HC Deb 21 March 1990 vol 169 cc1211-8

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

10.6 pm

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East)

I do not know the financial cost of what happened in Towyn, north Wales, on 27 February, although the human cost and misery were clear for all to see. But I do know that restoring the town will cost hundreds of times more than the remedial work on the sea wall would have cost.

That single storm, despite the fact that the winds were not that severe, brought havoc throughout the coastal areas of the west. In Cornwall, Devon, Weston-super-Mare, Wales and further north, it taught us that a combination of wind, tide, rising sea levels and decaying sea defences will wreak such destruction that the money saved by doing next to nothing will rank as infinitesimal compared with the cost of the damage caused.

Under constant attack from the effects of wind, wave and tide, our coastline is being eroded and urgent action is necessary to avoid the loss of land, property and life. Yet since the storms of 1953 and the subsequent construction of sea defences on the east coast, there has been little major coastal protection work. Even those east coast defences are nearing the end of their useful life and require extensive repair or replacement. Sea wall construction costs on average £5 million a kilometre. About £150 million will have to be spent in the Anglian region alone over the next 10 years just to maintain the current level of protection, with £450 million being the estimate for the United Kingdom over the same period.

Yet even that is an underestimate, as the little evidence that is available clearly shows that the effect of rising sea levels and changing weather patterns threaten larger areas of our coast with increased destruction. But no one knows how much or how soon or at what cost.

Sea levels are variously predicted to rise between 0.2 m and 1.65 m by the middle of the next century, and storm patterns are expected to change for the worse. The latest assessment of predicted sea level rise now varies between 25 cm and 40 cm. No one can tell with certainty what will he the consequences. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has produced a map that clearly shows that about 750,000 hectares, of which some 200,000 is prime agricultural land, are below the 5 m ordnance datum. In other words, that area could at any time be inundated at present possible storm water levels. if one makes a modest estimate of the average value of the land, buildings and contents at £100,000 a hectare, the value of the property currently under threat, even without sea level rises and climate change, is £75 billion.

It is true that Durham university is investigating the impact of sea level rise, but the study is directed towards the methodology of establishing the impact rather than assessing the cost, although the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has a research project at the university of East Anglia entitled "the economic appraisal of the consequences of climate-induced sea-level rise", that is at an early stage and there have been several suggestions that it is inadequately funded.

Even when coastal protection and building works are undertaken, they are too often undertaken in an unco-ordinated and haphazard manner, and in cones-quence their operation frequently increases the risk to an adjoining area.

The responsibility for the protection of the coastline is divided among 240 different authorities. Coastal work such as groynes, piers and harbour entrances are frequently carried out by individual authorities without due consideration being given to the effect on the coastal regime of an adjacent authority. Consequently, it often causes severe accretion or erosion problems by interfering with the movement of beach material.

My hon. Friend the Minister will no doubt tell me, and he will be correct to do so, that action has been taken to ease the position through the establishment of 10 regional coastal groups involving 72 authorities. But co-ordination of coastal construction and coastal protection on a national basis is essential if effective protection is to be achieved. My hon. Friend will know that few coastal authorities talk to one another about common problems, and the newly formed regional coastal groups have not even met.

We need a single body to co-ordinate the monitoring of water, wave, beach and sea bed levels to provide the support for research and design methods, and hence the forms of construction. The same body should advise on national priorities and approve local proposals. As the National Rivers Authority is already responsible for the general supervision of sea defences, it would seem reasonable that its remit should be extended and its funding increased to cover the whole coastline.

With the Coast Protection Act 1949, the Land Drainage Act 1976, the Crown Lands Act 1866, the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, the Sea-Fisheries Regulation Act 1966, the Control of Pollution Act 1974, the Prevention of Oil Pollution Act 1971, the Dumping at Sea Act 1974, the Customs and Excise Act 1952, the Highways Act 1959, and the numerous private Bills and railways Acts all affecting the coastal zone, there is a clear need to establish legislation to provide a coherent and comprehensive policy for dealing with interests there.

It is also essential that funding is provided and research co-ordinated to develop appropriate design and construction methods. Too little data are available to predict reliably the future effects of wind, tide and sea levels on existing sea defences. But we can already be clear that the rise in sea levels coupled with more severe storm conditions will result in the need to spend between £5 billion and £8 billion to deal with the increasing threat.

East Anglia appears to be in immediate danger, but many parts of the south and west coasts need urgent attention. However, we do not know where to start. Apart from the Anglian sea defence management study, hardly any monitoring is taking place. But research is essential if we are to do what is necessary in the time we have and a t the most effective cost. Research into the inshore wave climate, the combined probability of high wave and water levels, the co-ordination of wave data acquisition, research into beach stability and provision of instrumentation to obtain field data and the collection and collation of those data to verify the predictions of mathematical models of sediment transport, wave refraction and diffraction should be taking place now. Research is essential in the full-scale monitoring of the coastal structure, and we must interlink field and laboratory experiments to investigate the physics of sediment transport.

We have 4,026 km of coastline, but only 23 per cent. is protected by concrete walls or steel sheet piling; 12 per cent. is protected by the soft-edge solution—essentially grass banks—leaving 65 per cent. in its natural state. As conditions become more severe, a greater length of coastline will require protection against flooding and damage. However, as coastal protection work is a long-term activity, there is an overwhelming need to take action now—on a national basis—to prepare for essential construction work. It is true that we cannot provide protection against all exceptional storms. It is not economic to do so, and the environmental impact of doing so would be horrendous. Nevertheless, there is much research and construction that we need to do now.

Cynics may say that there are no votes in spending on coastal protection, and that therefore one should do as little as possible. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister would agree that, although there may not be many votes to be gained by doing something, there are a great deal to be lost by doing nothing.

In conclusion, I offer my hon. Friend an acronym to remind him of what is necessary. The acronym is CRAC: we need co-ordination, research and urgent action, and we definitely need the cash.

10.16 pm
Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

I am obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed) for raising this important matter, and for so generously giving me a few moments of his precious Adjournment debate.

My hon. Friend and I share love of the sea. Since I entered the House, he has been most generous with his help and advice and he has shown this evening that his knowledge of maritime matters is extensive. However, it is not quite true that there are no field data, as my own back garden runs down to the harbour in Cowes. Twice this year we have had the sea well up the garden, and there were surfboarders in Cowes high street as a result of exceptionally high tides this year. I can confirm that we have some field data.

Sea defences are important, and nowhere more so than on an island such as the Isle of Wight. On our Solent and Channel shores, our coastline has taken an appalling battering this winter. Medina borough council estimates that its costs will be in excess of £100,000 for damage between Seaview and Puckpool and at Gurnard. South Wight borough council, which is responsible for over two thirds of the island's coastline, has already served notice on the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food of the need for sea defence work at Monks Bay and Steephil Cove. At Monks Bay a large section of the cliff has now fallen away and the total cost is likely to be about 100,000.

Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that it is an extraordinary anomaly that councils that receive 70 per cent. of the capital costs grant-aided receive nothing for maintenance. Many of our coastal defences fall into disrepair and are ravaged by the mighty ocean, so that the local authorities must then rebuild them with more grant aid. The Minister should acknowledge the whole crazy system and, like the boy and the dyke, poke his finger into the nonsensical bureaucracy and stop the financial haemorrhage by grant-aiding maintenance work as well as capital grant aid.

10.19 pm
The Parliamentary-Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. David Maclean)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed) for the interest he has shown in this subject, which has been on all our minds so recently, and for giving me the opportunity to reassure him on the issues that are of concern to him and other hon. Members and to convey to the House my Department's responsibility and the present arrangements concerning coastal defence works.

Recent exceptional weather conditions, resulting in both flooding and storm damage, have attracted public interest to flood and coastal defences. I start by expressing the Government's deepest sympathy to those who have been affected by this dreadful flooding.

We all saw and applauded the way in which the National Rivers Authority and local authorities responded to the effects of a series of extraordinary storms in December, January and February. Local authorites and the regional organisations of the NRA are close to the scene of the flooding events, and, for this reason, are able to act quickly in an emergency. They know the area. They know the defences, for they and their predecessors have replaced, improved and maintained them over many years, and it is right that they should do so.

While the Government keenly recognise the national significance of ensuring the upkeep of our coastal defences by contributing grant—at rates up to 75 per cent. from next year—towards the cost of these works, the defences are also local defences. The problems of flooding and erosion are also local. It is the local people who have to live with these defences at the bottom of their gardens, on the beaches or promenades in their towns, or in front of their houses, and who have to cope with the awful consequences of flooding; therefore, it is right that the solutions to these problems should have a strong local input. The present arrangements allow this to happen.

Of course, as trustees of public funds, the Government must ensure that the works proposed for our coastline, and inland, represent a sound investment if they are to attract grant. For this reason, our team of project engineers works closely with the authorities concerned—in many cases, right from the inception of a project. My officials give careful and thorough appraisal to projects before they are approved for grant. Through our partnership with the NRA, which undertakes most flood defence works, we are encouraging a movement away from a piecemeal approach in defence construction towards long-term strategic planning—something for which my hon. Friend called—for instance, by supporting a detailed study of the Anglian coastline, which he mentioned, to ensure that the long-term problems are clear and that the best solution for the area is identified.

The Government also have an important role to play nationally through setting a strategic framework for consideration of priorities for defences, funding research and development—for which my hon. Friend called—to elucidate approaches to defending the coastline, and through providing grant directing it to the priority areas. As guardians of investment of Government funds, through my river and coastal engineers, we ensure the economic, technical and environmental soundness of projects that are grant aided.

This is a carefully balanced relationship, and it actually works on the ground. To change the balance of responsibilities in either direction would, I believe, render the provision of nationwide inland and coastal defence less effective, either because of overcentralisation in national Government, or because the potential difficulties of local bodies taking narrow local priorities would be exacerbated.

High priority is given to coastal defences. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that we are increasing the maximum grant for coastal defences from 70 to 75 per cent. next month. Over the next three years, the total Government grant provision in Britain for flood and coastal defences is £161 million, and, of this sum, 80 per cent. is likely to be spent on coastal works. These amounts represent substantial increases in provision by my right hon. Friends' Departments and my own. Increases average about 50 per cent., while, in my own Department, grant provision to the NRA—increased following both the 1988 and the 1989 public expenditure survey rounds as a result of a comprehensive review of flood defence needs—will almost double by 1992–93.

In Wales, Scotland and England, grant provision is assessed on the basis of plans submitted by the authorities responsible for carrying out the works. In England, for example, the NRA submits annually a five-year programme of works. Information of this nature provides the medium-term planning which underpins our assessment of funding requirements, while also providing the information necessary to determine the capital expenditure limits in each region for the subsequent year.

In England, funding is targeted according to priorities that put flood warning systems and the protection of people and property first. Additional support is given to sea and tidal defence works, which attract a supplement of 15 per cent. rising to 20 per cent. from next month.

In the Anglian region, where needs are particularly high, capital expenditure limits, while already high, are being raised by 17 per cent. next year and are likely to increase further in succeeding years. Anglia also attracts some of the highest grant rates in England. The south-west is another area where flood and coastal defence needs are growing.

Capital expenditure limits have been increased by 33 per cent. together with an increase in grant rate for coastal works to 65 per cent.. In the southern region, the entire planned programme for 1990–91 will attract grant from my Department.

Mr. Barry Field

No one faults the capital grants, but the problem is how to maintain the defences, once they have been erected.

Mr. Maclean

I noted carefully what my hon. Friend said in his speech. I shall consider the question of maintenance and will write to him, giving a detailed and considered reply.

While the majority of the coastal defences in Britain stood up very well to the challenge of the recent extreme storm events, a few areas, most of them well publicised, have suffered the effects of flooding. I should stress that the weather conditions that led to the flooding have been exceptional. In a number of flooded areas, works were already programmed or under way. However, we have asked the authorities responsible for defences in areas where flooding and damage has occurred to review the defences and to give us an early indication of changes to programmes so that we can reconsider needs and priorities.

I am aware of the particular problem of loss of beach material on the south coast which is causing anxiety to authorities and ourselves. Therefore, in partnership with the NRA and local authorities, I am considering the need for a study of the circumstances leading to the loss of beach material, with a view to identifying robust remedial measures.

Interest in coastal defences has, I know, also grown through increasing awareness of the greenhouse effect and the consequent speculation on the possible effects this might have on sea levels. While the precise effects of global warming are not yet known, the greenhouse effect and its consequences are being extensively researched through international programmes with United Kingdom involvement.

My Department is responsible for the national flood protection research programme and at present funds some 30 research projects on coastal defences, at a cost of £1.4 million. After the debates I will show my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East the list of those 30 projects This research ranges from United Kingdom sea level trends to the action and effects of waves, the behaviour of shingle beaches and the effectiveness of various types of sea defences. Many of these projects will assist in ensuring that coastal defences are so designed that any necessary adjustements, as sea level rises, can be made easily, thereby safeguarding the present investment. Currently, a relative sea level rise of 30 cm per century is taken into account in designing sea defences; this is about twice the present trend in sea level rise.

My Department does not only involve itself in research related to the greenhouse effect; it also plays an active role in promoting the study of coastal regimes and encouraging the long-term strategic planning of flood defence works. For example, the most comprehensive study in the country is currently being undertaken on the Anglian coastline from the Humber to the Thames.

Some of those present will recall the tragic events in 1953 when so many lives were lost as a result of flooding on the east coast. The defences built after that event have successfully withstood a similar threat from the North sea on several occasions. These defences are now reaching the end of their useful lives, and this major study will investigate coastal processes such as sediment movement and offshore conditions, to establish the best means of providing a sound defence along this vulnerable coastline. That is exactly the research for which my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East was calling.

The research and development programme includes projects investigating extreme events, studying wave generation and predicting waves at the coast. The projects help to inform the design of protective structures, but some will be more immediately applicable. At the moment, there are questions about the best types of defences, whether they should be "hard", such as walls, or "soft" such as renewed beaches. There are research projects into the design of sea walls and examining cliff stability, sediment transport and beach profiles that will help to answer some of those important questions.

However, there is unlikely to be a single solution that will be suitable for every site. The type of structures that have worked well in the past may be favoured in the future, but new understanding will allow more informed choices and the adoption of newer approaches to coastal defence.

In summing up, I repeat my sympathy to those who have suffered flooding as a result of the exceptional weather. However, I remind the House that our coastal defences are kept under continual review and this is why, despite repeated attacks by wind, tides and surges, most of our coastal defences were effective and held up pretty well. Substantial increases in Government funding, including increasing the maximum grant rate for works on the coast and inland, have already been announced following our on-going reviews, and we intend to ensure that Government funding is sufficient to take account of necessary adjustments to programmes and priorities as a result of the recent storm events.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East urged me to accept the acronym CRAC. We are right up to crack with CRAC. My Department is carrying out the co-ordination, we are committed to the research, we are treating the matter urgently and we are piling in the cash. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to respond to this very important debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes to Eleven o'clock.