HC Deb 07 July 1992 vol 211 cc310-6

Motion made, and Questions Proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Robert G. Hughes.]

12.53 am
Mr. Iain Sproat (Harwich)

I am extremely grateful, at this early hour of the morning, to have the opportunity to put to my hon. Friend the Minister the important case of the Naze at Walton-on-the Naze. I do so because I seek the Government's help in efforts to protect and preserve the Naze. Before I go into further detail on this matter, perhaps I should give a description of the Naze because I do not know whether my hon. Friend has seen it.

The Naze—I believe that the name is etymologically connected with the word "nose"—is a grassy promontory that sticks out into the North sea. It is extensive, being about 159 acres, and it has a sea line of three miles. The important thing about it is that it is an extremely beautiful, open, natural space. It is unspoilt countryside and a real bit of old England. It is absolutely central to the life of the community, and that is easily proven by the fact that the attractive and picturesque seaside resort of Walton-onthe-Naze takes its name from the Naze.

We have 150 acres of beautiful land. However, it is not just a beautiful coastline, and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should consider several other factors when, hopefully, he agrees to approve the scheme which lies with his Ministry and grants the money to execute the scheme. As well as being a beautiful landscape, there is a listed building on the Naze called the Naze tower. It was built in 1720 and is a very dramatic and romantic building.

The area is much visited by tourists and the prosperity of Walton-on-the-Naze depends to a considerable degree on the tourist trade. However, most important of all is the natural amenity value. My hon. Friend the Minister will recall that, when there was a public inquiry on a previous occasion about the Naze, the inspector said that it was a natural asset whose high amenity value could not be measured simply in monetary terms. That is part of the essence that I wish to put to my hon. Friend the Minister.

We have a beautiful area, so what is the problem? Very simply, the problem is that that very beautiful area is being destroyed by two factors: first, by springs at the top of the cliffs; and, secondly, by the fact that the cliffs, which run for well over 1,000 yds along the seaward side and which are very substantial, being about 70 ft to 80 ft high, are being worn away by the action of the sea. When I say "worn away", I am not talking about a slow erosion.

I received a reply from my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on 22 June which stated that the erosion over the past 12 months was on average about 6 ft a year. Of course, if there is a violent storm, a huge chunk of the cliff—much more than 6 ft—may fall away. Perhaps I can give an example that may strike the imagination of my hon. Friend the Minister. In the days when his grandfather was Prime Minister, a number of block houses were built on the cliffs of the Naze to resist the German invasion. If one walks on the cliffs today, one can hardly see those concrete block houses because they are so far out at sea with the waves washing over them. That is what will happen to the whole of the Naze.

I mentioned earlier the Naze tower, a beautiful and romantic listed building that was built in 1720. The Naze tower now stands some 60 yds from the cliff edge. One does not need to be a profound mathematician to work out that it will not take many years with an erosion rate of 6 ft or more a year before that listed building topples into the sea.

We have a beautiful amenity area with a listed building standing on it, and it is a prime source of tourist attraction for the area. However, it is being steadily destroyed. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to provide the funds to preserve it. As he will know, on three occasions over the past 15 years, plans have been put to the Government for groynes, rebutments and other ways of stopping the sea smashing up against the base of the cliffs. Those plans were rejected on every occasion. I shall refer to the reasons for the rejections in a moment, but now a fourth plan is being laid before the Ministry.

The fourth plan is not very expensive —indeed, it is so cheap comparatively that I wonder how much good it would do in the long term. None the less, those who are more expert than I in such matters say that it is desirable. At 1992 prices, it is costed at £400,000, of which my hon. Friend's Ministry will be responsible for only 70 per cent., 15 per cent. being the responsibility of the local Tendring district council, and the other 15 per cent. being the responsibility of Essex county council. My hon. Friend has it in his power to enable a comparatively small amount of money to do an enormous amount of good.

My hon. Friend, with his usual robust common sense, may ask, "Why are we even having the debate? We have that beautiful area, that listed building, that tourist attraction, and something which is central to the locality. It is being destroyed. Why should there be any argument about it?" Of course, it is a natural asset of this country, and it should be preserved. There have been a number of reasons in the past why previous Governments have rejected plans to preserve and protect the Naze as it should be preserved.

The first argument which my hon. Friend's predecessors have put forward is that that kind of protection against the sea is normally given only when houses are in imminent risk of being washed away. I gladly tell my hon. Friend that, on this occasion, no houses are in imminent danger of being washed away. There are certainly houses on the Naze, but it would take many years before the land on which they stand is in danger of crumbling away, although considerable apprehension is felt by the people who live there. They feel that a blight has descended on their houses because the defences are not adequate to protect the Naze against the sea. None the less, I am not maintaining the argument that it is to preserve houses that are in imminent danger of destruction, but surely the point of saying that the danger to houses is an argument to be taken into consideration by the Government is that houses are an important asset. We have another important asset, and that is the Naze itself. That is what, on this occasion, should move my hon. Friend.

The second argument that has been put on previous occasions concerns the economic benefit of the Naze. I wrote to my noble Friend Earl Howe two weeks ago, and he sent me a letter which I received yesterday. I thank him and his officials for sending me a duplicate copy this morning. However, when I read the letter I was disturbed by it, first, because my noble Friend said that, as entry to the Naze is free, it is very difficult to make any economic judgments and that we must find an indirect way of judging it.

Of course, although it is true that access to the Naze is free to pedestrians, one must pay if one goes in a car. The least charge that one pays is 1.20. In spite of that, 16,000 cars a year go to the Naze. If there is an average of three people in a car, and that is almost 50,000 visitors already, I guess from my own observation of the Naze that at least that number arrive on foot. One hundred thousand people a year think that the Naze is a sufficient tourist attraction to visit.

Even more worrying about my noble Friend's letter and his not realising that cars have to pay to go to the Naze and that therefore we have a direct economic index of the popularity of the Naze is his description of how the Ministry proposes to make an indirect judgment of the economic benefits of the Naze. My hon. Friend the Minister, who might not have seen the letter, will hardly credit that his Ministry proposes that tourists should be stopped at the top of the Naze and asked what monetary value they place upon visiting the Naze at this moment and what monetary value they would place on the Naze next year if it were to be reduced by 6 ft. That is absolutely barmy. The Ministry proposes to aggregate that sum, multiply it by the number of visitors, and say that the difference between the two is the value which people put on having the Naze protected. I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Minister will want to take into account the economic value of the Naze. However, the extraordinary ivory-tower academic absurdity of the letter will give people living in the constituency little confidence that a proper economic evaluation has been made.

The third reason why the Naze has not attracted Government help in the past is almost more absurd. It can be described as "the fossil case". The Naze is built in part of a type of earth, if I may speak in layman's language, known as London clay. London clay is an old substance —some 50 million years old. Many ancient fossils are found in it. Of course, fossils are extremely interesting, but the argument has been made that the more the sea is allowed to wear away the wonderful natural beautiful asset of the Naze, the more fossils will become apparent.

The value placed on studying the fossils is given priority over the value to the people who enjoy the amenity of the Naze. I hope that my hon. Friend will not use that argument again, as it has been used in the past. I understand that agreement has been reached with English Nature—the quango which deals with such matters—on finding a way for the fossil hunters to continue to find some of the fossils without the whole of the Naze having to be destroyed.

So far the plan which the Tendring district council put before my hon. Friend the Minister has found only one objector out of the many thousands of local inhabitants. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that it would be an abuse of democracy if we had to go through the rigmarole of a public inquiry, which would cost money that could be far better devoted to saving the Naze, simply because one person had objected. I hope that my hon. Friend accepts that any application made by one person for a public inquiry should be overridden.

If my hon. Friend the Minister says, "I agree with everything that you say. You have persuaded me. I am about to give approval to the plan and to give funds to execute it", I will accept with alacrity and gratitude. But if he is minded to say no to the splendid plan, I hope that his refusal will not be set in concrete. I hope that he will agree to meet me and perhaps a delegation so that we can bring more persuasion to bear in private than perhaps I have been able to bring this morning.

1.7 am

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nicholas Soames)

May I first congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Sproat) on being selected to debate this topic on the Adjournment of the House. Without being over-familiar, I congratulate my hon. Friend on presenting such a persuasive and authoritative case without using a single note. He was obviously in command of his subject and knowledgeable about it.

My hon. Friend represented the interests of his constituents with great knowledge and feeling. He has written to my Department on several occasions about the matter and has tabled no fewer than nine parliamentary questions. The issue is of considerable importance to him and his constituents. Naturally, we take it seriously. I assure my hon. Friend that, whether or not he is satisfied with the answer that he receives tonight, the Parliamentary Secretary in the House of Lords, Earl Howe, will, of course, be delighted to receive my hon. Friend at a suitable time, together with whatever delegation he may choose to bring with him.

Coastal defence is an important and often controversial issue. It is right that such matters should be subjected to careful scrutiny, as my hon. Friend acknowledged, before any decisions are reached. Before I respond to the particular points that he has made, I shall explain a little of the background.

The Ministry that I represent has policy responsibility both for the alleviation of flooding, whether by rivers or the sea, and for the protection of the coastline from erosion. The Government set the national priorities, provide substantial sums in grant aid for flood and coastal defence works and give guidance on the engineering, environmental and economic factors that should be taken into account.

Operational responsibility for the construction and maintenance of defences in particular locations rests with local bodies. For sea defences against flooding, this generally means the local committees of the National Rivers Authority. For works to protect the coast from erosion—as, for example, at Walton-on-the-Naze—this usually means the district councils. These local bodies decide whether to put forward schemes of coastal defence work to the Ministry for approval and for grant aid. The system is essentially one of partnership between central and local government.

In considering applications for grant aid, the Ministry expects the operating authorities to have examined a range of options for tackling flooding or erosion at a particular site, and also to have assessed the implications of taking no action whatever. The no-action option provides an essential benchmark against which to judge the advantages and disadvantages of attempting to resist the forces of nature at a particular point. Naturally, much depends on the nature of the land immediately behind the coastline.

Proposals for coastal protection work are considered first by the Ministry's regional engineers for the relevant area, who have the necessary professional expertise. Essentially, there are a number of yardsticks against which all such proposals will be judged. Planned schemes must be sound in engineering terms, environmentally acceptable and economically worth while.

It is essential that these works should fall into the criteria that I have described. Above all, they must represent value for money for the taxpayer. My hon. Friend is an experienced parliamentarian and had been a Member before being elected to represent Harwich, so he knows that value for money must be a critical judgment and assessment. That means that all of the costs and benefits of a proposal must be extremely carefully quantified. Put simply, unless it can be shown that the benefits are at least equal to the costs, there must be a presumption against a particular scheme being approved for grant aid.

It is self-evident that coastal defence works must be properly engineered to undertake the task that is required. There are often a number of different ways of achieving the desired result, and the local authority must be able to demonstrate that its design and construction plans, and its choice of materials, are sound. The Ministry's engineers are well qualified to undertake the task of verifying the propositions.

Proposed works must be properly engineered and environmentally acceptable, and that is inevitably a more subjective assessment. All coastal engineering work involves some interference with the natural environment, and sometimes a balance will have to be struck between the protection of life and property and the protection of the environment. All proposed schemes are, therefore, passed to English Nature for comment. Local authorities are strongly encouraged to consult both statutory and voluntary conservation bodies from the earliest stages when planning work. Wherever possible, conservation and amenity features are incorporated in modern coastal defence schemes. We now try to work with, rather than against, nature.

I should stress that these cost-benefit analyses are not undertaken in a crude or simplistic manner. It is, of course, easier to quantify the so-called "tangible" costs and benefits of coast protection schemes. By that I mean that we can fairly readily measure benefits in terms of prevention or mitigation of damage to domestic and commercial property and transport links, for example. We have made progress in recent years with the much more difficult job of quantification of the so-called "intangible" benefits of coastal defence schemes, such as amenity, recreational and environmental benefits.

A number of techniques are available for the quantification of amenity or environmental benefits. Of those, the contingent valuation method is best suited to valuing the benefits of preserving cliff-top recreational sites like those so graphically and admirably described by my hon. Friend. That involves asking members of the public to place a monetary value on their enjoyment of a site as it is and as it would be if no action were taken to preserve it. The differences between the two values can then be aggregated to give a value for the amenity benefit of any scheme that preserved the site. There is clearly an element of subjectivity here and it is clear that this and similar techniques must be used with scrupulous care if credence is to be given to the results. But such measurements can help us to put a figure on intangible benefits when carrying out a cost-benefit analysis. There are examples of schemes in which the costs outweighed the benefits when only tangible factors were looked at, but which became eligible for grant aid once the intangible benefits were brought back into the scale.

I now come to the particular problems of the Naze. As my hon. Friend graphically pointed out, the Naze is a site of special interest and concern for his constituents. It is a site of special scientific interest, a nature reserve and a popular area for recreational pursuits. The cliffs contain important bird fossils and the Naze tower, a disused lighthouse, is a listed building. The area suffers from severe coastal erosion as the cliffs are cut away.

Tendring district council, the responsible coast protection authority, submitted schemes to protect the Naze from erosion twice in the 1970s and once in the 1980s. Those schemes were either rejected by the Department of the Environment—which had policy responsibility for coast protection against erosion until it passed to MAFF in 1985—or were withdrawn by the council itself. That was because the costs of the proposed schemes outweighed the benefits and, in the most recent case, because of objections from conservation bodies that the fossil deposits would be damaged.

The present scheme from Tendring district council was submitted to the Department last year and has been redesigned in consultation with English Nature. The scheme does not seek to prevent erosion at the Naze altogether, but rather to slow the rate of erosion. The scheme would change the appearance of the coastline by turning it into two small sheltered bays. But I am advised that English Nature is satisfied that it would permit sufficient residual erosion to allow the important bird fossils to be released for study.

The present position is that officials have assessed the council's proposal and found it to be sound from an engineering and environmental point of view. However, I understand that, as my hon. Friend said, a private individual has lodged an objection which, if unresolved, may necessitate the holding of a local investigation by the Ministry. Leaving that on one side for the present, the other main area that remains in contention is the economic justification for the scheme, with which my hon. Friend dealt at some length.

On the basis of the information so far provided by the council to officials, the costs of the scheme are likely to be considerably in excess of the benefits. Residential properties to the rear of the Naze are not expected to be at risk from erosion for 100 years and so do not have a significant effect on the calculation. The main benefits from the scheme, as my right hon. Friend rightly said, would be amenity benefits, and I have already acknowledged, as he does, the difficulty of quantifying those. But if we are to justify the expenditure of public money, we must quantify those intangible benefits as best we can. It is also essential that we do that if we are to assign priority as between different schemes competing for scarce resources. Competing schemes elsewhere in the country may involve a much more direct threat to life and property than is the case at the Naze. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that the Naze case is by no means an open and shut matter.

In the last financial year, the Government spent around £19.5 million in grant aid on coast protection works against erosion, out of a total of £56 million on flood and coastal defence overall. We are therefore investing very considerable sums of public money, and rightly so. However, the resources available are not infinite in this or any other area. I hope that my hon. Friend will also accept that the cost-benefit analyses which the Department rightly insists are carried out help to provide a broad indication of the types of coastal defence project that are likely to represent the best return on that capital investment.

In conclusion, I assure my hon. Friend that I and my ministerial colleagues will give very careful consideration to the points that he has raised. When he sees my noble Friend, he may wish to elaborate on other points. We have yet to reach a final decision on the Naze proposals. I have been entirely open with my hon. Friend about the rules to which we work and the potential difficulties we envisage with the district council's present scheme. However, I shall not prejudge the eventual decision tonight. I think that we have had a useful and constructive debate in which my hon. Friend has raised with considerable skill and care some very important and fundamental issues. We will want to reflect on them before reaching a final view, but I assure my hon. Friend that we hope to do that in the very near future. I assure him that he will be the first to know when we have done so.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes past One o'clock.