I thank Mr Speaker for granting this debate on an important issue. I wish that more of my colleagues were here today. I am new to Suffolk Coastal, which is the only constituency with the word “coast” in its name—and as may be imagined, the debate subject is one of the biggest issues there—but I am not new to coastal erosion. I grew up as a little girl in a place called Formby, which is also well known for its shifting sands. I recognise that I am very new to Suffolk, and I commend the work done thus far to protect the coast. I pay tribute in particular to my predecessor, the recently ennobled Lord Deben.
I want to raise awareness of the issue of shoreline management plans and invite Members of Parliament to consider joining the all-party coastal and marine group, which decided to include the plans among our particular issues. I am slightly thrown, because I expected the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) to be here, and was therefore about to pay tribute to him. However, I am sure that the Minister of State will pass on to him the gratitude that is still felt in my community for the fact that within only a few months of joining the Government, he came to Norfolk and Suffolk constituencies. That was very well received.
I also want to say well done to the many councillors and Government agencies that have worked hard to produce the shoreline management plans. Although I do not agree with every word that is in the plans, on the whole those responsible have done a great job—constrained by the policy visited on us by the previous Government. The shoreline management plans were driven by the policy in “Making Space for Water”. I recognise that what led to that was severe flooding across the country. However, in my view, much of what went into “Making Space for Water” and subsequent reviews, such as the Pitt review, had nothing to do with coastline management; it was trying to deal with flooding. That is typical of much of the approach that has been taken to flooding and erosion.
Flooding is temporary. It is very disruptive to people; I recognise that. There have been some severe incidents; but it is not terminal, whereas erosion is. Once shoreline is gone, it is generally gone for good. There might be a little movement of sediment up and down the coast; but, as to houses, there is a village in my constituency, Covehithe, that is not expected to exist in 40 years’ time. That is quite an impact for the people who live there.
I shall not compare our situation with that of Holland. I do not pretend to be Canute or to think that we can change nature. However, perhaps I may make use of an analogy with our neighbours across the North sea, who have made their country bigger by reclaiming land from the sea. Their shoreline is roughly the length of that of Essex. Yet they manage to spend €1.5 billion a year on their shoreline defences, and to supply on average about 9 million cubic metres of beach recharge, as opposed to the 2 million enjoyed across the UK. As an aside—although there is no conclusive evidence on this—I understand that Holland does not allow aggregate dredging within 10 miles of its shoreline, and, indeed, that it buys aggregate from the United Kingdom.
To return to “Making Space for Water”, I am not going to get into the debate about rising sea levels and similar issues; that is not the purpose of this debate. However, what is relevant is the fact that the plans are now effectively based on 25, 50 and 100-year decisions. We are making 100-year decisions on the basis, to some extent, of a three-year budget. I am not surprised that the consequence is a disproportionate impact on communities that are not densely populated. I should prefer a rethink on “Making Space for Water”. I do not suggest it should be complete and fundamental or that we should turn back the clock in every respect. However, I suggest that instead of making 100-year decisions we should continue with what was the tradition in this country until fairly recently, and make decisions for 25, 30 or 40 years, so that one generation can pass on the challenge to the next, but also do its bit for that generation; and so that one generation will not take decisions that leaves nothing for future generations. That is what is happening in places. I am thinking of places such as Happisburgh, in North Norfolk, as well as parts of my constituency, where people know that their village will not exist in 40 years and there is nothing they can do about it.
Among various things that have happened, more and more powers have been given to the Environment Agency. I understand that the strategic aspect of that was to try to put responsibility in one area and take an integrated approach. With the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 there has been strengthening of the regional flood defence committees. I am concerned that those committees cover a large area. That almost goes against the mantra of the big society and the idea of enabling local communities to take decisions, which of course should mean working with neighbours but should not mean being told, from the regional perspective, “This is what you can and cannot do; this is what we can and will not fund.”
I want to spend a little time focusing on my area of Suffolk. Shoreline management plan 1 was published in 1998 and it continued the “hold the line” philosophy that we should do what we can to preserve the coast. Shoreline management plan 2, which has still not, to the best of my understanding, been signed off by the Secretary of State, contains a significant change, in that properties will be lost. The Under-Secretary came to my constituency and met people who will be affected. I wanted him to meet such people—Mrs Flick, Mr Chandler and Mr Monson —and see the tears in their eyes because of the effect of the policies.
In my maiden speech I mentioned Thorpeness, where something happened that is supposed to be a one in 50 or one in 100-year event—I cannot remember which; within 50 days of the passing of the plan at local council level, a significant loss of beach was suffered. It does not give residents much confidence when there has been a downgrade to no active intervention, and something that seemed far off happens. I pay tribute to the council and the Environment Agency for pulling together and doing some remedial work. It required the financial intervention of constituents, who have put in money. Not all my constituents are particularly cash rich, but they have done that to try to protect their homes for another 30 years. That relates to the policy I mentioned earlier.
Another aspect of the shoreline management plan that is relevant to my constituency is the suggested breach just south of Aldeburgh, moving into the estuary. When the shoreline management plan was initially being made, there was a separation between it and the estuary management plan. I am pleased that there was recognition from the council and the Environment Agency that that was wrong, and such matters cannot be considered in isolation. Under the Alde and Ore futures initiative, work is now being done to examine the impact of breaches of the shoreline among wider areas of the estuary. There were reports yesterday on the BBC that if there were a “one in 100” big North sea storm, Cambridge would be a coastal town. That is the impact suggested by some of the modelling, which I do not decry; but the impacts of smaller storms could wipe out many properties in my constituency, and much agricultural land and habitat.
Two councillors have brought to my attention their concern about the consultation process. I am not clear on this, so I do not speak with complete authority, but my impression from meeting residents is that those who are not on the electoral roll, discouraged because they were second home owners, may not have participated fully in the shoreline management plan. Indeed, some residents have said that they had never heard of it until the impact was known. That is a cause for concern: people whose houses would be lost as a result of the shoreline management plan did not know about it. That needs to be reflected upon, and I hope the Minister and the Secretary of State will consider that when they sign off the plans.
The impact on people and on agriculture is real. One concern about the funding formulas, when we start looking at the cost of coastal defences along different parts of the shoreline, is that issues such as heritage assets and agriculture have not been taken account of in a valid way. I understand that Suffolk produces a great many potatoes for our country, and I am sure they are delicious and are enjoyed by many hon. Members. One of the features of our agriculture, however, is that we have two or three seasons of potatoes, and some of that could easily be lost if there was a breach of the shoreline and subsequently the estuary.
The previous Government looked at ways of mitigating and carrying out managed retreat, using schemes such as the pathfinder grants. Constituents feel that although that was jolly nice, it was a waste of time. More hope is coming from the community right-to-build proposals brought in by the Minister for Housing and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps). Instead of people being told that they have to move to a town, they are now working with councils to get planning permission to go into other areas. Frankly, if they live on the edge of the coast they do not want to live in a town; they are living in an isolated rural hamlet. Some moves have been made on that, but I am not sure that pathfinder money has been spent in the best way. I have been told on several occasions, “We would rather have used this £1.5 million grant actually to put some defences in, rather than being told we will lose our homes.”
In terms of compensation, more and more awareness exists about the human rights impact of the decisions that are made about the change in policy no longer to hold the line. Those who will be impacted by High Speed 2 will receive compensation for the fact that their houses will be moved as a result of a change in or an introduction of Government policy. That does not happen in coastal erosion, where we have decided not to hold the line. I believe, although I am not certain, that those who suffer from fluvial flooding also receive compensation. In Happisburgh there were schemes looking at giving people 40 to 50% of the value of their homes. Frankly, trying to rebuild a home sometimes costs more than that, and trying to buy elsewhere can easily cost more than that. That needs to be looked at. I recognise that traditionally, compensation has not been a feature of coastal erosion policy, but we have not been putting in black and white as effective policy, “You are going to lose your home, and we are not going to compensate you for anything.” I understand that compensation is available for landowners where land has been deliberately allowed to flood, but that is limited to agricultural situations.
Returning to the idea of not trying to be Canute, this country does not have billions of pounds to put a ring of steel or a ring of stone around our shorelines, and that would not necessarily be best for our coast. The Minister has heard from some of my constituents the can-do attitudes they can bring to decisions on how to fund future defences—in particular, the initiative with Suffolk Coastal district council and landowners around the Bawdsey area. Gerry Matthews engineered a scheme whereby exceptional planning permission was given to build some houses on greenfield land. The money from that paid for defences around the Bawdsey area. That has been welcomed, and it was pioneering at the time. Although some of my constituents are concerned that that will mean we will pay for our coastal defences for ever, at least we have been given the choice to do so. In this day and age, it is about making choices for ourselves and not simply expecting the Government to write a blank cheque, especially in these difficult times. Other schemes could be possible up and down our coast.
One aspect that we must get right is that the partners of Natural England and the Environment Agency should not have the sole judgment over whether defences can be done. At the moment the EA and Natural England have some quite restrictive powers, and they can say “No, you cannot put those hard defences in.” It is hard to argue with a constituent who says they are happy to pay for defences or to arrange some match funding, and who is subsequently told that they cannot do so. That has led to some extreme reactions in parts of my constituency: frankly, dumping a whole load of rubble on the beach is not ideal either, and I would not recommend that as a course of action. There are, however, situations where landowners desperately need to be able to maintain their defences. They should be able to enhance their defences if they need to. I recognise the importance of the various directives we have signed up to on habitat, but people are still more important than fossils or certain kinds of birds. If there ever was a case for the Human Rights Act, that is one: humans have a right to live and to defend their homes.
Moves are afoot in the Ministry, and I want to recognise those. The consultation is out now for the national flood and coastal erosion risk management strategy. We have heard about future funding, the draft guidance is out for consultation and people are working together—the National Farmers Union and the Country Land and Business Association, with DEFRA, Natural England and the Environment Agency—to look at protocols on the subject. I call on the Government to consider that, as I have said, coastal erosion is terminal and we are not reclaiming anything; flooding is temporary. Please bear that in mind when we are looking at the different schemes and at allowing people to make the big society a reality, not just hot air. We must encourage the Environment Agency and Natural England to work with the people on our coastal shorelines to recognise that they can do things. It is not about damaging the future; a lot of the land around the coastal shorelines and slightly inland has been held in families for generations. They do not want to destroy such places; they want to enhance them and to keep them, not only for their descendants but for the enjoyment of many people across the country.
Councillor Sue Allen from Southwold has written to me making the point that we had set aside £1.6 billion for the habitat creation programme, and in writing off Benacre Broad, Covehithe, Tinkers Marsh, Delacroix Marsh, Hen Reedbeds, Reydon Marsh, Dunwich Marsh and Minsmere aspects, 950 hectares of land has to be recreated. The habitat has to be recreated elsewhere, and the estimated cost is £50 million. That sum could produce a significant number of defences in that area. I do not see that as a Ponzi scheme, but I want to encourage Ministers who say, “We are not going to spend money on it from this pot, but we will spend money from that pot” to think about that. That does not make sense to me, and we need to have a rethink.
This is one of the most important issues in my constituency. It does not affect everybody there, but there is a recognition that our coast is important to us. We do not want to see too many more towns such as Dunwich, which can appear more interesting under the sea than they are on shore. I encourage DEFRA to look, as I believe it is doing, at innovative and different ways of protecting the coast—methods such as artificial barriers and artificial reefs, looking at constituents’ ideas for defending their own shorelines, or thinking again about some aspects of the consultation—so that people in areas that have moved to no active intervention, and who, in their view, were not made aware of that, are allowed a second chance to express views to their local councils.
I give credit to the Government agencies, councillors and others who have worked very hard on shoreline management plans within the constraints of “Making Space for Water”. I hope, though, that the Government reconsider the issue fundamentally and recognise that 100-year decisions being made today have impacts on people in the shorter term, not just 100 years hence.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) for raising a very important issue. Coastal erosion is a key issue in my part of the country. My constituents in Devon have one of the most beautiful but also one of the longest and most prone to erosion bits of coastline in the country. In addition, we have a particular problem, because the south-west is tipping along an axis, so it will sink, while the north-east, happily for it, rises. Consequently, coastal erosion is an acute problem for us. By 2050, our sea level is predicted to rise by 22.9 cm, which is a significant amount.
Shoreline management plans are a vital tool in managing the problem. I am delighted that following their inauguration in the mid-1990s, they continue to be in existence, and shoreline management plan 2 is in prospect. My request to my hon. Friend the Minister is that we try to build some certainty and begin to secure some agreement because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal said, those plans have not yet been agreed. There was much debate about them before the election, then they were shelved, but now we have a new Administration.
We need certainty, because the plans have significant implications for our national plan for flood defences and for the renegotiation with the insurance industry—with the Association of British Insurers—about how we deal with covering the risk to those properties that are prone to flooding. We also need certainty locally so that local authorities can plan sensibly on where to build and where not to build. I am conscious that the arrangement that the previous Government made with the ABI, which in effect said that insurance would continue to be available provided that the Government continued to invest in flood defences, does not apply, as I understand it, to houses built after 2009, so this is quite an important issue to get right.
For my local area, tourism is the biggest generator of income, and it would be profoundly affected if we did not properly manage erosion along that beautiful coastline. Our shoreline management plan is part of the Dorset and south Devon plan. Within those many miles of beautiful coastal mileage, there are three particular areas of concern, which I shall highlight for the Minister so that he can understand why I am concerned about the need to reach agreement. At the moment, agreement is looking a little tenuous, and we need it.
Let me start with the easiest of the three areas. The Dawlish sea wall is crucial, because a railway line runs along that coast, and without the integrity of the sea wall, the railway line could not continue to run trains. The railway line carries 2 million passengers a year, and I can honestly say to the Minister that it is crucial to tourists travelling to and from the area, as well as to local constituents travelling to and from work. I am pleased to say that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), confirmed in a previous Adjournment debate that that railway line was crucial and that therefore he would write—he has indeed written—to the Environment Agency and to Network Rail to indicate that retaining the defences to ensure that coastal erosion was kept to a minimum was what the Government wanted. That is great. I am pleased that we have a hold-the-line policy for the next 100 years there.
Let me move on to the other two areas, which are a little more controversial. Dawlish Warren is a beautiful sand spit and home to a thriving tourism industry. We have 800,000 visitors a year, and on a good day we might get 20,000 visitors in a single day. It is also a nature reserve, a conservation area and a place of great scientific interest. That is more problematic, and the area suffered significantly in 2004 when the level of the beach fell dramatically; about 10 metres of the beach was taken away. We have a hold-the-line policy until 2025, but after that the policy is mixed between hold the line and a managed realignment.
Because of the nature of the tourism industry, this issue is crucial for my constituents. The Environment Agency has been helpful, and to date it has maintained the groynes and supported the gabion defences. In the relatively recent past, it spent £100,000, which was good news. There is, however, a debate between Natural England and the Environment Agency about whether the defences to be put in place should be soft or hard defences. Clearly, there are arguments on both sides, but we need clarity so that we can move forward. I urge the Minister to remember that this is a key area for tourism, and without that tourism it will be hard for local businesses and people in Dawlish Warren to survive.
Another area of concern is the Exe estuary. A study of the area found—rightly—that we should be looking to implement a new wetland area. Because of the erosion, the wetland has been lost, which will have implications for our natural wildlife. However, the consequences of such an action will require a causeway to be created in the area so that the train can continue to pass along the coast. The challenge is who will pay for that work—should it be Network Rail or the Environment Agency? I ask the Minister for his input in trying to ensure that we reach a sensible agreement.
In essence, it is crucial that shoreline management plans are agreed. Without them, we will never ensure that a proper flood defence plan is put in place across the country, and we will never help local authorities plan properly for housing—a particular issue with coastal erosion. Furthermore, we will never have a sensible and meaningful debate with the ABI, and others, about how to cover insurance for properties after 2013 when the current arrangements fall away. Locally, I am passionate about securing the future of the railway and of tourism.
That, in a nutshell, is my contribution, but as a final comment, I welcome the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal that we review the issue of compensation. It seems appropriate for compensation to be considered in cases of coastal erosion, as well as with other forms of flooding and disaster. I also commend my hon. Friend on her proposal for local people to be more involved in discussions about such matters, rather than leaving it to large Government agencies.
May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on securing the debate? She is a formidable ally on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and she is also a strong champion for her constituency. A lot of the issues that she has raised directly affect my constituents, but that is unsurprising since we share the same shoreline management plan.
I represent a rural area of Essex with a long coastline. It will come as a surprise to many people to hear that my area of Essex has one of the longest coastlines in the country. However, that will not come as a surprise to the Minister, who is an extremely distinguished former chairman of the Essex National Farmers Union, so I am pleased that he is responding to the debate. Many of my concerns relate to the protection of agricultural land, and he will understand why coastline management is such an important issue, particularly in my part of the world.
We in Essex are conscious of the fact that shoreline management is extremely important. Many people still remember 1953, when more than 100 people died in Essex as a result of the last major tidal surge and the collapse of sea defences. A map on the Environment Agency website, which is available to anyone who wishes to consult it, shows the extent of the floodplain in my area. It shows that 2,000 houses in Heybridge, in my constituency, would be under water following a one-in-200-year event. It also shows a large amount of agricultural land on the Dengie peninsula, which I represent, being lost to the sea, which is a real concern.
The Environment Agency rightly concentrates on protecting residential dwellings and human life, and that must be the priority. However, there is concern that agricultural land may not get the attention that it deserves. We realise, of course, that the country is under pressure. We have steadily rising sea levels on the east coast, a tilting land mass and the erosion of salt marshes, which constantly increases the pressure on our defences. We are also very much aware of economic considerations.
I do not therefore in any way dispute the necessity of drawing up a shoreline management plan to determine where we should concentrate resources and to work out a sensible strategy for each part of the coastline. Indeed, I was at the meeting at which the plan was first unveiled, and it came as a relief to some extent that it was less drastic—certainly in the first epoch—than we had feared. Nevertheless, in areas where there are proposals to realign the coastline and to give up agricultural land, farmers find it difficult to come to terms with what is happening, particularly at a time when we are increasingly worried about our food security and the need to maintain and increase agricultural production.
What has caused greater concern, however—my hon. Friend rightly touched on this—is the feeling that the plans were drawn up without any proper consultation of affected landowners. There have been public meetings and opportunities for people to come along and look at the proposals, but there has been a lack of moves directly to involve the people who will be affected to give them an opportunity to make representations, to question some of the criteria that have been used or to appeal.
Indeed, there is still a debate about how the plans have been drawn up. There is no agreement, for instance, on matters such as the economic value of the land that would potentially be abandoned or the cost of repairing sea walls. The whole cost-benefit analysis is slightly shrouded in mystery. There have been questions, for instance, over whether sufficient regard has been given to mobile homes and caravan parks, which are obviously not permanent residential dwellings. Those are all issues on which more needs to be done.
I and other Members in Essex have been contacted by the Managing Coastal Change group in Essex and by Andrew St Joseph, who is a former constituent, although he is none the less still a good adviser on these issues, and I suspect that his name will be familiar to the Minister as well. They have raised concerns both about the fact that landowners have not really had a chance to discuss these issues and about the Environment Agency’s assurances in the plan. For instance, the Environment Agency said that it had spoken to everyone who owns land in the areas where managed realignment is proposed, but Mr St Joseph points out that a number of landowners had told him that they had had no meaningful contact with the Environment Agency at all about that. When I went to the unveiling of the shoreline management plan, which was attended by landowners from my constituency and the rest of Essex, one of the farmers came up to me and said that on the wall he had seen for the first time that a large part of his farm had been designated for future realignment and loss to the sea. Clearly, that is a matter of concern. There needs to be greater dialogue between landowners and the Environment Agency.
There is an even greater concern about the lack of dialogue with Natural England, which my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal also touched on. There is concern that it has a very powerful influence over the decisions being taken. My hon. Friend referred to some of the frustrations about the extent of protection for wildlife as opposed to human beings. There certainly appears to be greater protection for the habitat of a water vole than there does for that of a human being, which is difficult for people to understand. I am not one to say that the habitat of water voles is not important—it plainly is—but these things need to be kept in perspective. There is a general feeling that the habitats directive is driving this policy too much and that some decisions are being taken in large part to meet the requirements of the directive rather than as a result of proper consideration of the costs and benefits of maintaining sea defences.
Although I get some reassurance about the large amount of sea wall designated as “hold the line”, the truth is that if the Environment Agency decides that money is not available to maintain defences, it can come back and say, “Even though it is ‘hold the line’ that does not necessarily mean that we’re going to have the money to maintain it.” There is a willingness on the part of landowners to take on that responsibility. In previous debates, I raised the difficulties facing landowners in obtaining the necessary consents to carry out minor maintenance work. Something has been done; the Environment Agency has produced a useful pack to give a simple guide to landowners about how to go about maintaining their defences, but it makes it clear there will be a need to get permission from Natural England in areas with sites of special scientific interest.
Mr St Joseph pointed out to me that a long time ago farmers were approached and asked whether they would accept SSSI designation on their sea walls, and they accepted it, thinking that it would have little impact or make little difference to the practicality of maintenance. Obviously, they were happy to do it. It was only later that they discovered that it made a huge difference and, as a result, it became much more difficult for them to obtain the necessary permissions to carry out repair work on their sea walls. The willingness is there but more still needs to be done to make it easier for landowners to take on the responsibility and carry out the work if the Environment Agency is unable or unwilling to do it.
I shall end by stressing a point that came out particularly in the opening speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal, which is the feeling that there has been a lack of dialogue. A group of farmers in my constituency approached me and said that they had repeatedly asked to discuss with Natural England how it could be made easier to reach agreement on what was acceptable and welcome work to maintain defences, and on how to obtain the necessary consents. As far as I am aware, that group has not yet had a response from Natural England. I have written to Natural England and I have not yet had a response. Much more needs to be done in that area to increase co-operation and understanding, because the absence of those things leads to resentment, making it much more difficult to achieve what we all want, which is protection wherever possible of land and human habitation within the necessary economic constraints that exist today.
May I add to the congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on securing this important and timely debate? It is important because Britain has, I am led to believe, 11,073 miles of coast, and, although I do not have “coastal” in my constituency name, the longest boundary I have is part of Morecambe bay on the west coast on the Irish sea. The debate is timely because the shoreline management plans are due for completion in the next few weeks. They will be delivered through the Environment Agency and local councils. In the longer term, my hon. Friends have hinted at concerns about erosion and about which parts of England are going up and which are going down. When I learned geography at school, I was always told that the east was going down and the west was coming up, but now I am told differently. However, hon. Members will be pleased to know that I do not want to go into that kind of science; I was not the greatest geographer, although for a time I did manage to teach the subject. [Interruption.] Well, I always thought that geography was an easier subject than history.
Thurnham parish is in my patch. It is a rural parish with no particular centre. It is not a village; it is an area comprising scattered farms and caravan parks and caravan developments by the coast. The people who live there are retired couples and those who want to bring up their children in a rural area. It lies between the villages of Cockerham and Glasson Dock and it is part of Lancaster city council district. It is Thurnham parish’s experience in this process that I want to highlight.
Unlike most of England’s coastline, Thurnham has been protected by a “hold the line” policy, which means that it has a system of hard defences—in this case a sea wall and vast numbers of drainage channels. However, according to the Environment Agency, such defences have been thought to be inadequate for future years and the whole area is being reassessed as part of the shoreline management process.
We then come on to the interesting concept of managed realignment, which is a phrase that sounds almost Orwellian. The Library briefing says that
“managed realignment is still in an experimental phase with research showing many uncertainties in outcome.”
My concern is that we are basing many of our shoreline management plans on something that is experimental, and that is impacting on people’s lives and livelihoods. If a new experimental system is to be used, where has the effort been to explain the benefits of the scheme or to convince and win over those who will be affected? At the moment, the people in Thurnham believe that this is part of a cost-saving exercise.
Let me turn to the consultation on the second phase, which my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) mentioned. Yet again, my constituents have had the same experience of consultation. There were two public meetings and a 12-month consultation in which everyone in this country, from the Ramblers Association to English Nature and English Heritage, was consulted—apart from the residents who live in the area. I am told that it was only when a district councillor asked a parish councillor why no one from Thurnham had been turning up to meetings that it was clear that no one had actually been told to turn up.
Eventually, the residents were involved in the process. We secured another couple of meetings to try to understand what was going on. The challenge from residents was, “Why are you just considering managed realignment?” That was after a long explanation of what managed realignment might involve. Again, the issue of compensation—or lack of compensation—arose. Some residents were even told that if this happened, they would have to demolish their own house to allow the sea and salt marshes to encroach. It almost seemed that the habitat of birds was far more important than the generations of people who had lived in the area for hundreds of years and who had invested a great deal of money there—some had done so just a few months before they found out about the operation.
We finally get to a stage in which the council recognises the residents and the residents are talking to the Environment Agency. The agency finally walks the sea wall and finds that it is in far better shape than it first imagined. Now it has been agreed that there will be a further look at the cost-benefits of managed realignment and of holding the line. The agency says that such a policy will involve £100,000, for which it hopes to bid centrally. If it does not get the money this year, it will try again next year. The completion of this process will take five years, but if it does not get the money this year it will take six years. In the meantime, that whole area is blighted in terms of the ability to sell property or invest more in thriving businesses. Farmers wanting to invest are lost in the whole process, wondering where to go from here.
On consultation, as other hon. Members have said, can the details of how the costs and benefits fit together be supplied to me and residents of the area, so that we can understand how the processes work? So far, the new Government have pushed for transparency and clarity on what the Government spend and how they operate, so it is not asking a great deal to see the spreadsheet analysis and the cost-benefit formulae behind it, so that residents of Thurnham can have some grasp of the process, even though they will now sit there for five, six or seven years with that blight on them.
In conclusion—I realise that other Members want to speak—my constituents’ experience of the SMP process has not been good. They were ignored at the start, and they have been treated as though they do not understand their own area. They are now asking the new Government to supply them with information and to treat them as the grown-ups they are by helping them to understand all the pressures on the Government in dealing with the coast. They live and work there, understand the coastline and have a contribution to make, and they are asking the Minister to let them.
Hemsby in Great Yarmouth has £80 million of tourism economy at risk from shoreline management issues. Tourism in Great Yarmouth is worth about £500 million a year, so a deteriorating coastline is a huge issue. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on securing this debate and being a fantastic advocate for her constituency and coastal erosion issues in general.
When the Minister visited our coastline—I congratulate him on coming so quickly—it was clear that he needed many advisers with him. There were advisers from Natural England, the Environment Agency and a range of other quangos for which I cannot begin to remember the acronyms. It highlighted residents’ problem in understanding what they can and cannot do. Every part of the coastline is under a different agency or ownership and involves going to a different body—from the local authority to central Government to various quangos.
In Hemsby, tourism is a great concern. A lot of the properties there, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) said, are mobile homes, which are classed as temporary and therefore not counted in the cost-benefit analysis. Their value runs to tens of millions of pounds, but they are simply not counted when weighed against water voles, for instance, or in our case the lifespan of terns. Terns are phenomenally interesting birds, but I struggle to see how they match up to a tourism industry of about £80 million.
We have an area of special scientific interest in Winterton that has eroded dramatically over the past 10 years and continues to erode to the point where commercial properties as well as a coast watchtower are at risk. In Hopton, residents have watched the coastline move dramatically in the past few years. The shoreline management plan’s weakness in round 2 was highlighted when properties bought there under “hold the line” were reassessed as requiring no active intervention.
My experience with the SMP has been good. In Great Yarmouth, at least, the authorities have listened and reacted by changing the final recommendation back to managed retreat. That might allow private individuals and commercial companies in Hopton, such as Potters and Haven, to consider making investments. However, to do so, they must be able to present a full business plan. I will come back to that issue, but I want to touch on a couple of local issues before I discuss the bigger picture.
In Scratby, we have a pathfinder scheme of which many residents and I were wary and suspicious, because it felt as if the Government of the time were trying to buy people off for a year without doing anything. The money put into the pathfinder, at least in Scratby, would have gone a long way toward finishing some of the flood defences for which residents have been working so hard for so long. What the people in Scratby have said to me—I met some of them recently when they came to the meeting of our all-party group on coastal and marine issues—is that they want the freedom to do something for themselves.
Indeed, the example of Scratby provides a perfect transition to discussion of the bigger issue. As has already been touched on, when we look at the shoreline management plans we look at issues over the next 50 or 100 years. The previous MP for Suffolk Coastal made the point—it has stuck with me because it is very relevant—that the companies and commercial bodies and some of the private individuals affected, particularly regarding tourism, need to see that they can protect the coastline and make an investment that gives them a business plan of 20 to 30 years.
However, we do not really need anything too much beyond that time scale. If we think about what is possible now—compared with what was possible and what we knew 20 years ago; and in some cases, five or 10 years ago—we realise that, once we get beyond the next 20 to 30 years, we are putting our fingers in the wind and guessing how technology and our understanding will change. Therefore, to be honest, the 100-year plans become somewhat redundant. We should focus on what we can do in the next five to 30 years, with a clear understanding that this process is about allowing private individuals and businesses to have a business case to protect their shoreline.
Education is an issue, as has already been mentioned by one of my hon. Friends. We have had a similar issue in Great Yarmouth. Residents in Scratby who are directly affected by coastal erosion obviously care passionately about it, are working hard on dealing with it and have put a lot of resources and their own time into that. However, there are residents who live just one or two roads back from the coastline, let alone a mile inshore, who knew nothing about that work until a major consultation was carried out. Residents in Great Yarmouth who do not live on the coastline do not really understand the big impact that erosion could have on them going down the line.
So education is an issue, because erosion will have an impact. If we do not do something soon to protect the coastline, it will retreat anyway. Erosion will impact on farming. I know that the NFU in Norfolk has been frustrated at its lack of involvement and its inability to understand how it can feed into the process, because of the complexity of the different organisations involved. My hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) is concerned about farming-related problems and the impact of salt water on the land. In Great Yarmouth we produce many potatoes, to which reference has been made, and some of us enjoy them regularly.
Tourism is also important for areas such as the Norfolk Broads. The authorities there are already finding that salt water levels are rising because of coastal erosion. So coastal erosion has a huge impact and we probably need to do a better job of educating our residents about it. There is huge value in doing something about this issue, in terms not only of protecting property but promoting future peace of mind. However, we must be clear about the time scale.
We also have to be honest and realistic about what the Government can afford to do. I fully understand that they are not in a position to do what I assume and hope they would like to do: to protect every inch of coastline around our country. Residents, certainly those in Great Yarmouth, also understand that. We had a meeting with the Minister near the Suffolk Coastal constituency, at which the people of Waveney, Great Yarmouth and North Norfolk were also represented. Those who attended understood that there is a financial constraint, and that some tough decisions therefore have to be made.
First, I should declare an interest, in that I have an Environment Agency “blue blob” in my back garden and I live about 20 feet above sea level. Part of Redcar is actually below sea level.
I agree with everything that has been said so far, and I understand the financial constraints. However, I hope we do not allow the current debate and uncertainty to interfere with any schemes that are about to take place—in particular, the new sea wall in the town where I live. I hope the new Government do not decide to pull the funding on everything, and therefore take another number of years to decide what to do.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention; he made his point very well.
One of the problems with the structure of SMPs is that many people have come to the view that they have become nothing more than a tick-box process for planning departments. We need to move beyond that. Finance is important in this regard. For some authorities, SMPs must be affordable and they must be responsible for them, because they feel a responsibility to their residents. However, in fact, we should be looking at a plan that gives residents, communities and commercial organisations as much ability to protect the shoreline as the Government have. That is where the big change could occur. My hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb)—my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal and I have worked closely with him on the matter—has been talking for some time about a community solidarity fund. I recommend that the Minister consider it, as it could allow local authorities to raise their own funds under the decentralisation—the Localism Bill.
The residents of Scratby have already talked to me about their ideas for a scheme. If they had the freedom to do so, they could raise the funds that would allow them to move forward and finance some of the work that they want to do. They believe that the work needs to be done, and the pathfinder schemes show that it would still be best for Scratby. However, it will have an impact on the coastline. That is why we need some form of community fund, based on the pathfinder work done in North Norfolk on the sale and lease-back scheme. It would be a community-based fund and would have no impact on the Government. Local people could take a view on whether they wanted to do that by holding a referendum, and they could then play their part. Local businesses and organisations could take part, and local authorities could get involved with land deals, for example, which could start making some of these opportunities possible.
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
The main message on coastal erosion that I want to get across to the Department —the Minister was positive when he came to Great Yarmouth—is that although we would like the Government to protect everything, most important to the residents affected would be the freedom to get through the overwhelming bureaucracy. It would allow them to become more responsible for their own future; they want to have some control over their destiny and be able to run with it. If it were not for the fact that our forebears were able to deal with coastal erosion, many of those representing coastal areas would not be representing the constituencies they do. We therefore have a huge duty to free up the system, so that in the years to come we can represent our constituencies as they are now.
May I start my short submission by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on securing this debate? I confess that until I saw the debate title in the Order Paper, I did not realise that there was a shoreline management plan for my part of Wales, a point that was reflected upon by others this morning. That is all the more embarrassing because 60% of my constituency is a variety of shoreline. That is a great asset most of the time, but not when it comes to parliamentary boundary reviews. That, however, is a debate for another day.
The coastline is probably the single most important feature for the tourism industry in south-west Wales. Indeed, I slip into the conversation the fact that National Geographic magazine says that it is the second most beautiful coastline in the world. It beats Suffolk and Devon, and even Essex, to that coveted title. Although erosion is not a particular problem in my constituency, management is. For my constituents, the shoreline is not only beautiful and spectacular cliff. It also has beach, marsh and wetlands, as well as estuaries, and balancing the conflicting interests of agriculture and tourism is a constant battle. It is a battle for everyone, including the Pembrokeshire national park, and that has to be reflected in the management plans.
Not many people know this, but before becoming a Member I spent a little time working for the Environment Agency in south-west Wales as an official valuer. One of my earliest jobs was to value the sea wall between the Severn bridge and Trostre steel works in Llanelli. Those who can picture the map of south Wales will realise that it covers pretty much the entire coastline. I made one stupid decision and one sensible one. The stupid decision was to walk every inch of it; the sensible decision was to base my fees not on value but on time. That was just as well, because the capital value of such an asset is £1. Who would want to accept the liability?
That is a serious point. The wall was a hugely important physical feature for the Environment Agency, but it was also important to everyone who had an interest in the estuary. The problem for the agency was that every time one crossed a local authority boundary or a legal boundary between farms, or even when one crossed into a new wildlife trust area, the rules changed. It was impossible to have a cost-effective and cohesive policy for the sea wall along almost the entire stretch of coastline. The upshot is that it was not managed properly, and people’s businesses and livelihoods were put at risk.
We are of course sympathetic, as other Members have mentioned, to the point about the ever-increasing pressure on the wildlife asset. However, if there was ever an example of how these things pan out in reality, it is the Cardiff bay barrage. Significant sums were spent on giving migratory wild fowl preferment over the interests of farmers and residents. However, as soon as the barrage was constructed, nature adapted particularly successfully, as it often does, to the changing circumstances. Twenty years on—that is about the right time scale—there is no evidence whatever to suggest that there was a detrimental impact, particularly on migratory wild fowl in the area. The Cardiff bay barrage is a living example of a management process that involves a lot of physical alteration to the coastline, but which has no adverse effect on wildlife. We need to take careful note of the fact that it is possible in such circumstances to have your cake and eat it.
I want to revert to the point about liability and the legal point. As we proceed with the plans and with future shoreline management, we could give local authorities greater responsibility for taking such matters into account through the planning system. In addition, the legal profession may not have been particularly effective in one or two cases when it has come to undertaking searches on behalf of people purchasing properties adjacent to shorelines, to future management plans, and to attempting the impossible task of second-guessing the effects of nature over a long period.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on securing this timely debate on shoreline management plans. She began by telling us that hers is the only constituency with the word “coastal” in its name. The coast that she represents is wonderful and, indeed, has an excellent brewery, which some of us have often appreciated in the past.
Like other hon. Members, the hon. Lady has expressed her constituents’ understandable concern about the future of their shoreline. She might not have been resident in the constituency for long, but she has clearly illustrated that she has a good understanding of the issues that affect its coast. It was a great pleasure to note that she has picked up her predecessor’s environmental concerns, which she clearly expressed.
Shoreline management issues are controversial and subject to a wide variety of different views and interests. Given the nature of our geography, we in the United Kingdom have sought over many centuries to manage the natural processes, such as erosion and deposition, that affect our shoreline. However, as time has passed, and particularly over recent decades, we have grown to have a better understanding of those natural processes, the risks associated with development on our shoreline and the mechanisms available to manage that shoreline.
The diversity of our shoreline has been well illustrated by the range of hon. Members’ contributions. The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) illustrated the fact that the coastline varies greatly not only from one constituency to another, but within constituencies. As a result, the solutions that are appropriate for one part of the shoreline can be very different from those that are needed elsewhere along the shoreline, even within a constituency.
The hon. Lady referred to “Making Space For Water”, and that important publication has had a great impact on how we think about the management of our coast. She also referred to the number of studies done since the mid-1990s, when shoreline management plans were first introduced, that have looked at the broad issues relating to how we manage our shoreline. Since the introduction of those first management plans, we have seen predictions of sea level rises due to climate change increase dramatically. Those have had to be incorporated into the second generation of plans. The current defences, which may have a limited life, might not be economically, socially, technically or environmentally practical in future. Also, changes in the shoreline might require new approaches to manage future risks.
Clearly, there is no suggestion that we could abandon coastal protection altogether, but climate change is a reality, as is the tilt in our geography, and changing shorelines are to some extent inevitable. I think that we are all aware, though, that many solutions are both expensive and problematic. We are also aware—I have referred to the diversity of our shorelines—that what is appropriate in one area might not be appropriate elsewhere, or indeed in that area in future. The hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) gave an excellent example: what is appropriate in Dawlish is not necessarily appropriate in the Exe estuary. She is right to make the case for continuing the defences at Dawlish because of the railway line that they carry and all that it represents, but she is also right to draw our attention to the different solutions necessary for the nearby Exe estuary.
The purpose of shoreline management plans has been to provide a coherent, consistent and strategic approach to shoreline management. All those elements are important as we look towards the next generation of plans. It is also important to recognise that, as was intended in the beginning, there must be a partnership between local government, local communities, the Environment Agency, Natural England and the many others with an interest in how particular stretches of shoreline are managed. Since their establishment in the mid-1990s, shoreline management plans have undoubtedly had considerable success in providing such strategic, consistent and coherent approaches, but the future will bring new challenges. The hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal was right to draw our attention to the fact that it is not possible to envisage a ring of stone, as she put it, around the United Kingdom. Difficult choices will have to be made.
I hope that when the Minister replies to this debate, he will be able to reassure us about the future. It is of course important, as the hon. Lady said, to enable local communities to respond in ways that they feel are appropriate. It is also important, as the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) suggested, that there should be a degree of freedom and choice in the way forward. However, the approach to shoreline management plans must continue to be strategic. I hope that the Minister will reassure us that it will be, and that it will not simply be a matter of allowing those individuals and localities that can afford it to build defences, regardless of the impact on other stretches of coast, other communities or other individuals.
I also hope that the Minister can reassure us about something that must be of concern to all of us: the ability of the various partners to continue to play an active part in shoreline management plans. I referred to the Environment Agency and Natural England, but the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is suffering severe budget reductions, and local authorities will have to make significant reductions as well. I am not talking only about their ability to fund capital works. It is vital that the Minister reassures us about the ability of all the partners to continue to play their part in the management and maintenance of shorelines and about their ability to ensure that they have the expertise necessary to give advice and support to those who have an interest in the future management of shorelines, because the expenditure reductions taking place in DEFRA, the Environment Agency, Natural England and local authorities undoubtedly could result in the loss of the expertise that is essential to make the partnerships that are inherent in the success of shoreline management plans as successful in the future as they have been in the past.
I shall begin by congratulating, as other hon. Members have done, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on obtaining the debate. I also congratulate my many other hon. Friends who participated. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal for my presence and for the absence of the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon). I particularly apologise if she had not been forewarned that he could not be here. He is in Brussels at a Council of Fisheries Ministers meeting. That of course also affects her constituency, so I hope that she will forgive me and understand the change. I hope that she will also accept that my background was very significantly in her constituency at one time, when I was chairman of the local authority. Without getting into the “Whose is best?” debate, I can say that I am very familiar with the parts of the beautiful area to which she referred.
Almost all the hon. Members who spoke were, of course, from the eastern side of England, where the tilt is taking place and where coastal erosion is at its worst. However, I will pick up some of the specific points that were made. Shoreline management plans raise difficult issues and cause anxiety for people who are affected, especially if those plans point to the fact that, as the hon. Member for Leicester South (Sir Peter Soulsby) said, there is some inevitability about change. Sometimes we have to accept that it is not possible to maintain the status quo. That controversy in relation to the plans is also in some ways their strength. Arguably, if we did not have shoreline management plans, we would have to invent them. They were invented by the last Conservative Government in 1994; they predate the “Making Space for Water” project.
The plans provide an opportunity for local authorities at the coast, the Environment Agency and the various other bodies mentioned to explore options for the future with local communities and to clarify what they might expect from Government and what they can do for themselves. We owe it to people to be honest and open about what we can afford. I am concerned that a number of hon. Members have referred to the consultation process and pointed out inadequacies to do with second home owners, or others who may feel that they are affected but were not consulted. The consultation ought to be pretty substantial. It should run for three months, and the local authorities are required to run a range of processes to try to reach everyone, including employing coastal community engagement officers to support them. Clearly, if that is not happening, we need to pursue that, but it should be the case. I entirely agree with my hon. Friends that no one should feel excluded from the consultation.
When we are examining what we can afford, we must bear in mind the impact that a choice in one place may have on another. That might relate to the community or to the environment. There could even be an impact on coastal erosion, because sometimes if the sea is stopped in one place, it will vent itself in another. There is no doubt—this picks up the point made by the hon. Member for Leicester South—that the Government have fully recognised that flood and coastal defence is a priority. That is why spending on that defence has been largely protected in the spending review. We will be able to invest £2.1 billion over the next four years. We will protect the front-line services, such as forecasting and warning services and incident response, and prioritise the maintenance of existing defences.
It is worth referring to the fact that the threat is changing slightly. Coastal erosion has not changed, but there is now, probably as a result of climate change, an increasing incidence of flash flooding inland. We must also take that into account as part of our overall flood defence programmes. We expect to be able better to protect 145,000 households by March 2015. However, there is no getting away from the fact that times are tough, and it will be difficult to kick off new defence projects over the next couple of years.
I assure hon. Members that the Government are determined to proceed with those projects that are already well advanced. Schemes that are under way will continue and we shall protect the front-line services to which I have referred. However, it will not be affordable or sustainable to maintain the status quo everywhere on the coast, and I do not think that anyone expects otherwise. I entirely appreciate the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal that erosion is permanent. It is a pertinent point for us all to remember, but we must be honest with communities about what can and cannot be done, and provide them with sufficient information to make decisions for themselves. A generation or more of politicians in different Governments have probably given assurances about coastal defences that we have not been able to live up to, and perhaps we need to be more honest. The idea that we could always hold the line on the whole of our coastline in perpetuity was probably wrong from the outset.
I fully take the point about the need to inform homeowners about what might happen to their properties, and also the point that several hon. Members have made about the impact on agricultural land. I shall return to that in a moment. However, it does not make sense do things to manage erosion or flooding in one place without regard, as I said earlier, to the impact elsewhere. Nor is it right to give people the impression that the Government—and only Government—will pay for defences, or that they will pay for those defences if there are no realistic prospects for them.
That does not mean that people cannot take measures to protect themselves with the support of the relevant authorities. My hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal referred to the visit of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, and to work in her constituency at Bawdsey, Thorpeness and elsewhere, where a local initiative has created the means of self-help in erosion prevention. The coast has always been changing; my hon. Friend referred to a map suggesting that Cambridge could become a coastal town, and I can tell her that it once was. Much of my constituency, which is to the east of Cambridge, would not be there had it not been for flood defences. It probably would not be there if we had had to get planning permission for them, either, but never mind. There are villages in my constituency called Waterbeach, Landbeach and Reach—all names that show they were once on the coast. Some things come around again; though I hope they will not do so in my lifetime.
I want to respond to points made by hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) referred to issues affecting her patch, including the integrity of the sea wall and the railway line to Dawlish—which I, too, would like protected; it is a wonderful rail trip, and I am glad that that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), is supportive. My hon. Friend discussed Dawlish Warren and the fact that there is a hold-the-line defence until 2025, when the policy will be mixed. That gives me the opportunity to make the point that shoreline management plans are not cast in stone for ever and a day. There is an opportunity to review them every five to 10 years, so changes can be made, to reflect new local priorities or countless other occurrences. I understand my hon. Friend’s comment about the question of who is paying, with respect to the Exe estuary, and will draw it to the attention of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary.
My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) represents another area where I spent much of my earlier life—though reaching the heights of chairmanship of the county NFU is something that eluded me.
I am very grateful for that. I think that my hon. Friend will find that I was chairman of Essex Young Farmers, rather than the National Farmers Union. In those days, believe it or not, I was young. My hon. Friend also referred to the 1953 floods and the memories of them. I am probably one of the few people in the House who remembers them—just. I was a very small child at the time, living just outside Felixstowe. The flood came close to where I was living and it was horrendous. That sort of memory lives on. People will always be frightened if they have been through that awful experience.
My hon. Friend referred to the importance of agricultural land. As a Minister with responsibility for agriculture, and coming from such a background, too, I am very concerned about it. However, I accept that against someone’s home, it comes second; we must all realise that. I hope that the point I will come to in a minute about other Government proposals will reassure colleagues that it is something that we are trying to address, albeit in a different way. I take his point about the involvement of local landowners in shoreline management plans and I am very much aware of the work of Andrew St Joseph in trying to drive that forward and in generating dialogue.
My hon. Friend and one or two other hon. Members referred to the role of Natural England. Although it has a vital role to play, it is important that it adopts a more enabling and supportive role and that it recognises that other issues are involved. We are making some substantial changes to the way in which Natural England is organised and run, which I hope will make it more responsive to local needs and understanding, and I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance.
My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon also referred to the difficulty of landowners in doing maintenance work. I am not sure whether that happens just in his constituency, but an Essex farmer, who had better remain nameless, told me that he was given permission by the Environment Agency to do some maintenance work on the sea wall, which involved several hundred tonnes of stone. Natural England then came along and told him that the stone had to go in by helicopter, which stopped the process in its tracks.
Mobile homes, to which a number of hon. Friends referred, are included in the cost benefit analysis, although at a lower rate than a fixed building because they can be moved. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) referred to the issue of consultation and to the apparent priority of the habitats directive, which allows projects to go ahead, even where damage to protected sites is foreseen as a consequence. Projects that damage European protected sites can still go ahead if there are imperative reasons for overriding that public interest or if there are no alternative solutions and if necessary compensatory measures are in place.
The issue of how cost benefits are calculated, to which my hon. Friend also referred, are addressed on the DEFRA website. I will write to him with more detail, because I fully appreciate that people have a right to know. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) referred to the solidarity fund promoted by the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb). I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury, is, in principle, supportive of that, but it is a matter for local people to take forward. Although the comments from my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) cover a devolved issue, I appreciate his point about the liability aspect.
As the hon. Member for Leicester South said, no two places on the coast are the same, which is one reason why greater local involvement is necessary if we are to get this job right. The powers of consent for work rest with the local authority, except where there are certain European obligations to achieve, and then the powers rest with the Secretary of State. The House is aware that the coalition Government are determined to be the greenest Government ever, and that includes protecting and enhancing the natural environment. None the less, we need to be more creative in the way in which we serve those interests as well as meeting our international obligations and protecting agricultural land wherever possible.
Greater local involvement is at the heart of the Government’s proposed “payment for outcomes” funding approach, which we launched for public consultation last Wednesday, alongside the joint consultation with the Environment Agency of the national flood and coastal erosion risk management strategy. The consultation suggests changes to the way in which Government funding is allocated to flood and coastal defence projects. That follows recommendations by Sir Michael Pitt in his review of the 2007 flooding. The reforms aim to provide improved transparency and greater certainty over potential funding levels from the general taxpayer for every flood and coastal defence project. They will also allow local areas to have a bigger say in what is done to protect them. Over time, local ambitions on protection no longer need be constrained by what national budgets can afford, and the reforms will encourage innovative, cost-effective solutions in which civil society can play a greater role. This is about saying what the Government think the cost-benefit analysis is and, therefore, what funding might be available from Government. If that is not enough to do the work, the local community has the option to find funding to enable it to happen.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend; she makes a point that has been made many times. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury is conscious of that issue and is working with the Environment Agency to see how we can alter the situation, which I do not think necessarily means reducing the specification of what is done. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter.
The proposals to which I have just referred are subject to consultation and final decisions will be made in the spring after the consultation closes on 16 February 2011. I hope that this will mark a significant step forward in how we go about things. I think I have referred to most of the issues that hon. Members raised; if I have not or if I have answered their concerns inadequately, perhaps Members could let me know.
I referred, at the conclusion of my remarks, to the loss of staff and expertise from Natural England, the Environment Agency and local government. The Minister referred to the role of Natural England as enabling and supporting Government. Will he provide reassurance that the Department is aware if that role is to be played, Natural England needs experts to offer the support that is fundamental to making a success of the plans?
I cannot give the hon. Gentleman assurances about individuals for obvious reasons. Although, as he says, we are making significant savings across all the arms-length bodies, and within DEFRA, there is no reason why they should not retain the element of expertise to which he refers. We are trying to ensure that those arms-length bodies retain the ability do what they have to do and what Government need them to do, which includes giving scientific advice. Natural England is, after all, the statutory adviser to the Government on such issues, and it will retain that role. Where there are functions that the private or third sector can perform, we should try to make that happen. I know that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting otherwise, but those bodies have taken their fair share of the reduction in funding that we have had to make as part of dealing with the overall public deficit. I hope that I have addressed most of the issues raised by hon. Members, but if not, I am happy to write to anyone who wishes to raise an issue with me.