HC Deb 03 April 1996 vol 275 cc353-60

1 pm

Mr. David Porter (Waveney)

Approximately 8,000 sq km of land in England and Wales lie within 5 m of present sea levels. Britain already relies to a great extent on sea defence and land drainage. Some of the low-lying areas that are especially susceptible to rises in sea levels are the coasts of East Anglia, Lancashire, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, the Essex mudflats, Sussex coastal towns, the Thames estuary, parts of the north Wales coast and the Clyde and Forth estuaries. Therefore, I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise the matter of sea defence and coastal protection before the Easter recess.

I have been applying for an Adjournment debate for some weeks now and I started at the time of the bad weather in February, which illustrated just how vulnerable is our coastline. I have just drawn a place in the ballot and it is a matter of luck getting a debate, just as to a large extent it is a matter of luck whether we escape major flood damage in any winter. This is a national problem, as I have said, but I have the greatest concerns for the coast of East Anglia. The worst of the winter and the unpredictable early spring weather should be over for now and our crossed fingers and hoping for the best got us through, but the wind is constant and the sea never sleeps—certainly not the North sea.

Erosion goes on all year round, sometimes unnoticed and sometimes dramatically. For many weeks of the year, a potent mixture of high spring tides and northerly winds can prove fatal. When the weather is severe enough—as it was most recently on the nights of 19 and 20 February—to describe the coastline as being at the mercy of the sea is no exaggeration. Sometimes aging sea defences are turned to rubble in minutes. Yards of sand cliff, battered and weakened by the wind, are literally blown out to be scoured away in the boiling surf of an angry North sea. Anyone who doubts the existence of God should stand and watch it.

Despite loss of land and some properties in Norfolk, in my constituency of North Suffolk and further south in Suffolk, most of the defences held, just, but it was close. Some of the Norfolk marshes were under salt water, some shingle banks disappeared and land at Kessingland and elsewhere in Waveney was lost.

Such problems are not new, by any means. The one-time city of Dunwich, which returned two Members to the House, is now merely a village. When the Lowestoft sea defences were built earlier this century, that accelerated the loss of half of Pakefield. When the 1953 flood defences failed, that claimed more than 300 lives and cost more than £900 million at 1989 prices to rebuild and strengthen. I remember walking as a boy with my father on the sea wall to the north of Lowestoft and looking out at the ruins of the sea wall on which he had walked with his father, in his turn, looking further out at the sea wall that was once there, and so on.

Very early after I was elected to the House in 1987, I raised sea defence issues in general and the case of homes at Easton Bavents in my constituency in particular. Houses were demolished moments before they fell into the sea and people lost everything, without benefit of insurance or compensation. So we know that the problem is not new. The east coast has suffered erosion and been in retreat for centuries. We might be tempted to ask why we have not sorted the problem out by now, but anyone who has seen the sea and wind at work will know that it cannot be sorted out for long.

After the 1953 floods, when there were no cash limits for Government Departments and no direct controls on local authority capital expenditure, money did not run out. The then Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, accepted the report by the departmental committee on coastal flooding and major sea defences were installed. Many have been upgraded and replaced since, but most of those that survive are coming to the end of their useful life.

Ideas change and technologies change. When I spoke in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I complained about the plethora of bodies around the coast responsible for sea defence and coastal protection. There were more than 200, ranging from major councils to small harbour undertakings. I argued that there should be a national plan on what to save, where, and how to defend it. I said that the plan should be funded centrally, and not disproportionately by coastal dwellers and taxpayers. After all, the Royal Navy defends all our people and not just those who live on the coast. Since then, we have moved on. Larger shares of the funding for schemes are forthcoming from central funds, rather than local. We have had the National Rivers Authority and now we have the Environment Agency as a one-stop national body with a strategic overview of coastal protection.

We have seen several local authorities with common interests working informally together, pooling resources and ideas and recognising the two universal truths—that the sea knows no authority boundaries and that one man's erosion is another man's beach enhancements. I must pay tribute to Terry Oakes, a senior officer of Waveney district council, who has been a driving force in this work and is an acknowledged expert. Why, he even knows more than I do.

So we have moved a long way. We have documents such as the shoreline management plan from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which is a guide for coastal authorities and pulls together the disparate strands. We have a guide to good practice by MAFF called "Coastal Defence and the Environment". The flood defence committees of the old National Rivers Authority are working well and the internal drainage boards are working on all the rivers that drain farmland into the sea. The NRA worked on river management ideas and the Environment Select Committee three years ago wrote a report on "Coastal Zone Protection and Planning". The National Audit Office is also watching coastal defence. With all that happening, we should feel confident that the events of 1953 cannot happen again, but even so we know that they can. Statistically, they probably will in our lifetimes.

What are the options for any given stretch of coast? One option is, of course, to do nothing, but in Norfolk, the motto is "du different". In parts of Suffolk and Norfolk, managed retreat—as it is fashionably called—is being considered as shoreline management plans are put together. Crumbling sand cliffs feed beaches further round or down the coast—beach nourishment. That is a more environmentally natural process, and it appeals because it is nature taking its course. It works with the natural process instead of trying to fight against it. Retreat, however, was not the Dutch approach. They pushed out into the North sea. I accept that in Britain it is acceptable for some stretches of our coast to have managed retreat, but which stretches? Where do we draw the line and how do we defend that line? Those are the crucial questions.

The second option is to continue rebuilding hard engineering structures, such as groynes and sea walls. Those are vital in many parts to protect housing and life, but no one has ever advocated encasing Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex in a concrete defence fortress. The third option is to break the power of the waves offshore—for example, with rocks from Norway or elsewhere. That is happening and is certainly useful, but rocks have no impact on the wind's destructive power. I suggest that more work needs to be done on artificial reefs—for instance, those made with compacted household or industrial waste—to lessen wave power. I say that at the same time as I acknowledge the work done by the Ministry of Agriculture's Advisory Committee on Flood and Coastal Research and Development, which long ago argued for improved methods of design and operation and the need for collaboration between scientific disciplines, funding agencies and overseas research teams.

In so far as there is an answer, it is in working towards a national strategy put together locally and incorporating a mixture of defences and managed retreat. The local consultations are a vital part of that. People place, not surprisingly, the highest priority on saving their lives and homes. Urban areas need high protection and good, well-understood and practised early-warning systems. Stopping new building near the sea helps, of course. But I come back to the crucial questions: where do we draw the line and how do we defend it? In parts of Waveney, eventually, the A 12 trunk road—our economic lifeline—will become the line. How do we defend a trunk road against the sea?

Two years ago, in describing the state of our coastal defences following a coast protection survey of England, my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), in a written answer, stated: The survey also identified some 135 km of unprotected coast which is at present significantly eroding and where the provision of works may need to be considered within the next 10 years."—[Official Report, 30 March 1994; Vol. 240, c. 770.]

Times move on, and with sea defence, time is not on our side.

Three other aspects must be borne in mind, especially in respect of the North sea. Last week, together with my right hon. Friends the President of the Board of Trade and the Secretary of State for the Environment—in his capacity as the Member of Parliament for Suffolk, Coastal—I attended the official opening of Sizewell B. That superb occasion crowned a civil engineering project greater even than the channel tunnel, putting in its place, as part of the nation's economic engine, a triumph of British engineering, design and build—a nuclear power station.

As a correspondent of the liaison committee and the neighbouring Member of Parliament—many of whose constituents work at Sizewell A and B, while others helped to build them—for a constituency that takes the safety of those stations seriously, I have a copy of the Suffolk local authorities' emergency plan. That excellent document inspires real confidence, and I do not condemn it when I say that its coverage of disaster caused by sea flooding is almost nil. There are emergency plans for contamination, radioactivity and evacuation—not for overrunning by an angry North sea. That is understandable, but it means that the integrity of those power stations and of Sizewell C—which I hope will be built one day—must be guaranteed for ever. That provision must be built into the management shoreline plans for the future. If the protective sandbank of Sizewell were ever to be dredged, the credibility of those stations would be in question.

There are currently eight different licensed companies operating 2,000 to 8,000 tonne dredgers on our offshore sandbanks. I do not knock that industry. On the contrary, it is a valuable part of our local and national economy, and it makes a useful contribution to the Exchequer. The demand for aggregates for roads and buildings of 5.5 tonnes per person per year is insatiable, and those aggregates must come from somewhere. Thirty per cent. of that tonnage comes from the East Anglian coastline. I know about licensing, safeguards and agreements to cause minimum disruption to fishing, but many people feel that the rapid increase in erosion of the North sea coastline over the last 15 years is far greater than can be ascribed to natural factors or even global warming. Dredging must have an impact, even in an lively, undercurrent-strong, relatively shallow sea such as the North sea.

That impact must be felt on sea defences, fishing, and the beach and holiday industries. That impact may be accelerating, and further studies are needed—particularly as a large amount of our offshore sand is sold to Holland, which has stricter restrictions on offshore dredging because of that country's sensitivity to flood prevention.

In addition to the risks created by erosion and subsequent flooding that I touched on, whatever the mixture of causes, we have a lot of high-grade agricultural land. Given the uncertainties of the global food supply, it would be a madman who said that we have too much land in Britain and will have for ever, from here on in.

Other industries put pressure on the sea, such as gas and oil extraction—although I am not saying that they cause erosion, because clearly they do not. However, management plans must take account of all the uses to which the North sea is put, the pressures that it is under naturally and from man, and take a view—which should be built in to defence protection—of proposed future industrial uses.

I say that with my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Carttiss) in his place. I cite the example of the much-trailed outer-harbour scheme for Great Yarmouth, which must be properly assessed for its coastal erosion potential for my constituency, to reassure my constituents, who are concerned about the coastline between Corton and Hopton, not to mention the economic impact on Waveney, before any more false hopes are raised on that great white hope—or great white elephant, which might be an more appropriate description.

I argue for a national strategy that is devised locally with agreed defence lines, and for fair compensation for everybody who is on the wrong side of the defence lines; proper debate of the appropriate mix of defences in each area; and national funding of all sea defence works, coastal protection and river flood works.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Blackpool, South)

My hon. Friend has given an excellent exposition of all the issues, to which the Minister is about to reply. Does he agree that many of the issues relating to the North sea apply to many other coastal areas, including my own? My hon. Friend the Minister has been most helpful in dealing with the urgent problems of south Blackpool shore—many of which have commonality with the problems of my hon. Friend's own constituency.

Mr. Porter

My hon. Friend is right to remind me of the national impact of coastal defence. I mentioned that at the beginning of my speech, but have concentrated on my own area of East Anglia. I am asking for a national sea defence plan that is devised locally. Blackpool's different concerns should be incorporated in such a plan.

Any confusion about the new Environment Agency reporting partly to the Department of the Environment and partly to MAFF should not be allowed to take hold and be a permanent problem—or be a scapegoat for inaction.

Coastal defences should be at the forefront of MAFF's action files during the summer, to build public confidence for next winter. If the sea had got into the Broads in February, or had taken lives and more homes in Suffolk and Norfolk, it would have been an environmental, economic and human tragedy that would have made the Sea Empress disaster look like a teddy bears' picnic.

1.15 pm
The Minister for Rural Affairs (Mr. Tim Boswell)

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Porter) has set out his concerns and those of his constituents with his customary force and feeling. I am delighted that he was supported in doing so by my hon. Friends the Members for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Carttiss) and for Blackpool, South (Mr. Hawkins). My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney has taken a keen interest in coastal defence issues over the years and holds strong views on how they might be organised. I am responding as the Minister with responsibility for flood and coastal defence policy.

I was growing up in Essex at the time of the 1953 floods, and I appreciate that the damage and distress that flooding causes, and the direct loss of land and property caused by coastal erosion, are, understandably, highly emotive subjects. My hon. Friend is right to bring them to the attention of the House. Even in cases where life and limb are mercifully not lost, the damage and distress that is sustained by those affected is often severe—and not just in economic terms. Apprehension of potential effects is also serious.

Although natural events such as flooding and erosion can never be entirely prevented, it is obviously right that the public authorities that are empowered to take measures to reduce the risk take action where it is reasonable to do so. As my hon. Friend is aware, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has overall responsibility for flood and coastal defence policy in England.

Rather than respond in detail to each of my hon. Friend's constructive points today, I give him the assurance that I shall reflect carefully on them and reply in due course. My hon. Friend will be aware that some measure are already in place—for example, with marine dredging, through the Government review procedure, and the potential for compensation for certain kinds of coastal defence measures. However, MAFF has the overview, and is pleased to discharge that responsibility.

The planning, design, construction, maintenance and operation of defence measures is undertaken by a number of operating authorities. The new Environment Agency, which came into being this week and assumed all the functions of the National Rivers Authority, supervises all matters relating to flood defence in England and Wales. Through its regional and local flood defence committees, the agency can take action to reduce the risks of flooding from designated rivers, which are called main rivers, and the sea.

Internal drainage boards, of which there are 235 in England, have powers to implement measures to alleviate flooding in districts with special drainage needs, such as the Fens, other than on main rivers. Local authorities may carry out works on water courses other than main rivers and on those in internal drainage board areas, to alleviate flooding from rivers or the sea. Maritime district councils have powers to protect the land against erosion or encroachment by the sea.

The financing and administration of that work was considered in a consultation document issued in 1985, which raised the question of whether the powers of local authorities should be transferred to the then water authorities. In the light of the responses received, the Government decided that, although such an arrangement would have the benefit of administrative tidiness, on balance it was better to retain the existing arrangements. That decision has been reviewed twice. On each occasion, we concluded that no changes of substance should be made, and that conclusion was endorsed by Parliament when enacting the Water Act 1989 and establishing the Environment Agency in the Environment Act 1995.

Flood defence work is essentially long-term, and it was important that there was continuity when the Environment Agency took over from the National Rivers Authority. I can give my hon. Friend the assurance he seeks about continuity in that respect.

As I have said, we believe that the present system is effective. Maritime councils, like Waveney, and the National Rivers Authority have a proven record of achievement on coastal defence issues. Also, it is important that local authorities, which are accountable to local people and have detailed knowledge of local issues, should be involved in key decisions about coastal defence works for their areas.

However, although the pattern of differing operating authorities has remained largely unchanged, thanks to the perceptions that my hon. Friend and others have brought to the matter, a more integrated and strategic approach to sea defence and coast protection has been developed over the past decade. In 1985, responsibility for coast protection was transferred to MAFF, and, since then, both sea defence and coast protection draw on the same administrative arrangements and engineering expertise, and have benefited from a common policy lead. In 1993, the Ministry and the Welsh Office published a strategy for flood and coastal defence—I know that my hon. Friend is aware of it—which sets out a comprehensive framework within which Government and operating authorities can work.

We positively encourage operating authorities to take a strategic approach to flood and coastal defence problems and to consider a wide range of possible options for their circumstances. Naturally, individual authorities must consider the possible impact that defence measures may have on neighbouring areas, and that is particularly important on the coast. We therefore encouraged the setting up and operation of coastal groups, now numbering 18. These groups provide a forum for discussion and co-operation and help to ensure that coastal processes and activities taking place within particular stretches of coast are taken into account when reaching decisions.

To assist the operating authorities in the coastal groups in strategic management of each stretch of the coast, MAFF has encouraged the preparation of shoreline management plans and has issued guidance on their preparation. The aim of the plans is to provide a basis for sustainable coastal defence policies and to set objectives for the future management of the shoreline—much along the lines that my hon. Friend is advocating.

The completion of a plan should, inter alia, allow assessment of strategic coastal defence options, and inform the statutory planning process. Plans should be the subject of wide consultation with all bodies with an interest in the coastline. As my hon. Friend will know, Suffolk Coastal district council and Waveney district council are continuing to attach a high priority to the development of a plan for the stretch of coast between Lowestoft and Harwich.

The groups also play an important role in integrating these shoreline management plans with the work of local planning authorities. It is important to avoid creating problems in the future by discouraging inappropriate development in flood risk areas or on unstable coasts. Planning aspects play a key role in coastal defence and this will be even more important in the future as sea levels are expected to rise.

I hope that my hon. Friend will appreciate that the Government recognise the interdependence of competing pressures within the coastal zone and attach great importance to maintaining a national perspective.

Mr. Hawkins

When looking at competing pressures in coastal areas, will my hon. Friend and his officials take account of the difficulties that people who live on, or have businesses near, a coastline with a record of flooding face when obtaining insurance? That problem affects the constituents of many hon. Members.

Mr. Boswell

I appreciate my hon. Friend's point. That is exactly the kind of consideration that can be fed into the economic appraisal which we carry out when evaluating schemes.

It is clear that policies on coastal defence should reflect and support wider coastal policies set out in statutory development plans and coastal zone management plans. The Environment Select Committee, in its 1992 report, expressed concern about the possibility of a sectoral approach to coastal policy. That is why the Ministry makes it clear that the management plans should take due account of other coastal initiatives. Equally, those plans will be an important source of information to other local plans such as development plans.

It is important to recognise that, given the tremendous diversity of coastal formations, there can be no uniform approach to coastal defence. Coastlines recede or advance with changes in current, wind and tide. It is therefore unrealistic to expect to maintain every inch of coastline as it is now. Instead, authorities must look at a range of options and consider the impacts of defending a particular stretch of coast so as to avoid, wherever possible, burdening future generations with the maintenance of unsustainable defences.

The Government's commitment to effective coastal defences remains unchanged, but the techniques for putting that commitment into practice are constantly evolving and improving. We now have a much better understanding of natural coastal processes and other conditions on which to base our policy. Whereas past defences often consisted of concrete sea walls, experience and recent research, much of it funded by the Ministry, has shown that techniques which simulate natural features, such as beaches or salt marshes, can be more effective in absorbing wave energy. Such methods are often better technically, as well as more cost-effective and environmentally acceptable, than traditional hard defences.

There has been some interest in the use of managed retreat in relation to coastal defence. That may be, as my hon. Friend said, the fashionable phrase, but I would prefer to call it managed setback. By that, we mean a deliberate decision to realign the existing line of defences in order to achieve environmental and engineering benefits. As such, we see it as one of the range of options for consideration in rural coastal areas. It may or may not prove to be the preferred option, depending on local circumstances. Its advantages can include the creation of a foreshore which, by absorbing the energy of the sea, will form part of the new line of defence. It may also enable the creation or recreation of intertidal habitats. I emphasise that there is no central Government policy to impose managed set back. It depends very much on local circumstances and the planning to deal with them.

I have spoken so far about the policy guidance that MAFF provides, but our assistance also has a tangible form in terms of the significant contribution that we make to the funding of defence measures promoted by operating authorities. We have two functions: the overall planning function, and the financing function. The Ministry provides grant aid to flood and coastal defence authorities for capital works which are technically sound, economically worth while and environmentally acceptable. Last year—1995–96—the Ministry grant for inland and coastal works was some £78 million. As my hon. Friend knows, the coastal problems in his constituency are primarily of erosion rather than flooding. The relevant coast protection authority, Waveney district council, has promoted a number of schemes, to which the Ministry has contributed some £3 million of grant in the last five years.

I believe that my hon. Friend has performed a service to the House by deploying his expertise in the debate on these issues today. I have done my best to set out the arrangements whereby the Ministry provides the policy lead and the framework for a strategic approach to coastal defence. Then the Environment Agency, and the other operating authorities in their defined spheres of operation, can carry forward that strategy through their local operational responsibilities, with a strong local component in their planning, execution and democratic accountability.

I contend that, despite the seeming complexity of these matters to those not directly involved or to those who are not practitioners in the field, the arrangements work effectively towards an important purpose: reducing the risk of flooding and erosion to the constituents of my hon. Friend and of many others. At the same time, they are designed to avoid clashing with, or damaging, the developed, the built or the natural environment.

It has been a pleasure and a privilege to debate these important matters today.