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Steart Point

Volume 533: debated on Tuesday 18 October 2011

It is nice to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Chope, and I am sure that you will keep your hands warm.

I am grateful for the chance again to debate Steart in my constituency, although I am actually also disappointed that we are debating the matter again. In January this year, I stood, I think on this very spot, to deliver a robust speech on the shortcomings of the Environment Agency, the body responsible for many things in my constituency, including flood prevention. At the time, the agency had concluded a ridiculously expensive consultation exercise to try to convince local people of the merits of a long-term plan. It basically wanted to flood Steart peninsula and create a new habitat for visiting sea birds, and it intended to spend a shed load of public money—roughly £28 million—to do that. I believed then, as I do now, that that would be the wrong thing to do.

For a while in the aftermath of the original debate, and prompted by the common-sense attitude of the Minister, there appeared to be an outbreak of sanity and a chance for a sensible conclusion to the matter. Just a few weeks ago, the Minister kindly wrote to me and two of my colleagues who represent neighbouring constituencies—my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) and my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox). He had quite rightly called in the Environment Agency to discuss the concerns about the Severn flood risk management project, of which Steart is a part. In the letter, the Minister said:

“The Environment Agency is now reflecting on the response to its public consultations and reviewing its initial proposals”.

That was a great relief to the three of us. The meaning of a review, which the Minister referred to quite clearly, is crystal clear in my book—it means a fresh look. However, just a few days later, a briefing note was sent to me directly from the agency, which seemed to completely contradict the Minister’s words. It said:

“Steart Peninsula is not a location which is under review”.

The author had even underlined the word “not”. That is extraordinary, and it prompts a number of serious questions about the credibility and trustworthiness of the agency.

My constituents need and want to know what is going on. I am forced to conclude that the Environment Agency is suffering from delusions of grandeur. It regards itself as guardian of the planet—we know that anyway—with its dangerous mixture of King Canute and old mother nature, pushing back the tide and issuing pompous decrees all the time. It is, as the Minister knows, unelected, untouchable and, in many cases, unloved. It does not seem to take any notice of Ministers, and I am afraid that it is not just the Minister here, but former Ministers. Perhaps it has a hotline to God? I do not know. It certainly has a hotline to Brussels, which of course you, Mr Chope, are a fan of. Brussels has vested it with enormous legal powers to flood perfectly good land. The agency behaves rather like Judge Solomon. It thinks that if natural coastal erosion is to be stopped in one place, territorial sacrifices must be made in another, and it decides whose fields go under water.

What worries me more than anything is the methods that the agency uses. The plan to flood Steart is not new—it has been on the cards for well over a decade—and the agency has got thus far by a relentless drip, drip, drip process. For nine years, it has argued that Steart should be returned to the sea. It operates on the principle that if it keeps saying the same thing, sooner or later someone will believe it.

Hon. Members may be surprised to learn that the Environment Agency is also a fearsome land-grabber, quite capable—I say this advisedly—of using dirty tricks on unsuspecting victims. Several years ago, the agency started buying up real estate in and around Steart, which is fair enough. One farmer was approached and warned that if he did not sell up straight away, there would be a compulsory purchase order later. That has now gone from one farmer to a few farmers. In my book, that is sharp practice, bordering on—again, I say this advisedly—blackmail. At the time, the plans were not even finalised and there had not been proper consultation. Yet the agency made threats and bought people out at a fraction of even today’s prices. I only wish that those people had approached me, as their MP, before they signed up.

I have never seen a compelling scientific argument for flooding Steart, and I doubt whether one exists. The agency makes all sorts of woolly comparisons with how the coast is being protected on the Welsh side of the Severn estuary to justify letting in the tide to do its worst beyond Otterhampton and Stockland. It calls that approach “realigning defences”, which in Steart’s case means not bothering to defend anything. I fear that the Steart peninsula has been picked because it is under-populated, low-lying and has a history of getting wet. It is the sort of place that the agency thinks that it can get away with quietly drowning. Well, we have some news for the Environment Agency, because Steart is not going under without a struggle.

There is another player in this strange tale of mystery, myths and half-truths, which is the Bristol Port Company. Bristol is 40 miles north of Steart, but the firm that runs the port is now pouring cash into Steart, and one might be forgiven for wondering why. The port has big ambitions. It wants to attract huge container vessels, and it needs to build a deep-water terminal to load and unload them—there are no problems there. However, the Bristol Port Company has had an eye on European law and directives. It will need to remove a section of the Severn estuary coastline, which the law says must be replaced by flooding some other unsuspecting place. Therefore, the Bristol Port Company rolled into Steart, with —I say this openly—cheesy grins and cheque books at the ready.

The Environment Agency did not mind, because having the company on board seemed to help its case a little. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Wetlands Trust, and even Natural England jumped on board, promising a brave new world for Bristol’s homeless buff-breasted sandpipers. “Come to sunny Steart,” they squawked. “All you need is a beak and a few feathers.”

Unfortunately, locally, the argument does not hold much water. The Bristol Port Company may have secured planning permission to dig up the sea shore for its new deep-water terminal, but it has not raised the vast sums of money needed to pay for the work. The company does not own Bristol port, but leases it from the city council. Do not tell anyone here, but now is not a good time for raising capital on the scale the company is going to need. Most investors require a firm guarantee of returns, and a leased port is not good.

There is a clear question mark hanging over the new development. If that question mark remains in Bristol, there must be serious questions about Steart, too. The case for flooding Steart depends on scientific evidence, which the Environment Agency cannot produce, and on the loss of a wetland habitat in Bristol, which has not been lost, because the container port will be built on a man-made structure. In other words, the Steart flood plan is based on protecting birds that have not been evicted at all.

I have two words for the Environment Agency and the Bristol Port company: get busted, the pair of them. If Steart were flooded, it would drive away rare, large birds. The great bustard is one of our locals. The birds were once hunted—we were talking about badgers just now—to the point of extinction and were reintroduced only seven years ago. Now there are bustards that winter on the Somerset levels and drop in and out of Steart from time to time.

The Environment Agency believes that it has a legal obligation to flood Steart because of coastal erosion elsewhere. The only thing that the Steart plan has in its favour is the fact that it has been dressed up to look like a plan—and a bad one at that. The agency admits:

“Without this scheme we will not be able to develop measures to manage flood risk to people and property elsewhere around the Severn Estuary.”

In other words, it will be up the Parrett without a paddle if it does not flood Steart. However, I find it hard to believe that there are no viable alternatives, which brings me back to where I began. The Minister believes that the agency is reviewing its plans, but the agency believes that it is doing no such thing—certainly not with Steart.

There is a worrying lack of clarity, which I gently urge the Minister to address. The Environment Agency and the Bristol Port Company intend to apply to the district councils of Sedgemoor and West Somerset for permission to flood Steart. We already know that the Agency intends to spend roughly £28 million on its share of the operation. Remember, we are talking about public money here, and this is at a time when all other public money is rightly subject to the most clinical accounting procedures. Why on earth has the agency escaped the axe on this proposal? The scale of expenditure is far too high at a time when the nation is feeling the pinch.

Somerset is already losing libraries, and some of my local schools really need refurbishing, which we cannot do. We also urgently need a new hospital and a road to take construction traffic to Hinkley Point, which is our nuclear power station. I am sure that this is not the right moment to embark on flooding Steart.

I also invite the Minister to address the subject of planning gain. That is part and parcel of the planning process in which authorities such as the Environment Agency are obliged to provide compensation to communities. What will local people get out of the scheme? The agency has said:

“Creating wetland habitats will provide benefits, not only for people who live on the peninsula but also for birds, fish and other wildlife.”

Such a twee vision would have made more sense coming from the lips of Tinky Winky, Dipsy, La-La or Po. The agency, which trots out such drivel, is meant to be staffed by experts. In reality, the only thing that Steart will get out of the flood plan is a huge pile of bird droppings and, hopefully, an invasion of twitchers.

The Environment Agency has bullied landowners and it is now contradicting the Minister. Its reputation in my constituency is not good at the best of times. The danger is that some of the mud will rub off on my hon. Friend the Minister, because there is an enormous amount of misunderstanding. I invite the Minister to think about his response. Many people in my constituency are worried about where this will end. I ask him to clarify what is happening at Steart peninsula. Both the Environment Agency and the Bristol Port Company should be aware of what the Government want rather than the Environment Agency just telling us what is going to happen.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) on securing another debate and on making a number of good points.

The Steart scheme is an essential project with many positive points. I have to tell my hon. Friend that I have looked at the matter from every angle and I believe it to be the only viable way in which the Government can continue to provide defences and secure access to the village while also meeting our environmental objectives for the estuary.

The Severn estuary is an important wildlife area as well as a great economic asset. It has more than 200 km of coastal defences, which will provide, over time, benefits in excess of £5 billion to more than 100,000 residential and commercial properties. The shoreline management plan highlights the need to maintain and improve most of the defences. However, as a consequence of that there will be a substantial loss of internationally designated inter-tidal 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 also have obligations under the EU habitats directive to maintain or restore natural habitats and the population of species of wild fauna and flora at a favourable conservation status. Together with the birds directive, it is a key element in the EU’s commitment to halt the loss of biodiversity within the EU by 2020.

Despite the impact on the natural environment, we will continue to invest in the defence of the Severn estuary. There is clearly an imperative reason to do so. Such work is permitted under the habitats directive as long as appropriate compensatory habitat is secured. Our plans to manage and improve the defences depend on sufficient compensatory habitat being secured before the protected habitat is lost due to flood defence construction works. There has already been a loss in the Severn estuary and, without the Steart scheme, such losses mean we are failing to maintain the integrity of the protected Natura 2000 site.

The Environment Agency has consulted on the Severn estuary flood risk management strategy and, in the light of the responses received together with the latest scientific advice on climate change, it has decided to review the initial proposals within the strategy—that was the point of the letter to my hon. Friend. That was a response to the very serious and genuine concerns that have been raised not just in his neighbourhood but right up the Severn estuary. I urge him to look at the difference between that macro policy and the micro issue that exists around the Steart. The scheme has been in development for three years, and has involved the local community throughout its development. It is not part of the review of the wider strategy, because it is needed urgently and it has strong local support. Beyond the short term, it is unlikely to be economically viable or sustainable to maintain the existing defences for Steart, which are in poor condition. To do so would cost in the region of £1 million per property. Therefore, it is of benefit to the local community if this project is implemented as soon as possible.

I have received many letters from people in the area in support of the scheme. Mr Barry Leathwood, the chair of Otterhampton parish council, said:

“The Agency has consulted extensively with the Otterhampton Parish Council which includes the villages of Combwich, Otterhampton and Steart and also with the various individuals and organisations in the area for a prolonged period of time. The project is overwhelmingly supported by the residents and this Council. It is our wish that the project be developed without delay.”

Andrew Darch of Brufords farm, Steart, said:

“Although under the EA’s proposals there is a large amount of agricultural land that will be converted to saltmarsh, this farmland would become very vulnerable to regular flooding without the schemes, devaluing the land considerably.”

I have also heard from Mike Caswell. He said:

“The consultation work carried out by the two companies”—

the Environment Agency and the Bristol Port Company—

“has been first class and they have always, without fail, responded to a request for a meeting with either groups or single individuals.”

I have seen letters to the local press from Dr Phillip Edwards, the chair of the Steart residents’ group, and from Otterhampton parish council. There seems to be a head of steam from local people who want this scheme to go ahead. There may be others who do not. Clearly, my hon. Friend sees dark forces at play. He sees the Environment Agency acting as the malign and evil arm of some secret service from the European Union making life miserable for his constituents, but that is not a view that is shared by the majority of his constituents—or at least by the ones who have written to me or to his local press.

I want to unravel the concerns of my hon. Friend. Undoubtedly, there is a problem here. The scheme is not about flooding the area, although that may happen over time with rising sea levels. The land has been purchased by the Environment Agency. If I were to put a blue pencil through the whole scheme, as my hon. Friend wants me to do, we would have to find new buyers for the land, which would be at some cost to the taxpayer. This is a good scheme that has been consulted on and carried through and I am at a loss to know why my hon. Friend continues with this concern.

The shoreline management plan has considered the issue and highlighted the Steart peninsula as somewhere 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 environmental impact of flood defence work elsewhere in the estuary. Indeed, Steart has been identified as the most cost-effective place in the estuary for habitat creation without causing geomorphological side effects, such as adjacent erosion. That is a major factor.

The twin objectives of the Steart scheme are, first, to create habitat and, secondly and very importantly, to protect the village of Steart and its access. The scheme 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, which is the only access route to Steart village. It will also help to maintain the existing standard of protection, and the new defences can be expected to last far longer than the current defences.

The Steart scheme combines the creation of a substantial area of compensatory habitat in the most cost-effective way with better flood defence for the community. These factors make the scheme an integral part of whatever decisions are taken on the wider Severn estuary flood risk management strategy, which as my hon. Friend knows is under review. That is why the Steart scheme cannot be taken as part of that review. I hope that I have helped to clarify for my hon. Friend the importance of managing flood risk in a way that not only protects people and property, and delivers good value for money to the taxpayer, but meets our environmental obligations.

I am quite well aware of the concerns of many hon. Members—indeed, I share them—when directives that are created many miles from here impact on people’s lives at a very local level. I can assure my hon. Friend that I do not take lying down the words of directives. If I can find a way around them, because I feel that they are having a malign effect on the taxpayer or on his constituents or my own, I will take a very robust view on that. However, in this case I believe that the scheme is in the best interests of the people who live in Steart and of the wider estuary. I also believe that it has been properly consulted on and has local support. Therefore, I hope that we can now progress the scheme and that my hon. Friend’s constituents can be reassured that those people who live in Steart have a future, that their access to their community will not be cut off and that we are carrying through a scheme that they have been consulted on and that they fully understand. Our emphasis has always been that we must work with nature, wherever possible, to reduce the risks to people, while also meeting social and environmental objectives.

I can find no evidence that the Environment Agency has threatened people or behaved in a way other than the normal consultative process involved in trying to find a willing agreement to sell land. The threat of compulsory purchase is just not part of how the agency does business. The agency does not resort to compulsory purchase unless it cannot establish who a particular landowner is. Its purpose is to reach agreement and to reach a price that should reflect market conditions. If a compulsory purchase has to be made, the price is calculated by the district valuer and it has to be a market value at the time. If people feel that the price that they negotiated with the Environment Agency was wrong, they can find a market value. I understand that in this scheme that market value was achieved.

I hope that we can put this matter to bed now and that the Steart scheme can go ahead.

Sitting suspended.