HC Deb 18 April 1946 vol 421 cc2899-905

11.59 a.m.

Mr. Medlicott (Norfolk, Eastern)

I am very glad to have this opportunity of bringing before the House the problem of the erosion of the coast of Great Britain, and the serious and increasing loss of valuable land and property into the sea. I understand that this Debate will be replied to by the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Health. We welcome his presence on the Front Bench as an indication that the Government are taking a broader view of this problem than they have done hitherto or than has been taken by any previous Governments, and we hope that he has been armed with the authority to take speedy and necessary action.

What is the problem to which this Debate is directed? All round the coast of Great Britain, there is a constant war between the land and the sea. At one point, or for one period, it has been the land which gains from the sea, and, at another point, or for another period, it is the sea which gains from the land. The tendency on the part of Governments and individuals in the past has been to assume that what is lost at one point is made up by what is gained at another point. I want to suggest that this is a misleading thought. Actually, over the last 50 years, what has been lost has been valuable land and buildings, whereas what has been gained is of little value, until vast sums of money and labour have been expended upon it. In any case, it is small comfort to those who have lost their land or their houses to be told that someone else, in some other part of Great Britain, has gained some land from the sea; it only serves to exasperate them still more.

This is no new problem. The sea has been eating into the coast of Great Britain for hundreds of years, but I suggest that the evidence seems to show that for the last half century, at least, and, certainly, since a Royal Commission investigated the matter some 40 years ago, the losses of land have been considerable, and, perhaps, greater than in any previously recorded period. These losses are certainly increasing at the present time. The problem is perhaps more acute upon the East coast, but nevertheless it is not confined to that part of the country. Erosion is taking place in North Wales between Rhyl and Colwyn Bay, and in South Wales between Llanelly and Kidwelly River; also in South Cardiganshire and North Pembrokeshire; on the South coast between Bexhill and Eastbourne and between Newhaven and Brighton and at many other points. Perhaps the actual loss of land on the Souh coast is not as noticeable as on the East coast, nevertheless the sea defences involve enormous expenditure. One has in mind the tremendous cost which has been thrown upon places like Brighton, Sidmouth and Seaford, in comparatively recent times.

When we turn to the East coast we find conditions becoming really serious. In passing, perhaps I might give one of the reasons why the position is so difficult there. The effect of the water upon the coast depends not so much upon the weight of the sea as upon its content. The Atlantic, while bringing greater pressure, is what is known as clean water, in this connection, whereas the North Sea and, to some extent, the English Channel, carry a vast amount of beach material. That is the real cause of the difficulty. It is the weight of the sea-borne material which causes erosion to be so serious. That is what is going on upon the East coast of England, and elsewhere. It is the North Sea which is causing us such anxiety.

I have no data in regard to Scotland, but I think there is considerable erosion in Durham, in the neighbourhood of Sunderland, and between Ryhope and Seaham Harbour. Some three years ago there were conferences of the local authorities concerned, but it was not found possible to provide any solution. At Holderness, in Yorkshire, there was, prior to the Royal Commission, more loss of land than anywhere else in Great Britain, but I believe that since about 1911 or 1912 the coast of Norfolk has had the unenviable distinction of breaking all records in this matter. There is ever present difficulty at a place called Eccles. Constant watch has to be kept at every season of high tide, against the danger of a costly break-through. When I mention Eccles, I refer only to a name on the map. Eccles itself is already under water. The site of it is about a mile out, and nothing is left except ruins, some of which can be seen occasionally at low tide. At Mundesley, in the adjacent constituency of North Norfolk, there is a most serious condition arising because the sea defences have already been outflanked. Hotels are having to be evacuated and, almost weekly during the season of high tides, valuable property slides into the sea.

At Lowestoft only last month enormous damage was done to the sea defences. Great steel girders were beaten out of position as though they were matchwood. At Walcot, in East Norfolk, the main coast road has had to be closed as it is no longer safe. It hangs over the water at high tide. At Horsey, the sea broke right through in February, 1938, and flooded large areas of agricultural land, doing immense damage. At a place called Caister there is the most serious erosion of all in modern times. At that point, since the beginning of the century, the water has gained no less than 500 feet of land, and 100 feet was gained by the sea in a short period of six months in 1942. If one goes to that little town the residents can take you and show you the location of places out at sea where they themselves, in their younger days, were able to live, work and play. They can point to the sites of playing fields, roads and highways which are now underneath the sand or the water.

What is not fully realised, even in East Anglia, perhaps, is that a great deal of the territory of East Norfolk was originally won from the sea. Its level is below the level of high tide. While not wishing to make any exaggerated statement I say there is at least the possibility it the sea breaks through on the coast of East Norfolk, that large areas of Norfolk certainly along the river valleys between Norwich and Yarmouth, might once again come under the flow of the North Sea. This is no easy problem, but even larger amounts of money are likely to he involved unless protective measures are taken at an early date.

I want to refer to the fact that there is considerable loss of rateable value involved in this matter. The amount may seem small when put against the cost of protective measures, but none the less, valuable rated property is going into the sea, and the cumulative effect of all that loss cannot be overlooked, especially at the rate at which it is increasing. The loss to individual propertyowners is also very serious and in some cases amounts to a tragedy. It does not affect only large landowners. Curiously enough, in my constituency, amongst the people most affected are the owners of small dwelling-houses. The loss falls upon them very heavily indeed. Those unfortunate people have no compensation of any kind. They have invested their life savings in property which, only a few years ago appeared to be quite safe from the sea. That property is now engulfed irretrievably and irrecoverably and there are sometimes tragic consequences to the individuals concerned.

When we consider the classes of people and of authorities who are affected by this problem, we come up against the great complexity of it, and realise the difficulty of finding a solution. When the Royal Commission took evidence on the matter between 1906 and 1911, it was contended before them that the responsibility for coast defence rested upon the Crown in virtue of its ownership of the foreshore, but that contention was not accepted. The position seems to be that the foreshore, legally speaking, is movable. It does not in theory matter to the Crown whether the coastline is here or there, or five miles in either direction. The Crown does not accept any liability for the protection of the coast itself. The law is, therefore, in an unsatisfactory state. It would be out of order for me to enlarge upon this aspect of the matter, but I can state that the effect of the present law is that the liability for coast protection rests upon the owners of the property or of the land which abuts upon the coast. The owners may be a railway company, a dock or harbour commission, a local authority or a whole series of people, or just the owners of small cottages or bungalows.

-File result of this is that sea defence scorns to be nobody's business. And when we turn from consideration of the various interests which are affected to the Government Departments and authorities which are drawn into the picture, we get an explanation of the confusion which exists. The Ministry of Agriculture is concerned as far as the problem affects land drainage. It gives considerable support to catchment boards, when there is a risk of a break through and the flooding of channels which are draining the countryside. The Board of Trade and the Ministry of Transport have an interest in regard to the foreshore, the removal of beach material and other matters, and where highways and railways are affected. The Ministry of Health is also concerned whenever the interest of local authorities are affected. Even the Admiralty is concerned as having great knowledge of the navigational factors which affect the drift of beach materials. One result of the diffusion of all these interests is that no positive action has been taken, at least up to the present time. There has been no concerted approach to the situation as a whole, no overall plan, no co-ordination of effort, no central fact finding organisation and no central source from which scientific and engineering knowledge can be obtained for the guidance of local authorities who are struggling with such an overwhelming task.

Forty years ago, the Royal Commission advocated, as an urgent matter, that there should be constant watch and investigation made of the movement of beach materials and sandbanks, which movement is the cause of so much of this damage along the East coast, but one cannot find that anything has been done to carry out that recommendation. One result of this lack of central co-ordination is that hundreds of thousands of pounds are spent upon local and, to a large extent, unrelated schemes in response to quite understandable local agitation. Not only is there expenditure on the coast itself, but also farther back on the building of roads and railways which later have to be abandoned. These small isolated schemes often fail where a larger and more scientifically based scheme might well he effective. This is not a party matter. All Governments are equally responsible for the neglect of this matter, and I must, on behalf of my constituents, voice a protest at the indifference to local anxieties which has been shown by the central authorities over a long period. This is, perhaps, partly due to the alarming cost of dealing with this problem, but if the cost is alarming to the Central Government, how much more impossible it must appear to local authorities with their very limited resources.

I wish to make four suggestions to the Minister. I would urge that, at an early date, a responsible and fairly senior Minister should come down to see some of the more serious examples of what is going on. We did once have a visit from a fairly senior official who was staying with friends in the neighbourhood. We took him to see the coast, and he asked if he might get his bearings by studying the shore from the hotel where he had at one time stayed. We took him to the shore and pointed to some bricks and mortar sticking out of the sand and said to him, "That is your hotel." We should like a Minister to give some assurance in this way, by a personal visit, that the Government are really anxious to help local authorities in this matter. Secondly, I would suggest that the Government—and I hope the Minister may be able to give us an assurance on this point today—should concentrate the responsibility for coast defence in the hands of one department, so that we may know to whom we should address our questions and from whom we may seek help. Thirdly, I would suggest that some effort should be made to assist local authorities on a short-term basis with regard to the financial cost of some of the more urgent schemes. The Treasury have, to a large extent, been helpful already, but even when they contribute 80 per cent. of the cost of a scheme, the remaining 20 per cent. on, for example, a scheme costing half a million pounds, is quite beyond the capacity of the average catchment board or other local body.

Fourthly, I suggest the setting up of an inter-departmental Committee to examine the whole problem, taking as its starting point the Report of the Royal Commission and investigating the many serious instances of erosion which have occurred since the date of that Report.

In conclusion, I wish to say that this is a very human problem as well as one involving valuable land and property of the nation. Up and down the East coast of England, good property, rich agricultural land, treasured homes and pleasant amenities are being washed into the sea, and the time may come one day, or, perhaps, one night, when there may be loss of life as well. Therefore, I beg of the Government to take action in this matter while yet there is time.

12.15 p.m.

Mr. Edward Evans (Lowestoft)

I rise to support the able and eloquent plea made by the hon. Member for Eastern Norfolk (Mr. Medlicott). This is not a party question and those of us who are concerned with this problem have been at pains to set up—

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