HC Deb 10 December 1992 vol 215 cc1012-50

[Relevant documents: The Second Report from the Environment Committee of Session 1991–92 on Coastal Zone Protection and Planning (HC 17) and the Government's reply thereto (Cm. 2011).]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That a sum not exceeding £17,763,619,000 be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund, on account, for or towards defraying the charges for civil services, in Class VII, for the year ending on 31st March 1994, as set out in the House of Commons Paper No. 232 of Session 1992–93.—[Mr. Maclean.]

4.19 pm
Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West)

It is a great privilege to be able to introduce this debate, particlarly since it is the first opportunity that I have had to pay a tribute to my predecessor, Sir Hugh Rossi, under whose chairmanship this report was produced in April. Sir Hugh was a very distinguished public servant, both as a Minister and, latterly, as the Chairman of the Select Committee on the Environment. I believe that history will say that he had a unique influence on environmental legislation in this country. His is a very hard act to follow, and I am delighted that I had a piece of my apprenticeship under his chairmanship.

I begin by summarising what the Committee said in its report, as I think that that will be of assistance to the House. The report was published in April this year. The Committee chose to take a broad and integrated view of coastal issues and the multitude of bodies, including Government Departments, local authorities and public agencies, which have policies, responsibilities or interests in the coastal zone.

Throughout the inquiry Government officials stressed repeatedly that existing arrangements for coast protection and sea defence were working extremely well. Of course, that was not the view of the vast majority of witnesses in the evidence that they submitted to us. Perhaps the discrepancy is because of the traditional arguments between Departments over such matters—I am thinking especially of the relationship between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of the Environment.

After the Committee had heard the evidence, the main conclusions of its report were that coastal protection, planning and management in the United Kingdom had suffered centuries of unco-ordinated decisions and actions—perhaps better described as "inactions"—at national and local levels; that there are inadequacies in the legislation, anomalies in the planning system, a lack of central guidance, and overlapping policies and responsibilities among a host of bodies with poor co-ordination between them.

We concluded that the reasons for such failings were partly a result of the pattern of ownership of the coastal zone and partly because the boundaries separating the administrative authorities are not meaningful in terms of natural coastal processes and the consequences on one part of the coast of interference in another.

The Committee is certain that there is no single panacea to resolve all the problems currently experienced in the coastal zone, but we are equally convinced that the complexity of the current situation demands a more comprehensive and integrated approach than is presently being taken. We therefore supported the overall perspective commonly known as "coastal zone management", or CZM for short.

Coastal zone management aims to balance demands for coastal zone resources, to promote their sustainable use and, as far as possible, to resolve conflicts of use by integrated planning and management within coastal cells that are defined by natural coastal dynamics rather than administrative tidiness.

Britain is fortunate in having the building blocks for an integrated coastal zone management approach: a whole range of bodies is committed to the concept, and existing coastal groups and forums could be adapted to take on new coastal zone management roles. The Committee therefore concluded its report by recommending that coastal zone management, delivered through a "cascade" of national, regional and local coastal zone management plans, is the key to sustaining the future use, enjoyment and ecology of the coastal zone.

The Government's response dealt with a number, although not all, of the issues. Perhaps it would be helpful if I also summarised what the Government said. It was significant that, at the start of our inquiry, our request for evidence from the Department of the Environment resulted in a memorandum that set out for the first time a full statement of the Government's policies and activities for coastal zone protection and planning. It is one of the features of the Select Committee system that, almost as soon as a Committee embarks on an inquiry, there is a flurry of activity in the Departments involved and a rationalisation of existing policies. If the Committee achieved nothing else, that is a powerful achievement to its credit.

Equally welcome was the Government's response to the Committee's report that was published last July. That document is a considered and well-written response, and we were heartened to read that the Government considered our report to be a valuable contribution to the debate on coastal zone protection and planning. The Government accepted several, although not all, of our recommendations. In particular, we were pleased that they accepted the need for local coastal management plans as a vehicle for implementing national policies and for such plans to be incorporated into the statutory plan system. The intention to promote multi-agency estuary and coastal management plans is most welcome.

It is encouraging that the Government accept that strategic consideration of environmental issues must cross the land-sea divide. While not wholly in accord with our recommendation to extend local authority planning powers to the 12-mile limit, the Government agree to "take the debate further" by issuing a discussion paper. We are told that the paper will also consider the form and scope of coastal management plans, and we look forward to receiving the Government's proposals for consultation in due course.

We were also encouraged that the Government agreed to consider the Committee's views in their review of the marine aggregates licensing procedures and their review of the mineral planning guidance note 6 on the provision of aggregates. We were pleased to learn that such a review would also discuss the continuing role of the Crown Estate in that matter.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Will the hon. Gentleman recognise that one thing that ought to be considered in that review is the situation at Druridge Bay in Northumberland, which was drawn to the Committee's attention, where sand continues to be dug from the beach on the basis of a planning decision granted on appeal decades ago and the Government still consider that the local authority should find what might be unlimited sums for compensation arising from a decision that it never took?

Mr. Jones

The right hon. Gentleman would not expect me to go into detail on a constituency point, but there are deficiencies and I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) wants to go into that if he catches Madam Speaker's eye. That is the purpose of the review and I hope that these issues will be addressed.

The Government are also reviewing permitted development rights accorded to the port and harbour authorities under the General Development Order and will consider subjecting certain activities to environmental assessment, which I welcome. The Government agree with the Committee that the application of environmental assessments in the coastal zone could be improved.

Other areas where the Government and the Committee are of the same mind include, first, the value of "controlled retreat" as an attractive option in certain cases, and the need to support research and development in this area; secondly, the extension of grant-aid provision to beach management schemes as well as capital coastal works—we found that the existing grant system favoured "hard" engineering works above the more environmentally-friendly "soft" works; thirdly, better protection for conservation areas that straddle the interface between land and sea, especially in the context of the new European Community habitats directive; fourthly, the advantages of protective ownership for coastal land in achieving conservation objectives; and fifthly, the need to clarify the role of the many agencies involved in monitoring, regulating and cleaning up marine pollution.

Finally, in response to our recommendation for greater co-ordination of information and research on the coastal zone, the Government produced a most useful summary of the various information networks and databases operated by different bodies, and as such represents a source of reference in its own right.

There were, of course, several of the Committee's recommendations that the Government rejected, and these remain outstanding issues for debate. For example, we were disappointed that the Government saw no need for a national coastal strategy. We urge the Government to reconsider this matter, since a national strategy is essential for setting long-term objectives and targets for coastal policy and for providing an overall framework for coastal management plans. The recent planning policy guidance on coastal planning, although a welcome development, is no substitute for a national coastal strategy that sets out policies and priorities and guides the allocation of national coastal resources and local coastal plans.

The Government also refused to accept the Committee's argument that there is widespread duplication of responsibilities or poor co-ordination between the many bodies involved with the coast. While it acknowledges the need for a national overview of coastal policy, it rejects our recommendation for the creation of a national coastal zone unit, arguing that co-ordination can be achieved via the existing interdepartmental group at official level. I find it difficult to accept that as we shall find it difficult to monitor the work of this group because we understand from the Minister that it will meet in private.

It came as no shock to the Committee that its recommendation that coastal defence policy be taken away from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was rejected outright. Nevertheless, we still believe that coastal defence is no longer an appropriate MAFF responsibility, and that the Department of the Environment would provide a more suitable lead on coastal defence issues, operating through the National Rivers Authority.

May I, Madam Deputy Speaker, welcome you to the Chair at this point, as I know of your particular interest in the coast. It is rather ironic that I should open this debate since I believe that my constituency of West Hertfordshire is about as far from the coast as it is possible to be. But of course the maritime tradition of our nation is such that nearly all of us have a particular interest in concern about the marine environment. We stated in the opening sentence of our report: Coastal zone protection and planning cannot be reviewed in isolation; they are inextricably linked to the administration and management of the many activities and uses of the coastal zone". We were therefore most concerned that, although the Government will accept boundary and membership changes to the existing coastal groups, they rejected our recommendation for these groups to extend their chiefly engineering role to include coastal zone management. In our view, that represents a failure to integrate coastal defence with the other elements of coastal planning and protection.

The Government rejected the Committee's recommendation that coastal zone plans be based on natural coastal "cells"—on the ground that it was not a practical approach. I am not sure what a practical approach is, if we are to be permitted to pursue diametrically opposed policies on, for example, the north and the south sides of the River Dee because the local authorities concerned happen to have different ideas of what the major tasks for their areas are.

Several developments have taken place since the report was written and the Government responded to it, and I shall now deal with those. The first key development since the Government's response was the publication in September of the planning policy guidance on coastal planning. That is to be welcomed, because it is exactly 20 years since the last planning guidance on coasts was issued. In general, it will be most useful for local planning authorities, but if the Government had chosen to adopt coastal zone management in full that would have promoted a more integrated approach by giving coastal zone management plans a higher profile.

Secondly, the Government have included a section on the coast in the second-year report on "This Common Inheritance". Thirdly, "Agenda 21", from the Earth summit, supports coastal zone management. Fourthly, the Public Accounts Committee published its report on coastal defences in England on 26 November.

We are also aware that earlier this month the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food endorsed support for a more environmental approach to coastal defence, such as facilitating "soft" defence measures—for example, beach replenishment—as part of the strategy for flood and coastal defence currently being developed in consultation with other organisations, which MAFF intends to publish next spring.

I was encouraged by the launch of English Nature's Campaign for a Living Coast on 14 October. That is a long-term conservation programme for the maritime environment, which sets up three task groups to tackle the main problem areas—coasts, estuaries, and marine conservation. Finally, any day now we should receive MAFF's environmental guidelines for coastal works and the guide for local authorities to good practice on coastal planning from the National Coasts and Estuaries Group.

I said that there were a number of outstanding issues, and I shall tackle those now. Judging from the number of developments that I have listed, it is significant that so much has happened since coastal policy came under the scrutiny of the Select Committee on the Environment. Many of those developments were already under way when we began our inquiry, but I should like to think that the Committee has helped to raise the profile of the coastal zone, and contributed to the rate at which coastal initiatives have progressed.

Having painted a fairly full picture of the current coastal scene, I shall now pursue a few issues which I hope that the Minister will consider in his reply. From the United Kingdom angle, although our report made it clear that our findings and recommendations were focused on England and its shared estuaries, we trusted that they also had a nationwide relevance and would be considered for application throughout the United Kingdom. I therefore ask my hon. Friend the Minister to clarify the position in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and to explain the Government's intentions on coastal policy in those countries.

The Government have clearly rejected our proposals for regional coastal zone management plans. It is interesting that, nevertheless, MAFF is encouraging coastal defence authorities to form coastal groups to share experience and develop a strategic approach to coastal defence in their areas, and has also given grants towards regional coastal defence studies, to allow a strategic view to be taken of the options available. It appears that although coastal defence may develop along regional lines, coastal zone management may not.

English Nature supports the Committee in advocating a regional approach to shoreline management, which should include activities other than simple coastal defence. It also supports the restructuring of regional coastal groups to reflect natural rather than local government boundaries. I ask my hon. Friend to clarify that apparent anomaly in the Government's thinking. If he is not prepared to move on the issue of regional coastal zone management plans, will he tell us whether he is prepared to compromise by producing regional policy statements or guidance that reflects the different priorities and problems around the United Kingdom?

As the Government have until today set their face against any national overview of coastal zone management and against regionally based plans, but have proposed to encourage the preparation of local management plans for particular stretches of the coast, will my hon. Friend the Minister explain what form that encouragement will take? If the Government are not going to do anything at national level, surely they must be prepared to assist local authorities and other agencies at local level.

We know about the resources that have gone to English Nature for estuary plan support. The Department of the Environment also supports the Mersey estuary plan study through the Mersey Basin campaign at £15,000 over three years to be matched by local authorities, by English Nature and by the National Rivers Authority. The Committee visited the area during our study tour of coastal sites in Sefton. There is much criticism that the level of resourcing will not achieve progress at a sufficient rate despite the considerable enthusiasm among the groups now formed for all the major estuaries in the north-west.

At the European level, the EC has been relatively quiet on the subject of coastal policy, although we are aware that the Commission is preparing a comprehensive strategy on integrated management and planning of the Community coastal zones. Will my hon. Friend bring us up to date on what progress has been made under the United Kingdom presidency of the European Council to develop policy in that area? Is he encouraging EC development proposals on coastal zone management, for example?

On marine conservation legislation, it appears that the Government envisage a non-statutory system, based on marine conservation areas, for some form of management plans and something statutory for sites that need protection under the habitats directive. How will the Government address sites that are important but not of habitats directive standard? Are they to be left to voluntary arrangements, for example, or will they be covered by legislation designed to fulfil the habitats directive?

Planning offshore is also an important issue. The Government said that they would look at the planning system offshore, but in their response to the Committee, they also said that the role of the Crown Estates Commissioners needed to be reviewed only in the case of licensing marine aggregates. As the role of the Crown Estate Commissioners and planning offshore are intimately linked, I do not see how the Government can review one without reviewing the other. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will explain the Government's position on that point.

As I have mentioned, the Government gave a commitment to review the permitted development rights of ports and harbours. Will my hon. Friend tell us the Government's time scale for that? Will he also tell us whether the review will cover only projects requiring environmental assessment or whether it will be wider ranging than that?

The Government agreed with the Committee that there is a need to identify areas at risk from flooding, but they took cover behind their flood risk circular and the work of the National Rivers Authority's Anglian region. It is the NRA which needs to define risk areas, but that is not only a coastal issue, as recent events have shown. I speak rather bitterly, as my own house was flooded in the September floods. Many NRA regions are not able to define up-to-date flood risk areas for incorporation in development plans. One study in East Anglia is all very well, but will my hon. Friend the Minister tell us what is happening in the rest of the country? Is the NRA sufficiently resourced to provide local planning authorities with reliable data that can stand the test of planning appeal inquiries?

The Government have taken some welcome first steps towards a more considered and co-ordinated approach to protecting and planning the many different activities and issues in the coastal zone. However, we are left with the impression that the main thrust of the Committee's report has been somewhat sidestepped. The Government can be accused of failing to take the plunge into a truly holistic approach to coastal zone management and its delivery through a hierarchy of plans that deal with all relevant issues in the coastal zone within meaningful coastal cells. A system such as the one that we recommended would form the linchpin of integrated protection and planning of the coastal zone. Anything else may be determined to be paddling around the edge.

The coast and its protection are important issues for the whole country and not simply for people who live on the coast. Our natural environment there, the facilities for those who spend their leisure time there and the interests of those who have homes and land in the region of the coast are matters for us all. I hope that this debate will provide an ample opportunity to discuss the Committee's thoughts and hon. Members' thoughts in the right context.

4.39 pm
Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower)

I welcome the report of the Select Committee on the Environment, and I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) who, in his inimitable way, summarised excellently the main points in his Committee's report and in the Government's response to it. I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Chair of the Select Committee. I am sure that he will follow in the footsteps of his great predecessor in that position and do a tremendous job.

I hope that the Government will do more than pay lip service to the Committee's recommendations. I welcome some of their positive responses but I hope that, following the report on the need for greater protection and planning, their commitment to implementing their promised responses will be much greater than it has been in the past.

My interest in coastal protection relates to the undermining of the marine and coastal environment by the dredging of sand and gravel. In 1990, the Llanelli Sand and Dredging Company applied for a licence to extract 100,000 tonnes of sand a year from Helwick bank, a sand bank just off the south-west point of the Gower coast. It was the first time that the Welsh Office had dealt with an extraction licence application under the Government view procedure. We had great hopes that Wales would take a lead in meeting environmental demands, especially as evidence given at the Environment Committee's sittings was already highlighting inadequacies in the procedures for issuing licences. However, the Secretary of State for Wales gave a favourable view on the application at the end of October—three months after the Government's response to the Select Committee was published.

I wish to use the example of the licence application at Helwick bank to make three points. First, the way in which the Welsh Office responded to the application says much more about the Government's real attitude to the marine aggregate licensing system than do the promises that they set out in annex A of their response to the Committee's recommendation for a review of the approval process for marine-dredged minerals.

Objections to the issuing of licences at Helwick bank reflected a wide range of informed opinion, including the county council, district and community councils, the south Wales sea fisheries group, the Swansea bay coastal group. the National Rivers Authority, the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, the National Trust, the Committee for the Protection of Rural Wales and other local conservation groups.

What we all wanted was an environmental assessment before any extraction took place. Sand and gravel take so long to form that they cannot be regarded as a renewable resource. We wanted to know the estimated amounts of exploitable sand and gravel that were in place. We wanted to know what, exactly, was the resource of Helwick bank. We wanted to know about Helwick as an ecological resource.

Two detailed research studies undertaken at Swansea university showed that the sand bank was ecologically important in terms of marine habitat and the food chain. The bank is one of those many spots that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food may not designate as a significant fishery. Nevertheless, it provides an additional source of income for a few local fishermen who trawl for regular, if not frequent, catches.

We wanted to know about the environmental resource that Helwick comprised. What was the relationship of the bank to the headland, to the shifting sands of the sea bed and to the local beaches, which had definitely been losing sand over a long period? Such information was crucial to the coastal protection of the first area of Britain to be designated as one of outstanding natural beauty.

In annex A of the response to the Select Committee's report, the Government promise to ask for appropriate information to support licence applications, including an environmental statement. That document was published in July this year. The Welsh Office gave a favourable view to the Helwick bank application at the end of October—all of three months later. So much for promises. I hope that the Government's other promised reforms in respect of dredging will be more meaningful.

By not insisting on an environmental assessment before extraction began, the Welsh Office has ensured that it has no baseline against which the information provided under the monitoring conditions can be judged. The strict monitoring conditions will be meaningless because we shall not know what we have before it is subjected to enormous upheaval or destruction. It is impossible to measure how high one has jumped if one does not know where the floor is at the outset.

Sand levels on beaches will be elaborately monitored, and I am glad of that. But let us not fool ourselves: if aerial photographs show that a foot of sand has disappeared from Oxwich bay in six months, no one will be able to prove that dredging has caused it. No one will be able to stop the operations once they have been approved. If the number of bass caught falls in a year or two, no one will be able to prove that stocks are lower because of the destruction of one of the bass nursery areas and feeding grounds at Helwick bank.

Although the Secretary of State for Wales has imposed on the Llanelli Sand and Dredging Company a limit of 100,000 tonnes a year for four years, we must remember that that company is only the first to arrive on the bank. We know that others are waiting to apply for licences. What conditions will be put on those?

That brings me to my second point, which concerns the role of the Crown Estate in the Government view procedure. The Crown Estate has repeatedly said that it wants to move away from its quasi-planning authority role and concentrate on its role as landlord. That was the position that it took in its evidence to the Select Committee.

The Crown Estate is placed in an invidious position in the Government view procedure. As it pointed out in evidence to the Select Committee, the Crown Estate has never gone against a Government view and has always imposed the conditions that the Government had suggested. In practice, therefore, it is the Government who decide whether an extraction licence will be issued. That means that the Government take the credit for an unfavourable view but, as the Secretary of State for Wales told me in a letter dated 8 January last year: it is for the Crown Estate Office to grant or refuse production licences when the Government's view is favourable. That means that the Crown Estate never gets the credit but always gets the blame for decisions.

I must say that we in Gower regard the Crown Estate as a rather complacent landlord. I do not know many landlords who are so casual with their assets as not to want to know exactly what they are and to maximise their value, but that is how the Crown Estate manages its marine aggregates. If it wants to emphasise its role as a landlord and forgo its purely theoretical role as planning authority for licensing, the Crown Estate should take on the responsibility for managing its own resources. It should assess resources such as Helwick bank, and provide studies, research, information and projections for each project. It should undertake an environmental impact assessment and state, at the time of applying for permission for marine extraction, how much aggregate a year is to be taken, for how many years and by how many sub-contractors.

In short, the Crown Estate should commission a national comprehensive picture of marine aggregate. resources and should develop a strategy for extraction which has due regard for ecological, environmental and coastal protection. Such a management system would work much better in the interests of administrative and economic efficiency, in maintaining uniform and high standards and in maximising the value of the resource.

As I have said, other companies are expected to apply for licences to dredge on Helwick bank. How will their applications be evaluated? How can the expensive monitoring programme forced on the Llanelli Sand and Dredging Company possibly have any meaning if another company comes along and dredges another 100,000 tonnes a year—and another, and another? Will all the companies carry out monitoring? If not, why should the Llanelli Sand and Dredging Company pay out just because it was the first applicant? Or has it been given a monopoly for dredging on Helwick? One can see the confusion which arises when one really looks at this can of worms.

Finally, I want to comment on that part of the Select Committee report which refers to the confusion in coastal protection and coastal planning between the roles of the Department of Environment, or in Wales the Welsh Office, and local authorities. Again Helwick bank provides the illustration. As one of the funding authorities for the Swansea bay coastal study, which shows that not nearly enough is known about the marine environment to permit dredging, Swansea city council was an objector to the licence application. The city wants to prevent dredging at Helwick bank until more is known about coastal erosion in the area. On its own evidence, the city council has a duty to prevent dredging because it is a coastal protection authority.

The council therefore looked to section 18 of the Coast Protection Act 1949 to make an order prohibiting the removal of any material on, under, or forming part of the sea shore within their area, or of the sea shore lying to the seaward side of the area but within three nautical miles thereof. Before any such order can be made, however, the council must prepare and publish a draft order. In the event of any objections—one would expect the dredging company at least to object—the Secretary of State may convene a public inquiry. In other words, in practice it is the Secretary of State who decides the application. As he has already given a favourable view in this case, the Secretary of State will not agree with the city council.

In the response to the Select Committee report, again at annex A, the Government say that they will look at the roles and interaction between the owners of the sea bed, central Government and local authorities. The case of Helwick bank shows the need for such an examination and for remedies to deal with contradictory and inadequate procedures. You, Madam Deputy Speaker, will understand why my constituents in Gower were so disappointed about the Helwick bank decision. We shall be watching with as much interest as the Select Committee to see how quickly the Government will honour the promises that they have made in response to the Select Committee report.

I hope that improved procedures will be in place before the next company applies for a licence to dredge at Helwick bank off my constituency of Gower.

4.53 pm
Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) on his election as Chairman of the Select Committee on the Environment. Following, as he does, in the footsteps of such an illustrious predecessor, I am sure that he too will earn an enviable reputation as a guardian of the nation's environment.

I welcome to our debate this evening my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside. I believe that I am correct in saying that his is the first response in this Parliament to a Select Committee report, which shows, as always, that he is pre-eminent in spotting a trend.

Only the other day I followed him during a water meter debate in which he put forward the novel suggestion that we should re-use our bath water in domestic dwellings to preserve that necessary natural resource. I have to tell him that such is the infrequency of that activity in my household by my children that were he to see what they leave behind in the bath his Department would be more likely to license bath water as a dangerous substance rather than wishing it to be recycled.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West made two points which I want to develop. One concerned marine aggregates and the review of the mineral planning guidance note number six, as well as the review of the continuing role of the Crown Estate in that area. The second concerned the Government's consideration of the planning system offshore. My hon. Friend rightly highlighted the role of the Crown Estate and its involvement in planning offshore and asked the Minister to clarify the fact that the Crown Estate's role in planning was not to he reviewed.

I want to pick up those points and develop them further as well as drawing attention to the absence of any reference in planning police guidance note number 20, so recently issued, to the dumping of dredged material, as highlighted in paragraph 97 of the Select Committee's report. The highlighted comment says: We recommend that there should be better co-ordination between those authorities responsible for dredging, disposing of and utilising marine aggregates in order to avoid the unnecessary dumping of dredged material, and to encourage its use elsewhere as appropriate. In addition, we recommend that environmental impact assessments be made of the possible effects of dumping". I deliberately drew attention to that omission earlier in the debate so that the Minister's officials would have sufficient time to address the point. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider that as a helpful move on my part.

Planning policy guidance number 20, paragraph 2.21, mentions the dredging of marine aggregates but says: Projects which require consent outside the planning system, such as dredging of marine aggregates, are subject to environmental assessment where appropriate under the relevant consent procedures. But it does not include any environmental assessment for the dumping of dredged material. Paragraph 3.1 mentions waste water and sewage disposal, but there is no mention of dredged material. I hope that the Government will be able to set out the reasons why the taking out of aggregate rightly requires an environmental assessment, but the dumping of dredged material does not.

As was regularly mentioned in evidence to the Select Committee in preparing its report, the Isle of Wight has set an outstanding example in the setting up of the Standing Conference on Problems Associated with the Coastline—SCOPAC for short. I am very much obliged to David Court, chairman of the officers working group, which includes most, if not all, of the surrounding coastal authorities from West Sussex in the cast along the coast to Portland in the west.

I am pleased to be able to tell the House that officials from the Department of the Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the National Rivers Authority attended the SCOPAC conference in October in Littlehampton. However, the feeling remains that the opportunity to clear up the duality of those Departments as regards the coastal zone has not been grasped. Indeed, the omissions on the dumping of dredged material are perhaps one manifestation of the problem caused by that duality. There are others. For example, coast protection is the duty of the local authority, whereas sea defence is the duty of the National Rivers Authority. It is true to say that good will helps and I am certain that my hon. Friend the Minister will say that in his reply to the debate. However, the duality must militate against efficient and effective working. Indeed, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds believes that the decision-making process needs to be restructured, and land drainage and sea defence legislation reformed, to reflect urban development and nature conservation priorities.

Will my hon. Friend the Minister review the role of the internal drainage boards with regard to their conservation duties, as recommended by the Select Committee? Lest anyone forget why that is so important, I remind the House that our sea bird breeding colonies are of global importance, as a significant proportion of the world populations of some species are present here. Of the 261 internationally important bird areas in the United Kingdom, 28 qualify because they hold more than 1 per cent. of the European population of certain sea birds. The United Kingdom's estuaries are among the most biologically productive systems in the world. Estuaries also provide spawning and nursery grounds for fish, including many of commercial value, and are key areas for water-borne and waterside recreation. In spite of that importance, coast management is piecemeal and unco-ordinated.

The British marine aggregate producers want prospecting licences to be left with the Crown Estate and production licences placed with the Department of the Environment. They believe that that would avoid the lengthy duplication inherent in the present system. That was the view that the industry expressed to the Department of the Environment review which was recommended by the Select Committee report. If that view prevails, it will become even more important for the Department of the Environment to practise open government in that area, and for data from the assessing hydraulic authorities to be doubly scrutinised and made public. Why? Because, otherwise, the Department will be both policeman and provider: it sets out the aggregate material forecasts for the building industry and is the lead Department for the needs of the construction industry. It cannot wear two hats without misgivings and mistrust. During the 1980s and into the 1990s, the great success of Government policies in protecting the environment has been to separate the policeman and the provider, which has led to far higher standards.

The fact that so many coastal communities are seriously concerned about inshore or near-shore aggregate dredging sets my hon. Friend the Minister a special challenge—to make decisions more transparent and capable of proper scrutiny. That is what the Select Committee was endeavouring to do. There is an example in the western Solent at the moment, with the prospect of 300,000 cu m of gravel being taken from the Shingles bank by the New Forest district council, which has submitted the scheme on behalf of English Heritage, which wants to replenish Hurst Spit to protect Hurst castle.

Local fishermen tell me that the Shingles bank has a sheer wall, and that if one takes 300,000 cu m of gravel out of that structure it will cause serious harm. So far as I am aware, the bank has never been dredged effectively. That is a good example of the sort of misgivings that local communities may have.

On consolidation and planning, if I understand correctly the Department's response to the Select Committee's comments, the Minister is saying that consolidation is not on the agenda because of the recent consolidation of planning law. I may be wrong, but I thought that the Committee wanted consolidation in several areas. I draw my hon. Friend's attention to that matter, because I do not think that the Committee was restricting its remarks on consolidation to planning.

The Royal Yachting Association has rightly pointed out that the planning system does not cater for the needs of increasing numbers of people to take part in water sports. The French have added more than 7,000 marina berths between Le Tréport and Cherbourg during the past few years. Why do we British not want to exploit the same opportunities in a structured and sensitive way which will meet the needs of all the competing interests?

I have no doubt that the Minister will again point me towards planning policy guidance note 20, paragraph 4.17, which allows planning authorities and other agencies to co-operate. I must inform my hon. Friend that the planning inspector's ruling, at the Isle of Wight replacement structure plan inquiry, was that they are not required to do so. While adjoining land-based authorities must interlock, there is no such presumption when water intervenes.

My hon. Friend the Minister will find copious correspondence on the subject between myself and Mr. Christopher Chope, who served so illustriously in the House. It is ludicrous that the Isle of Wight has no mechanism for influencing the means of departure from, or arrival at, the mainland—England. That is why we are so poorly served. If one arrives from Brussels or France it is different, but not if one comes from within one's own country.

The consolidation sought by the Select Committee was surely not merely on planning. The Merchant Shipping Act 1984 requires that all objects recovered from below the mean low water mark should be reported to the Receiver of Wrecks. That system does nothing to preserve sites of historic interest, because, if the item is unclaimed, the Crown encourages auction as a means of rewarding the finder. Just imagine the hullabaloo if people were allowed to dig around designated land-based sites in the same way. Sadly, it would appear that the Department is unable to get its mind around that fact.

Mineral extraction on land would never take place without, where appropriate, an archaeological evaluation. That requirement is contained in policy planning guidance note 16, which was issued last year. There is no such safeguard below the mean low water mark: why not?

Development often requires the dumping of material or building on the sea bed. Such activity can do untold damage to our nation's heritage. Again planning policy guidance number 16 can only be invoked once the construction has risen above the mean low water mark.

The Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 offers some protection to a limited number of wrecks which are deemed to be of national importance. The Act is not, and cannot be, used to protect archaeological sites which lie below the mean low water mark. The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 has never been applied to underwater sites in England.

Planning policy guidance note 16 is serviced by sites and monuments records so as to intercept threats to sites of significance, yet the constraints of local government boundaries at mean low watermark impede that process. As the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell) pointed out, under section 18 of the Coastal Protection Act 1949, local authorities can, by arrangement with the Crown Estates Commissioners, take control and licensing powers over the sea bed.

The evidence given to the Committee and the replies to some of my questions eventually elucidated the fact that, in the whole of England and Wales, only South Wight borough council on the Isle of Wight is using those powers. The departmental evidence revealed the real confusion that exists over the matter.

Hon. Members may wonder why I have spent so much time dealing with these points. As the Minister will confirm, his Department was the lead body at the summit on the environment at Rio and takes a keen interest in the rise in sea level that has been forecast. The flooding of the Solent concerns an area so rich in archaeology that experts believe that it might yet mean land sites being delisted because of their relative insignificance compared with the Solent.

In view of the Minister's well-known interest in global warming, he will be interested to note that it has been shown from the excavation of Roman artefacts dating back 6,000 years that there has been a rise in sea level in the area over that time of 3 m. Artefacts found there include hand-made cooking pots ranging from the eighth to the 11 th centuries. An important cultural item from the period is a copper alloy cloak pin of the loose-ringed type. The decoration of the pin draws its inspiration from Viking dress fasteners, while its type can he equated with pins in use in Ireland between the 10th and 13th centuries. The pin signifies long-distance maritime trade and should be seen in conjunction with two contemporary Norwegian mica-schist honestones that have been removed from the Solent.

As the Minister will be aware, the Department of National Heritage has recently succeeded in gaining control over the export of fossils, remembering that the Isle of Wight is considered to be the best archaeological centre for the discovery of fossils and dinosaur bones in the whole of the northern hemisphere, if not of the world. It is a little-known fact that only one of all the dinosaurs at the natural history museum is the genuine article, and I am proud to say that it comes from the Isle of Wight. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I note that I strike a chord across the Floor of the House when I talk of dinosaurs.

This is a serious matter because the Minister may not be aware that along the coast of the Isle of Wight, where the wave action exposes the remains, pirates come to the island and dig up the bones at night, since a single bone of the right variety can fetch over £100,000 on the black market. Not only is it a serious problem, but it is another reason why the Committee sought to extend the protection of land-based legislation to our wonderful aquatic environment. Perhaps such facts speak more forcefully than the Select Committee report, the RSPB, SCOPAC or any other body.

I hope that the Minister will re-examine the whole issue and will put his rudder hard over, go about and ask his crew to look again at the legislation and the whole area to which I have referred. Does Britannia rule the waves? I regret to say that for a maritime nation, if we in Whitehall do not waive the rules, we are certainly refusing to enforce them.

5.14 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I hope that the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) will forgive me for not going back to the era of the dinosaurs. I want to look forward. I am grateful for catching your eye at this time, Madam Deputy Speaker, because last night and the night before I managed to do so just before midnight. It is a privilege for me to be addressing the House in prime time.

I am also grateful to have been called because—as you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, being a close neighbour—I am lucky enough to represent the most beautiful and one of the longest coastlines in the United Kingdom. For that and ancestral reasons, I regard this as an extremely important debate and, like other hon. Members, I pay tribute to the pioneering work of the Select Committee and its Chairman, the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones).

Cornwall and Devon have some of the finest coastline and most beautiful coastal waters in the United Kingdom. We have the Fal, the Fowey, the Camel, the Tamar, the Teign, the Torridge, the Taw and the Exe as world-famous estuaries. In addition, we have a coastal zone inland from that coastline which is recognised as being of international importance.

The coastline also has an economic importance because it is an area for fishing and tourism and supports two of our most important local indigenous industries. A well kept coast is not just a thing of beauty: it is an extremely important economic asset. The many thousands of tourists who come to Cornwall, Plymouth and Devon are drawn by beautiful images of lovely places of natural and human manufacture. Tintagel, Padstow and the Newquay area of my constituency are examples, but they are replicated throughout the south-west. It is vital, for every reason, that they receive the care and attention that an orderly, clean and well managed environment should provide.

But we must also demonstrate the vulnerability of the coastline. As hon. Members from places as far apart as Gower and the Isle of Wight have demonstrated, the vulnerability of the coastline is its other special characteristic. We have in Cornwall the continuing saga of governmental incompetence over Weal Jane, as often described by the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor).

The United Kingdom coastline is the habitat of an extraordinary range of animals and birds. The sea bird breeding colonies are of global importance, with significant proportions of the world's population of some species. Our estuaries, as the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight said, provide the most biologically productive systems in the world. They also provide spawning and nursery grounds for fish stocks, including many of considerable commercial value. They are key areas of income generation in respect of waterborne and waterside recreation.

Despite that importance, and despite all the evidence to, and recommendations of, the Select Committee, we still have a totally piecemeal and unco-ordinated policy for our coastline. At present, the responsibility for coastal zone management is split between a ridiculously large number of bodies. Earlier in the year, I tried to discover exactly how many Ministers had responsibilities relating to coastal policy. Finally I discovered that the full list—I will not bore the House with the details; there are 12 or more—ranges from the Department of National Heritage to the Ministry of Defence, via the Duchy of Lancaster and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

That does not even display the whole iceberg: it is only the tip. Underneath the surface is an absolute plethora of statutory bodies with responsibilities, such as the National Rivers Authority, the Countryside Commission and the whole range of local authorities and harbour commissions. There are significant differences in hierarchy on the other side of the borders in Scotland and Wales.

At central Government level, differences of approach that seem to result from that dichotomy between the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture are ably demonstrated by the current approach to the implementation of the EC's habitats directive, which should cover both the terrestrial and marine environments, yet seems to be delayed. We hope that the Minister will say that both Departments will make comprehensive statements on that directive.

Local anomalies also exist. It was recently drawn to my attention that the siren system around the Norfolk coast, originally introduced to warn of impending invasion but used more recently to warn of possible tidal flooding, is about to be discarded by the Home Office, yet no other Department is prepared to take up that responsibility. To load it on to local authorities will cause difficulties if they do not have the necessary resources.

Many coastal communities throughout the country are threatened by coastal erosion, possibly brought about by the climatic changes as a result of global warming. If that is so, it will be an increasing problem for local authorities to tackle, especially as it tends to happen in areas of comparatively low income.

Even the National Rivers Authority's income will be unable to deal effectively with that. The problem can exist anywhere in the country, from Lower Hawkesbury in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) to Downderry in south Cornwall. Those problems suffer from a lack of effective co-ordination and resourcing.

In that context, this debate is timely. The Select Committee's report was excellent, and the Government should say what they are thinking, following their response to that report. I hope that we shall give the Minister much food for thought for his Christmas break. Incidentally, if his plans are still fluid, I recommend an excellent fish restaurant with rooms at Padstow in which he could digest the points made this afternoon.

Two points result directly from what the Government said in their paper, "This Common Inheritance—the Second Year Report": Decisions about development should take account of the natural resources which Britain's coast provides. In that context, I want to concentrate on coastal zone management plans and the special place that we should afford to heritage coasts.

First, both sides of the House echo the words of the Select Committee Chairman, the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West, about the clear need for a national strategy. It is not in place and does not look as though it is coming, and we need it urgently. All the organisations concerned should be singing from the same hymn sheet. There are so many of them that that is the only way in which we can secure some cohesion and comprehension. There is a cacophony of conflicting policies, which must be set in a sensible context.

It was illuminating that, when the Marine Conservation Society conducted its survey on coastal management plans in 1990, it found that the most widely expressed concern was about the lack of a national policy or strategy. It is now clear that the demand for one is intense, and I hope that the Minister will respond to that this evening.

Similarly, we need a discrete unit within the Department of the Environment and the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Offices to develop and co-ordinate that national strategy, because a strategy without such a back-up would be meaningless. In view of the Government's support for the concept of coastal zone management, will the Minister consider setting up such a unit linked to the other Departments, as the Select Committee recommended?

There seems to be a contradiction in the Government's thinking. Virtually all the evidence to the Select Committee spoke of the need for planning to be carried out on the basis of natural coastal cells—the ones that exist and are recognised. In the Government's response, they argued that coastal cells provide a useful basis for the formation of groupings of local authorities and other interested parties for the consideration of physical processes at the coast and co-ordination of coastal defence issues". The adjoining paragraph went on to say that the coastal cells are not an appropriate basis for decision-making and management. So what is the Government's view?

Coastal zone management should be designed to provide a management framework for the whole coastline, not simply areas under pressure. Those plans need a statutory basis if they are to provide the necessary powers to resolve conflicts of interest within the coastal area.

If, as the Government suggest, those plans are not to be universal or mandatory and an ad hoc system of coastal planning results, we forecast chaos in future. The conflict of interests and the problems will not be resolved even within a managed framework if that framework is piecemeal. They will simply migrate along the coast from more progressive local authority areas with management plans to those that are not covered by plans.

As a result, new areas of what the Select Committee described as "demonstrable conflict and pressures" will undoubtedly result. The problems described by the hon. Members for Gower (Mr. Wardell) and for Isle of Wight in relation to marine aggregate could arise if the approach were piecemeal instead of comprehensive.

The finest stretches of coast clearly deserve national recognition as heritage coasts. Although some have already been designated and are recognised on an international or European basis, they must be given effective protection and management. It is now necessary to ensure that stronger measures are available and apply there.

The quality of the heritage coast and the principles and techniques of management and protection that underpin them already provide a model that attracts that wider international interest. Other European countries wish to learn from our experience and, in turn, heritage coasts are recognised as having a quality that stands international comparison.

However, we cannot be complacent, because the mechanism of designation and management techniques leave much to be desired. We need rigorous control, which must he exercised to preclude all forms of development that are incongruous in an area of fine natural beauty by reasons of scale, siting, design, noise, disturbance or traffic, or that could adversely affect heritage features such as flora, fauna and archaeology. We must ensure that remote stretches of coast and access to them are also carefully managed.

Clearly, it is necessary to integrate the policy for heritage coast planning with management of the wider undeveloped coastline. Heritage coasts cannot be protected by action simply within their immediate boundaries, because their future will be bound up with coastal policy as a whole, and a holistic approach will be necessary. The Government need to move quickly to review the role of local authorities in planning and development control below the high water mark. I call on them to set that in motion urgently.

Whatever happens, it must be right that all that should not come about simply by creating more bureaucracy, quangos and by-passing directly elected and accountable local government. The necessary structures already exist within the tiers of local government. The Chichester harbour conservancy group is but one example of the way in which local government can take a wider lead, as the hon. Gentleman said. The initiative taken by the Isle of Wight county council to create a network shows that the central role should be for local authorities.

I do not understand—I think that this may be the crucial issue in today's debate—why the Government reject the concept of coastal zone management. Why do the Government reject the concept of natural coastal cells as the linchpin of an integrated protection and planning policy for coastal zones? All the evidence to the Environment Committee—and, indeed, all the evidence of our eyes and experience since that excellent report—shows that coastal zone management will be the most effective and efficient way forward. I urge the Government to reconsider their decision.

As with so many other issues in the House, in the end we must be sure that the Government will be able and willing to resource the necessary changes. We want answers from the Minister and prompt action to set in train mechanisms to bring about the widely desired changes. The coastline of Britain is a jewel in our crown, and it must be preserved.

5.31 pm
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Blackpool, South)

I suggest that few hon. Members would disagree that sea defences principally involve the protection of, first, people and, secondly, property. I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside and his colleagues have increasingly concentrated within the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on the protection that needs to be provided in urban areas such as my constituency of Blackpool, South.

Because of the problems in my constituency with elderly sea defences which are clearly crumbling away, I am especially glad to have the opportunity to participate in the debate. My concern is enhanced by the bureaucratic complexity which has been highlighted by the report of the Select Committee on the Environment and already referred to in some detail by other hon. Members, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones).

Despite the many years of diligent work by my predecessor, Sir Peter Blaker, to ensure that sea defences were improved along the south shore at Blackpool, about which he was extremely concerned, as I am, one must concede that nothing has been done. I must evince a note of considerable concern that, if nothing is done soon, there will be substantial flooding.

My hon. Friend the Minister is concerned about such matters. I must tell him that there is a great deal of high-value property just beyond the land side of the sea wall, which is all along the shore at Blackpool. That property includes many successful and prosperous hotels and a number of high-value residential areas. It also includes the biggest tourist attraction in the whole of Europe, the Blackpool pleasure beach. More than 6 million people visited that beach last year. I mention that because the significance to such a business, to hotels and to residential areas of the sort that I have described of the kind of flooding that we have had on a number of occasions recently is substantial. My constituents and I are worried that whenever there is a flood warning, which happens frequently throughout the autumn and the winter, the only action taken is that hotels and residential areas are asked to collect sandbags from the local authority.

I recognise the importance of local authorities being able to give a local response to particular areas of need, but I echo the views of the Select Committee, as confirmed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West, that it is crucial to have a national strategy for sea defences and coastal zone protection. It is also crucial to have a much simpler and more straightforward system. It is apparent not only from the report of the Select Committee, but from the National Audit Office, that about 160 bodies have some responsibility for coastal zone matters. From the discussions that I have had with local authorities, the National Rivers Authority, the people at North-West Water and departmental officials, I can only describe the situation as a bureaucratic jungle and nightmare.

Tonight I feel something like Cassandra crying in the wilderness for some action to be taken. I am sorry that I have to predict that, unless something is done urgently to improve the sea defences along the south shore of Blackpool, there will be a disaster akin to the one that took place in Towyn in north Wales in 1990. I am sure that most hon. Members remember the horrifying news pictures. I remind hon. Members that the failure of the Towyn sea wall on 26 February 1990 occurred during a violent storm from the north-west. A storm from the same direction would affect my constituency if it happened again. The storm produced a surge of 1.3 m to the tide level, coupled with 4 m waves. Frequently, there are storms of the same or similar intensity which affect the Fylde coast. My constituents and I are worried about precisely such storms.

In the Towyn disaster there was substantial damage to property as a result of salt water flooding of housing behind the breached sea wall. Although we were delighted to note that extremely efficient and prompt evacuation procedures were immediately put into effect by the emergency services—to whose work I pay tribute—which prevented any loss of life, the dislocation and rehabilitation problems were severe. The problems had not been fully resolved at the time when the National Rivers Authority produced its report on sea defences and the advisory committee to my hon. Friend's Ministry produced its report on research and development into flood and coastal defence.

In the 1989–90 winter storms, some 30 km of sea wall revetment and about 10 km of embankment were damaged. The cost of repair and reinstatement of those damaged coastal defences has been estimated at more than £40 million, and Towyn alone accounted for perhaps 25 per cent. of that total. The amount does not include the social costs of shattered homes and lifestyles or the ecological cost of damage to beaches, dunes and cliffs. More than 150 km of coastline were severely affected by one winter night's events.

I urge my hon. Friend to re-examine with great care the report of the Select Committee and to bear in mind that a stitch in time saves nine, especially when it comes to coastal defence. I am aware that firm plans have existed for a number of years in my constituency, based on the most sophisticated technology of sea defence. My hon. Friend may be aware of the colonnade scheme. Those plans can be put into effect in a relatively short period, but, with the administrative structure that exists, and with so many bodies involved, there is endless opportunity for what I can only describe as buck passing between the local authority, the Ministry, the National Rivers Authority and water authorities.

I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West that it seems entirely logical that the matter of sea defence should be placed under the direct control of one Ministry. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is concerned about the matter. I pay tribute to his work and that of his ministerial colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. However, I suggest that it would be much more logical for the matter to be brought under the direct control of the Department of the Environment, because of the Department's other responsibilities, including many other matters which relate to coastal zones.

As the policy has rightly concentrated substantially on urban sea defences, it seems peculiar that the issue remains within the purview of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I submit that coastal defences are an environmental issue and that the Department of the Environment should deal with it.

The Coast Protection Act 1949 is now fairly old and perhaps a new statute is overdue. Under the Act maritime district councils carry out coastal protection works that have been approved by the appropriate Minister. The Environment Select Committee report points out that before they even submit proposals, maritime councils must consult the National Rivers Authority, neighbouring maritime district councils, the county council, harbour, conservancy and navigation authorities, fisheries committees and MAFF for licensing under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985.

With so much consultation required, one can see why it takes years before a formal proposal is even considered. That applies to all works except maintenance, repair and emergency works. I suggest that fewer emergency works would be needed if the main works were done more quickly. There is frequently agreement across party divisions in areas where priority work needs to be done, including my own. A single Ministry could make a quicker decision. Of course, there must be some consultation, but I suggest that the procedure could be made much more streamlined.

The complex bureaucracy causes problems that could have contributed to the Towyn disaster. The Royal Institution of Civil Engineers recently hosted a presentation about vital issues that affect the north-west and north Wales. It was attended by many Conservative and Opposition Members from those areas, including myself. It was interesting that the subjects that the institution chose to highlight as of particular importance to north-west and north Wales Members of Parliament were, first, transport and, secondly, sea defence and coastal protection.

Many hon. Members heard an extremely effective presentation by one of the senior scientific advisers who worked on rebuilding the sea defences at Towyn. I am sure that several of the points that he made about the urgency with which sea defences in the north-west and north Wales should be improved struck a chord with many of the hon. Members who were present. I urge my hon. Friend to look again at the work that was done in the aftermath of Towyn and recognise that a great deal more could be done.

I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister that, because I was committed to chairing a meeting elsewhere in the House before I knew the business for this week, I shall not be present to hear his reply. However, I look forward to reading it in the Official Report.

5.42 pm
Mr. Jack Thompson (Wansbeck)

I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) on taking over the role of Chairman of the Select Committee on the Environment. My experience of that Committee is such that I have full confidence in its reports and especially in the one that it has just completed.

I make no apology for examining the report and the Government's response to it in the context of my constituency. Coastal defence is a matter of great concern to me. In case anyone wonders where my constituency is, it is 15 miles north of Newcastle on the coast. The eastern boundary of the constituency is the North sea coastline.

My constituency suffers not only from the loss of some of its skilled young people as a result of the dire employment situation in the north of England but from the loss of some of its land mass through coastal erosion. The problem of coastal erosion is not a new one in my constituency. For example, the village of Newbiggin-by-the-Sea is reputed to be the third one with that name. The two previous villages are said to have disappeared into the sea many years ago, and there are fears that the present village could suffer the same fate. Cynics describe it as Newbiggin-in-the-Sea.

The village was provided with a limited form of sea defence in 1931—mainly to provide employment during the slump. That sea defence proved fairly satisfactory until the mid-1970s. Since then, there have been changes in the sea bed levels as a result of collapsing mineworkings in the bay on that part of the coast. That seriously affected and undermined the sea defences. Various projects have been undertaken to improve the sea defences, but in a piecemeal fashion. Some of the sea defences are an eyesore due to the lack of proper funding and because people have tried to do schemes on the cheap. If the Select Committee's proposals had been implemented 20 years ago, the problems would have been alleviated properly by means of a comprehensive development rather than the patchwork schemes which now despoil an attractive village.

To the north of Newbiggin-by-the-Sea is an area described as East Sea Sands. It is a stretch of common land which has little if any defence. While some protection is provided for the village, the limitations on coastal protection allow the coastal strip on East Sea Sands to deteriorate, so coastal erosion threatens the village from a different point. That is a further example where a comprehensive plan could have resolved the problem.

When I was a youngster—I may be giving my age away—in the last years of the second world war, many old army vehicles were placed on the rock formations in the area. They were far enough out in the sea to allow the RAF to use them as target practice. Not only the vehicles but the rocks on which they stood disappeared into the sea many years ago. The erosion has taken huge areas of that part of my constituency away. If I stand on the cliff edge I can see 200 yd or more of the area which has disappeared into the sea in the past 10 years.

The overriding need for a national coastal zone unit is a major theme in the Select Committee report. I endorse that view. I would couple with it more localised co-operation. That has already begun in the county of Northumberland. Some people in my county think that the world begins at the north part of the county—the border with Scotland—and ends at the south, the border with Tyne and Wear. We have the North sea to the east and Cumbria to the west. However, I recognise that the world goes beyond that.

The authorities in my county have formed a consortium of local authorities with coastal boundaries. They are Wansbeck and Alnwick district, and Blyth, Castle Morpeth and Berwick borough councils. The consortium has been in existence for about one year. I understand that it is currently working on sea defence issues. The programme is to examine the problems all along the coast. I repeat that the problem exists beyond the Northumbrian coast and affects areas which have boundaries on each side of our county. Wansbeck district council has obtained the services of the consultants Babty Shaw to produce a comprehensive report on its coastline. Such efforts could make a useful contribution to the work of a national coastal zone unit.

I also draw the attention of the House to a further cause of coastal erosion in my constituency and in that of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who intervened earlier in the debate on this topic. I am sure that he will appreciate my support for the comments that he made, which were relevant and appropriate. However, I may also add to them. The problem is sand extraction in Druridge Bay in the right hon. Gentleman's constituency. That is close to my constituency. Sand has been extracted for about 25 years and it is estimated that 1.5 million tonnes of sand have been removed. That has seriously affected the whole coastline in both the right hon. Gentleman's constituency and mine.

Northern Aggregates, a subsidiary of Ready Mixed Concrete, was given permission to extract the sand by the then Ministry of Housing and Local Government, despite the refusal of Northumberland county council and the then Morpeth district council to grant planning permission. As a result of the Government's decision, sand extraction on a huge scale has caused damage which may be irreparable. More notice should have been taken of local opinion. Any proposals to strengthen the power of local decision making will therefore gain my support.

I note that the Government are reviewing mineral planning guidance note 6, which deals with the provision of aggregates in England and Wales. That is welcome, on condition that the review concludes that more control should be placed in the hands of local people. I am advancing the same argument in regard to planning guidance note 3, which deals with opencast mining. I suspect, however, that my efforts will be to no avail; and by the time the review has been completed, whatever the outcome, it will probably have little effect on the specific problem of sand extraction.

The Select Committee recommendations show a reasoned and sensible attitude to coastal erosion problems. They include some extremely good proposals, including the proposal in paragraph 78 to transfer responsibility from MAFF to the Department of the Environment, a proposal which I am sorry to say has received no response from the Government:it seems that they are happy for the responsibility to remain with MAFF. I agree with hon. Members who have suggested that such matters belong under the aegis of the Department of the Environment. Perhaps the Government will have second thoughts about some of the Committee's proposals—I hope so.

Mr. Robert B. Jones

We all have our theories: mine is that MAFF is still obsessed with the idea that coastal defence is all about protecting farmland. That is not so, but that idea pervades the whole system. It emerged during the inquiry that every chairman of a regional front defence committee was a farmer, and the same applies to the land drainage committees. Of course, that may change over a period, and more environmentalists are becoming involved; nevertheless, I feel that the philosophy of MAFF is at fault.

Mr. Thompson

I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his Committee will continue to pursue that aspect of the problem.

The basic theme of the Select Committee recommendations is the need for a co-ordinated response to the difficulties involved in coastal protection. The hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Hawkins) represents a seat in the north, while mine is in the north-east; unlike Blackpool, my constituency is a village containing about 8,000 people; nevertheless, our problems are similar. The problems of coastal protection require a comprehensive view and full co-operation, which should extend beyond the boundaries of England and Wales. Any consideration of my county of Northumberland will relate to Scotland. Although a different attitude may be taken there, the two areas affect each other.

I compliment the Select Committee on its report, and I hope that the Government will take note of its contents.

5.53 pm
Mr. Iain Sproat (Harwich)

I wish to direct my remarks to only one aspect of the Committee's excellent report. I shall take my text from the Government's response in the introduction to paragraph 1: The Government is firmly committed to the effective protection and planning of our coast". I have no doubt that the Government are doing effective work in many areas, but in one part of my constituency they are certainly not acting effectively. This is not a criticism of the present Government in particular: for many years, Governments have not acted effectively in helping to protect this particular piece of coast.

The piece of coast to which I refer goes round a piece of land known as the Naze—a word related etymologically to the word "nose", because the Naze sticks out into the North sea. It is a beautiful open space, comprising some 150 acres, and its centrality to local life is proven by the fact that the beautiful and picturesque little town next door to it is called Walton on the Naze; yet the Naze is being steadily destroyed.

In his excellent speech, the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson) described how, at the end of the second world war, he had seen army lorries standing at a point that is now far out to sea. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that, at the time when he was watching those lorries, there were block houses in the Naze, about 50 yards from the edge of the cliff. Now, those block houses are so far out to sea—because the cliff has collapsed—that it is impossible to see them: the waves wash over them.

A beautiful open space is being eroded at a rate of some 6 ft a year—or so it is said, and I am sure that as an average that is correct. Cliffs do not crumble in a regular line, however, and huge chunks of the Naze will fall into the sea. In a single night, a patch of land about as big as the space between the civil servants' Box and the Gangway will go down. A wonderful recreational area for local people, measuring some 150 acres, is being steadily destroyed.

In another excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Hawkins) rightly said that the first duty of Departments involved in such matters is to protect lives and property. At present, not much property on the Naze is threatened, but we should not only consider property; we should also think of the concept of heritage coasts and amenity value. That does not apply only to local people, for the Naze provides a tremendous tourist attraction. My constituency has a high unemployment rate: it is over 12 per cent. in Harwich and ever 14 per cent. in Clacton, and Walton on the Naze is between the two. The constituency has the highest unemployment percentage in the south of England. Tourism is one way in which we can help to mop up that serious unemployment rate: about 100,000 people visit the Naze every year.

Unfortunately, year after year, the Naze has been allowed to crumble away, because the local authority has not enough money to deal with the problem. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food kindly received a delegation the other day, but ultimately no money was forthcoming. Meanwhile, a beautiful piece of old England is being eroded, and in 50 or 100 years nothing will be left.

The House may say, "Why? Here is a lovely bit of old England, central to local life and providing a wonderful amenity for locals and tourists". Indeed, a listed building stands on it—the Naze tower, built in 1720. In not many years' time, that tower will have crumbled into the sea unless something is done.

In the past, Departments have given as their main reason for doing nothing the fact that houses are not immediately threatened; but if the Naze—hon. Members should picture it as a chunk, or nose, sticking out into the North sea—disappears, the sea will sweep in and not only curl around and start attacking Walton on the Naze from the back, but wash away places such as Kirby le Soken, just a few miles up the coast. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South said, a stitch in time saves nine: that may be a cliche, but it is a truism because it is true.

It is extremely irritating—indeed, infuriating—for people who live in the area to learn that one of the reasons why the Government have not provided money to save this chunk of my constituency is the fact that some fossils have been found under it. They are very interesting, as they are about 50 million years old, but the problem is that, the more the sea washes away the Naze, the more fossils will become available for people who are interested in them. It is ludicrous for the care of fossils to be put above the care of local residents. I see a sympathetic frown of amazement across the face of the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), but I asure him that that is so. That is what is so infuriating.

Hon. Members have already mentioned the nightmare of the bureaucratic jungle—the Department of the Environment, MAFF, the National Rivers Authority and English Heritage. Hardly a body exists which does not seem to have some interest in this matter, and all to the detriment of my constituents.

Mr. Barry Field

My hon. Friend might like to know that he has a comrade in arms, because in Whitecliffe bay, English Nature prevented a caravan park owner from erecting sea defences, at his own cost, because the sea was exposing a variety of fossils that were exceptional in northern Europe. I wondered whether the Isle of Wight will have to wash away in the cause of fossils.

Mr. Sproat

My hon. Friend makes a good point; it is absurd. However, when one tries to pin down that absurdity and to say that such an argument cannot stand in the way of our constituents, one cannot find the right people to talk to. No one group will take up and weigh all the arguments and say, "The interests of the people who live there must come first." I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that the interests of my constituents and their children are not being considered as they should be. The Government should provide funds to save this beautiful bit of England and the local amenities and to help the tourism industry rather than interesting but hardly prime objects of importance like fossils.

6.1 pm

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

It is interesting to follow the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Sproat), who began by firmly praising the report. I wonder how far he read the section on managed retreat. There is a lot of evidence to show that, even where people can persuade the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or other bodies to fund the construction of sea defences, such defences are not always successful. I suspect that a considerable sum has been spent on unsuccessful sea defences. Some schemes that have been proposed to defend the coastline have resulted not only in it being attacked further along but have proved to do more damage that good. Although I fully understand the hon. Gentleman's concern for his constituents, a massive sea defence scheme will not necessarily solve the problem.

I was not a member of the Environment Select Committee in the last Parliament. I am pleased to be a member now, and its members, certainly Sir Hugh Rossi, can be praised for producing a series of environmental reports on the green side of the Department of the Environment that did much to inform the House and attracted praise from people outside. It seems a paradox that, between 1983 and the dissolution of the last Parliament, the Select Committee never investigated council funding, the poll tax, housing and homeless people.

All those who believe that the establishment of Select Committees was one of the best things that the House did must strike a balance between the need for Select Committees to mirror Departments and to investigate the topics of the day. When the Select Committees were set up, there were Committees for trade, for industry and for energy, but they have now been combined into one. It is perhaps ironic that the Select Committee on the Environment is now engaged in a major inquiry into energy. I wonder whether the House is best served by having one Select Committee for the Department of the Environment, which covers a large area and inevitably means that the Committee must be selective about what parts of the Department to scrutinise. Perhaps Select Committees should more accurately reflect the scope of Departments and the need for scrutiny of them.

I welcome the Select Committee's report and the debate. There has been a tendency to use Supply days to debate Select Committee reports, in which members of the Select Committee, the Minister and the Opposition spokesman tell each other what a great report they have produced. That does not inform our proceedings or other hon. Members. Interestingly, perhaps because it is a new Parliament, we have heard tonight from more hon. Members who did not serve on the Committee but who have read the report. If Committee reports inform the House rather than allowing Committee members to congratulate themselves, I shall welcome it.

I am disappointed that the Government did not accept the recommendation of the Committee to set up administrative bodies that respond to the natural cells of coastal activity. The Committee persuasively suggested that bits of the coast should be considered not in isolation but rather as part of a network. I was slightly disappointed on asking a geomorphogenist whom I know well, "Can I find a map of the British isles that sets out cell patterns?" to discover that, although some of the patterns are fairly well documented, others are nothing like as well documented and understood, and there is a fair amount of argument about how far the systems are closed or open.

I accept that there may be a little difficulty in working out where the cell boundaries would be, but I have always argued that it is important that administrative boundaries reflect the physical realities, because artificial boundaries cannot be imposed. It is important that natural cells are recognised and reflected in boundaries.

It is important that more work is done on the cost-benefit analysis of environmental works along the coast. Too often, the environmental benefit analysis is conducted by the engineers who are proposing schemes. Like statistics, cost-benefit analysis can be made to prove what is wanted. It is important, therefore, that such schemes are scrutinised by people from different backgrounds who can test them.

As the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) said, MAFF, which is responsible for coastal works, still seems to be driven by farmers who were brought up to try to expand the amount of productive land. It would be much more logical if responsibility were handed from MAFF to the Department of the Environment, which might take more of an overview of the situation. Before any work is done, there is at least supposed to be consultation between MAFF and English Nature to consider the scientific evidence on the impact of the environment. If English Nature puts up a case that a particular scheme is not in the best interests of the natural environment, the scheme does not go ahead.

As I understand it, if any county engineer or other person responsible for putting up a scheme says that it has to be carried out as emergency work, this consultation does not have to take place. I accept that, if there is a problem such as that which occurred in north Wales, at Towyn, where emergency means that something has to be done in the next five minutes or the next hour or two, consultation just cannot take place. But local groups often take the view that the emergency is not something that has to be dealt with within the next five minutes, the next day, or the next couple of days, that it can be dealt with on a much longer time scale.

I would like the Minister to address a particular problem that has been drawn to my attention—what happened in the destruction of the SSSI at the Milford marine band at Milford-on-Sea in Hampshire. I understand that the work was done there on the basis that it was an emergency and there was no need for the engineers to consult English Nature. I do not expect the Minister to get the details now: it would be remarkable if his civil servants could come up with the details of that site at this stage.

Of course, if I hear his answer when he winds up, I shall be delighted, but I am very happy to wait, and receive a letter from the Minister telling me exactly why the work had to be carried out on an emergency basis on that site; why there was such a short time scale that it was not possible for any discussion to be held between the county and English Nature on what work was to be carried out; and why it was that the SSSI was destroyed as a result of carrying out the work. The destruction was not, I gather, the result of the work carried out on the beach but occurred in putting in an access road for the contractor to get down to the beach.

That is an amazing state of affairs, and I would like the Minister to look into the question whether the consultation procedure between MAFF, the local authority and English Nature could be improved, so that, unless the emergency is a matter of hours away, consultation can take place.

I also understand that there is often argument as to whether a grant should be paid, and that normally, when it can be shown that it is an emergency, the grant is paid. Of course, one of the best things about dealing with an emergency is that it is very difficult for anyone to come along afterwards and look at what was there before. If it is not treated as an emergency, that is not the case.

My next point concerns the question of how far there is good co-operation between the Department of Energy, MAFF and the Department of the Environment, or, in some specific cases, the Welsh Office. Greenpeace has been expressing to me considerable concern about the last round of oil and gas exploration licensing. It is particularly concerned about blocks 107/1 and 107/6, close to Bardsey Island and the Lleyn peninsula in north Wales.

There are questions about how far we should be searching in Britain for every spot where there may be oil and gas, how much we want to exploit and how much of the locked-up carbon in the earth should be released into the atmosphere. I certainly think that, unless the Government are committed to trying to release every last bit of oil or gas from the earth into the atmosphere, they ought to question whether sites so close to ones which are particularly important for sea birds and sea creatures ought to be exploited.

I wonder whether the Minister can tell us what consultation there was over the granting of licences by the Department of Energy for oil and gas exploration close to Bardsey Island and the Lleyn peninsula, and how far they looked at the implications for kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills and other sea birds, and such things as the grey seal off that coast.

The Department of Energy, or the energy section within the Department of Trade, is encouraging the oil companies to decide which blocks they want to bid for again, and quite a lot of seismic studies are going on around the coastal waters with regard to possible bids for future blocks. I wonder how carefully the Government have been looking at the implications of oil and natural gas exploration in terms of a strategy for protecting the marine environment around our coasts.

Finally, I must stress my disappointment that there has not been more of a response by the Government to the need for a national strategy for our coastal waters. I have frequently put down questions to Ministers asking if they will list all the estuaries around the coast of England and Wales which have received any Government money to consider the feasibility of, for example, barrages to improve transport, barrages to be concerned with either power generation or power storage, or barrages for other purposes. There seems to be great difficulty in getting from the Government lists of estuaries where Government money is being spent on considering schemes.

I can understand the argument that we might want a water power scheme on one of the estuaries around the British Isles, but there ought to be a deliberate Government strategy. There ought to be some attempt to draw up priorities. It would be very unfortunate if there were not some balance between the loss of natural habitat within our estuaries and schemes which might have commercial advantage.

Will the Minister, either in this debate or in some other way, inform the House how much Government money is going into schemes. There are discussions about the Severn, the Mersey and the Dee, and I believe that schemes are being considered for the Humber, but I would like to see from the Government a comprehensive list of schemes being undertaken, how much money is being spent on that sort of inquiry and what the results are.

This is certainly a very useful report. I listened with considerable interest to the Minister's explanation of why he could not implement all the recommendations. I look forward to the opportunity of seeing the Minister before the Committee in the not too distant future so that the Committee can itself pursue some of the questions which have been left unanswered.

6.17 pm
Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate as I too have the honour to represent a coastal constituency. Although the name of the constituency is Shoreham, it includes not only the town and port of Shoreham, but also a long stretch of the channel coast from Hove to Littlehampton, with the exclusion of Worthing borough.

I welcome the Government's co-ordinated approach to the problem of coastal defence, but I believe that we need a much more co-ordinated approach to the management and planning of the coastal zone, not only the natural environment, but also the environment where people live, work and enjoy their leisure hours. Leisure is particularly important. On the Sussex coast at the present time we have a high level of unemployment, and tourism is vital to the economic recovery of our area.

Here I pay tribute to an organisation which has already been mentioned in the debate—SCOPAC, the Standing Conference on Problems Associated with the Coastline, which is a consortium of local authorities covering the area from Worthing to Weymouth. I believe that it is the first such organisation to be created at member level; there are other organisations at officer level, but this is still the only one at member level. Its current chairman, Councillor David Birt, is chairman of the Arun district council and is one of my constituents.

The organisation has many achievements to its credit. I shall mention just two. First, it has done some very important research into the transport of sediment. The tides in the English channel are ferocious and large quantities of sand and gravel are transported long distances. In Shoreham the port which used to exist in Elizabethan times is now nearly a mile from the sea. Secondly, SCOPAC has done a great deal of valuable work in producing a model format for coastal management plans for use by local authorities. Regrettably, however, SCOPAC is supported only by local authority funds. It has no formal recognition from Government and is not eligible for Government grants.

Paragraph 20 of the Government's response to the Select Committee report states that the Government believe that the appropriate level for management planning is at the estuary level or along relatively short stretches of open coast. I doubt whether that approach is right and, in view of the excellent work done by SCOPAC, will the Minister reconsider the Government's position on this issue? Also, like many other hon. Members, I ask the Minister to examine carefully the co-ordination of Government Departments' work on coastal zones and perhaps to reduce the number of Departments with a finger in the pie.

As for sea defences, I agree with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Hawkins). We have the same problem on the channel coast, especially in my constituency at Shoreham and Lancing. We must always be on our guard because the power of the sea is truly awesome and large sums of money must be spent to defend the land against it.

I pay tribute to the work that the Government are already doing in my area. In the early 1980s, the Southern water authority spent about £500,000 on new groynes along 6 km of the foreshore of Shoreham beach, and since the formation of the National Rivers Authority in 1989, a further £741,000 has been invested in capital works, with £124,000 being spent on works at Lancing in this financial year. A further £160,700 has been allowed in this year's maintenance commitment for that particular frontage.

I wish to draw the attention of the House to a small point but one which is important to the people involved. Under the Coast Protection Act 1949, local authorities may carry out coastal protection work, but I agree with other hon. Members who believe that there is far too much statutory consultation involved. I sometimes think that, after all the time and money spent on consultation, it is surprising that there is time or money left to do any work. Perhaps the Minister will bear that point in mind.

In some areas where coastal protection work must be carried out, it will be found that fishermen are working there with fixed gear such as lobster pots. Although the council has statutory power of entry into such sea areas to carry out works and also to pay compensation, it can pay compensation only if it is satisfied by evidence—usually audited accounts—that financial loss has been suffered by the fishermen.

It may or may not surprise the House to learn that some fishermen are unable or unwilling to produce audited accounts for that purpose. Some feel that unless a firm commitment is made to pay them compensation they are entitled to obstruct the execution of the work. Indeed, some even think that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will assist them to do so. A licence must be issued by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food under part II of the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985, but such licences contain no reference to compensation. Could the parties involved have clearer guidance on the circumstances in which compensation will be paid and the eligibility for central Government funding of that compensation?

In conclusion, I am very grateful for the work of the Select Committee on the Environment and to my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones), its Chairman, for his clear and concise introduction to this debate.

6.24 pm
Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

The starting point for the debate must of course be a recognition of the fundamental importance of our coastline and marine environment which provides a unique landscape and habitat, an area of recreational value and a place in which people live and work. It is worth remembering that the potential threats to that marine and coastal environment are considerable.

A survey conducted in April this year by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds covering 126 estuaries around the United Kingdom coast found that there had been substantial changes since its equivalent survey in 1988. A total of 57 estuaries now face the threat of permanent damage compared with only 43 four years ago. The survey highlights the potential dangers to our marine environment.

The Select Committee on the Environment did an excellent job in examining the important and threatened areas of our coastline. I am glad to take the opportunity to join other hon. Members in paying tribute to that Committee and to its former Chairman, under whose chairmanship I and the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) served for several happy years, and to welcome the hon. Gentleman to his important task in chairing it now.

The Select Committee report contains a series of well considered, well worked out and important recommendations. In particular, the report identified the problem of incoherence in the way in which we look after and plan for our coastal zones. One and a half pages of the report consist of a list of various structures, agencies, organisations and levels of governmental, nongovernmental and local authority interest in the business of protecting our coastal zones. So long as there is such a densely complex system of protection, the protection itself will be inadequate. That is the central message of the Committee's report, which it was absolutely right to identify.

Although encouraging in some respects, the Government's response has been inadequate. The Government are right to identify, for example, the need for environmental impact assessment in some aspects of coastal protection work. I shall deal with that issue in a moment because the Government do not go far enough. They are also right to note that some aspects of port activities will need to be brought into line with the European Community habitats directive and to recognise in some areas of coastline defence the importance of a strategy of managed or controlled retreat. Although some areas will require physical protection—a number have been identified today—there are other areas of our coastline where retreat is perhaps a better option.

Many aspects of the Government's response to the Select Committee report are disappointing. I shall draw the House's attention to some of them. First, the Government fail to recognise the great importance of examining the whole coastal resource and the need to protect all of it, not first designated or especially important areas within it. For example, paragraph 15 of the Government's response reveals a danger of the Government establishing the principle of only partial coverage of the coastline in the preparation of management plans. If we have a strategy which looks only at portions of the coastline and not at the coastline as a whole—a point which was touched on by the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Tyler)—if that is the Government's strategy, there is a danger that pressure will move from designated areas of the coastline to other areas which have not been designated.

Secondly, there is undoubtedly a need for greater coherence in the Government's approach to coastal planning and protection. Witness after witness in the Select Committee emphasised the need for a common strategic approach to planning in the coastal zones, and if there are to be joint arrangements between different agencies and local authorities those arrangements must have a clear and coherent strategic aim.

The Royal Town Planning Institute, in its comments on the Government's response to the Select Committee, puts the ball very firmly in the Government's court. It says: The response to rationalising the activities of Government Departments and agencies"— from the Government— is almost wholly negative. Referring to the Government, the institute say: It points at more than one part of its response to the number of bodies dealing with similar activities, particularly pollution, research, coastal flooding and protection. As it expects local government to do, so should central government look critically at the cost-effectiveness of a number of bodies with similar duties and also consider the effects of a sectoral approach on those for whom the services are intended. The RTPI seems to me to have hit the nail on the head and there is a need for the Government to be more active in looking at the plethora of Government Departments, bodies and organisations with some degree of interest at present in protection of the coastline and to bring about a greater rationalisation. The very concept of coastal zone management as an integrated approach, a concept that sits at the heart of the Select Committee report, is one which I do not believe that the Government have taken on board—and they should.

Thirdly, the Government need to improve their approach to environmental impact assessment for coastal development. Their response goes some way towards addressing that in relation to coastal protection works, but they do not insist on environmental impact assessments for a whole range of other coastal development matters-and they should.

The Council for the Protection of Rural England, for example, proposed that environmental impact assessments should be required for, among other things, offshore oil and gas investigation work, marine dredging, coastal protection works, port and harbour activities currently falling within the scope of permitted development, renewable energy developments, large-scale tourist developments, camping and caravan sites, and fishing operations. Those are valid proposals and the Government should be looking much more attentively at them than they are.

Fourthly, the Government do not do very much to overcome the division which exists in the planning system at present: the division of responsibility between the area onshore and the area offshore. The Select Committee recognised the importance, in habitat terms, of regarding the shore and the sea which adjoins the shore as being a whole in planning terms. The Select Committee's proposal that local planning authorities should be given planning powers which run out into the marine environment and do not just stop at the low water mark is a sensible proposal to which the Government should be giving a more positive response. The ecosystem does not end at the low water mark and the Government should accept that.

Fifthly, the Government have not given a constructive response to the proposal that national policy formulation needs to be much clearer.

Many speakers from both sides of the House have said to the Government that there is a need for a coastal unit to be established within the Department of the Environment and perhaps in due course brought into the environmental protection agency to ensure that we look at the needs of our coastal zone as a whole around the country and in a coherent way. It is vitally important that the Government take on board this proposal from the Select Committee and establish a national policy unit which can provide the sort of strategic overview on a national basis that we desperately need.

Sixthly, the Government are being far too slow in the establishment and designation of marine nature reserves. I appreciate that they are embarking on the marine conservation area approach as an interim exercise, but it is important that they speed up the process of designating marine nature reserves. Had they done so, some of the difficulties in Cardigan Bay that my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) addressed might have been avoided.

Seventhly, the Government have made some progress on the issue of aggregate and mineral working, but not enough. My hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell) spoke trenchantly of the difficulties facing parts of his constituency as a result of mineral dredging. The Government need to take this problem more seriously than they have up to now. Moreover, alongside the problem of dredging, they also need to start addressing in a coherent way the problem of super-quarries which is beginning to emerge especially in parts of Scotland. We look forward to better and more stringent guidelines being proposed by the Government and I hope that they will get on with the process quickly.

Eighthly, the Government have rejected the Select Committee proposal in paragraph 109 that pollution control should be brought under the aegis of a single agency, and that if and when the environmental protection agency becomes established that appears to be the obvious place in which to locate pollution control for areas of coastline. Unbelievably, however, the Government say in their response that there is no justification for a single agency". The whole emphasis of the Select Committee report is that there is indeed justification for a single agency, and it is about time that the Government recognised that.

Ninthly, this debate has been characterised by a remarkable degree of gentle and constructive criticism of the Government from both sides of the House. A number of hon. Members from both sides have put the argument that responsibility for coastal defences should be taken away from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. That is long overdue. If the Department of the Environment had the courage to stand up for its own corner and say that it should be responsible, it would have the full support of the Opposition in so doing. We should be happy to join in transferring those responsibilities to a far more logical place than that at which they now rest.

The report also addresses the issue of the Crown Estate Commissioners and the absurdity, which even the Commissioners accept, of their status as both landlord and planning authority. The Commissioners are placed in an invidious position by their dual status, and it is time that their planning and licence-giving functions were transferred, as the Select Committee proposes. The Government, however, want to adopt an evolutionary approach. The trouble with evolutionary approaches is that they tend not to lead anywhere. It is incumbent on the Government to take a lead and to relieve the Crown Estate Commissioners of their planning functions.

The Government's response to the Select Committee reveals little sense of the long-term issues involving the possibilities of climate change, global warming and rising sea levels. They talk about some temporary changes, but they do not seem to take on board the possibility that we may face longer-term phenomena. That speaks volumes about the Government's lack of proper strategic vision. It is clear from the report what the Select Committee believes, which is also what hon. Members on both sides of the House have said in the debate—that the key necessity is a proper strategic method of dealing with the needs of the coastal zone. The Government have got some bits and pieces of the approach right, but I fear that they still have a long way to go. There is too little strategy and coherence in their approach. They need to think again, and I seriously urge them to do so.

6.40 pm
The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. David Maclean)

Like the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), I am grateful to the Select Committee on the Environment and its new Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones), whom I warmly congratulate on his election to his post, for ensuring that the House has this opportunity to debate coastal zone protection and planning. I pay tribute, too, to my hon. Friend's illustrious predecessor, Sir Hugh Rossi, for his excellent chairmanship of the Select Committee.

The Select Committee worked in the last Session to a tight timetable to cover what is a very complext subject, and the report which they produced was a valuable contribution to coastal policy. It was especially effective for its exhortation to all of us across Government to look at the whole picture on the coast, and not just particular sectoral concerns.

The Committee's report was wide-ranging, covering the overall framework for coastal zone planning and management, development control, coastal defence, nature conservation, pollution and fishing and the links between all of these. The debate today has been similarly wide-ranging. I confess that I did not come fully briefed for the discussion on old fossils—who are not present in the Chamber.

The Select Committee called for a national coastal strategy. The Government's response made it clear that, although we do not believe in a single all-embracing strategy for the coast—or, as my hon. Friend described it, a "cascade" of national, regional and local plans—we believe in clear statements of national policy which together add up to a coherent whole.

Recent examples of such statements include policy on heritage coasts, and planning policy guidance providing a clear policy steer for development on the landward side of the coastal zone. That PPG—PPG20—makes it clear that development on the coast should be limited to that which genuinely needs to be located there, and guided towards areas that are already largely developed. The undeveloped coast should remain so, largely protected by conservation designations because of its high landscape and nature conservation value. The PPG discourages new development in coastal areas at risk from flooding, erosion and landslip, and it encourages close co-operation between local authorities and interested groups in developing plans for stretches of coast, especially estuaries.

Guidance has already been issued on the response to sea level rise, and in December 1991 my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food announced his intention to develop a national flood and coastal defence strategy to provide a comprehensive policy framework which fully reflects environmental concerns. I welcome that, and work on it is now well under way.

Other initiatives include major investment to improve coastal water quality; preparation for implementation of the EC habitats directives; a review of regulation below low water mark; and support for multi-agency estuary and coastal management plans. I assure the House that the review will be extensive and will cover the entire United Kingdom—Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as well as England. We believe that those initiatives provide a sensible and coherent programme of action to address coastal issues.

Our strategy has three basic strands. First, we need effective statutory protection for our most valuable coastal landscapes and marine and coastal habitats—often of international importance. Much of the coast is already designated and so protected from development through the planning system. We are building on that through designating special protection areas for birds and implementing the habitats directive. I reject any allegation that we are doing that slowly, or have a poor record. We are not slow, and we have a good record.

Secondly, we need effective planning and management structures for coastal land, estuaries and inshore waters, not just for designated areas, but also for undesignated areas which nevertheless form part of our national coastal heritage. Active management is particularly important where there are many potentially conflicting uses, or where an area is of substantial recreational or natural value.

Thirdly, we need a broader strategy for the health of the marine environment, which cannot be confined to any rigid site-based approach but which looks instead at broader issues such as pollution control, fisheries management and species protection.

For the second strand—planning and management of the coast and of estuaries—our framework differs from that proposed by the Committee. The Committee, like many hon. Members who have spoken tonight, wants regional strategies. We want to make sure that management is at the appropriate level for the problem being addressed. That is not to say that we do not believe in a regional perspective here, but that can usefully be provided in the context of regional planning guidance and by regional studies of key issues such as sport and recreation. The coastal recreation strategy by the Southern Council for Sport and Recreation is a good example. But it is at the local level that conflicts between coastal users must be resolved.

Regional coastal cells provide a useful basis for looking strategically at coastal defence against erosion and flooding. That is why my colleagues in MAFF welcomed the development of regional groups of coastal protection authorities and the National Rivers Authority, and are encouraging them to develop coastal defence strategies for their areas.

However, we believe other issues—such as recreational management, nature conservation and interaction, for instance, with fishing and ports operations—are best managed more locally, for instance, around an estuary or along a heritage coast. That means that planning and management is local enough to allow effective consultation with interested groups, and discussion of practical issues. Local authorities can co-operate around an estuary to ensure consistent development plans, and a management approach that considers the estuary as a single ecological system and takes both land and water into account.

That is our approach, and I commend it to the House. When we issued our response, English Nature said: We are pleased by the commitment to support the existing informal coastal groups … and we believe that it is vital that the Government strongly encourages them to prepare coastal defence strategies for each cell … Other types of activity, for example recreational use and many types of development, are better co-ordinated at a more local scale. We are committed to developing such plans and are currently involved in preparing pilot plans for 13 English estuaries. Our commitment to sustainable management of our coasts is well established, and I believe that the framework that we have adopted provides a firm foundation for further progress.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West, my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) and, indeed, the Select Committee argue that, to show their commitment to the coast, the Government should reorganise their bureaucracy and have a single coastal zone unit. We accept the need for a national overview of coastal issues. We have already gone a considerable way down the road to achieving this, with a standing interdepartmental group on coastal policy, which has now been established for well over a year. It has proved a valuable mechanism for discussion. It co-ordinated the Government's response to the Select Committee, and it is now taking forward work reviewing regulation and management below low water mark. The secretariat for this group is in my Department.

It would be a mistake to go beyond this and to argue for a group or unit to take on substantial executive functions. It would not make sense in a complex, heavily populated country such as ours to have a Department for the coast. In many sectors—land use planning, pollution, flood defence and nature conservation—coastal issues are only one aspect of much larger issues. Management of the coast needs to be integrated with management of the rest of the land and of the sea. The coast is not a separate thing that can be hived off to one corner.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West, in his excellent introduction of the report, and other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), suggested that responsibility for coastal defence, and the management of coastal flooding and erosion, should be transferred from the Ministry of Agriculture to the Department of the Environment. We rejected that recommendation.

The reason was simple. The Government do not accept that the present allocation of ministerial responsibilities results in any lessening of our commitment to take full account of environmental concerns in coastal defence policy. Environmental considerations are an integral part of decision-making on flood and coastal defence, as they are in other areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Hawkins) was worried about Blackpool's sea defences. I know that overall expenditure by the Ministry of Agriculture on flood defences has increased dramatically in recent years. However, the demand is practically unlimited. I will draw my hon. Friend's concerns in Blackpool to the attention of my right hon. Friend.

I reject any charges of unnecessarily complicated bureaucracy. All the key players involved in flood defence, whether the Department of the Environment, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or local councils, know how the system works. I do not believe that there is unnecessary bureaucracy. I do not want flood defence to be transferred to my command. I see no point in that, and I do not especially want it to happen.

It would not make any particular difference. Shuffling name plates on ministerial doors or putting policy into another Department does not remove the need for essential consultation with all the relevant key players.

Mr. Tyler

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Maclean

No. I want to crack on. I have many points to answer, but I will give way at the end if there is time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West said that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's policy on coastal defence was too farmer-orientated. I am sorry to disagree with my hon. Friend, but I must point out that 85 per cent. of Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food funding goes to defences in urban areas, and rightly so. The announcement on coastal policy by my right hon. Friend on 2 December is conclusive proof that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is working with natural coastal processes and is ready to consider managed retreat in rural coastal areas.

I point out to the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson) that we need to work with nature rather than against it when designing coastal defences—a point also made by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett). The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is encouraging authorities to adopt soft engineering solutions which are more in sympathy with natural processes. There is a clear presumption against disturbing natural coastal processes unless life or important natural or man-made assets are at risk.

In addition, coastal defence authorities are now expected to consider the potential for managed retreat when assessing options for coastal defences in rural areas. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food intends to continue to work with English Nature and other interested organisations to explore the many practical questions of how this technique can be deployed to maintain and restore coastal habitat.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West asked about action at European level. The European Commission has not yet published any proposals for a Community strategy for integrated coastal zone management. However, we are devoting considerable effort across Government to implementation of the European Community habitats directive. The Government were in the lead in supporting the adoption of the directive, under which we are committed to species protection and to ensuring designation and effective protection for land and marine sites of Community importance.

The hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell) asked us to review the role of the Crown Estates Commissioners in controlling development generally, and not just marine aggregates dredging. As explained in the Government's response, the Crown Estates Commissioners' regulatory role over development is pretty limited: it is confined to marine aggregates and marine fish farming. The Commissioners' role in both areas is subject to considerable scrutiny. We believe that the best way in which to conduct a more general review is to look comprehensively at existing systems of development control and not only at the small element for which the Commissioners have responsibility.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) gave us a wonderful dissertation on underwater archaeology. He and other speakers have argued that the solution to coastal zone management is to extend the existing land use planning systems and other control systems out to sea. As hon. Members are aware, the Government have undertaken to address the issue in their review of regulation below the low water mark. We are currently working to prepare a discussion paper.

We shall need to look at the existing systems for controlling development below the low water mark and to consider whether there are limitations in those systems which need to be remedied. We shall also need to look at questions such as the balance of advantage for different types of offshore development between decision-making at national and local level and the need for cost-effective involvement of environmental expertise. We must also consider the need for effective local and public involvement, which is terribly important.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight asked about the dumping of dredged material and about the environmental appraisal of such dumping. That issue is under review as part of the Government's review of regulation below the low water mark. I hope that that satisfies my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Sproat) made an elegant plea for us to save the Naze. I regret that so far it has not been possible to find a solution which has resulted in its complete protection. I know that my hon. Friend has pressed the case on behalf of his constituents at the highest levels, and I shall draw his comments tonight to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, who has never been, and could never be, described as an old fossil.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish was concerned about oil exploration, among other issues. The ones to which I have an immediate answer concern oil exploration. I shall write to him on the other couple of issues he raised. I can tell him that the Department of the Environment was consulted on the blocks recently offered for oil and gas licensing. The Government's adviser, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, also gave advice on the implications for sea-birds.

Government policy is to attach special conditions to exploration in sensitive areas to protect the needs of environmental interests, including a ban on drilling during seasons when seabirds may be affected. I shall scan the report of the debate carefully. My hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham raised points about compensation, and I shall write to him about them.

I emphasise that the Government's response to the Select Committee report set out a substantial work programme for the better protection and planning of the coast. I shall not repeat that programme; I shall say merely that further opportunity for public debate on coastal issues will come when we publish our promised discussion paper—or papers—on regulation below the low water mark.

I believe that, in our response and our policy, we have a clear framework for action. We have clear commitments to action. We are committed to ensuring that the principle of sustainable development is applied to our coast. I commend our approach to the House.

6.58 pm
Mr. Robert B. Jones

With leave of the House, I welcome the fact that so many hon. Members who are not members of the Select Committee have taken part in the debate. That speaks for itself, as does the degree of support that hon. Members of all parties have given to the conclusions that we reached.

I have served on the Select Committee on the Environment for nine years. During that time, our conclusions have been rubbished from time to time by the Central Electricity Generating Board, Ministers and others. However, our reports have stood the test of time; I can think of no central recommendation, including the recommendation for the creation of the environmental protection agency, which has not been accepted in the end. The fact that we are making progress a little more slowly than I want does not rule out the acceptance of our recommendations in the end.

I must correct my hon. Friend the Minister who, in an otherwise most interesting speech, implied that the Select Committee was in favour of a new Department of State to deal with coastal management. That is certainly not the case. Our aspiration was that that matter should be managed firmly and accountably within the Department of the Environment.

We have had an interesting and excellent debate. It is, I think, one of the most important features of parliamentary government that we hold debates on estimates and Select Committee reports, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to initiate this one.

The debate was concluded, and the Question necessary to dispose of the proceedings was deferred, pursuant to paragraph (4) of Standing Order No. 52 (Consideration of estimates).