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Cliff Erosion: Isle of Sheppey

Volume 633: debated on Wednesday 13 December 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered cliff erosion on the north coastline of the Isle of Sheppey.

I am raising this issue because I am concerned about the impact that cliff erosion is having on the lives of some of my constituents living at the east end of the Isle of Sheppey, particularly people living in the Eastchurch and Warden cliffs area. I declare an interest, because I live in Eastchurch, although my home is not directly affected by cliff erosion. However, many other properties in the area are under threat.

As its name suggests, Sheppey is an island in the Thames estuary, situated just off the north Kent coast and separated from the mainland by the Swale. It is home to almost 40,000 people, but during the summer months the population increases with an inflow of visitors who stay in the thousands of caravans and chalets on Sheppey, most of which are at the east end of the island. Tourism is the bedrock of eastern Sheppey’s economy and the holiday parks are very important to that tourism. Unfortunately, the erosion of the cliffs is affecting, in addition to homes, some of the holiday parks in Eastchurch, Minster and Warden, with some caravan pitches now only feet away from the crumbling coastline.

The truth is that the Isle of Sheppey is getting smaller. Since Roman times, a third of the island has disappeared into the sea and land is still being lost every year. Some of my constituents are increasingly worried as they see their homes and businesses under threat. I have first-hand experience of the problem, because Sheppey East was the ward I first represented on Swale Borough Council over 30 years ago. I also represented the area on Kent County Council. Some of the buildings to which I delivered my election literature at that time are now in the sea and more homes are likely to disappear during the next 30 years.

I have been working with residents of one affected community, who have seen the cliffs near their homes collapse dramatically over the last few years. I facilitated a meeting between those residents, our local authorities and the Environment Agency, to see what could be done to help to protect them. It soon became apparent that very little would be done to help them. The Environment Agency made it clear that it would not act to stop the cliffs eroding because it has a long-standing policy of non-intervention in the area. I was given to understand that that policy was driven by economic considerations. It was considered that the cost of protecting the cliffs outweighed the benefit derived from saving the threatened homes. While I do not necessarily agree with that reason, I do at least understand the logic of a non-intervention policy based on a cost-benefit basis.

I was delighted when one of my local farmers came forward with a scheme that would have removed that cost obstacle. His plan was to use waste spoil from major infrastructure projects, such as Thameslink and HS2, to reclaim some of the lost land and create a country park along the north Sheppey coastline that would have stopped any further cliff erosion and, at the same time, boosted tourism. The development would have been self-financing, so it would have cost the Government nothing, but the Environment Agency has made it clear that it would object to the scheme because protecting the cliffs is contrary to its policy of non-intervention and managed retreat.

In addition, Natural England has confirmed it would also oppose in principle any scheme that prevents erosion of the cliffs, using as an objection the fact that the cliffs are designated a site of special scientific interest and are afforded legal protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The cliffs were designated an SSSI because of their deemed scientific interest features, namely:

“fossil assemblage, the natural active coastal processes along the coastline, including erosion pattern of the cliffs and the slumping clay”.

There we have it: in Natural England’s eyes, fossils and slumping clay are more important than the homes and livelihoods of my constituents. In my view, that is not only scandalous, but makes no sense, not least because when questioned, Natural England could not identify any ongoing scientific studies that are interested in the cliffs or their fossil assemblage. It was also unable to explain how losing the fossils and clay to the sea, which happens when the cliffs erode, is enhancing scientific knowledge. In my long association with the cliffs, I am not aware of a single incidence of scientific interest being shown in them—not one.

I understand that the Environment Agency has other environmental concerns, for instance the impact that stopping the cliff erosion would have on the mud and silt that ends up in the Thames and Medway estuaries. The farmer behind the scheme appreciates fully that those concerns would necessitate extensive geo- morphological modelling to determine the impact a reduction in mud and silt would have on our local wading bird species. My view is that a reasonable compromise can be found, because it can always be found when it comes to protecting our local wildlife. However, no compromise, reasonable or otherwise, can be found if Natural England continues to maintain its stance of objecting in principle to any plan that would stop the erosion of the cliffs, using the SSSI status of the cliffs as an excuse. When we consider the pressure for land to house a growing population, it makes no sense to allow more of the Isle of Sheppey to simply wash away.

Something must be done to protect my constituents. The proposal to build a country park along the north Sheppey coastline would do that by stopping erosion of the cliffs and, I repeat, it would do so at no cost to the taxpayer. Therefore, I urge the Minister to instigate an urgent review of the SSSI designation of the cliffs. I would like her also to have Natural England submit evidence proving there really is scientific interest in the cliffs; stating exactly what that interest is; and stating how and when scientific tests have been, and will be, undertaken.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, I think for the first time. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing this debate on coastal erosion affecting the northern coastline of the Isle of Sheppey. I expect that the post office at Warden Point is probably no longer there and has gone into the sea, but I remember several childhood holidays there.

Coastal erosion is a natural process that has always changed the shape of our coastline and will continue to do so, but I fully understand that it can be distressing for those living nearby. As an MP for a coastal constituency with a fragile coastline, I absolutely understand his constituents’ concerns and the fears they face. I have direct examples of places, such as Benacre, where we have the same challenge of balancing nature with people’s homes. Central Government are responsible for setting the overall national policy, but I point out the local councils, formally termed coastal protection authorities under our statutes, lead on the management of coastal erosion risk in their areas. A significant and brave decision was taken by the Government earlier this decade to recognise formally that it would not be possible or desirable to defend every part of our coastline from erosion, confirming what had already been happening in practice. That made the process for councils designing their local shoreline management plans more meaningful. The plans set out at a top level the policy framework to manage the risk of coastal change. Covering three time horizons of 20, 50 and 100 years, the plans recommend four approaches to manage the local coastline: advance the line, hold the line, managed realignment and no active intervention. Councils design them in partnership with the Environment Agency, but the decision is made locally.

To support councils, the Environment Agency provides a national picture on what is happening on the coast. It has established national coastal erosion risk maps that provide a consistent assessment of coastal erosion risk around the country, and set out a best practice method for calculating that risk. The Environment Agency also ensures that different councils take a consistent approach to risk management, as actions taken along one part of a coastline can have a direct impact further along the coast. For those where defence from coastal erosion is neither practical nor economical, it is important that the communities affected are supported to adapt to the changing coastline. That means anticipating the changes, preparing for them and adapting to them when they occur.

Coastal change management areas are areas identified locally as likely to be affected by coastal change. They provide a means for local authorities to take their specific needs and circumstances into account when making decisions and planning for the future. Between 2009 and 2011, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs funded a coastal change pathfinder programme in which 15 local authorities considered new approaches for managing coastal change in partnership with their communities. The Government are committed to investing significant amounts of taxpayer money in coastal erosion and flooding schemes. Specifically for coastal management between 2015 and 2021, our plans will see £885 million invested in projects to manage coastal erosion and coastal flooding, better protecting communities against flooding from the sea.

At the same time that the Government decided formally not to defend the entire coastline, they made the important decision that any scheme that has a positive benefit-cost ratio would be eligible for Government funding. Therefore, cost-beneficial schemes that would not have progressed in the past can now receive Government funding.

Turning specifically to my hon. Friend’s constituency, the Isle of Sheppey, the shoreline over much of the length of the north Sheppey coast is in retreat and has been for centuries. That is very much part of a natural process. As sea levels have slowly risen, land levels have gradually dropped since the last ice age. Added to that natural process are the effects of global warming and climate change. The amount of physical change depends on the degree of exposure of each length of coast and the underlying geology. Increasing rainfall in between longer periods of drier weather can lead to increased weathering of cliff faces, with potentially more cutback of the cliff face.

In general, as my hon. Friend pointed out, the undefended length of coastline between Minster and Warden bay comprises a mix of residential property and agricultural land. He recognises, as does the Department, that 1,000 caravans and 124 buildings will be at risk over the next 100 years. He questioned the value of preserving the area as a geological site. Officials believe that it is an important part of the UK’s natural heritage and provides an invaluable resource for scientific research and education. In particular, the geological features contain nationally and internationally important, diverse and extremely well preserved fossil fauna and flora.

The Geological Conservation Review—a rigorous and systematic assessment of all geological sites in Great Britain—was undertaken by a wide range of experts, who identified the foreshore at Sheppey as being of national scientific importance. The main phase of the review took place some time ago, between 1977 and 1990, but it is still a live process, with small revisions taking place on a regular basis and sites being assessed and added right up to the present day to reflect new scientific discoveries and interpretations. However, I absolutely understand my hon. Friend’s point. I will look into his request to review the SSSI designation, but I hope that he understands that we have to make decisions based on the best evidence that is provided to us.

The cliffs at Sheppey are part of a natural system that includes the whole Thames estuary. They provide an important source of fine-grained sediment to the estuary and its tributary estuaries in north Kent and Essex. Decisions about what is done there need to be balanced with the framework identified by the shoreline management plan, and such plans tend to be based on natural sediment cells. The northern coastline is part of the 2010 Isle of Grain to South Foreland shoreline management plan, which is led and endorsed by local councils. It splits the coastline into five sections. Garrison Point to Minster town, which includes Sheerness, has been designated “hold the line”. Minster slopes to Warden bay has been designated “no active intervention”. From Warden bay to Leysdown-on-Sea, the designation is a mix of “hold the line” and “managed realignment”, and from there to Shellness, the designation is “managed realignment”.

Swale Borough Council has also published technical papers, including setting out a coastal change management area. In 2011, it published the “North Sheppey Erosion Study”. That has helped the council to provide appropriate advice to the public and make informed decisions about planning issues to plan ahead and mitigate the effects of coastal erosion on their lives.

There has already been significant investment by both the Government and local councils to manage the coast in the area. In 2012, there was a shingle recycling project at Sheerness, and next year there will be a further £350,000 investment to continue that work, which will protect 3,000 homes. In addition, Swale Borough Council undertook a £250,000 scheme of coastal protection works at Minster-on-Sea.

New projects are in the planning pipeline for the area: the southern regional flood and coastal committee has allocated £500,000 towards a project to replace or refurbish Warden bay outfall, thus reducing fluvial flood risk from an ageing asset. There are other schemes on the Isle of Sheppey. The total current investment is about £5.9 million, supporting projects at Great Bells farm, Bells pumping station and the Queenborough tidal barrier to protect several hundred houses.

As for my hon. Friend’s suggestions about the country park—the privately funded scheme at this location—I hope he will appreciate that I cannot comment on the technical merits given that the planning application might come before Ministers if it is deemed sufficiently contentious. I know that the challenges of the SSSI exist, and the Environment Agency will also need to be confident about the role of the reuse of waste from other parts of the country.

I am led to believe that we do not in principle oppose a viable third-party scheme, but I heard carefully what my hon. Friend said. We need to recognise, however, that in this particular location, extremely challenging impacts would need to be assessed and mitigated against before the plan could proceed. He will be aware that the £30,000 scheme funded by the local borough council at Eastchurch to address the rate of coastal erosion has simply not had the desired impact. I understand that local teams from both the Environment Agency and Natural England have offered to discuss the proposal that his constituents are considering making.

The Swale and Medway plan remains open for consultation. As part of the development of the strategy to fulfil the shoreline management plan and its update, a public meeting was held in Eastchurch village hall last month. Local people had the opportunity to speak directly to those working on the strategy. One important takeaway from that meeting, both for the officials and members of the public who attended, was the need to explain better the opportunities afforded by the rollback policies in the council’s recently adopted local plan. That creates the opportunity and option for local residents to be helped to relocate their homes to areas at less risk nearby. That applies to any home likely to be affected by erosion within 20 years and allows people to build a new home of a similar character close to the community from which they are displaced.

Allowing natural processes to continue to operate has been a consistent approach since the first shoreline management plan was developed back in the 1990s, and that is likely to continue to be the case. I recognise that that is not the answer that my hon. Friend or his constituents want to hear, but I assure him that I will reflect carefully on his requests. I will commission the review of the SSSI as he asked, and I will make sure that we share it with him when it is completed.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.