalling situation and the advancing Japanese, he decided to offer up space to buy time. There was a disorderly retreat down the Malayan peninsula, but he hoped that reinforcements would arrive by the time he reached Singapore. However, it was too little too late, and Singapore fell.

The Government need to set out a clear strategic plan—not a vision—for how they intend to face the challenges of flooding, the costs, the available options, and the robustness, or otherwise, of their Executive institutions. They must accept that we are looking for a multiplicity of in-depth flood defences and the involvement of local communities.

That brings me seamlessly to Government funding. The Government claim that they have increased funds for flood defences. That is true, but of course we must take into account that, in effect, there was a cut 18 months ago. They have increased spending on flood defences to £2.15 billion over the next three years, but that sum, much of which is for inland schemes, will fall far behind what is needed to protect the entire coast as sea levels rise.

The Secretary of State has already admitted that the model and its outcome are partly affected by the amount that we are prepared to spend. What discussions has the Minister had with the Treasury about the matter? What consideration has been given to the balance between the costs of building flood defences, or using natural flood defences, against the costs of areas actually being flooded or coastal areas surrendered to the sea?

The National Farmers Union has rightly drawn our attention to the link between food security, which is now a Government priority, and flooding. Our most productive soils, many of which are in Norfolk, are found in some of the most low-lying areas. How will managed retreat impact on our agricultural production capacity?

My constituent, Mr. Michael Sayer, is a former chairman of the Norfolk branch of the Country Land and Business Association. He was speaking and writing about climate change long before it became fashionable. He recently stated in the Eastern Daily Press:

“Currently, the issue is solely political. The new generation of draft Shoreline Management Plans (non-statutory as they are), merely express ex post facto rationalisation of previous Defra decisions on grant aid. Up to the mid-1990s, the Broads were seen to have a value to defend. Alter the basis of valuation for cost/benefit analysis, undervalue community, heritage and habitat benefits, halve the assumed value of farmland, apply a discount rate which (as opposed to an ‘ethical’ rate) undervalues future benefits, and then prioritise spending according to the number of heads presumed to benefit, and, unsurprisingly, the process predetermines the outcome. The area is now uneconomic to defend.”

Sadly, many of us fear that that is true.

After Government strategy and funding, we come to institutions, which are important. I understand that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee will publish its report on flooding tomorrow. I have not seen it, but, given the oral evidence that has been submitted, I suspect that it will question who is responsible for flood planning and co-ordination inland. At present there is a multiplicity of agencies, including the Environment Agency, Natural England, local authorities, water boards and the Highways Agency.

Since April fools’ day this year, the Government have made the Environment Agency responsible for a strategic overview of all flood and coastal erosion matters in England. The agency is responsible for 6,000 miles of coastline and 800 miles of coastal defences. Its new role means that it is accountable for decisions on sea flood risk management, including whether works go ahead. Its brief on flood risk management and the Norfolk coastline states that, before 1 April, more than 90 different authorities managed the coast of England. The change will mean a consistency of approach, clarity for the Government and the public, and better targeting of investment.

Such executive clarity is to be welcomed, but it raises many questions about flood defences in Norfolk. Will the Environment Agency be responsible for flooding inland? If not, there will be a major disconnect. Does the agency have the resources to meet its new responsibilities? I have already touched on the opportunity for a new chief executive to get to grips with the matter.

Can we have any confidence that the management team at the top of the Environment Agency will be able to do more than just manage problems? Many excellent people work for the agency, but several hon. Members in the Chamber have unhappy memories of the agency being unable to deal with major challenges such as the foot and mouth outbreak and other problems, which led to public confidence being undermined. To use the Prime Minister’s terminology, this will be a challenge for the new Environment Agency, and we will be looking to the Minister to provide our constituents with a great deal more confidence.

Finally, I want to press the Minister on the role of local communities and institutions. The row over the leaked Natural England report highlighted the anger and fears of local communities that feel that they are the last to be consulted about their future and their homes. All of us in politics and in government know that the public are no longer prepared to be deferential and to accept the opinions of the Government or experts being handed down to them. They will not knuckle their forelocks and say, “Thank you very much, I agree with what you say.”

There is a fundamental question about flood defences on the coast and inland. The Dutch have long recognised that protecting the coast and managing inland waterways is a national undertaking. Those things must have priority in the Government’s national security strategy. Should coastal committees be overruled if they oppose managed retreat and suggest using, and start to use, their own resources to defend their own communities? That has already happened on a small scale in Suffolk and other parts of the country.

Norfolk people are not fools. They do not have their heads in the broads or anywhere else. They know from history the power, nature and risks of flooding. They recognise the kind of threats that they are likely to see in 50 years and beyond, but they object to a mood that appears to value wildlife above human life and well-established communities. Local farmers and people frequently say that their knowledge and expertise of the land, the environment and waterways is not sufficiently taken into account.

Norfolk people are not prepared for a managed retreat. All retreats end in defeat, unless there is a counter-attack. In August 1942, before the battle of El Alamein, General Sir Bernard Montgomery told his staff to tear up all plans for a withdrawal, to hold the line and to counter-attack. That is what our constituents demand.

Order. May I remind hon. Members that several of them wish to speak and that I intend to start the winding-up speeches at about 10.30 am?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing this timely debate. It is probably one of the few subjects on which we have joined together to press a point not just for our constituencies but for Norfolk and beyond. Indeed, it has always been seen as a cross-party issue, and I am pleased that several hon. Members have joined the debate today.

My constituency of Great Yarmouth is in one of the lowest lying areas of the UK. It stretches from Winterton-on-Sea in the north to Hopton-on-Sea in the south. Much of that area is always under threat from the sea. It also goes west to the border of Potter Heigham, which is a significant area as far as the broads are concerned.

For centuries, the sea has been Yarmouth’s fortune: from the early centuries when the herring industry made Great Yarmouth one of the most important ports and towns in the UK, right through to Victorian times and the start of the tourism economy, to the 1960s and beyond with oil and gas, and now to the next phase. I hope that the new harbour will bring new hope and industry to Great Yarmouth. Each one of those eras has contributed to the nation’s economy.

As the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk explained, the floods in 1953 affected all the east coast areas. Great Yarmouth was one of the areas that was flooded, and several people along the coast lost their life as a result. At that time, flooding was regarded as a natural phenomenon. As has been said, in November 2007 the east coast was again under threat from a tidal surge, and apparently it would have been the same level as the one that occurred in 1953. Defences have been improved marginally since then, but unfortunately it was still touch and go as to whether Great Yarmouth would be inundated with water. That would have resulted in more than 6,000 properties being flooded for a considerable time. I know, Mr. Martlew, that you had experienced that in Cumbria from a different facet, and I understand that, years later, people are still suffering, so we know what the effect would have been if water had breached the banks on the east cost. We are thankful that we were not in that situation, but we had a warning that the sea is there and is dangerous. We accept that climate change is causing an increase in sea levels, and we need to take that on board.

The report from Natural England gave the worse-case scenario: that the retreat of the land to the sea would go back for miles, although that would not affect much of my constituency. A small area of West Somerton would be affected, but I will leave that to the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) to discuss. However, the scenario would have a serious effect on Great Yarmouth in several ways. If part of the land retreats to the north, it would eventually have an effect further south, and that would be the thin end of the wedge.

Over a number of years, the economies of Great Yarmouth, Norwich and further south would be affected. I am not saying that that will be the case, but I would like the Minister to reassure us that he will look seriously at these issues. I have been fighting on behalf on a number of communities on the coast because there has been a failure to understand that the problem is not flooding per se, but coastal erosion. Everything on the east coast is connected, and a number of cliffs are in danger—from Winterton to Caister and from Great Yarmouth to Hopton. Communities on the back edge of those cliffs are certainly at risk. For example, in Scratby, properties are within yards of the cliff edge and the speed at which erosion has taken place in the past four or five years is far in excess of what anyone could have anticipated. Projects have been put forward by the Scratby Coastal Erosion Group and the Winterton group, and they would delay erosion for a number of years and give security of tenure to residents—indeed, the projects would also provide value for money. Some 12 years ago, a berm was put in place in front of the cliffs, and it has held back the tide.

In the debates held over the past few years, one of the bones of contention, which has been alluded to already, is the question of why we are in this position. I believe that one reason for the problem is dredging. I know that some Government scientists will say that dredging has no effect whatsoever, but I have lived by the seaside and I have always said that if someone goes down to the sea edge and digs a hole, within a minute the hole will be filled up with sand from the extremities. That is a matter of simple technology and a simpleton could come to the conclusion that dredging will steepen beaches at the edge near coastal cliffs; it must have that effect.

I have called for the Government to abandon dredging, but my appeal has fallen on deaf ears. I have even asked them to stop the export of dredging materials, which would reduce that particular problem. Again, that has fallen on deaf ears because of the significant contribution made to Treasury coffers—the value added tax levy means that hundreds of millions of pounds go to the Treasury. Will the Minister either abandon dredging with immediate effect, or give the east coast communities that are affected by dredging the resources to deal with the effect that it has on coastal resorts? That may well cost £200 million to £300 million a year over a number of years, but I think that it would be money well spent. The Natural England report called for natural habitats, and it would be worth spending the money for environmental reasons. The area is of special scientific interest, with Ramsar sites and other sites of historic interest.

As has already been mentioned, we have fought for many years—too long to remember—for safety measures in relation to the dualling of the Acle straight and for the dykes to be moved. Halvergate marshes are always significant in the arguments about that, but if they are important, so are the Norfolk broads and the whole of north Norfolk to the ecology of the area and the Government should also defend them. They should also defend the communities affected and the important site of the broads, as that would bring more resources into the UK economy—through tourism, agriculture and other means.

Will the Minister take on board those comments? I understand that the scientists will say something completely different, but they should also take those comments on board given the issues that we need to address on the east coast. We should protect the communities and the natural environment as much as we possibly can, and we must invest in a good future for the rest of Norfolk and the UK.

I congratulate my neighbour, the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), on securing an incredibly important debate. It is good to see so many Norfolk MPs speaking with one voice on the issue—I think only one Norfolk MP is not here.

I shall start by stating a basic principle: it is the duty of the Government to defend their people and communities. It is an abdication of that duty if these communities are abandoned without the Government doing everything in their power to protect them and defend the coastline.

I speak as the Member of Parliament for the area most affected by this option—I recognise that it is no more than an option—but I want to leave the Minister in no doubt about the strength of feeling in the communities affected. In the last month, I have attended meetings at Hickling, Potter Heigham and Sea Palling. In those three meetings we have probably spoken to more than 3,000 people—remarkable numbers of people attended at short notice. The mood of those meetings was impressively calm, but there was no doubting the real anger, dismay and fear of many people in the those communities. People are absolutely determined to fight against this option being pursued further.

I wish to make it clear to the Minister that although on the face of it this is a theoretical, research exercise—as David Viner of Natural England described it in the Eastern Daily Press this morning—however far into the future the proposals will be, they will have a very real, immediate impact. The Minister and I have discussed those problems in the past in connection with the shoreline management plan, which affects a whole stretch of coastline in Norfolk and Suffolk, and covering the constituency of the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright).

The area affected is not a wealthy one; it is actually a low-wage economy and many of the people in those communities have everything that they have ever worked for invested in their home. However theoretical the option is, the publication of the leaked document has had an immediate impact on the value of their homes. My office has been contacted by people who have lost house sales and who have been told by estate agents that the value of their home has decreased. In addition, people who had decided to move to the area have now changed their plans. There has been a real and immediate impact. The area is beautiful and unspoiled; its landscape, its communities and its heritage are unique, and it is very much worth fighting for.

The heart of the problem seems to be a disconnect between the scientists investigating the impact of climate change and the people in the area. The scientists are right to carry out their investigations—the job needs to be done—but it is an academic exercise. They often look far into the future when considering the potential impact of rises in sea level. They inevitably speculate about the extent of that rise but without understanding sufficiently the impact that their words are having now on the communities involved. The words appear callous to those affected, even if they are not intended in that way. I believe that there is an innocence about the scientists. They are doing their job, but they fail to recognise the impact of their words. If we allow that to continue, the effects will appear callous, especially as something can be done to bring the matter to a close. The report makes no reference to people. Inevitably, the report is all about the natural environment, as that is what Natural England is charged with considering.

There is a way forward. First, the Government and the agencies involved—the Environment Agency and Natural England—must give a clear and unequivocal commitment that the coastline will be defended. Secondly, we should not speculate about the distant future without addressing the need for financial security for the people and communities affected. I note, as did the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk, that David Viner referred to compensation. The Minister and I have talked on the subject at some length, but it is something of a breakthrough that a scientist from Natural England should use that word. However, to continue discussing future options would show a callous disregard of the rights of the communities in the area, especially now that we know the immediate impact of those discussions.

I have no doubt that there is a threat from climate change, and I have always said that Norfolk is on the front line. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk was right to point out that the potential consequences are even more calamitous in countries such as Bangladesh, but for England, our county is on the front line. None of us knows what the impact of climate change will be, but if its impact is great we cannot leave those on the front line to bear all the costs. That is a basic principle that goes way beyond this issue. It is a societal problem, and the general principle should surely be that society as a whole should cope with the costs.

Adaptation is now included in the Climate Change Bill, but there is a cost attached to it. The Minister and I have spoken about the £30 million that has been allocated to considering adaptation over three years. It is a start, but the cost in the longer term will be much greater.

I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me and Malcolm Kirby, a local campaigner, to meet the working group from his Department to discuss the matter. However, we also need a proper review of the cost-benefit analysis when considering the losses that occur when the coast is lost to the sea. An initial analysis suggests that the cost-benefit analysis used in the shoreline management plan is deeply flawed as it does not properly show the losses that would probably occur.

In the short term, I call on Natural England formally to withdraw the option paper, and I wrote today to its chief executive. It seems to me that if the agency is apologising for its impact, it must withdraw the option. We cannot allow matters to fester. I call on the Minister to make a clear statement advocating withdrawal of the option. I know that he understands the importance of social justice, and that one cannot consider the science without also considering social justice. I also call on the Minister to visit Norfolk to meet local representatives, to talk to the communities and thus to understand the impact at first hand. We would welcome him to discuss the matter.

It is an issue of real urgency. We must not allow it to fester. We owe it to those communities to have the option withdrawn without delay, so that social justice is properly addressed.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing the debate. I call him a friend because many Members are united in trying to protect the beautiful county of Norfolk. In the same spirit, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and his action team, which includes Malcolm Kirby.

I have lived in Norwich since 1965. One of the beauties of living in Norwich is that is it easy to get to the sea; the trouble is that the sea is now coming to us. Indeed, published works show that Norwich-by-the-sea is not an unrealistic expectation. We might not have to bother about that in our lifetimes, but it will certainly be a problem in the longer term.

Much has been said about the science, and scientists are very good at getting information. I believe in climate change. I know that Lord Lawson does not, but who cares? The effects of climate change are there to be seen. The university of East Anglia has a distinguished department of environmental sciences, which was founded by the father of the hon. Member for North Norfolk. Many people have been through it, and have done some distinguished, world-class work—including David Viner.

The trouble is that scientists know nothing about politics or the social scene. They spend their lives cocooned—don’t I know it?—in a university academic environment, and do not get out to see what problems people are having. I welcome the fact that there has been some resistance to the report, leaked though it might be.

The problems for the area’s farm land have been mentioned. We know that we will need to increase the amount of farm land in our country—and in the world. There will be problems with having enough maize, rice and other crops to feed starving people—not only in the developing world, but perhaps here. Every time the sea comes in, farm land disappears, crops disappear, and farmers disappear or become bankrupt. That is very much part of the Norfolk way of life.

Science is useful for telling us what can happen, but it is very poor at deciding on new technology to do something about it. Science is about knowing the facts, but technology is about knowing what to do. I believe that we have not invested enough in considering how we might hold back the sea.

A friend of mine—Professor Vincent of the university of East Anglia—wrote to me about his work on the Sea Palling breakwaters. Sea Palling is a fine place with a great cricket square, and its people are wonderful. It is a lovely village that needs to be protected. When the Tennessee valley authority flooded areas in the United States, I remember that there was uproar there and that fights continued for years. Again, compensation was an issue, and consultation was poor.

Professor Vincent looked at the breakwaters in place to protect the sea wall and dune line at Sea Palling. He says that they are

“working pretty well although they have yet to be tested against a repeat of the '53 storm surge. More interesting are the potential impacts on the beaches 'down-drift'—towards Horsey—all the sand comes from the erosion of the cliffs between Cromer and Happisburgh (so protecting the cliffs reduces the sand available to the beaches!) and the sand 'flows' south-eastward along the beaches, but comes to a grinding halt at Sea Palling!”

As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright), that also puts Great Yarmouth at risk, because the sand does not move down there. Scientists tell us that the protection creates problems elsewhere, so we need to do something about both problems. We cannot sort one out and leave to the other to continue. It is important to remember that there is a knock-on effect. The Environment Agency has propped up the beaches down Happisburgh way for two years or so, and things seem all right at the moment, but the problem is ongoing.

We have heard much about what the Environment Agency has said, but I finish with a final irony. At 4 pm tomorrow, the House will consider the Broads Authority Bill, but if we allow things to continue, will we have the broads to protect, and will any legislation be worth it?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing the debate. I shall speak briefly about North-West Norfolk and then touch on some of the points that have already been made about the Natural England option paper and villages in north Norfolk.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, severe floods in 1953 led to great loss of life. In fact, the 1978 floods were worse, but by that time sea defences had improved immeasurably. Although there was significant damage to property, only four lives were lost—I say “only four”, but that is in contrast with the hundreds lost in 1953. Since then, there have been significant improvements in sea defences in my constituency, much of which lies below sea level. King’s Lynn has always been under threat, and I was fortunate enough, roughly 20 years ago, to be afforded the honour of unveiling the plaque to mark the completion of its sea defences. The plaque, which is still in King’s Staithe square, has survived the ravages of the elements, marauding youths and eight years of a Labour-controlled council, and I am proud of it.

The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) has raised the issue of flood sirens on a number of occasions. They played an important role during the 1978 floods in getting people out of their properties, particularly beach houses in places such as Heacham, Hunstanton and Snettisham. The Environment Agency argues that it has a mobile telephone alert system, and that people are on the internet and have land lines, but half the joy of owning a beach house in Heacham, for example, is getting away from the madding crowd and modern appliances, so some people do not have land lines or internet access, and some will not have their mobile phones with them. I thus argue that keeping the flood sirens is important. Will the Minister address that point?

On the leaked paper, people in my constituency say that if plans are being considered by a major Government conservation body for parts of north Norfolk, they could be considered for other parts of Norfolk. That is why there is so much concern and anger about the way in which the leaked paper went about portraying and explaining that option. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk and the hon. Member for North Norfolk pointed out, we are talking about 11 sites of special scientific interest in the area totalling 8,000 acres, and 25 square miles of low-lying farmland. As my hon. Friend pointed out, grain prices are rising sharply and world food shortages are predicted, so Britain’s prime arable land is even more vital. We are talking about four freshwater lakes and broads, 6,000 houses worth roughly £2 billion, six villages and five mediaeval churches. I find it ironic that Natural England, which is the Government’s principal conservation body, is even considering a paper that would lead to the destruction of those 11 SSSIs.

I had a close look at Natural England’s report. It is riddled with platitudes, glib generalisations and typical new Labour speak. As my hon. Friend pointed out, Natural England is a classic new Labour body. However, it should not interfere in such an issue, and it has caused huge alarm.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk—he is my friend for the day—mentioned the blight on properties and farmland. Who will move to those villages? How will someone sell their house in such a market? Who is going to go to work on a farm or take another job opportunity with a business that is located in a village with that blight hanging over it? Natural England must wake up to the fact that it has caused a huge amount of damage to that community, and that it has had wider ramifications and implications across Norfolk and, indeed, the whole of East Anglia.

The hon. Member for North Norfolk said that Holland has a system for sea defences; indeed; the Dutch are passionate about that. I have been to have a look at some sea defences in Holland, which are a national policy priority. Furthermore, local farming interests are represented on Dutch bodies, and local farming co-operatives have made money available to help to pay for sea defences. I gather that the Environment Agency is not prepared to countenance such a situation in Suffolk. Will the Minister comment on that?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning Holland. The Dutch have made a significant contribution to Norfolk and the fens over the centuries, and to the development of our drainage and dyke systems. There is an awful lot of expertise there. If Natural England is not able to show the way forward, should we not get on the phone and call up the Dutch?

My hon. Friend is right. The great Dutch engineer Vermuyden was responsible for draining much of my constituency, which is still way below sea level. The Dutch pride themselves on protecting their sea and agricultural farming communities. So much of the country lies below sea level that that is a major national priority. We in this country should attach a similar priority to that.

Dredging, which the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) mentioned, is vital. Pat Gowan has briefed us comprehensively on sea defence and dredging. In a recently published paper, he stated:

“It is not so much that global warming induced sea rise is the problem, but that offshore aggregate dredging has brought about a 5 metre deepening of the offshore sea bed, so giving greater sea depth, hence more eroding waves, whilst the increased beach slope induced by the dredging has resulted in beach sand and shingle draw down, so lowering the beach and shoreline and thus allowing the tide mark to reach the toe baselines of our existing sea defences. Thus erosion and threatened underminement is created, plus loss of our natural dune and sand cliff defence”.

That eloquently sums up the point. However, according to Pat Gowan, in the past 18 years, 189 million tonnes of sand and shingle has been dredged from the area off the Yarmouth coast, raising £1.6 billion in royalties and VAT for the Exchequer. I find it distressing that 30 per cent. of that dredging is not for our own building and construction industries and that it is instead exported to the continent—I find that completely unacceptable. Surely some of those revenues could be earmarked for improving and shoring up our sea defences.

The Minister must give a firm undertaking that the Government will take seriously the concerns set out by Norfolk Members from across the political spectrum. He must give an undertaking that the Government will protect these communities. As I said the other day, if he does not, I fear that those communities and others will be submerged under a tidal wave of new Labour complacency.

I am conscious that I have a short time in which to speak, so I shall keep my comments brief.

I am afraid that the Government have, over a period, focused on coastal defences somewhat at the expense of inland defences. Like my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), much of my constituency is at sea level, and much of the surrounding area is below sea level. We have a particular problem in the fens. Year after year, the Ouse washes are flooded by water flowing from effective flood alleviation measures in Milton Keynes and Bedford, which causes havoc to people who live in the fens, particularly in the village of Welney. Its residents cannot cope with the problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) talked about national priorities, so why has Norfolk suffered year after year because of the Government’s good will elsewhere? Welney is connected to the rest of Norfolk by the A1101, but only when the road is not under 3 ft of water. Last year, the area was flooded for more than 100 days. At the start of the year, the village was cut off on two sides because of heavy flooding. Local residents face long detours simply to reach their homes and places of work.

Fen flooding has had a terrible impact on local trade and business, and particularly on the rural economy, which my hon. Friend mentioned. It seems to my constituents that nothing is being done, despite the frequency of the flooding. A little more than a year ago, I raised the matter with the Government in an Adjournment debate. I highlighted how flooding in the fens had become significantly worse in the past seven years and how people in the area were worried that that would ultimately result in businesses closing and people having to relocate from their houses. I was assured that the Government were as committed to rural areas as they were to urban areas. However, that is simply not the case in my constituency. It appears that less value is put on people’s lives in South-West Norfolk than elsewhere in the country, which is outrageous—[Interruption.] Why—I put this to the Minister, who has just intervened—does it seem that nothing concrete has been done a year on from that debate? How many more years must the area suffer before decisive action is taken?

Last month, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs pledged at least £34.5 million towards fulfilling the final recommendations of the Pitt review. Will the Minister make a commitment today to invest some of that money in finding a solution for people living in Norfolk’s low-lying fen areas and particularly in Welney, in my constituency? Those people need assurances that their plight is being considered in equal measure to that of people living elsewhere in the country.

Finally, the Environment Agency has been given £1.8 billion to spend over the next three years on ensuring that Britain can deal effectively and efficiently with the threat of flooding. Does the Minister agree, however, that the Government must exercise strong leadership to reassure people in places such as Welney, and indeed the wider Norfolk population, that Ministers are not passing the buck, as they have recently done? A solution must be found and found soon.

I warmly and sincerely congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) not only on securing the debate, but on the measured yet powerful way in which he introduced it. Notwithstanding one or two contributions, there has been a striking degree of cross-party consensus, and that is because the people of Norfolk are united in their profound concern about not only what is happening, but what they perceive to be happening. Indeed, one of my concerns is how much people think is going on behind closed doors. There is a sense that there is a conspiracy of silence and that members of the public are having to find things out through leaked documents.

When we quizzed the Minister at oral questions last week, he said that it was not Natural England’s job to decide the matters before us, but it is producing reports based on the assumption that it is its job to do so, and no one is telling it not to. I therefore very much echo the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) that Natural England should withdraw its report. If the proposed option is out of line with Government thinking, there should be no cause for the alarm and concern that we have heard about. If it is in line with Government thinking, the Government should come clean, rather than just saying, “Oh well, it’s not Natural England’s job.”

At the moment, all we are getting are Orwellian euphemisms, such as “managed retreat”, “coastal realignment” and “embayment”, which, although I would not call it my favourite, does sounds quite attractive until one realises what it actually means. However, the people of Norfolk deserve clarity. In responding to oral questions last Thursday, the Minister appeared to say something very clear, but then I read the transcript. He appeared to say that there was no question of abandoning communities, but when I read the transcript, it was clear that he had said that there was no question of abandoning them in the way described in the press. I therefore hope that he can remove any caveats today and say exactly what the Government’s position is, because, having heard him attempt to clarify it once, I am not clear what it is.

We have heard about compensation, which is a central issue. Talking about compensation does not mean that we have given up the ghost; indeed, it might actually mean that we will not abandon communities. If the Government had to pay compensation, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk said in a debate three years ago, the cost-benefit analysis would show that abandoning a community would cease to be costless—to be a write-off—and would have a bill attached to it. That might change the decision, so talking about compensation is not giving in. Furthermore, if those who are trying to sell, insure or mortgage their properties knew that their financial position was at least secure, they would have some reassurance. At the moment, however, we have nothing.

Can the Minister therefore clarify the position? In today’s Eastern Daily Press, David Viner says:

“There are other scenarios in place where, as it’s part of a managed action, compensation measures would be in place.”

When I asked about compensation on Thursday, the Minister said, “No, we are not paying taxpayers’ money for this,” and that appears to be the Government’s position. There is therefore some ambiguity about the position, and we need to know. It is not as if people come along, buy a house on the edge of a cliff and then say to the Government, “Oh, the cliff is giving way. We’d like some compensation.” We are talking about communities that have lived in their villages and built up their livelihoods over generations, and they are suffering only as a direct consequence of a Government decision—that is the critical point. We are not talking just about the forces of nature; the Government have a choice about how much money they spend and how committed they are, and we have heard of the different approaches taken in Holland. There are alternatives, and if the Government choose to abandon communities, they should surely have compensation.

Also on the issue of compensation, I want to home in on the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk, who represents the set of villages that are most directly affected. To the extent that we are talking about climate change causing rising sea levels, this is a problem that we have all caused. It is not exclusively the people of Norfolk who have caused this climate change—we have all caused it. If one set of people are particularly affected by something that we have all done, we should surely all share the burden of helping them. That is why we have government, public services and public goods. When we all cause a problem, we all share in the cost of putting things right, and I hope that the Minister accepts that important principle, which has been advanced in the debate.

The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) raised the issue of dredging, which my hon. Friend has discussed in the past. Will the Minister clarify the Government’s views on that? Do they have a clear view about whether dredging is an issue? It certainly needs to be looked at.

The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who is no longer in his place, mentioned not only the scientists who alert us to the problem, but the use of technology to tackle it. He asked whether enough investment was going into technological solutions that could, at the very least, ameliorate the problems.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) mentioned the flood sirens. That is an important issue, which I hope that the Minister will address.

Taking all these issues together, I was struck by the analogy that the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk drew with the impact of a war and its potential for casualties. The issue before us should be seen as a national emergency because it affects not just one small part of the country, but big stretches of the coastline. We have heard the thin-end-of-the-wedge argument, and the same issue will have to be addressed up and down the coast, so it should be seen as a national strategic issue, not delegated to quangos. Yes, such bodies should have day-to-day operational responsibility, but there is also the question of democratic responsibility, and that is where there is a big gap in the process. People read that Natural England is thinking about what would happen if communities were abandoned, but who takes the decision to abandon them? It is not Natural England, but nor should it be the Environment Agency, because it is not democratically accountable either. It is Ministers who are accountable.

As we have heard, the head of the Environment Agency said in a private or semi-private meeting that “The broads will go,” but whom is she accountable to? [Interruption.] That is a verbatim quote, and I will be happy to give the Minister the source for it. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk and I have both heard that the head of the Environment Agency thinks that the broads will go. Does the Minister think that they will? It would be interesting to have his views on that.

What is DEFRA’s response to all this, apart from to say that it is the Environment Agency’s job to deal with the issue? In 1993, the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food produced a flood control and defence strategy. Guess what the Government are doing about it—they are consulting on changing it. The consultation has been going on for years.

The Minister shakes his head, and I would not expect him to be believe me, so I have brought a House of Commons Library note with me. It says:

“DEFRA is also consulting on proposals for a new Government strategy for flood and coastal erosion risk management in England to update that published in 1993.”

Perhaps the Library is wrong on that. The worry is that we have quangos that are accountable to no one in discussing options that they are apparently not supposed to discuss because that is not their job. At the same time, we have Ministers who are not saying anything terribly clear and who are leaving people with uncertainty.

I simply conclude by asking the Minister one question. I want him to suppose that we were talking about his house and that he opened his local newspaper to discover that a Government body was looking at options to abandon his house to the sea, with the result that it was unsellable and uninsurable. If so, would he be happy with the management of the current process? The buck stops with him when it comes to the management of the process. We have heard from the communities affected that they are not happy with the situation, and I hope that the Minister will take the message to heart.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Martlew. It is a pleasure to serve under you. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) not only on securing the debate, but on introducing it so eloquently and researching the issue so thoroughly.

Under the proposals, about 6,000 acres—25 square miles—of the Norfolk broads would be allowed to flood, and the scale of that loss has been reflected with passion in our excellent debate. We have had excellent contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk, the hon. Members for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright), for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) and for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), as well as from my hon. Friends the Members for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) and for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser).

The one issue that was not covered was insurance. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk did mention the properties being blighted, but what representations has the Minister received about the immediate impact that there will be on home owners and on businesses that operate on the Norfolk broads—in particular boating and other leisure amenities?

Home and business owners are between a rock and a hard place. The Natural England report will undoubtedly have led to a blight on property prices, and the insurance companies and, notably, the Association of British Insurers, have said that they want to renegotiate the statement of principles with the Government on the basis that those insurance companies will continue to give insurance cover only if the Government will pledge to increase the funding for sea defences. If the report has damaged the credibility of those sea defences in the long term, that will have an immediate impact on the ability of home owners and businesses to insure themselves and their properties, and it will affect the cost of the premium and any excess.

The Minister must have an answer for us today. According to the Natural England report, if the proposal were to go ahead, the sea would be allowed to breach 15 miles of the north Norfolk coast. The area would be flooded and would revert to salt marsh, to create a new habitat for wildlife. That takes us back to what my hon. Friends have said about the possibility that wildlife and birds sadly have a bigger Government following than home owners.

Will the Minister respond to what has been said about dredging? It has been put to the Government that dredging would have prevented the flooding in Yorkshire and other parts of the country that flooded very badly last year. The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth has said today that dredging has had a perverse impact in relation to sea level, leading to increased flooding. Will the Minister respond to the point that there are apparently plans to build a barrage on the Wash? If that is true, it would also have the perverse effect of increasing the flood risk to the Norfolk broads.

My hon. Friend is right to point out that a barrage across the Wash has been suggested, but most people in Norfolk think that that is a completely unrealistic scheme, which would do untold damage to one of the most important wildlife areas in the country, to say nothing of the economic importance of fishing and shipping.

The Minister will have heard what my hon. Friend has to say, but I want to ask what the impact will be of forcing the water on to the broads and forcing the fenland even further below sea level.

The Minister heard me say last week—and I think that my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk raised this point too—that there is a divide at work; it is not so much the north-south divide that we have seen in the past, but an urban-rural divide. Even in the eastern area, it appears that urban areas are being promised and given concrete flood defences, whereas all that rural areas are offered are feasibility studies. Will the Minister redress that balance when he responds to the debate?

The Conservatives consider the risk of coastal flooding to be one of the greatest challenges that the country faces. It is incumbent on any Government or incoming Government to draft a national strategy to consider every possible solution for the protection of the nation’s coastline. If the Government are not prepared to do that, an incoming Conservative Government would certainly be prepared to take up the cudgels. Conservatives would see allowing the sea to flood the land, and realigning the coast of north Norfolk, as the last possible option. That would be highly regrettable with respect to the loss of property, of part of our cherished national heritage in the Norfolk broads, and of prized farmland.

The Government must answer the charge that they are being completely inconsistent about the science on flooding and on the response and adaptation to climate change. Will the Minister solve this matter for us today? The outgoing Government chief scientific adviser, David King, claimed that global warming and climate change were the greatest international threat that the country and the whole global community faced, whereas the incoming chief scientific adviser, Professor John Beddington, has claimed that the threat in relation to food security is greater even than that from climate change. If that is so, why are the Government even considering a report on the possibility of allowing 25 square miles, or 6,000 acres, of prime land in the Norfolk broads to be lost? Conservatives believe that it would be deeply regrettable, while we face challenges on food security and climate change, to lose prime productive farm land to flooding, as well as suffering the serious loss of a large part of the Norfolk broads as a leisure amenity. Alternative options should be explored first, and it is incumbent on the Minister to share with the Committee today what those are.

What, in principle, are the alternative options, and what would they cost? The Opposition do not have access to that information. What would be the cost of a rolling programme—the Government seem to like rolling programmes—to shore up the sea defences, perhaps by taking up the suggestions about using materials that are dredged up, which were put forward today by the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth.

And by my hon. Friend. Will the Minister give us an indication of the costs of the alternative programmes?

We have generally recognised that fluvial flooding has been one of our greatest challenges. Last year, dramatically, we saw for the first time the damage that surface water flooding can do, when 48,000 homes were flooded, 7,000 businesses were damaged, and 13 people died. More traditionally the role of the Environment Agency, and the responsibility of the Government, through DEFRA, has been to deal with coastal flooding and inundations from the sea. Today’s debate shows that low-lying areas of eastern England are particularly vulnerable in that respect.

The hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) raised the question of compensation. Home owners and businesses that operate in the Norfolk broads have generally been led to believe, like the rest of the public, that their property will be protected from flooding. As the law stands, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk has said, there is, regrettably, no right of compensation under existing law. However, we do have the concept of human rights.

The possibility of a change of Government policy, given the fact that the people in question have had an expectation that their homes would be protected from flooding, means in our view that, at the very least, the principle of human rights would apply in relation to the loss of enjoyment of the Norfolk broads as an amenity, and loss of farm land, but even more importantly in relation to the possible loss of lives, homes and businesses. If the Minister is again unable to respond to the point about compensation, will he explain what right anyone living in any of the constituencies so eloquently represented here today would have to make a claim for loss of enjoyment, loss of the right to a home, or loss of the right to a livelihood, under the human rights strategy?

The Government have an opportunity to respond to widespread, indeed national, reports about this matter—they are not just in the Eastern Daily Press. I had the good fortune to represent the whole Essex coast for 10 years in the European Parliament. I am now a Yorkshire MP and last year we suffered, after Gloucestershire, or perhaps jointly with it, very badly. For all those reasons—to protect a leisure amenity that is probably the most widely enjoyed in Great Britain, and, more important, to protect home owners, businesses and farm land—we wait expectantly for the Government’s response.

It is a pleasure to be able to respond to this debate. Sincere congratulations are due to the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson). As a Minister, I know that when Members from throughout an area attend a debate, it reflects real public concern, and it is important that I should be able to respond.

Unfortunately, a number of misunderstandings and myths have been perpetuated in this debate. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk for giving me a platform for putting some of them right. I shall respond first to the substantial points made by the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), rather than to the detailed points made, which I will cover if I have time. In my view, the hon. Lady is perpetuating a number of myths that are causing great public concern. I understand the seriousness of concern about house prices and the economic prospects for particular areas, and I note that the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) said, quite fairly, that there is a difference between policy and perception of policy. We must cover both.

It is not true that, as the hon. Lady said, the Association of British Insurers is trying to re-negotiate the statement of principles because not enough money has been put aside for flood defence. The statement of principles was due to be discussed anyway; that is built into it. It is discussed every three years. The ABI has not said that it will not agree a new one unless there is more money. She said that dredging had been used in Yorkshire, but it is different in Norfolk and Suffolk. In east Yorkshire, rivers and drains were dredged; in Norfolk, we are talking about dredging the sea.

Hon. Members mentioned plans to build a barrage across the Wash. My only knowledge of that is what I have read in the papers. The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) rejected the idea on the ground of environmental protection, and quite right too. That is Natural England’s concern as well. The hon. Member for Vale of York perpetuated the line, which I can only conclude is party political, that the Government are protecting urban areas and not rural ones. That is simply not the case. It is borne out by the facts about money spent in the area to protect Norfolk from flooding from the sea, for example. We have spent more than £40 million in the past 15 years. The Environment Agency has £7 million under this year’s programme and a total of £21 million approved for planned works between 2008 and 2013.

The Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Northavon, criticised us for reviewing a policy established in 1993. That is another myth that Opposition parties wish to perpetuate for party political reasons—the idea that in rural areas, we simply review policies rather than spend money. That is not the case. I have said that we have spent money. In fact, more money is spent in many rural areas than in urban areas. There is no difference. I must hammer the myth that all we do is review. Of course capital programmes are based on rolling programmes. All finance decisions are based on that.

I come to the nub of this debate and the issue that I imagine the people of Norfolk will be looking at. The Government have not changed our policy towards fluvial or sea defences in Norfolk. The report by Natural England considered the potential impacts of climate change, including on the natural environment, based on different possible options in a post-50 year scenario. The Government are committed to our existing policy to protect Norfolk as best we can for the next 50 years. The shoreline management plan is subject to discussion with the local authorities in the area, and many hundreds, if not thousands, of people have participated in the consultation on it. Although it is in draft form at the moment, it is public and transparent, and it commits to defence for 50 years. By April next year, although I intend to publish it before that, it will lay out proposals for the post-50 year scenario.

Does the Minister understand that even though we are talking about a post-50 year period, if no financial security is in place now—no compensation scheme or whatever one wants to call it—even discussing options for some future date can have an immediate blighting effect? That must be addressed. I know that he understands the importance of social justice.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making an important and serious point. We are having that discussion.

The hon. Member for Vale of York said that the public expect no change in policy. She must address the issue of climate change. If she is serious, her policy must state what the response to it should be. She must answer the question that we must all answer and that was posed to us by the hon. Member for Northavon: is there an argument for compensation if damage has been caused by climate change rather than by the natural processes of erosion or flooding? The question of how to determine that differentiation is exactly the reason why Natural England is charged with its task. It was said that Natural England gives the impression of being more concerned about the environment than people. Of course it is; it is the body responsible for the natural environment. That is like saying that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds gives the impression of being more concerned about birds than people. That is its job.

I must hit on the point made by the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser). He said that the lives of his constituents were not given equal value to the lives of others. That is not a fair accusation, it is not true and it is not backed up by the statistics. I give his constituents that reassurance.

Can the Minister explain, then, the economic equation used to assess the financial viability of flood alleviation programmes as against the impact that they will have downstream in the Welney area where there is nothing?

A house on the sea front at Poole is worth substantially more than a house by the river in the centre of Leeds. Does that mean that the Government care more about the people of Poole than the people of Leeds? That accusation has been made by local authority leaders in Leeds. Those are matters of consideration for the Government. The hon. Member for Vale of York, who purports to speak for a party that wishes to form a Government, must answer those questions rather than bandying about accusations that are not based on fact.

The hon. Gentleman, from a sedentary position, makes the very serious accusation that the Government deliberately allocate resources based on the party political representation of constituencies.

The hon. Gentleman, from a sedentary position, has withdrawn his accusation. I am grateful to him. To move on to the point about compensation, one of the important debates—

May I make this point about compensation? A number of hon. Members have asked about it. It is not the Government’s policy to give compensation for the impact of floods and coastal erosion. One of the measures at our disposal is—I apologise for the title—the adaptation toolkit. [Interruption.] It is not a great title; I concede that. It considers what measures can be taken, particularly to address the point made by the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb). The discussion includes hon. Members representing the areas concerned.

I reject the charges that have been made. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk said that funding was inadequate, which I reject, and that the institutions were inadequate. I admit that there has been some confusion in the press; I suspect that that confusion has been deliberately fuelled. He suggested that the role of communities was not considered important, yet consultation on the shoreline management plan, which is causing the perceived delay, is occurring precisely so that hon. Members and their constituents can be involved. He also said that the Government are defeatist. Far from it. We are spending enormous sums of taxpayers’ money on the matter.

I have read out the sums being spent in Norfolk. They involve tens of millions of pounds, and they have increased through successive comprehensive spending review periods. I reject the accusation of defeatism.

I hope that the Minister accepts that I, and most of my colleagues, were trying to make some serious points. However, he only had a short time in which to answer, so I would be most grateful if he would give a commitment to read through the report of this debate and then to answer in detail the specific questions raised.