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Looe Flood Protection Project

Volume 658: debated on Tuesday 23 April 2019

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jo Churchill.)

It is a pleasure to see the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on the Front Bench to respond to my debate. The town of Looe, in my constituency, will be familiar to many right hon. and hon. Members, and to millions of people across the country, for its glorious scenery, fishing heritage and working port, and for summer holidays on a golden sandy beach. I know and love the town and its community. It was my late husband’s home port for his fishing business, and it is now a privilege to represent the people of Looe in this House. However, behind the picture-postcard image, the very existence of Looe is under serious threat from flooding.

We will all be aware that many parts of the UK have experienced flooding in the recent past, but Looe is different. It is the most frequently flooded town in the UK. If scientists are correct about the impact of climate change, the risk to the town and its future prosperity can only be increased. Modelling for the Cornish south coast regeneration project has suggested that within a generation floods will be one metre worse, increasing the flooded area from 2.5 hectares to 16 hectares. That would be catastrophic for the town and the wider local economy.

I can testify to the resilience of Looe’s residents and businesses in the face of regular, devastating floods, which I have witnessed. I have seen at first hand their remarkable fortitude and inventiveness in dealing with the aftermath of floods, including the awful foul water pollution. But the impact is now so severe that it is threatening the viability of the local economy, with damages amounting to £39 million over the past five years alone, deterring investment and reducing opportunities for growth.

It is shocking that 65% of businesses in Looe have been flooded, costing each an average of £31,000. Many cannot get insurance so cannot, or understandably will not, invest further in their businesses. Worryingly, nearly a quarter of those businesses—the lifeblood of the local economy—have considered their future in the town. The flooding also deters new businesses from locating in Looe and shoppers and holidaymakers from visiting, and there is a detrimental effect on the wider community, as Looe’s economic footprint stretches far beyond the town and into communities, holiday parks and businesses right across South East Cornwall.

Looe is located in what can only be described as a geographical perfect storm. It sits at the bottom of the narrowest part of the Looe valley, where the river meets the sea. Numerous storms and predicted rising sea levels, combined with high tides, are making flooding commonplace. Typically, flood events occur several times a year. During the 2013-14 winter season, the events were particularly severe, and considerable damage occurred to the quay walls as waves surged over the harbour. The frequency of floods and their severity are clearly getting worse.

I sought the hon. Lady’s permission to intervene. She referred to the winter of 2013-14; in my constituency of Strangford there are some 96 coastal erosion locations, including a number of villages. That indicates the severity of what is taking place. I have written letters to Westminster Ministers on this matter. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is essential that a UK-wide fund is set up to address this matter now, before it is too late and we end up losing villages, which is possible, down my Ards peninsula and in towns throughout the UK because of an inability to deal with the pressures from flooding?

I do agree with the hon. Gentleman and am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister has heard his concerns.

Currently, flooding extends over 2.5 hectares. This at-risk area includes essential services and facilities such as the GP surgery, the police station, main food stores and cafes, as well as the fish market, which accounts for 10% of landings in Cornwall and is a national centre for the inshore day catch of high-quality, high-value fish, which is used to support many London restaurants. The fire station is also under threat—so much so that the fire engine has to be moved to the top of the hill during a flood. Essential transport links are at risk, including the main road bridge connecting east and west Looe, the railway station, and two miles of railway track, on which there have been 141 flooding incidents to date.

According to Looe Harbour Commissioners, flooding because of high sea-water levels, possibly combined with wave action in the inner harbour, is the dominant cause of water damage. High sea levels can occur when high tides coincide with storm surges, causing water levels in the inner harbour to rise and sometimes overtop the quay walls and/or adjacent low-lying parts of the town. When flooding incidents occur, the owners of a lot of the fishing boats put a plank along their vessels’ fenders to prevent the staffs that hold the quay in place from staving in the sides of their vessels. Wave action can speed up the process of flooding by causing waves to overtop the quay walls to lower-lying areas of the town adjacent to the inner harbour. In addition, wave action can cause structural damage to the harbour walls and structures adjacent to the inner harbour.

Also, surface water flooding from intense rainfall affects part of Looe. In addition, high tide levels prevent the discharge of water into the harbour, further exacerbating flooding associated with surface water. It is apparent from the surface water flood maps that floodwater accumulates on low-lying areas near the harbour. These risks are multiple and complex but must now be mitigated, and the huge potential for future investment and growth seized.

A partnership-based approach in consultation with the local community has been key in developing an economically viable and environmentally friendly solution to the flooding challenges. I must put on record my thanks to the lead partner, Cornwall Council, the Environment Agency, Looe Harbour Commissioners, Looe Town Council and East Looe Town Trust for all their work on the proposal, which I will outline briefly later.

I am also grateful to the commissioners and the council for funding the initial expert study, which has enabled the proposal to be produced, and it is supported by both the local community—with more than 95% of the respondents in favour of the scheme—and landowners and aligned with the Looe neighbourhood plan. The proposal, if fully developed, funded and delivered, will allow Looe to protect key infrastructure, including removing more than 200 properties from flood risk and creating opportunities for investment. It is anticipated that there will be in excess of £47 million of growth benefits.

Briefly, phase 1 involves five projects: a tidal barrier installation to stop tidal flooding; an extension to the Banjo pier to improve river flow and bathing water quality; flood protection of east Looe beach to address wave action; an inner breakwater tidal barrier protection; and a new walkway from Pennyland in the town to Hannafore, restoring the missing link of the south-west coast path. Phase 2 will look to investigate the development of an outer breakwater and create a new working harbour.

Given my very personal interest in sea safety, I am also delighted that Looe Harbour Commissioners believe that the proposals will improve health and safety in the port and support the work of the emergency services such as the RNLI. I am pleased that at the heart of the proposal is the improved access to water for all, including for children, disabled people and the elderly through an all states of the tide easy access landing stage. There is also massive potential for enhanced recreational facilities and marine biology innovations such as mussel beds or even a lobster hatchery such as the one at Padstow. The possibilities are endless.

A further benefit from investment in flood defences will be to realise the growth of integrated travel and leisure opportunities. This includes a cycle network in the same vein as north Cornwall’s cycle links such as the very popular Camel Trail, which attracts half a million visitors a year. It is expected that the potential revenue from an integrated cycle network could be as much as £10 million per year. I am sure that many cycling businesses across south-east Cornwall would be delighted to get a spoke of this particular wheel.

Now for the challenging aspect of funding, which is why I am delighted to have secured this debate with the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal, responding. The cost of the overall scheme is currently estimated at £41 million. Further work is now required on the detailed design and bid for funding to integrate the Looe neighbourhood plan and develop plans for both the Looe Valley branch railway line and network of cycle paths. Cornwall Council has committed £2.3 million to undertake the detailed design and prepare the business case. It has also agreed terms to purchase land to increase the capacity of Looe railway station which links the town to the mainline at Liskeard. Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly local enterprise partnership has also committed funding to assess the wider economic benefits of the project to south-east Cornwall. I want to put on record my thanks to the LEP for its financial commitments and work thus far.

My hon. Friend will appreciate that the work to date has been a great example of cross-organisational working, financing and community engagement. I am aware that DEFRA’s flood defence grant in aid funding cannot be provided for this initial stage of the scheme, which is why funding from Cornwall Council and other local partners is so welcome. I accept that the delivery of the scheme is not a role for the Department and central Government alone. That is why I have been so keen to stress that this is about a partnership with all the authorities, as well as the local residents and businesses doing their bit every step of the way. However, given the significant economic, environmental and social benefits, I hope that this approach can be replicated across Government Departments to secure the necessary capital funding for construction once the business case is submitted. This is expected to be in the next financial year of 2020-21. It is very encouraging that the Environment Agency has confirmed that £3.7 million of funding is eligible for a scheme that reduces flood risk in Looe, and has said that it will assess whether this can be increased to reflect the wider socioeconomic benefits of the project.

The benefits of the project reach far beyond the key objective of flood prevention and protection. It will safeguard the entire town centre, fishing fleet and harbour. Without it, the town centre is unlikely to remain viable beyond 20 to 30 years due to persistent and recurrent flooding. It is envisaged that the project will be a regeneration hub for the wider area, forming part of the strategic coastal transport hub for South East Cornwall and beyond. It will enable homes and jobs for local people, with the development of around 670 homes and more than 1 hectare of employment land. The scheme will protect Looe for a generation as the focal point of the local area. It will be able to flourish and grow. According to the Cornish south coast regeneration project, it will also support the wider economy of Cornwall.

Support and capital funding for the delivery of the Looe flood protection project will secure a sustainable future for Looe and harness the economic benefits for the town, surrounding communities, South East Cornwall and the wider county of Cornwall as a whole. I look forward to hearing what my hon. Friend has to say.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) on securing this important debate. In fact, this is the first time that I have spoken to her in this House since I had the privilege of attending her wonderful marriage to the wonderful Bob Davidson less than a month ago. May I—on behalf of many people, I am sure—wish them both many years of happiness to come?

My hon. Friend has been a passionate advocate for the Looe flood protection scheme and generally for growth in Cornwall and the south-west. We have discussed this issue before, when she also brought along people from Cornwall Council and commissioners from Looe harbour, and I welcome the opportunity to do so again. I take this opportunity to recognise the work that she has been doing to raise awareness of the flooding experienced by people and businesses in Looe. I commend her for taking a long-term view to managing flood risk and recognising how flood risk management infrastructure can contribute to the future prosperity of the people she represents.

I am mindful of my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raising this issue again on behalf of his constituents. Although he will accept that this is a devolved matter, the amount of money that this Government have put into protecting flood defences around the country is reflected in the Barnett formula. I hope that he will continue to put the case on behalf of his constituents.

I am also mindful of the challenges faced by the town in that it regularly experiences flooding. The town centre, harbour and key transport and community infrastructure are all located within the main flood zone. As a fellow MP for a coastal community, I recognise the national importance of our coast and the challenges that these areas face. Flood and coastal risk management is a high priority for the Government. I know very well the impacts that flooding can have on lives and livelihoods. Compelling evidence suggests that climate change may lead to increases in sea levels by the middle of this century. Both present significant risks, so we are putting in place robust, long-term national strategies to protect our coastal communities.

I am aware that the Environment Agency has identified a potential option for a flood risk management scheme in Looe, using demountable defences, at a cost of approximately £10 million. My hon. Friend referred to schemes costing £40 million, and we need to consider those carefully. I am also aware that the local community prefers a wider socioeconomic regeneration scheme, to which she referred extensively, that includes a tidal barrier to manage flood risk. Cornwall Council is now leading on the delivery of this preferred option, with support from the Environment Agency that she generously recognises. The preferred scheme to which she refers consists of five elements that would all need to be delivered to meet the strategic objectives of the scheme. These include tidal barriers, beach protections and a pier extension. In terms of the flood defence grant-in-aid funding, my hon. Friend recognised that on today’s formula that scheme would qualify for only £3.7 million, which would not fully fund the proposal. However, I commend her and Cornwall Council, which is using £2.3 million of its economic development match funding to deliver the detailed design work for the scheme. The designs will be used to attract funding from wider sources. As she points out, she hopes, rightly, to continue to make the case on why this may attract further central Government funding as well.

As well as protecting communities, flood risk management systems create improved confidence in a local economy, encouraging growth and supporting environmental improvements. It is vital that we take a long-term view of the environment, as outlined in our 25-year environment plan. I commend Cornwall Council, Looe Harbour Commissioners and the community for taking a wider regeneration approach that has a high level of public and business support. While the proposal would reduce the risk of flooding, there are further benefits in enabling development, generating growth and improving the bathing water quality. The improvement of the travel network and cycle networks would also contribute to the economic prosperity of the region and further encourage tourism. My hon. Friend talked about a spoke in a wheel. I wish it were as cheap as a penny- farthing, but she will recognise, as will the hon. Member for Strangford, that that is not necessarily the case.

These benefits tie in with a number of wider Government aims. I encourage my hon. Friend and the local partners to continue their efforts to identify further funding from the full range of available sources. The partnership funding policy that this Government introduced clarifies the level of investment that communities can expect from the Government so that it is clear what levels of partnership funding they will need from other sources to allow projects to proceed. The overall call on the grant-in-aid funding exceeds the total amount of funding available, so we need to prioritise to optimise the overall outcomes from the investment of taxpayers’ money. The current formula takes into account the impacts of flooding, including the frequency, severity and depth of potential floods and the impacts on health. It is people-centred in the sense that it weighs the Government support more towards households, and hence the impacts on people, than on other economic benefits, including the impacts on businesses. As it stands, there are no plans to change the current funding formula before 2021, though I am very conscious of the demands on, in particular, coastal communities and more sparsely populated communities. I am therefore considering what we can do within the next spending review and the funding formula change to consider the impact on local employers and, in turn, on local communities.

Overall, the Government are investing £2.6 billion to better protect the country from flooding, and this, through partnership funding, will attract more than £600 million of additional investment. That will fund well over 1,000 flood defence schemes, which will better protect 300,000 homes by 2021 and is projected to save the economy more than £30 billion in avoided damage. As well as capital for new flood defences, between 2015 and 2020 we will spend more than £1 billion on the maintenance of flood defence assets.

Partnership funding, to which my hon. Friend referred, can be secured from a range of sources, including local beneficiaries, partners and growth funds. Early indications suggest that up to 25% more schemes will go ahead in the coming years than if project costs were met by the Government alone. As my hon. Friend will recognise, it is not possible to deliver every scheme in the current programme that would reduce flood risk, and it is my duty as Floods Minister to take a national perspective on flood risk management. However, I assure her that I am fully alive to the issues she has raised regarding the businesses and residents of Looe.

The Environment Agency will continue to support and work with local partners on a positive solution for Looe, and I encourage the council and partners in their bids to secure additional funding. I very much look forward to seeing how the scheme develops, including its potential to develop local tourism in an environmentally sustainable way.

I thank my hon. Friend again for raising this issue. The Government, the Environment Agency and our flood defence delivery partners entirely understand the challenges present in Looe, and we will continue to support Cornwall Council and its partners in developing the flood scheme. I commend the long-term view to managing the flood risk in the town and considering wider socioeconomic regeneration. I encourage people to continue to work together, with my hon. Friend’s leadership, to identify a solution that meets Looe’s long-term needs.

As I said, I am looking at the funding arrangements ahead of the next capital programme, and we are working closely with the Treasury to consider future investment needs and the Government’s role in supporting the resilience of communities. I take on board what my hon. Friend has said. While I recognise that I have not been able to sign a cheque to guarantee the future of these flood defences, she continues to make me aware of what matters to our coastal communities, and we will continue to have those discussions.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.