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Land Stability (Ironbridge Gorge)

Volume 528: debated on Tuesday 24 May 2011

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr Benton, and to see the Minister in his place. Over the past 12 months he has become used to responding to my Adjournment debates.

The Ironbridge gorge was designated as a world heritage site in 1986 and now ranks in the “Premier League” of heritage sites across the world. It is a living, working community with approximately 4,000 residents, and 200 businesses that employ about 1,500 people. The gorge attracts about 750,000 visitors per year, generating about £60 million of the £110 million annual tourist spend within the borough of Telford and Wrekin. The world heritage site includes 250 listed buildings, seven statutory ancient monuments, including the iconic iron bridge, 10 museums and two sites of special scientific interest. It is an incredibly important asset, not only for this country but for the world.

Telford and Wrekin council has been instrumental in assessing the problems of land instability in the gorge in line with the objectives of the world heritage site management plan, and it has completed a number of studies, ground investigations and stabilisation schemes in the gorge. I commend the council for its work, and I particularly want to place on record my thanks to Neal Rushton, who has worked incredibly hard on the site over recent years.

Approximately £16 million has already been spent on addressing land stability problems in the gorge. The problem is that that is not enough, and a further £80 million of investment is needed. That was identified in a cost-benefit analysis conducted by the local authority in partnership with a number of other players. The Government are aware of those studies, and have supported the approach taken by the council over recent years.

Land instability in the Ironbridge area is not a new phenomenon and dates back to the formation of the Ironbridge gorge. The geologically young valley structure is still developing through natural processes, and both sides of the gorge are gradually slipping down towards the River Severn. The local community has lived with the impact of land instability and the problems it causes for many years. That instability manifests itself in damaged roads and footpaths, collapsed retaining walls, severed services, and occasional major landslides that damage the structure of properties within the gorge.

Numerous documented landslides have occurred in the gorge over the past 250 years, and a review of various records has been carried out to collate information on the magnitude, distribution and frequency of the principal events. Those events have varied widely in location, scale and effect. Landslides have taken place throughout the gorge, from Birches Coppice in the west to Jackfield in the east. The events have occurred within undeveloped and built-up areas alike and they range from local collapses of individual retaining walls or parts of embankment slopes, to wholesale failure of large areas of valley sides. The 1773 landslide led to a total blockage of the River Severn. Where landslides have occurred in open ground, relatively little damage to property or infrastructure has occurred. In built-up areas, however, even medium and small landslides have had a significant impact, leading to the demolition of numerous properties throughout the gorge and the loss of roads and other services.

Until recently, our understanding of the nature and extent of instability in the gorge was quite limited. Over the past 10 years, however, a number of significant studies and investigations have been undertaken and have provided a much clearer understanding of the causes and pattern of land instability in the area. The work undertaken to date has included the following elements: the stabilisation of Jiggers Bank, completed in March 2002; the world heritage site land instability study, completed in February 2003; ground investigation work at Jackfield, Lloyds Head and the Lloyds in January 2005; the Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale ground behaviour study in January 2005; and the production in 2004 of an emergency plan in conjunction with the emergency services and other agencies aimed at addressing worst-case scenarios. That plan is regularly reviewed and updated. The latest version was produced in 2010 and was used in a multi-agency exercise in the gorge in November of that year.

An instability pack outlining the issues in relation to the world heritage site was distributed to residents of the area, and part of the council’s webpage is dedicated to redistributing updates about what is happening in the gorge. That has been taking place since February 2005. There was a three-day drop-in session to raise awareness of the issue among members of the public and to provide an opportunity to ask questions. That, too, took place in February 2005.

Ongoing surface and subsurface monitoring is examining the speed, amount and direction of movement. That work has been under way since 2001. Stabilisation of the Lloyds phase 1 site, a 165-metre-long section of Lloyds road in the vicinity of Lloyds cottage, which was the site deemed to be at greatest risk, was completed in August 2007. Stabilisation of the Lloyds phase 2 site, adjacent to Lloyds phase 1, was completed in December 2008, as was stabilisation of the Lloyds Head site, on the opposite side of the river to Lloyds phase 1 and 2, where ground movement in April 2007 led to closure of the road. Stabilisation of a local landslide at the Wynd, Coalport road, following a period of excessive rainfall, was completed in December 2008. Additional ground investigation and the installation of monitoring instruments in the immediate area around the iron bridge and within Jackfield was also carried out at that time.

It is important to understand that we have carried out a comprehensive assessment, involving a range of partner agencies, of what is happening in the gorge and we have taken strategic steps to improve the situation as funding has become available. We now need additional resource to carry out further work to protect the world heritage site and properties on the site and to ensure that we continue to have a strong and vibrant community in the gorge.

I am pleased to say that a dialogue has remained open and positive between Government Departments and the council and that a plan for future work has been developed and an estimate prepared, identifying a need for further works with a total cost of about £80 million. That would address and manage the issue immediately and within the coming 10 to 15 years. The plan reflects the risk assessments and recommendations in the reports completed to date.

So what do we need to do next? As I said, approximately £16.7 million has already been spent to address instability in the gorge, but there is currently no funding to carry out any further investigation or remedial works. I believe that the Government have a responsibility to ensure that we have investment in the gorge to sustain the world heritage site and the community that lives there. We are signatories to the UNESCO world heritage site convention, which requires the Government to ensure that that site is protected. It falls to the Government, in partnership with the council, to produce proposals to ensure that further ground stabilisation works are undertaken.

I think that, based on the investigations and monitoring carried out to date, and in line with the cost-benefit analysis, the council believes that the Jackfield area and, in particular, Salthouse road needs to be the next area targeted for remedial works. That area is showing the greatest movement. I think that the Minister knows the area. If he drives along the road, he will find that it is more like a rollercoaster than a road, because the movement is so significant. In some areas of the gorge, service pipes must be laid overground rather than underground, because fracturing of service pipes would be so extensive if the pipework were laid underground that it would have to be dug up again and maintained within months. We are talking about serious levels of movement and a serious impact on the gorge and the lives of the people who live there.

There is significant structural damage in the Jackfield area. That has occurred over many decades. I understand that the budget for that first element of work would be about £20 million. It would be very good if we could start to see progress on the first phase of work down at Jackfield. Clearly, we would need to have further discussions with the Government about where we should go over the coming years. I am quite open about this. I have no axe to grind in terms of which Government are in power. I have been campaigning on the issue for a number of years as the local MP. It is the kind of issue that we bring up as a local Member of Parliament, a constituency MP, because it is important to our community.

It is interesting that we have had several ministerial visits over the years. We have had a positive dialogue with Government. That is why we have already seen significant investment in the area. What we need to do now is to work together in partnership. I raise this, and I look directly to the Minister, in a spirit of partnership: we need to get this right not just for the residents of the gorge, but for the future of the nation in terms of protecting its world heritage sites.

Land instability constitutes a major risk to the fabric of the gorge and a risk to the health and safety of inhabitants of the area and visitors alike. Immediate investment is needed to implement a series of stabilisation schemes along with further investigation and monitoring to deal with the problems proactively. The cost-benefit analysis evidences the appropriateness of such an approach and the financial benefit to be gained by being proactive. Further funding is needed now. We have a duty, collectively, to protect that environment not just for the residents who live there now—although clearly that is very important—but for future generations who will want to visit the gorge and live in it in the years to come.

I thank the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) for raising an important issue and for the manner in which he has done so. He is right to say that he and I have had the pleasure of debating the issue before—and it is a pleasure to be able to do so again this afternoon with you in the Chair, Mr Benton. The only thing that is not a pleasure to me and the only thing on which I will take issue with the hon. Gentleman is his admittedly accurate description of Ironbridge gorge as being in the premier league of world heritage sites. He will know full well that I am a West Ham supporter and that was a particularly painful analogy for him to have drawn, albeit an accurate one in terms of the importance of Ironbridge gorge. It is a huge asset to this country, and the phrase that he used accurately describes its standing. The Government wish to see it preserved as much as anyone, because it is an immensely valuable part of our national heritage.

The hon. Gentleman set out the history and background in a characteristically well informed way. We are on common ground when it comes to the importance of the gorge and of finding a resolution to what is a difficult problem because it is ongoing and arises from geological causes that are not easy for any individual agency to deal with. He rightly set out the significance of the gorge. I will not repeat in detail what he said, but he was absolutely right to refer not only to its world heritage site status, but to its importance to the local and the wider economy in terms of jobs, its status as a significant attraction and its considerable tourism potential. We take that point very seriously.

It is right to observe that the gorge has suffered from and continues to experience land instability. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for setting out in some detail the history of the problems that have arisen. By their very nature, they are the responsibility of a number of Departments and agencies. The landholdings in the world heritage site are diverse. Some are in the public sector—some were originally inherited from the old Telford development corporation, some are with the Homes and Communities Agency and others are with the borough council—and others are privately owned. However, the geological problem that causes the problem is no respecter of who owns the land, nor of the statutory responsibilities of particular agencies. A cross-agency approach is particularly important in this instance, and I concede that it sometimes requires more behind-the-scenes work to get a proper alignment, but the Government are committed to achieving that.

I realise that threats of this kind are sometimes beyond the means of the local communities where such sites are located, and the hon. Gentleman made that point fairly. Equally, one cannot simply say that the whole of the problem should pass to the Government. We have therefore been working constructively, as the hon. Gentleman said, with the local council to find together an achievable solution.

The position is this. We are now at a stage where it is realised that a programme of work needs to be undertaken over a number of years. As the hon. Gentleman said, that is because it is a comparatively new geological feature and ground movement continues all the time. He rightly identified the associated problem of flooding as well as that of land instability. It has therefore been necessary to undertake a thorough technical evaluation and stabilisation programme. The scientists advise that it is unlikely that we will find a complete solution because of the geological youth of the area, but we can do much, working together, to mitigate the worst of the risks.

My Department is charged with co-ordinating the Government’s response and has been in regular touch with Telford and Wrekin council. It considers that the risk of land instability and the resultant flooding continues to be serious, particularly the risk of a slip into the Severn and consequent damage to life and property. Initial estimates suggest that some £80 million over a period of years will be required to carry out the stabilisation works that are believed to be necessary. In consequence of that, the previous Government commissioned consultants to study the matter. They concluded that although the risk of an imminent major event was not high the risk nevertheless remained, and it is exacerbated by the continuing ground movement and the heavy rain and flooding to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

The scientific conclusion is that, without stabilisation, the gorge would suffer a major slippage, but the complex factors involved make it difficult accurately to predict the timing. It has therefore been recommended that the problem should be addressed through a structured implementation plan, using a risk-based approach; that will be supported by a rolling programme, with a smaller-scale investment of approximately £50 million at a rate of about £2.5 million to £5 million over the next 10 to 20 years. There is a commitment to dealing with the stabilisation programme.

The assessment by the consultants and partners clearly shows that the problem of instability creates a threat to homes and lives, to the local transport infrastructure and to the integrity of the world heritage site and tourism. The designation of the gorge as a world heritage site means that there is a requirement for action to be taken to conserve and protect the site. The range and mix of impacts has required us to adopt a cross-departmental approach. In that respect, one difficulty is intervening to get the appropriate agencies to work together. We seek to bring the various legitimate interests together.

As part of the comprehensive spending review, the interdepartmental working group considered the matter. It recently finalised its assessment, and the Treasury has agreed to contribute to further land stabilisation works in the gorge on behalf of the Government, via my Department. The proposal is that it should be done on a shared funding basis, with the Government funding 60% and the local authority 40%. It is a condition of the funding that it is directed to the highest priority needs, based on independent scientific and technical assessments.

Senior officials from my Department spoke to councillors shortly before the local elections, but because of the local government purdah period there has been a hiatus in activity. There was a meeting between departmental officials and the previous leader of the council and its chief executive, which was very constructive. Despite the change of control in Telford and Wrekin, I assure the hon. Gentleman that my officials stand ready to meet the new leader of the council and his team, the chief executive and appropriate officers to continue those discussions. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, there is no party interest; we want to see the matter resolved regardless of any party political considerations. So far, the Government and the council have dealt with everything on exactly that basis, and we stand ready to continue in the same manner.

To access the funding, we need to see a proposal from Telford and Wrekin council that meets those conditions. I understand that the annual meeting of the council to form a new administration takes places on 26 May, and I am sure that the new administration will make it a priority to contact the Department. We are happy to progress as swiftly as we can.

It is good news to hear that the Government are looking to come forward with a funding package. There are clearly difficulties with local authority expenditure, and there is great pressure on the local authority’s budget. I hope that the Minister will confirm that over the coming months the council can consider how to find matched funding or how it can phase such funding, given the assets that the council controls, to find something that will work. I hope that he is willing to have a dialogue with us about how it might be put together. I welcome the Government’s general commitment that the problem has to be dealt with, but we need to consider the nuts and bolts of paying for it.

The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly fair point. My officials, and I if necessary, will be happy to discuss the details of matched funding. I welcome the willingness that the council has shown in engaging in that discussion. We accept that these are exceptional circumstances, and it is right that the Government should make a contribution; it is obviously sensible to have matched funding, and I am more than happy to talk about the most constructive way forward.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that we have endeavoured to respond constructively. It is always frustrating for those involved in such situations that councils and the Department have to go through such lengthy technical appraisals, but they are necessary to ensure the right outcome. The commitment of working together and sharing the objectives and costs can offer a stable and deliverable way forward, and we all wish to see this unique site protected and preserved. We are happy to continue working in a constructive manner with the hon. Gentleman, other local Members of Parliament and local councillors.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.