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Flooding (Steart)

Volume 521: debated on Wednesday 12 January 2011

I am very grateful that I have the chance to debate the issue of flooding on the Steart peninsula in the Bridgwater and West Somerset constituency. If hon. Members fail to recognise the name, they should fear not: Steart is a small, flat place at the mouth of the River Parrett, where the river trickles into the Bristol channel. They should remember the name; I promise that at the close of this short debate, Steart will be engraved indelibly on all our hearts.

We are talking about 1,000 hectares of land, much of which is below high-water level at spring tide. That is, and always has been, the nature of this extreme corner of the Somerset levels. The village of Steart is near the tip of the peninsula, less than a mile and a half east of the villages of Stockland Bristol, Combwich and Otterhampton. The seaward fringe is generally higher than it is inland, and has a gravel and sand formation, which is possibly the old barrier beach. The Romans, believe it or not, did a pretty good job of preventing the sea from stealing the land.

Records show that the Steart coastline and the River Parrett have often changed position. Nature has been playing a muddy game of musical chairs for hundreds of years, and in the 1700s the Steart peninsula was cut off from the mainland altogether. Even today, the Parrett’s low water channel regularly shifts. Steart’s defences now rely on what was built back in the 1950s. A lot of money was spent and the system creaks, but it works. The defences still, of course, need maintaining, and this is where the story comes of age.

The people now paid to maintain flood defences for Steart are in that all-singing, all-dancing quango the Environment Agency. Hon. Members will gather that I am not a great fan of the body. It employs thoroughly decent and talented people locally, with whom I believe I have a good relationship, but the top tiers at head office have begun to believe their own glowing publicity, and all too often come across as a bunch of cocksure know-it-alls.

With permission, I shall read the opening statement of a consultation document on the Steart peninsula that the agency published last year. I am sure that the Minister would like to hear this—it sounds like a glossy TV advert. It ought to be read by an oily voiced actor, with uplifting music in the background, but I am afraid that hon. Members will just have to use their imagination:

“We are The Environment Agency.”—

pause for a drum roll, followed by close-up shots of smiling families gazing up at the agency’s queasy green logo—

“It’s our job to look after your environment and make it a better place—for you, and for future generations.”

In case this is all too emotional, I shall of course pass tissues around to the ladies.

“Your environment is the air you breathe, the water you drink and the ground you walk on.”

Someone must have been paid to write this patronising drivel—I do not know who.

“Working with business, Government and society as a whole, we are making your environment cleaner and healthier…The Environment Agency. Out there, making your environment a better place.”

Terrifying. They could have fooled the people of Steart, and me!

The Environment Agency’s name is, literally, mud in my neck of the woods. Just before Christmas, it bunged in a planning application to build an experimental flood bank on the Steart peninsula. Putting in a planning application just before Christmas is rather reminiscent of a Chancellor publishing his Budget by means of a written question on a Friday afternoon—we have had experience of that. The Environment Agency was trying to slip something nasty under the radar. Apparently, it wants to test a long-term idea for a huge permanent structure to see if it would work. One would think that, with all its boasts of making the world a better place, it would have actually done some scientific work, and at least calculated the risks in a laboratory. Bridge builders do not build experimental bridges across rivers just to see if they will work. But, we should never forget that the Environment Agency loves spending money—our money.

The agency’s long-term dream is to spend £28 million of taxpayers’ money, sinking it all into a scheme that will not protect Steart from the sea at all. That amount would buy the new hospital that we desperately need, and have been waiting for, in Bridgwater, or it could be used to complete the two schools in my constituency on which the Government have pulled the plug. But the Environment Agency wants us to earmark that sort of big money to sink the Steart peninsula for ever, and for an extravagant, cockeyed reason it now wants to indulge in a trial run.

I must quote what the agency wrote in support of its application—it is absolutely marvellous:

“We have carried out an initial site investigation,”—


“which has shown that the foundation soils are weak and highly compressible, making ground conditions less than ideal for a simple embankment construction. In order to progress the design, it is necessary to obtain more information”.

It has been looking at this for only 20 years. It wants to build an embankment 150 metres long, four metres high and 53 metres wide, just to check whether it works. Either that is lunacy, or those responsible come from Essex. Hon. Members will appreciate my constituents’ fury. My constituents know the place and actually live there, unlike most of those in the Environment Agency. They understand the challenge of farming the land and, I am afraid, the real hazards of the incoming sea. This so-called temporary embankment will actually increase the risk of flooding, but I reckon that that is what the Environment Agency wants anyway. The truth about the agency’s real ambition is buried in its consultation document, some sickly bits of which I have quoted. Wading through the twaddle, we get to the nub:

“There is a significant need for additional intertidal habitat on the Severn Estuary to meet the Environment Agency's international obligations and offset losses due to coastal squeeze.”

“Coastal squeeze” is a great phrase—it sounds like a dodgy woman.

A bit of the document is not in plain English, so I will try to make it easier for everyone to understand—my apologies, of course, to hon. Members. The Environment Agency is running scared of Europe; I hope that the Minister is not. One does not have to be a geographer to know that Brussels is a long way from the briny. But, surprise surprise, the busy bureaucrats have come up with a plan to interfere with everyone who lives by the sea. The Commissioners are also extremely partial to sea birds. They have invented a policy that basically says, “Let nature do its worst. It doesn’t matter. Come on, Noah—where are you? Every flood is good news for the buff-breasted sandpiper.” I have severe doubts about the sanity of this so-called European obligation. I am also slightly dubious about this love affair with sea birds. It is extremely rare to see any sort of bird in Europe. Europeans tend to shoot everything that flies, and then eat it. It is much better for them if a long-billed dowitcher turns up in a pâté served in Brussels at €150 a plate. However, these days even the most craven Eurocrat bird-killer has to pretend that they love birds, and to watch them fly.

So, we have now been lumbered with a law, and the Minister will, no doubt, have carefully worded responses that say what a good thing it is—that the law is marvellous and right. Given, dare I say it, the Minister’s Eurosceptic credentials—I know him well—I will raise my eyebrows in disbelief if that is what happens during his speech, as, I suspect, might his colleagues. The wretched rules make it almost impossible for the Environment Agency to defend our country from floods—so what is the point of it? If the agency decides to build new defences in one part of the country, it has to take them away from another. Guess what? The agency has identified the Steart peninsula as just the sort of place where no one will notice. Well, they might have not noticed so far, but they jolly well will now.

The whole proposal is complete nonsense. The agency is trying to convince us that spending £28 million on a bird sanctuary will be cheaper and more effective than maintaining the existing flood defences. It did not do economics. That fatuous argument is plain wrong and totally dishonest. The agency’s consultation document offers three alternatives: first, do nothing and wait for the tide to come in—like a civil servant; secondly, do the bare minimum and hope that the tide does not come in; and thirdly, do something drastic and flood the whole place deliberately. The agency really gets excited when it comes to “drastic” action—it loves that word. There are pages and pages in its consultation document about the alleged advantages of letting the sea take over:

“Creating wetland habitats will provide benefits, not only for people who live on the peninsula and visitors but also for birds, fish and other wildlife. The natural, open landscape will be very different to the present farmland and will reflect the peninsula's character before it was reclaimed during historic times.”

Those who wrote those last words obviously went to a very dodgy secondary school. We do not have to read between the lines to be sure of one thing: the Environment Agency is absolutely determined to flood Steart and, disgracefully, it has held that view for years. It conducted costly consultation back in 2002, before the Minister was even elected to Parliament. Guess what, it came up with a scheme to create an elaborate wetland habitat. Does that ring any bells? I am sure it does. But one thing stood in its way—it could not raise the readies.

Six years later the pathetic plan was back on the agenda, this time because the Bristol Port Company—this gets better—wanted to extend the Avonmouth container terminal so that even bigger ships can crash into it. One might think that that had nothing to do with Steart down the road, except for those inflexible European rules, which put birds above people. Suddenly, abracadabra, the Bristol Port Company remembered its mates at the Environment Agency, and settled on Steart.

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this matter to the Chamber on behalf of his constituents and the habitat. He has concerns about the plans for Steart, but does he appreciate that Bristol Port Company’s plans for deep sea containers will provide 500 direct jobs and over 1,000 indirect jobs in transport and logistics, and will put the UK on a completely different footing when it comes to imports and exports? The port has said that it will work specifically with local people, and that its plans are separate from those of the Environment Agency.

That is the most weaselly thing I have ever heard from a port company—not from my hon. Friend who speaks with the best direction from her constituents. Fine. I am speaking for mine. Why do I care if a company claims a benefit for Bristol? What difference does that make to me? Some weaselly woman turned up to tell me what is happening, saying, “Don’t worry. Your little people will be okay. We are going to flood your area. We won’t give you anything for it, but it will be good, although we won’t allow visitors.” Come on. Bristol Port Company is dodgy. It is much better at complaining about pylons in front of the chief executive’s house than about container ports. I do not need a lecture.

We all thought that we had got rid of it, but next week it will be back in earnest. The Bristol Port Company will roll into the village of Otterhampton a week today with the first of a series of public meetings to tell the locals about its exciting plans or—dare I say it?—push them to accept its exciting plans, whatever form they may take. It is in league with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and, guess what, another totally useless quango, Natural England, our friends. I am delighted to say—I thank the Minister for this—that the Government will clip its ridiculous wings as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, wing clipping may be too late for Steart. The Environment Agency has submitted its planning application for that huge tidal flood bank. The Bristol Port Company intends to apply for planning permission to flood an enormous chunk of land on the other side of the road near Steart later this year. All that Steart will get out of that is a pile of bird droppings and an invasion of twitchers.

I am listening to my hon. Friend with interest. Across the south-west we have huge problems. I have a similar issue with coastal erosion in Dawlish, and I share my hon. Friend’s concern that we need some conclusion on what is right and what is not. I agree that people are certainly more important than birds. Above all, we need some certainty, and I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that we need the Minister to agree what plans will be approved and what will not, particularly in Teignmouth where we want a flood defence scheme, which we really need, as opposed to the scheme in my hon. Friend’s constituency which sounds as though it is not needed.

My hon. Friend has encompassed the problem in a nutshell. The organisation is out of control, and does not care about people or anything, except its little friends who live in Essex and who will do whatever they want to do. It is up to people like us to stop that, and to make companies such as the Bristol Port Company realise that we are not a load of hicks who live in the country. I totally agree with my hon. Friend, who does her constituents a great service in bringing the matter to the attention of the House.

It is about time the Minister and Bristol Port Company considered compensation. A big infrastructure plan such as this requires a generous kick-back for those on the ground. How about some planning gain? Even Bristol Port Company is not talking about that. Unfortunately there are not enough people on the Steart peninsula to kick up sufficient fuss, but a fuss really needs to be made, and I am sorry to say to the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) that I am going to put my boots on and start kicking.

The Environment Agency's latest consultation exercise has burned about £60,000 of public money. The Minister may be about to tell us how popular the scheme is, but I warn him to consider his words carefully—I know that they have been drafted for him. Bodies such as the Environment Agency are, of course, obliged by law to consult, and rightly so, but the fact that few people respond to a consultation does not mean that the plans are popular. We all know how that has been got round in the past. Perhaps the Minister would like to know how many people answered the Environment Agency’s consultation questionnaire. This is important stuff, even for Bristol Port Company. Five thousand consultees would have cost a tenner a head. A bargain. But if there were only 500 responses, the cost would have been about £150. But there were not 500, 50 or even five replies. The Environment Agency had replies from—wait for it—three people. Why? People do not trust the Environment Agency and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) said, they do not think it worth the effort to reply as the proposal will be steamrollered through by Europe.

The cost works out at £20,000 per respondent—£20,000. It is cheaper having the Bristol ports up the road. Why do people not bother to participate? I have an idea—they do not trust those involved. They see an overgrown jungle of interfering regulators who have been trying to do this for 10 years, who squander their money, and who do not listen. Everyone knows—this is not rocket science—that these are hard times for Great Britain plc. Around the country, we are bracing ourselves for cutbacks, job losses and austerity. They have started. We are supposed to be in this together, not individually, but the Environment Agency seems to assume that it has some special exemption. It has come to believe in fairy gold. The estimated cost of its plan to flood a corner of my constituency is £28 million of our money, and that is a disgrace, never mind what Bristol Port Company will spend. Our nation cannot afford that. There are more important priorities, and the Minister—he really needs to listen—should stop the project dead in its tracks before we have a real disaster.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) on securing this debate, and other hon. Friends who have contributed. I will try to address their points also.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset spoke with passion on behalf of his constituency, but I must consider the wider issues, not just the national budgets that we provide to the Environment Agency and other organisations, but also the Severn estuary. The scheme has many positive points. It is the only viable way that the Government can continue to provide defences and secure access to the village of Steart while meeting our environmental objective for the estuary.

The Severn estuary is one of our most important wildlife areas, as well as a great economic asset. It has more than 200 km of coastal defences, which will provide in excess of £5 billion of benefits over time to more than 100,000 residential and commercial properties. The shoreline management plan highlights the need to maintain and improve most of those defences. However, a consequence is that there will be a substantial loss of internationally designated intertidal habitat. Our investment prioritisation process is focused principally on protecting people and property and that is where the vast majority of our money is spent. However, we must acknowledge that what we do to protect people and property has an impact on the natural environment, and that must be taken into account.

My hon. Friend keeps referring to £28 million, but the figure I have is £20 million. That may have an element of semantics, but it is a considerable sum. I assure him that I do not easily agree to spending £20 million in this or any climate. Every penny should count, and I have looked carefully into the matter. We will continue to invest in defence in the Severn estuary, despite the impact on the natural environment, because of the imperative reasons for doing so. That is permitted under the EC habitats directive as long as appropriate compensatory habitat is secured. Our plans to manage and improve the defences therefore depend on sufficient compensatory habitat being secured before the protected habitat is lost due to the flood defence construction work.

There has already been a loss in the Severn estuary, and without the Steart scheme we would fail to maintain the integrity of that protected Natura 2000 site. My hon. Friend may rail against Europe, but frankly, whether we are in Europe or not, I and the Government value what is set out in the Natura 2000 directive, and my hon. Friend should value it if he minds about the valuable asset that is the natural environment in the Severn estuary.

The EU habitats directive, together with the birds directive, forms the cornerstone of Europe’s nature conservation policy to maintain or restore natural habitats and the population of species of wild fauna and flora at a favourable conservation status, and is a key element in the EU’s commitment to halt the loss of biodiversity within the EU by 2020. That is also a firm priority of the Government. With that in mind, I now turn to the Steart scheme. Steart village and peninsula are currently protected by more than 12 km of flood defences. Beyond the short term it will not be economically viable or sustainable to maintain existing defences. To do so would cost in the region of £1 million per property.

The issue has been considered in the shoreline management plan, which highlighted the peninsula as a place where the managed realignment of the defence provides the best option for continuing to protect the village and its access as well as creating habitat to offset the impact of crucial work elsewhere in the area. Indeed, Steart has been identified as the most cost-effective place in the estuary for habitat creation without geomorphic side effects such as adjacent erosion. The twin objectives of the project are therefore to create the habitat we need and protect the village and its access. It forms a vital part of an integrated and sustainable coastal management solution for the Severn estuary. It will provide the only foreseeable opportunity to improve flood protection to Steart drove, the only access route to Steart village. It will help to maintain the existing standard of protection and the new defences can be expected to last longer than the current defences. If my hon. Friend claims that what is happening is just about the habitats directive and just about providing wetland for birds, that is not correct. It is about providing flood protection for his constituents and access to a community that would otherwise be cut off at high tides, or because of further erosion.

As my hon. Friend said, the Environment Agency has carried out extensive consultations, and I understand that the majority of the local residents strongly support the proposals and recognise the flood risk management benefits that the scheme would bring. I hear what my hon. Friend says about the response to the Environment Agency consultation, and I am always happy to consider how consultations are carried out and why there is such a low response rate. One reason could be that people are quite in favour of the scheme. I received a copy of a letter to my hon. Friend from the parish council, which seems to be very supportive of the scheme. There is an organisation called the Steart residents group, headed by Dr Phillip Edwards, who wrote a letter to the local paper. He said that

“while the SRG may not have always seen eye-to-eye with the Environment Agency over all aspects of the scheme, the EA’s staff have demonstrated throughout the last three years of work and consultations the highest levels of professional integrity and technical proficiency”.

He goes on to talk about the value of the scheme, and the group’s opposition to my hon. Friend’s opposition.

I cannot second-guess the exact level of support or otherwise for the scheme, but I assure my hon. Friend that we do not feel that we are trampling on the views of local people. I understand that a number of people want it.

I want to suggest that the Minister’s Department should let me have the information about who has replied. Secondly, the gentleman that he mentioned—I was going to mention this myself—spends most of the year with the UN; and he is one person, who has set something up with no one else. I must gently tell the Minister that what he read out is not the case. If he would let me have the relevant information, I am more than happy to discuss it with him, and with the people concerned.

One of the two references I made was to the local paper, so presumably the hon. Gentleman can get access to that: I am happy to give him the copy I received. The second reference was to a letter to my hon. Friend from the parish council, which was copied to Otterhampton parish council. I cannot second-guess how many members the Steart residents group has, but the fact is I get a different impression of opinion from the hon. Gentleman’s.

Perhaps I may touch on points made by other hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) is a redoubtable campaigner on behalf of her constituents for flood alleviation in her constituency. I can barely move in this building without having my collar felt by her, in her determination to raise that issue. I can only assure her that we shall make available all the information about what schemes will go ahead in the near future and, under the payment for outcomes scheme, what options are left to her constituents to gear in other funding if theirs is not in the top flight of schemes. That will give clarity to her constituents about what is required for the schemes to go ahead. I cannot give her any information, because I do not have any about that scheme.

I have considerable sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie), because I recognise the importance of Bristol docks. I do not dismiss them, as they are an important local employer and a major hub of activity that is vital to us as an importing and exporting country and to the wider benefit of the Bristol area. I recognise that we are dealing with something that relates to the Severn estuary, its entire ecosystem and habitats and, importantly, the people and jobs that come from that part of the country.

In conclusion, the proposed scheme is not only the most cost-effective habitat compensation to enable the Severn estuary flood risk management strategy to move forward; it also offers improved flood protection to the local area. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset for raising the matter. He has made me much better educated about it because I have spent a considerable time preparing for the debate, and I listened with interest to his enjoyable remarks.

I hope that what I have said has helped to highlight to my hon. Friend the need to manage flood risk in ways that protect people and property and deliver good value for money to the taxpayer, but also meet our environmental obligations. If we do not do that, we cannot legally improve flood protection elsewhere in the estuary. If we did it without compensatory works, that would leave the taxpayer liable to fines from Europe. That is not something that I have the power to avoid, and no hon. Member should be happy for it to happen, because we are in strapped financial circumstances. If we did nothing we would also lose valuable habitat and all that that offers to us as a society. Our emphasis is always on working with nature, wherever possible, to reduce the risks to people while also meeting social and environmental objectives.

Sitting suspended.