HC Deb 14 July 1980 vol 988 cc1195-206

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Cope.]

10.26 pm
Mr. Julian Ridsdale (Harwich)

I raise the subject of the sea defences of the Naze at Walton on the Naze against the background of a policy of severe monetary restraint and Government economy. May I say at once that I support those policies to cure inflation, and therefore would not raise a subject on the Adjournment that necessitated spending even £320,000, as this project does, unless I believed that it was in the national interest. I know that I lay myself open to the charge of supporting economies in general but not in particular, and that I am fighting for a constituency interest. I therefore hope to prove that spending that small sum is wise.

It is a stitch in time to save nine. This project is in the national interest, because if something is not done very soon, the Naze, a natural beauty spot will perish like a full blown rose. The sea and the rain will tear the silken tassel of its natural beauty, and its treasure will be in the sands. Rather like Humpty-Dumpty, all the Queen's horses and all the Queen's men will not be able to put it together again.

The natural beauty of the Naze makes it a unique spot of its kind in Essex, which should appeal to the Minister with responsibility for the arts, as it does to many other lovers of natural beauty. Additionally, I hope to show that, in preserving it, we meet closely the criteria laid down by the Government that money can only be spent on sea defences where property and dwellings are in danger.

Furthermore, I ask the Government to differentiate in their monetary policy between capital and revenue expenditure. The expenditure for which I am asking is, in my view, capital expenditure to save a priceless asset—our land. I am not asking for very much. Over a 10-year period it would give more than a 100 per cent. return and save a valuable asset. I hope that in his reply my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will explain how the Government differentiate between capital and revenue expenditure, and how that applies in this case. Ts it regarded as a cut in capital expenditure or a cut in revenue expenditure?

Before the last war the area of the Naze was a golf course. It was protected at the northern end by a sea defence wall called the Tamarisk wail, erected by the river authority, and by a series of groins to the south, erected by the former land owners. During the war the sea defences were not regularly maintained, and erosion continued to take place. The severe flooding of 1953 overwhelmed the Tamarisk wall, and a new line of defence was built to the south, in the form of an earthen embankment, by the river authority. Since then the history is as follows.

In 1961 planning applications for commercial developments were made, and were refused after a public inquiry, on appeal. In 1963 the Essex county council, in conjunction with the local council, bought the area, of about 155 acres, for £75.000—the present value is about £250,000—as a regional open space. It is the only public open space in Essex on a cliff top overlooking the sea.

After the Tendring council assumed responsibility in April 1974, on reorganisation, a scheme for the protection of the cliffs was approved for, first, blockwork protection to the base of the cliff; secondly, the artificial building up of the beaches to assist cliff base protection; thirdly, erecting timber groins to maintain the beach level; and, fourthly, the drainage of subsoil water in the cliffs.

In September 1977 planning permission was granted for that scheme, and in October 1977 it was submitted to the Department of the Environment. In November 1978 a public inquiry was held. The cost of the scheme was estimated at £1,325,000. In June 1979, although the inspector appointed by the Department recommended approval of the scheme, the Secretary of State turned down the application, and directed the council not to carry out any work on it.

In view of that, a much modified scheme was put forward in December 1979, to cost about £320,000. I advised the Secretary of State to support the scheme on the grounds that it was the least that could be done at present, although I am sure, on the basis of local advice, that drainage of subsoil water in the cliffs is at present of crucial importance, especially after the wet summer. Indeed, there is a strong case for that being done, even if at present the Department is not prepared to go any further. The advice that I have received from many local people is that the are still concerned about the wet summer and the subsoil adding to the problem of the sea defences. Even if nothing else can be done. will my hon. Friend obtain technical advice about the matter and at least let this part of the modified scheme go ahead at once?

In June this year my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State turned down even the modified scheme. Because of this, it is being asked locally whether, if enough funds could be found privately, my right hon. Friend would allow even this modified scheme to be carried out, if it were backed by local fund-raising. Some voluntary work was carried out in the past initiated by Dora Cohen when she was chairman of the local council but I am doubtful, in these stringent times, whether enough private money could be found for the task in hand, though there are many well-wishers of the Naze.

Since the Naze was purchased as a public open space about five acres have been lost to the sea and it is estimated that every three years one acre of public land is lost. From the date of the public inquiry in November 1978 erosion has continued at five feet per annum over the southern half of the cliffs with up to 36 feet being lost over a short section of front of the Naze tower.

In recent weeks a further 36 feet of cliff has been eroded weighing about 2,500 tons of soil and sand. It seems certain that the rate of erosion is now increasing. That means that the Naze tower, erected in 1720 and which is 81 feet high, which is a grade III listed building and an important sea mark, and which contains vital radio equipment for both sea and air navigation, will disappear in just 12 years if something is not done. The tower is only 60 yards from the cliff.

The houses in Hall Lane will be in jeopardy of collapse in due course and eventually the greater part of Walton would also be gravely affected. That underlines the point I make that we are almost, if not quite, meeting the principle laid down by the Ministry that houses and property are affected. That could possibly occur through erosion of the northern end of the Naze, exposing the Anglia Water Authority's sewage works and the backwaters of the Naze. Therefore, property is in danger.

I had no alternative, once the Secretary of State had disapproved the modified scheme, but to do my best to bring home the serious consequences of the decision as strongly as I could. If, unfortunately, the Secretary of State still sticks to his point of view I ask the Minister to visit the site as soon as possible, possibly with the inspector who backed the larger scheme in the first place. I am sure, after this wet summer, that damage is occurring and that it is of vital importance that something should be done. After all my years as Member of Parliament for the area I could not stand aside and see nothing done.

I want the Government to be aware of the very strong feeling that has been aroused locally as a result of the Secretary of State's decision. Take away the Naze and all the low land behind it lies equally open. I think that the feeling locally can best be described by some people who said that the Naze is Shakespeare's Naze for the people of Essex. To underline that fact they have sent me these words of Shakespeare. This fortress, built by nature for herself, Against infection and the hand of war;… This precious stone set in the silver sea, Which serves it in the office of a wall, Or as a moat defensive to a house, Against the envy of less happier lands; I trust that the Minister will hold out some hope to those who feel very strongly about this problem and who regard the Naze as a beauty spot which we should not allow to deteriorate for the sake of a minimum of capital expenditure this time, serious though I know that it may be to introduce some flexibility into the Government's monetary policy.

I am talking about capital expenditure not revenue. Surely in that light the Government could take a longer view, important though it may be for the country to continue with a tough monetary policy until inflation has been beaten. I, therefore, ask the Minister to hold out some hope and be reasonable in response to the plea that I am making.

10.40 pm
Mr. Stanley Newens (Harlow)

I give my wholehearted support to the plea made by the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale) for action to be taken to save the Naze from being eroded. Insisting on economy in this respect means that any conservation policy will be of no use in 10 or 15 years' time. The Naze will have been swept away. Once the Naze has gone no art of man will be able to restore that area of unique beauty.

Sited there is a historic eighteenth century tower. We spend much money on conservation. Some consideration should be given to the Naze. It would be an appalling reflection on our generation if we allowed the area to be washed away. I am appalled that so little attention is paid to the erosion of our coastline. I was shocked to discover that no figures are kept nationally to show the extent of erosion.

The Naze is not only of local importance—although that is considerable. It is important to many people who visit the area from London and Essex. The hon. Member for Harwich speaks not only for his constituents but for my constituents and the constituents of many other hon. Members. I do not always agree with the hon. Member on party political issues but on this occasion he speaks for people of all parties and from many constituencies. I am grateful for the opportunity to say how strongly I support the hon. Gentleman's plea. I add what strength I can to his appeal to the Government to take action before it is too late.

10.41 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Marcus Fox)

I have listened with great interest and considerable sympathy to my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale) and well understand his anxiety on behalf of his constituents about the problem of erosion by the sea of the land known as the Naze. It might be helpful if I explained some of the criteria applied when coast protection schemes are submitted for approval, particularly since my hon. Friend asked about the difference between capital and revenue. Although the Coast Protection Act 1949 provides for the protection of any land from erosion by the sea, the policy for implementing the Act has to have regard to the funds available.

All coast protection schemes, other than works of maintenance and repair and emergency works, require the approval of the Secretary of State before being constructed. The statutory procedure provides for objections and these have to be considered before a decision is given.

Schemes submitted by coast protection authorities for approval are examined to ensure that they are economically and technically sound and not extravagantly designed for their purpose. The Department also sees whether the cost of the scheme is justified by the value of the land and property it is designed to protect. This latter criterion almost invariably means that only schemes designed to protect urban areas are approved whilst those designed to protect open land—both agricultural and amenity land—are seldom justified.

At present the scales are weighted more heavily in favour of the schemes protecting houses, factories and commercial properties. I am glad that my hon. Friend drew attention to current financial restraints. In common with all programmes of public expenditure coast protection works are subject to a cash limit. That for this financial year is already fully committed to schemes under construction and schemes protecting urban areas which have already been approved. The cash limits in this period of financial stringency are such that only schemes designed to protect urban development can hope to receive approval. We are seeing whether additional funds can be made available from other programmes but even if we are successful the list of schemes protecting urban areas and held in abeyance will certainly absorb those additional funds. The financial situation is extremely tight and as I have already said, in these circumstances it is right that available funds should be used to protect areas of development, particularly homes and places of employment.

The total spent on coast protection capital works—to keep these matters in perspective—during the three years 1977–78 to 1979–80 was £19.7 million and the total grant paid out in that period was £10.9 million. Coast protection is not being neglected, but difficult decisions have to be made concerning what can be done immediately and what must wait, even for protection of urban areas.

Many other cases are brought to my attention which fall within this criteria in terms of housing and employment, but which are not in this present programme. I have every sympathy for people of an area who may see storm tides easing away attractive land such as that at the Naze. But in present circumstances we cannot protect everything. We must be selective, and it is right that houses and property should have first call on the limited funds available. Having said that, I take note that my hon. Friend claimed that property will be in danger before long.

In case hon. Members think that we have not paid due regard to the value of amenity land, I tell them that we have commissioned an investigation into the best way of carrying out the economic appraisal of coast protection schemes, including the problem of assessing the value of amenity land. A report from the local government operational research unit has just been received, and it will be studied carefully to ensure that fair assessments are made of schemes such as that before us tonight. The indications are that more exacting cost-benefit analyses will have to be made of all schemes, resulting in fewer schemes being approved.

I now turn to the problem of the Naze itself.

Mr. Ridsdale

Before the Minister leaves that point, will he deal with the fact that the money could possibly be found from private subscriptions? Would permission be given if private funds were available to carry out the work?

Mr. Fox

Yest, indeed, I had intended to deal with that point towards the end of my remarks. My Department would be more than willing to look carefully at any private funds that were available for preservation of this sort. We would do everything possible to ensure that wherever the money came from, it could be used. However, I think I am correct in saying that my hon. Friend doubted whether the full cost could be found in that way. I pay tribute to the voluntary efforts that have already been made to preserve the Naze, and I hope that they will continue. Private capital could certainly be used in this case.

The urban area of Walton is already protected from attack by the sea. The most recent work to be completed was the Mabel Greville sea wall which terminated at the Tower breakwater. At present, there is a small scheme before the Secretary of State to protect the northern end of this sea wall from outflanking by the sea. A slight modification has been suggested, and the Department is in correspondence with the district authority. I mention those points to show that we are concerned, within the limitations of finance, to do what we can.

The area which is the subject of this debate is the open land north of the Tower breakwater. It is an area of some 70 acres, and is mainly rough grassland with bushes and some trees. As my hon. Friend said, a scheme for protection esti mated to cost £1,325,000 was submitted to the Department in December 1977. I was glad that my hon. Friend did not support that scheme. At a later stage he supported a more modfied scheme, which he mentioned tonight. This scheme seemed to be far too ambitious in terms of what was involved, and the finance is, of course, a major factor.

Although there were no statutory objections, it was decided to hold a public local inquiry to enable all concerned to express their views. While the council and some organisations naturally want to protect the land, there are other bodies which are against the proposals.

I welcomed the intervention from the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Newens). In spite of his plea on lines of conservation, he will, I think, accept that the cliffs in this area are recognised internationally as one of the finest pleistocene fossil locations in the world. The prime objector, the Nature Conservancy Council, stated that the coast protection works would lead to the progressive obliteration of the exposures in the cliff through the build-up of talus behind the proposed revetment. Collections of fossils from the Naze are distributed in museums all over the world and are of considerable importance in geology, since they provide a means of telling the age of rocks and the conditions under which they were deposited.

I do not say that this is an argument for not carrying out the protection that I am asked to do, but I make the point that in a public inquiry, where people are objecting, a new factor is introduced.

Mr. Ridsdale

Is the Minister aware that people who are objecting are supporting the land drainage scheme? Otherwise the erosion will take so much that all the arguments of which the Minister is in favour will be obliterated entirely.

Mr. Fox

Of course, my hon. Friend is right. He will also be aware that it is not simply a matter for the Department of the Environment and that in terms of drainage my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is also involved. I take my hon. Friend's point. I simply enlarge on what I said previously—that these are factors that we must bear in mind when we think of the order of priority.

At the public local inquiry held in November 1978, the inspector was assisted by an engineering assessor and a geological assessor. Mindful of the policy on "open" land and the sincerity of those trying to save the Naze, he recommended that consideration be given to treating the matter as a special case with a view to determining whether expenditure to protect an area of high amenity value could be justified.

After very careful consideration and assessment in the light of the current coast protection policy, the council was directed not to carry out the proposed works. Subsequently, the council submitted a cheaper scheme—my hon. Friend supported this and referred to it—estimated to cost £320,000, which was opposed by the Nature Conservancy Council. An engineer from the Department visited the area but, as my hon. Friend knows, the decision again was against approval.

I appreciate that it is very difficult to talk about average rates of erosion because they vary along each stretch of coast and they vary year by year, but I accept what my hon. Friend has said in this respect. I note the concern that has been expressed for the historic tower. This is some 60 metres or more from the edge of the cliff at present and therefore not in immediate danger, although I recognise that the rate of erosion in this area has been substantial in the past year or so. I shall keep the matter under review.

A number of coast protection schemes have been carried out in the council's area over the last decade, at Dovercourt, Clacton and Walton, to protect urban development. There are at present with the Department two schemes for work on the sea wall at Holland on Sea on which a decision must await the availability of additional funds. Members will appreciate that there are other areas of amenity and agricultural land which are in a similar position to the Naze, which, regrettably, cannot at present be protected from the ravages of the sea.

I again express my appreciation of the efforts made by the local residents to arrest erosion at the Naze by their voluntary labours.

My hon. Friend has done a great service to his constituents in calling attention to this matter, and I am sorry that I cannot be more helpful. I shall, of course, accept his invitation to visit the Naze. I cannot say that I shall be accompanied by the inspector; indeed, in no circumstances could I promise that. I shall certainly bring with me officials who will, I am sure, have the necessary expertise.

The question of revenue and capital is difficult, because we are bound by the 1949 Act. That Act—my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Harlow may regard as the most encouraging response—which has been in operation for 31 years, is overdue for investigation and possible changes. We have undertaken a nation-wide coast protection survey as a preliminary to the review that I have mentioned. That survey, which will cover the whole of the coastline of the United Kingdom, will give us more information than we have had in the past.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Eleven o'clock.