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Sunderland Point

Volume 518: debated on Monday 15 November 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Angela Watkinson.)

I tabled this Adjournment debate to highlight the plight of an area in my constituency called Sunderland point. Sunderland point is a narrow sliver of land. It could not be described as a peninsula or as an island, yet it is effectively an island when the tide comes in. One has to travel across the estuary to reach it.

Sunderland point is the only area of its kind left in the whole world. It is literally an area of outstanding natural beauty, and it is steeped in history. The point flourished in the 1600s and 1700s because of the slave trade and the import of wood. It was Britain’s main port at the time. Over the years, it has become a shrimping community where people get on with their daily lives, but, owing to the death of a slave boy called Sambo at the point in the early 1700s, the movement to enact the abolition of the slave trade began there.

The child believed, legend has it, that his master had deserted him, and he took ill and died. There was outrage, because the boy was buried in an unconsecrated grave, and, although the issue took years and years—several decades indeed—to reach this House, eventually Wilberforce pushed through his Bill to abolish slavery. On the child’s tombstone, there is a poem, and the very last line—

“Not on Man’s color but his worth of heart”—

was a clarion call for abolition. Bonnie Prince Charlie also landed at Sunderland point, from where he invaded the British isles.

More recently, Sunderland point has been under threat from coastal erosion. The point is estimated to be eroding by 1 metre a year. The locals say more, but official figures state about 1 metre. Nevertheless, the point is now eroding rapidly, because the sea has started to reach an area of fields, where there is mainly clay, rather than rock. The problem is that the question of who can help the community seems to have fallen between the cracks of various points of officialdom. Natural England seems to be the main roadblock. This is supposed to be an area of special scientific interest, but I cannot for the life of me see why it would have any scientific interest if it is not going to be there in 50 years’ time. The Environment Agency has a strategic plan to hold back the tide, but no money to enact it. This story has been running for the whole week on local radio and television and in the regional media.

The community is well on the way towards getting the money to put up a wall of aggregate to stop the point eroding. That will not cost the taxpayer any money whatsoever. It is a shrimping community, and people want to preserve their way of life. It is the only place left in the whole world like it. There is evidence to suggest that George Washington’s family sailed from Sunderland point to the new world, and we all know what happened from there on in.

I am fighting against the plight of my local residents on their behalf because this is an area of outstanding historical value. Once it has gone, it will have gone for ever—and it will be gone within 100 years. Moreover, the way that the waters move and swell in the bay means that they will eventually start eating away at Glasson dock, which is a working port and a big employer, and affect the village of Overton. The Environment Agency has a management realignment plan for that, but let us say it in plain English: in layman’s terms it is coastal erosion.

I am asking the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to consider using its powers under section 16(1) of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 to overrule Natural England if it continues to block efforts to install the flood defences that the local community badly need to put in place to save Sunderland point.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) for raising this important issue and for offering me the opportunity to discuss the Government’s approach to managing erosion and flood risk on our coastlines and to respond to his specific points.

The area that my hon. Friend describes is one of extraordinary historical value, and I genuinely appreciate its importance for so many people in his constituency and beyond. The connection that he made with George Washington will no doubt excite interest from beyond our shores. The historical connection with the abolition of slavery is a remarkable story. One can only imagine the tragic consequences that led to the siting of the grave he mentioned, and the importance of that in leading to the whole debate that ended up in this place and saw one of the scourges of the history of this country and of the world consigned to the history books.

I fully appreciate that coastal flooding and erosion are issues of significant concern for my hon. Friend’s constituents and for other coastal communities living in vulnerable areas. On a recent visit to another part of the coast, I saw at first hand the difficulties that coastal change causes for communities.

Before I turn to the detailed points that my hon. Friend made regarding Sunderland point, I would like to outline what was agreed for funding in the spending review and to explain the Government’s general approach to managing flood and coastal erosion risk. The Government are committed to protecting people and property from flooding and coastal erosion where it is sustainable and affordable to do so. I appreciate my hon. Friend’s point about money, and I will talk about that specifically in a moment. In the recent spending review, flood and coastal erosion risk management was identified as a priority area for DEFRA. My Department has made it clear that we will protect front-line services such as forecasting and warning services and incident response, and prioritise the maintenance of existing defences. Times are tough, and it will be difficult to kick off new defence projects over the next couple of years, but as a result of the investment that we are making, we expect to deliver better protection from flooding and erosion to 145,000 households by March 2015. Annual budgets are yet to be finalised, and my hon. Friend will therefore appreciate that it is not possible to discuss individual projects. However, for the benefit of the House I should add that defences already under construction will be completed under existing arrangements.

It is important that we are honest with communities about what can and cannot be done. As I have said to the EFRA Committee, a generation of politicians across several Governments have given assurances about coastal defences that it has not been possible to live up to. The idea that we could “hold the line” on the whole of our coastline in perpetuity, and defend every house, was a notion that was wrong from the outset, but that does not mean that we cannot successfully work with local communities in areas such as the one that my hon. Friend describes. However, although it is not possible to protect all areas, there is more that we can do through innovative approaches. A number of communities are already taking the lead in identifying alternative sources of funding for defences or trialling ways of “rolling back” homes and maintaining local amenities where erosion is taking place.

Let me turn to the specific case of Sunderland point. As my hon. Friend points out, Sunderland village is located on a headland and is frequently cut off from the mainland by the high tide. Properties in the village have flooded on six occasions in the past 20 years. Sunderland point is an uninhabited area at the tip of this headland. As a result of coastal erosion, it has retreated by 75 metres since 1848. I appreciate that this has been an issue of significant concern for the residents of Sunderland village, who fear that the erosion of the point may increase the risk of flooding to their homes. That is a point of concern to a wider population who recognise the amenity and the historical value of this site.

The Environment Agency has investigated the issue and has concluded that erosion of the point is not increasing the flood risk to Sunderland village. I appreciate that that conclusion will concern my hon. Friend. I am aware, however, that flooding continues to pose a threat to the village. As he intimated, there is not a sufficiently strong case for national funding of flood defences for Sunderland village because there are not the benefits to justify the costs. However, the village did benefit from a DEFRA grant scheme in 2008, through which the Environment Agency and the local authority provided property level flood protection measures to 30 houses that are at risk.

As my hon. Friend said, people in the local community have done precisely what we want them to do, which is to come forward with innovative local solutions that can secure a coastline that they feel is important to deal with the risk that they face and to protect a much-loved environment. We have to unblock a blockage within government, at whatever level that is, as regards whether, in protecting a site of special scientific interest, we may be causing other damage that neither I nor my hon. Friend are aware of. That is the conversation that I will be having in response to the very sensible points that he makes. I will talk to Natural England as a matter of urgency to get to the bottom of this issue, because I recognise its importance locally.

It is clear that flooding and coastal erosion are very serious issues for this community and many other communities along that part of the coastline. We know that the effects of climate change will only increase the pressure on such communities. Funding is clearly the key issue but, as my hon. Friend pointed out, taxpayer funding is not an issue in this case. That is a very important matter that I will take forward. We in DEFRA are consulting on a new approach to funding that will be more transparent and give local areas a bigger say in what action is taken to protect them in return for more local contributions. The Government will continue to focus on those at greatest risk and on people in the most deprived areas of this country.

I thank my hon. Friend for the opportunity to debate these issues today. I give him the firm assurance that I will take up the points that he raises and, if necessary, get him together with the officials whom he believes are holding up the situation. I want to ensure that all agencies of government are working together and that we are not only doing everything we can to protect sites of special scientific interest in important historical locations such as the one he describes but working to reassure local communities that everything that can be done is being done to support their obvious and expected intentions in wanting to protect their homes from flooding and coastal erosion.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.