HC Deb 24 February 1999 vol 326 cc322-46

[Relevant documents: The Sixth Report from the Agriculture Committee, Session 1997–98, Flood and Coastal Defence (HC 707), and the Replies by the Government and the Environment Agency thereto (HC 1117).]

11 am

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

I am grateful to the Liaison Committee for the opportunity to debate this important subject. Politicians, much as they often like to pretend otherwise, cannot solve every problem. We certainly cannot change the power of the elements, nor alter inevitable geological processes. When we intervene imperfectly we can make matters much worse. So it is that Minehead is currently angry about losing its beach as a result of incomplete coastal defence scheme work. On the other hand, I believe that Eastbourne has benefited from a modest influx of geological ambulance chasers after the dramatic collapse of a section of Beachy Head. More seriously, the people of Northampton are still counting the heavy cost of last year's floods.

We must learn to be a little more humble about flood and coastal defence, although we can make sure that the organisations established to deal with those issues are well structured and appropriately financed. We must avoid counter-productive interventions with natural processes, while ensuring that the things we do to safeguard human life and property from those natural forces have a benign effect on the environment, wherever possible. Those considerations are what the Committee's report is all about.

This is a complex policy area in which a large number of organisations are involved in formulating and implementing policy. Many of the arguments are intractable—local level accountability versus policy efficiency and effectiveness, and the survival of coastal communities in the face of remorseless natural processes. That is all underpinned by a profoundly complex legislative base, as I am sure the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food would acknowledge.

The mere announcement of the Select Committee's inquiry prompted the worst floods in living memory in my own constituency. Today I am speaking primarily as a Select Committee Chairman, but I am also a constituency MP and hope that I may be allowed a word of warning. If the Deputy Prime Minister visits your constituency—by helicopter, as he had to because that was the only way to get to Evesham at the time, to be absolutely fair—at the height of floods, promising full reimbursement for the unavoidable actions of local authorities, do not believe him. Wychavon district council is certainly well out of pocket for things it paid for off the back of precisely such an assurance, but which the Deputy Prime Minster's Department now regards as fully insurable risks.

I return to my main theme. The Committee is indebted to our specialist adviser, Professor John Pethick of the university of Newcastle, for guiding us through those complexities with such great aplomb. The Committee staff, too, responded magnificently to the many demands that we placed upon them. Latest projections of climate change and sea level rise were central to our considerations.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that a meeting is taking place in Montgomeryshire on the question of climate change? Does he agree that it is prudent of Severn Trent, the Environment Agency and other organisations to organise a major conference on that matter in May?

Mr. Luff

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Severn Trent has taken an enlightened interest in climate change and has certainly been helpful to me in my work in my constituency—an area that the company also serves.

On climate change, may I say to the Meteorological Office that we were grateful for its evidence and that we are sorry that it misunderstood our report? Nothing in the report should be construed as being critical of the Meteorological Office. It is a matter of fact that the Meteorological Office could not predict—and could not have been expected to have predicted—the severity of the 1998 Easter floods. The Committee's recommendations on funding were intended to be helpful to the Meteorological Office and I was disappointed that it did not understand that. Climate change makes dramatic events more frequent, but no easier to predict.

It is also right that I should point out that we found high and growing regard for the general approach of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to those complicated issues and for the policies that the Ministry seeks to implement. However, we commented on the relative failure of MAFF to instil a sense of drive, purpose and direction in the new policy among relevant operating authorities. Our report was not simply about managed realignment of the coast in carefully selected areas, although the national press picked up almost exclusively on that issue last August, often misrepresenting us quite heroically. We were given some marvellous headlines: Anthony Bevins wrote a pretty fair piece in The Express, which certainly did not even begin to justify the paper's screaming front-page headline Let Britain Sink Say MPs". However, I am grateful to The Express headline writers for giving me a chuckle and a good cutting for my office wall. Of course, the headline drove others back to read the report itself, for which I am also grateful.

In its reply to the Committee, the Environment Agency said that the report was timely and had recognised the issues facing flood defence in England and Wales into the next millennium. Its response stated: The Report challenges all parties involved to deliver a more efficient, effective and consistent service to the public. The report was also fairly well received by the Government. Their reply described it as a valuable contribution to the debate on a highly important subject". The Parliamentary Secretary—I am glad that he is in the Chamber today—characterised our findings as an important advance. It dealt with serious issues in a balanced, thoughtful and weighty way".—[Official Report, 20 October 1998; Vol. 317, c. 1088.] Understandably, perhaps, there was a slightly more guarded response from the farming industry, but I was impressed by the considered response that came from an area affected by rapid coastal erosion. An editorial in the East Anglian Daily Times asked: Where would be the attraction of the (East Anglian) Heritage Coast if it were hidden behind what the MPs call 'an unbreachable Maginot line of towering sea walls and flood defences'"? The East Anglian Daily Times recognised that our recommendation to realign the coast at appropriate locations would require sea defences to be moved back only a few tens of metres to yield considerable environmental and social benefits. It would affect hundreds, at most a couple of thousand, hectares of land on the east English coast, and not the vast tracts conjured up by some parts of the national press.

Most tellingly, the editorial continued: Accepting this change of policy is actually a matter of accepting the inevitable: there is no realistic alternative. That is the central message of our report.

More recently, after the collapse at Beachy Head, a leading article in The Times expressed broad agreement with the Committee's conclusions, recommending greater reliance on soft engineering approaches to coastal defence where appropriate. The Times commented: Spending more taxpayers' money on concrete walls may well be akin to pouring money into the sea, a futile attempt to control nature. In the limited time that I have at my disposal, I want to draw out three of the report's principal themes—institutions, funding and planning. First, in relation to institutions, current Government policy on flood and coastal defence faces considerable problems in being delivered on the ground. The Committee called for a national consultation on the administrative and organisational structures currently in place, and for the Government to rationalise the fiendishly complex legislative base of policy as soon as possible.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

The hon. Gentleman mentioned flood defences. He will be aware that in Herefordshire, during the recent floods, a farmer was killed, and that one difference between those floods—which I know also affected Worcestershire—and previous floods, such as the Easter floods, was that the Environment Agency and the police monitored effectively a surge of water coming down the River Wye. Water levels rose and then fell. The generally accepted view locally was that that was because Welsh Water had opened the gates on the reservoirs to cause that surge. Would the hon. Gentleman like the water authorities to be included as part of the review?

Mr. Luff

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point and I shall be interested in the Parliamentary Secretary's reply. I, too, heard those accusations locally, and they need to be addressed. Management of rivers is a complex issue, and one that I have no time to examine in my speech, although the Committee considered it in some depth. I agree that there are matters of concern, not only at the larger level to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but at local level in relation to the maintenance of non-main rivers. However, I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's remarks and hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will take them on board.

In essence, the report stated that the existing coastal groups should be put on a statutory basis and should address coastal issues, while regional flood defence committees should deal with rivers. There should be a slimming down of a number of local flood defence committees.

The Government's response was, to put it charitably, cautious. While they did not agree that a radical overhaul was necessary, the Ministry announced that it would discuss with the Environment Agency and regional committees the preparation of guidance on the continued need for local flood defence committees and the appropriate number and composition of those committees. That is an encouraging step towards the more wide-ranging administrative review for which the Committee had hoped.

The Environment Agency noted that we are sympathetic to the recommendation of the Select Committee that there should be a review to a single tier of Regional Flood Defence Committees". Although the Government might have dismissed our suggestion for radical institutional reform, the Environment Agency noted its full support for the main emphasis of the Agriculture Select Committee's report … that there is an urgent need to streamline flood and coastal defence institutional and financial arrangements to achieve a more efficient, effective and value for money service that can deliver long term sustainable policies". Even the Ministry admits—I quote again from its response—that more needs to be done to translate the national strategy into action on the ground". We believe that that can be achieved only through reforming a system of policy delivery that has grown on a piecemeal, ad hoc basis over several decades. The current sticking-plaster approach advocated by the Ministry is not, in our opinion, the best way forward. I wonder if the Parliamentary Secretary has changed his mind since he responded to our report.

If Government policy is to be delivered effectively, current levels of funding, and the way in which those funds are allocated, must be reconsidered. Our report recognised the urgent need for extensive renovation and, in some areas, the replacement of coastal defence works over the next decade—so much for letting Britain sink.

A critical part of that process is knowing the precise state of repair of those defences. The Committee pointed out that MAFF and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions should undertake a joint review of the funding mechanisms currently in place, with two aims. The review should ensure that those mechanisms are the most efficient way of delivering funds to operating authorities and that they do not prejudice decisions against the maintenance of existing works in favour of the construction of new works, which can have unwelcome environmental effects.

We urged the Government to consult all operating authorities on current funding arrangements, with a view to simplifying those arrangements radically and achieving measurable improvements in policy efficiency by cutting out unnecessary bureaucracy and administration. The Government accepted our call for an interdepartmental review of funding mechanisms. What progress has been made with the review? Will it also suggest ways of streamlining the administrative and bureaucratic complexities of the current system more generally?

Has the Minister consulted the Environment Agency on restructuring funding mechanisms for flood and coastal defence? What further guidance is he considering for operating authorities on the balance to be struck between capital and maintenance? As for the state of repair of flood and coastal defences, what progress has been made on the development of an asset database for all defences, irrespective of ownership? Does the Minister agree with the Environment Agency's observation to the Committee that, even after the comprehensive spending review, there is a "noticeable shortfall" in national funding, which may result in the Government's priorities … not being adequately met"? The third important issue is property development on flood plain land. We discovered a legacy of inappropriate development in flood-prone areas, and exposed a national planning system that still does not accord sufficient importance to flood and coastal defence priorities. That certainly contributed to the severity of floods in the midlands last Easter, in Evesham, in my constituency, and in Northampton.

We argued for a clear presumption against future development on flood plain land, where the flooding or erosion risk attached to a particular development, as determined by the Environment Agency, outweighs the benefits. We said that the agency should make it clear to property developers and local authorities alike that it will vigorously oppose all inappropriate development on rapidly eroding coasts and flood plain land, referring the matter to the Secretary of State where necessary. We said that, in exceptional circumstances when planning permission on land liable to flooding is considered, the agency should be granted powers to require developers to set aside sufficient moneys for the provision of all necessary flood defence works.

It is fair to say that the Government's reply did not go as far as the Committee would have liked. The Government noted, however, that they would consider whether the present guidance to local authorities on development should be strengthened. They also undertook to review whether stronger guidance was needed in relation to the financial contributions that developers should make towards flood defences. The large amount of new house building that the Government believe is necessary makes the issue genuinely urgent.

Clarification of the Government's latest thinking would be appreciated, especially in view of the unequivocal endorsement of the Committee's position from the Environment Agency. I should also like to hear from the Minister whether the agency is on course to complete its flood risk mapping exercise by September this year. In the light of last year's Easter floods, we said that should be its main priority.

There remain a number of other issues that the Government did not resolve to our satisfaction. I shall deal with just two: strategy and compensation. Those issues are related.

The Government have an enlightened strategic approach to policy aims and objectives, which has established the foundations for a more sustainable flood and coastal defence policy. The Minister, his predecessors and his Department deserve praise for their work. The Department must now turn its attention to gauging the long-term implications for policy of the approach that the Government advocate. As the Department recognises, and as the Government say in their response, there is a need for thoroughly evaluated, flexible and imaginative responses to the future challenges posed by rivers inundating flood plains, storm surges on the coast and rapid rates of coastal erosion. On the east coast of England, those rates are as fast as any in Europe.

If the Government's response proves to be no more than warm words, they should at least, as a first step, assess the financial implications of their endorsement of soft defences and managed realignment. The Environment Agency broadly agrees with that, commenting: The Government should produce clear policy guidelines on current compensation mechanisms and how they should be applied in future". Clarification from the Minister on the Government's guiding strategy on the coast and inland would be welcome. In particular, what is being done to encourage operating authorities to address the Government's policy aims by setting targets?

That leads me to my last point, which concerns compensation. I found that aspect of the Government's response particularly disappointing. If individuals are required to make sacrifices for some wider social benefit, they should be compensated. Let us take the case of Mr. David Rusbridge of West Wittering, which I have discussed with my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie). Mr. Rusbridge wrote to me recently that managed realignment was a possibility in his part of Sussex, and that he might be required to sacrifice some 100 acres of his 400-acre farm. Before the 1950s, coastal landowners were responsible for the maintenance of sea defences. That responsibility was removed from them, but they were told that the land that they owned would be defended. On that basis, Mr. Rusbridge has invested in his land. Now he faces immense uncertainty. I believe that, if he is required to lose 100 acres of land worth £150,000 to £200,000, he should be compensated. It is not right for one individual to bear the cost of protecting the rest of us.

I understand that the Minister can sometimes provide compensation by means of environmental routes in such circumstances, but that is not the principle. Compensation should not depend on the lottery of environmental gain. We said in our report: We are firmly convinced of the need to put in place a robust financial mechanism for the reimbursement of property owners and landowners whose assets are sacrificed for the wider benefit of the community … In our opinion, the Ministry has postponed this task for too long and should investigate the practicalities of such a mechanism urgently. If landowners are not compensated, what incentive is there for them to support the kind of sustainable solutions that our Committee called for, and which the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food now rightly advocates? That complaint should probably be laid at the door of the Treasury, not MAFF, but Government as a whole must address it if genuinely sustainable policies are to be made acceptable to coastal communities.

Certain things are unavoidable. Climate change is leading to rising sea water levels, and, it seems, to increased storminess. The geological tilt of the United Kingdom into the English channel and the North sea is making the problem worse. There will come a time when we cannot defend land that currently seems secure. London itself is not immune. No flood barrier can work for ever. In 200 or 300 years, the effects on London will be profound. We described them in our report. If the Government really want the millennium celebrations to do something good for London in the long term, when the dome reaches the end of its life they should not put new buildings on the site. They should pull it down, and create washlands on the Greenwich peninsula. That would be real joined-up government, providing an effective flood defence and a huge gain for London's environment. It would be one measure of the success of our report. Similarly, if the report gives planning authorities pause for thought, we shall have done our job. If we stop piling up new problems for future generations, I shall be well pleased.

Canute knew the limits of his powers, and sought to demonstrate them to his courtiers. For his pains, history remembers him wrongly as the king who thought that he could command the sea. He could not do that then, and we cannot do it now. We can, however, go with the grain of coastal processes, and develop sustainable answers to difficult issues. If we learn that lesson, the report will have made a difference that matters.

11.17 am
Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree)

I am pleased to be able to speak in the debate, and to follow the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Mr. Luff), who chairs the Select Committee on Agriculture. I agree with much of what he has said.

I have the privilege of representing a division of the county of Essex, and, although my division has no coastline, the county has an extensive coastline, running from London to Harwich and containing many inlets, estuaries, islands and coves. The soil on which the sea dashes is very soft, and people in Essex have been mindful of the risks of flooding for many centuries.

Canvey island, of historic and sad memory, was the scene of the 1953 flood disaster, in which 59 people lost their lives. In many respects, it represents the endless struggle of mankind with the elements. The Dutch reclaimed it from the sea in the 17th century, and it has been at risk of being reclaimed by the sea ever since then.

County councillor Ray Howard is a close friend of mine, although he is a member of another political party. He represents Canvey island, and is also a member of the Essex flood defence committee. I spoke to him earlier this week. He takes a great interest in the Select Committee's deliberations, and in what we are debating today. He has served on the flood defence committee for many years, and he is well aware that the barriers on the lower Thames are being closed much more often nowadays. That suggests that tides are rising, and that we face potential further disasters. Although protection mechanisms on the Thames and on other parts of the Essex coast are much more substantial and secure than they were in the 1950s, concern remains.

Councillor Howard would perhaps differ from one aspect of the Select Committee's conclusions, as indeed I do. It is with regard to democratic representation. Although I understand the logic of seeking co-ordination through regional committees, I am fearful, as I believe other local people are, that the elected representation serving on those committees will be diminished. If we take that away, with less involvement by those who are aware of the problems in their localities, problems are almost bound to follow.

Recently, as part of the inquiry, I, the Chairman of the Select Committee and others visited Peterborough to discuss flood warning arrangements with the Environment Agency. It showed us in embryonic form fairly advanced and complex mechanisms, whereby computerised telephone systems would effect warnings to those in areas at risk.

In many ways, I applaud such progress, but we may be a little rash in overlooking more rudimentary defence devices such as the siren. I make a special plea for the use of siren to be considered more. The advantage that it has over advanced technology is that it is not put out if a sudden storm cuts out electricity. It is there for all to see. It is dramatic. It pierces the ear. It is clear to anyone who hears it that something is afoot. If use of the siren—which is used in parts of Essex to great effect—were more widespread, we would have extra assurance.

I agree entirely with the remarks by the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire concerning building in the flood plain. Developers have had easy incentive to go for profit because the land is normally easier to build on than more rugged or upland areas. The attraction is obvious. Local planning authorities have perhaps been a little too eager to grant those consents in those areas, some unmindful that the cost of the protection may not fall on the developer or on them, but on the state as a whole, in its various forms.

I support the remarks by the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire concerning strengthening the planning process. Vendors of properties should make the views of the Environment Agency as to the flood risk known to the purchaser; indeed, it should be an obligation. There should be greater liaison with insurance companies as to the risk involved when properties are built in those areas. The views and recommendations of the Environment Agency as to the flood risk should be prominent in making a local authority search. One might reach the point where that recommendation or view is endorsed on the title deeds and on the land certificate.

All those matters would be governed by the principle of caveat emptor. The purchaser would beware, so the developer would also beware if there were a risk that he could not sell the properties that he had built. It is such a easy matter for him to build the property, to take the profit and to let the cost thereafter fall on the rest of us.

I address what is now euphemistically called managed realignment; only a few months ago, it was called managed retreat. I support the view of the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire. There is often a good case for proceeding in that way. Time does not stand still. The report refers to the fact that 21 villages in the county of Norfolk have disappeared into the sea since the 11th century, the most famous being the well-known rotten borough of Dunwich.

I have been there many times. I am always told that, in stormy weather, I should be able to hear the bells clanking from the bottom of the sea. I have not heard them yet, but I do know that that part of Dunwich is no longer there because it has gone back to the sea. However, on other parts of the east coast—I have already mentioned Canvey island—we have reclaimed from the sea. Fenlands are reclaimed from the sea.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

The hon. Gentleman refers to my constituency. Were it not for drainage, my constituency would not exist, or the vast bulk of it would not exist. [Interruption.] Whatever reaction that stimulates, does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as well as holding the sea back, drainage is an important part of these considerations? It is about pumping water out, as well as stopping water coming in. That is critical.

Mr. Hurst

I am pleased to agree with the hon. Gentleman, as I often do in such less controversial matters. I am fully aware that, were Hereward the Wake alive today, he would not be able to evade the Normans as readily as he did in former times, but the hon. Gentleman is right. Were it not for the drainage patterns in those areas, any attempt to hold back the sea would be purposeless because the area would eventually flood in any event.

Where we take a view—often it is a sound view—that we should alter the line of the coast to take account of advances of the sea, as the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire said, it is right and proper that those who own the land adjacent thereto be properly compensated. Indeed, we need to achieve a balance between protecting rich agricultural lands, which are often found on the east coast, and preserving the natural environment as it once was.

The Ministry certainly deserves a degree of congratulation on that aspect. It has supported the European Union habitat directive, is committed to seeking to preserve sites of high scientific interest and, where that is not possible, to seeking a replacement to sites elsewhere.

There is not an inevitable conflict between farming and wildlife and habitat preservation. The two are indelibly part of the countryside. They are often perceived to be in conflict, but they are not. There is a strong case that, where society decides to draw back the line of coastal defence, the owner of the land should be properly paid for what he has given up because he is giving it up on behalf of all of us, not just on behalf of himself.

Where habitat is lost and cannot be replaced, there is also a case for compensation. The problem is that such compensation cannot be easily valued in monetary terms. We can ascertain through a land agent the price per acre of prime agricultural land, but we cannot determine so easily what the market price is of a reed bed. It is not possible to say. What would we pay for the nesting site of marsh harriers? There is no list of valuations.

That is why I am encouraged that, when there is a risk to such areas, we will seek to replace them if they cannot be preserved, but we need to ensure that those who preserve such parts of the country are not the losers, just as the landowner should not be the loser when he gives up his land to the advances of the sea.

The report has dealt with a number of issues that are highly pertinent to the important issue of coastal defence. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire on putting it forward in such a way.

11.28 am
Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives)

In view of the number of hon. Members who wish to speak in the debate, I will keep my contribution short, in the hope also that the House will enjoy two contributions from the Liberal Democrats, if time allows.

I wish to make a few remarks on the key message of the report in terms of overviewing the whole approach to coastal and flood defence, on one issue of funding that causes concern in my area and on planning.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) on his excellent introduction, which I entirely endorse. It has been a joy to be a member of the Select Committee on Agriculture and to produce what is a particularly pertinent, relevant and significant report, which I hope the Minister has taken on board.

I endorse the report's key message on managed realignment and the use of soft engineering. It recognises that we cannot win our battle with the sea and climate without bankrupting the country.

As the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire said, we cannot play King Canute with public finances and public policy. We have to accept that there are limitations to our ability to tame and control nature. Forecast sea level rises for the next 50 years of between 4 and 6 mm annually—which does not take into account the impact of other geomorphological changes—should help to concentrate the mind. Geologically, the land is moving at an alarming rate. As I explained to the Select Committee, it is perhaps symbolic that, as Cornwall is rising, England is falling.

I know that the Minister is aware that the current funding mechanism—particularly moneys from local authorities—is causing difficulties for regional flood defence committees. As we know, local authorities are under specific financial pressures. The advice of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is that local authorities should pass on to the Environment Agency all flood levies for flood defence—exactly in line with national provision of standard spending assessments for flood defence—whereas the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions says that SSAs are a mechanism for grant distribution based on a formula on which local authorities should exercise judgment in funding priorities. The funding mechanism is a source of growing tension between local authorities and the Environment Agency, and operates in a climate in which the Environment Agency's budget for some regions, such as mine, is falling. The issue certainly has to be addressed.

As the House knows, an additional 4.4 million homes will have to be built across the country, and somewhere will have to be found to build them. As the hon. Members for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) and for Mid Worcestershire rightly said, it is appropriate that the Government should be a great deal more robust than previous Governments have been in addressing the issue. It is nonsense to allow further development in flood plains or vulnerable coastal zones that have no flood or coastal defence.

The Select Committee and I seek the Government's acceptance that the Environment Agency should have a statutory right to be involved at every stage of the planning process in what will be—or should be—easily defined zones.

Mr. Keetch

Does my hon. Friend, and other Committee members, accept that the prime consideration is not only planning and building on flood plains but the type of agriculture that is practised on those flood plains? Potato cultivation, for example, dries up water meadows—so that they cannot soak up water, silt runs off and rivers become clogged.

Mr. George

I agree entirely.

Flood plains and coastal areas may provide a picturesque or sublime view for private individuals, but too often the public purse has to meet the costs of sustaining those views. The matter will have to be reviewed, and I hope that the Minister will take it on board.

11.33 am
Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey)

Part of my constituency is under water. The Isle of Sheppey is always below sea level, and consequently has problems that other areas in Britain do not have. In 1897, and in the past century—in 1928 and 1953—we had floods in which three quarters of Sheerness disappeared.

Today, at 6.30 am, I woke up to the local newspaper, the Sheppey Gazette, which somewhat discourteously informed me that Sheppey was mopping up—and counting the cost—after massive floods hit the north of the island … Mrs Raymond said: 'It was terrifying. The lights failed and we were plunged into darkness. The children were very frightened and then water started to flood in downstairs. In places, the water was up to 3ft deep. Island councillor Steve Worrall … voicing the fears of elderly and disabled people … said: 'There are so many old people living at ground floor level. They dread the waters returning.' Then I realised that, in today's newspaper, I was reading the memory section, which was describing the 1979 floods. However, my constituency is prone to flooding, as we are below sea level and have unique properties.

I should like to congratulate the Agriculture Select Committee on its work, which is outstanding. Although Select Committees are not often praised, I offer my congratulations to its members.

I was marginally amused by the picture of the Thames barrier on the cover of the Select Committee's report—only because the barrier has added to our problems in Sheerness. I wonder whether the Minister knows of any studies done by the Ministry, or of other studies that have been commissioned, on the barrier's implications for areas further down the Thames.

I also ask—out of interest, not as criticism—why, in the report's list of memorandums of evidence and list of appendices, on pages li and lii, no evidence from Kent was listed? There was nothing from Kent county council, from Swale borough council—which is part of my constituency—from Queenborough town council or from Sheerness. Although it may have been an oversight on their part—if so, more the fool them—I also wonder what happened in Kent to the Committee's request for information. A substantial part of Kent is coastal. Certainly some parts of the Isle of Sheppey—and of the former Isle of Thanet; it is no longer an island—are always below sea level. On the east side of Kent, we have had phenomenal coastal erosion.

I take issue on one matter. As the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) and my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) said, there seem to be a plethora of agencies and activities dealing with flood and coastal defence. Although my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will reply to the debate, I wonder whether the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions should not be responsible for the matter. I wonder also whether, in England, the responsibility should not be given to regional development agencies. I look forward to hearing my hon. Friend's comments on the matter.

Coincidentally, we are able to consider not only the Select Committee's report, but the Environment Agency's plans for my constituency, which are in a document entitled "Isle of Sheppey Strategy Plan, Summary Document, January 1999". It contains some wonderful pieces, some of which I should like to quote.

The document states: An assessment of the current standards has concluded that although the standards of the northern sea walls are quite high (100 to 200 years), the southern clay embankments have standards of five years or even less. Without continued maintenance of the defences, the standard would fall even further and breaching would become inevitable. As the flood risk area is mainly below mean high water levels, breaching of the defences would eventually lead to permanent flooding of the entire flood risk area and abandonment of a great number of properties. It is a nice way of describing Queenborough and Halfway, which are two of the largest villages on the island.

I should like to quote another section, which I fail to comprehend fully. It states: The present value cost of the Strategy over the next 50 years including works to the southern defences"— of the island— is estimated at £22.6 million, including capital costs, preliminaries, contingencies, design and supervision … The present value benefits"— whatever that means— (or damages avoided)"— I pass are estimated at £369 million resulting in a benefit-cost ratio of 16.3. That was certainly gobbledegook to me.

I thought that the section was saying essentially that the Environment Agency did not have a strategy for the island. I felt sadness in reading it because of the lack of warmth and humanity shown for the people of the island of Sheppey, which is constantly flooded. Flooding is not a new thing for us. High tides do not come only once every 40 years and affect other parts of Britain; my constituency is constantly being flooded and is always in danger of flooding.

I was very nervous about the idea of—whatever it is called officially—what I call "managed retreat", when the next spring tide arrives on the island. In the report's section on the history of flooding, the appalling hardships caused by flooding is scarcely dealt with. Poor people—Sheppey has had unemployment rates of 40 per cent.—cannot afford, or do not buy, home insurance. If they take it, they buy perhaps rather dubious policies. They are therefore doubly affected by flooding, because they are not able to insure themselves.

I should like to try to tease out where the legal and moral liabilities should lie in the flood and coastal defence recommendations. I take on board the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree on planning issues.

We have new houses all over Sheppey, but they have been built on bits of rough or dubious land. Planning permission should not have been given, and the planning side of the subject must be much stronger.

If managed retreat is introduced on Sheppey, the lives of eight farmers will be ruined for ever. The land at one of the farms—which I have visited—has been leased by, of all things, Crown Properties. By his own ingenious system of irrigation channels, the farmer has created a wildlife sanctuary and new land for sheep grazing, and he has maximised the land's potential to the fullest. It is an exceptional scheme. In addition, because he has been hit—as have most farmers—by the unusually difficult economic conditions of the past three years, he has had it tough twice.

The farmer sought permission for a change of use for an old barn which stored hay, and for some ancillary buildings. He was given it, and he has leased them to small, productive and profitable self-starter companies. Could we wish for more on the Isle of Sheppey? One of the buildings houses a company that makes tarpaulins and, in another, they collect and sell classic cars. Yet another is a stonemason's studio. Under managed retreat—which the Government could decide on in the next few months—who will insure the farmer if he has no insurance? If he is insured, and finds that he is under-insured, who will insure him then? I have not asked him this, as I have assumed that he is insured. However, if the spring tide wipes him out and he is left bankrupt, what then?

I understand that managed retreat is the cheapest option. I urge the Select Committee to analyse the financial implications of its recommendations when it next reports on the matter. I read far too many Select Committee reports—I am as guilty as anyone, as I am a member of a Select Committee—in which recommendations have no budget or financial model, so we have no opportunity to find the best option. With no resolution on a compensation package before the next flood, the eight farmers on the island are caught between assurance and insurance.

Managed retreat will affect confidence in my community and add to the insecurity that affects all islanders. It could also affect the town of Queenborough, which has a population of 5,000, and the large village of Halfway. From today, any business man thinking of investing will think again, and a downward spiral will then become inevitable—after we have spent the past 10 years trying to provide the island with as much European and Government aid as possible.

Islands are strange places—they feel protective. The first people came to live on Sheppey in the sixth century, and the island has never been connected to the mainland. We hope to have a new bridge by 2001, but it has always had a swing bridge or an up-bridge. It feels its identity as an island. Managed retreat will not sustain the psychology of the island—it will damage it. That has been overlooked by the Environment Agency and the Select Committee report.

Governments tend to be reactive—that is the nature of the beast. However, yesterday the Prime Minister explained the planning required if we were to go into the euro. As we know that there will be a major flood—there is no doubt about it—I wonder whether we could have the same level of planning, particularly as regards compensation packages. I wonder whether we could look at this matter now, before thousands of claims are made. We need five or six ideas for compensation packages.

Ultimately, the island will be cut off from the mainland. How will the population of 35,000 get food and blankets? Are we prepared for that? This is a complex issue and it is easy to make simplistic remarks, but the island always suffers in bad weather. It cannot help that—that is the nature of the island. However, we put people there, we have given them authority to build and we have taken businesses there. We have a moral duty to look after people.

The matter is complex, and I would have liked to be able to explain some of the maps in the report, which are complex. I wonder whether the House would consider using the parliamentary channel to put slides or one-minute videos up during our speeches to show the implications and consequences of previous floods.

11.44 am
Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt)—who has knowledge of information technology and new technology—ended on a most interesting note. I share his concern at a matter of growing importance to which the House will return, and to which the Select Committee has helpfully drawn attention. I have heard three members of the Select Committee congratulate themselves on their report and—as an independent, non-partial Member of Parliament—I congratulate them as well.

Members of the Select Committee will not be surprised by my interest, because they received evidence from Somerset county council, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Mrs. Katherine Bryan, the head of the south-west Environment Agency. In the appendices, submissions from Mr. Campbell Voullaire and Mr. Mark Blathwayt were published in connection with the Porlock shingle ridge, which is a retreat if ever you saw one—a managed retreat, in which 140 acres of prime farmland is turned into a salt marsh—that has caused great concern in that part of my constituency.

Somerset county council was right to give evidence—one fifth of Somerset is below sea level. We have talked of Hereward the Wake, and I would advance the cause of Alfred, who would not have been half so great had he not been able to hide behind the salt marshes—which are now the Somerset levels—where the pursuing Danes were unable to catch up with him because the tide came across 150,000 acres faster than a horse could gallop. He was able to burn his cakes in reasonable security. That is now important agricultural land, and its drainage and protection are matters of concern.

The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) referred to the evidence from the RSPB, which looked at areas that should not be drained and on which important wetlands exist—some in my constituency. I am familiar with the complexity of the issues, and I am concerned about them. I recognise that they are getting no easier. I have noticed that "retreat" is now called "realignment," which I see as meaning gain, as well as loss. In Somerset, we are in retreat—my constituency is shrinking—and there is no sign of any gain on any part of the Somerset coastline, which is under threat. I understand that Professor Pethick—who was an adviser to the Select Committee—is familiar with the coastline.

There has been an imperceptible change of belief, rather than a particular moment when the existence of climate change was publicly accepted. I have believed it, on a hunch, for a long time, in the face of the public dismissal by many authorities, who talked of the failure to understand the cyclical nature of climate, the history of the ice ages and the various patterns of climate and weather over the centuries. Now, there is a general recognition of it.

I do not know when the Environment Agency changed its policy, but it is now accepted that there is climate change, and that we must deal with the risk of more serious events happening more frequently. We have read this morning of the horrors of the avalanches in Austria, and two avalanches came down yesterday on a village that had never had one before and was regarded as completely safe. That is a further illustration of the changes to, and the severity of, the weather.

As well as global warming and rising sea levels, there is the increasing severity, and frequency of violent events. There are also man-made contributions to that frequency and severity. This hit me most forcibly when I was the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Strabane was badly flooded. I was there 24 hours later, and it was impossible to understand why it had been flooded. Half the town had been flooded severely, and a lot of damage was done. By the time that I got there, the river level was right down. The water, which had been brimming to the top of an extremely high bridge, was looking harmless and low.

An old gentleman standing nearby, whom my officials tried to keep away from me because they thought that he was a bit of an old crank, made the pretty obvious point that such things did not happen in the old days, before all the drainage work on the farms, when the river took a long time to come up, stayed up for a long time and took some time to go down. I live in an old mill and have been flooded. I have seen the effects of adjacent motorways and new developments. When there is significant rainfall, it runs off faster and arrives quicker and in greater volume. The water stays for less time, but it does greater damage.

Curry moor in my constituency is the flood plain into which the River Parrett and the River Tone discharge themselves. The situation for the villagers of East Lyng, which is on the border with the constituency of the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard), is more dangerous now. They say that the speed with which the floods arrive contributes to the danger.

I should like to contribute some brief messages of support for the Select Committee report. My only disagreement is on the odd recommendation that Insurance companies should be obliged to provide advice to individuals in flood risk areas as to how to mitigate the effects of flooding". I agree that they should be encouraged to address property and asset claims afterwards to ensure their rapid settlement. I do not know what feedback insurance companies have given, but the recommendation suggests that they should take responsibility for giving adequate advice about flooding. I do not instinctively think that that is the job of insurance companies, but others may like to discuss that.

There is a clear need for greater resources. I recognise that the Government have increased the resources available tinder the three-year comprehensive spending review. Somerset has £500 million of assets for flood defence and coastal protection. Expenditure on those assets this year will be £8 million. Those assets could not be maintained with those resources if the situation were static or even if the threat were declining. In fact, the threat is increasing. We are faced with the appalling prospect of having to try to build another 50,000 houses in Somerset, with one fifth of our county below sea level. As the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey pointed out, we shall end up with housing in unsuitable places, which will increase the problems and the demand for help.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) has already referred to the problem at Minehead. Minehead has a desirable sandy beach, which is rapidly disappearing because we are two thirds of the way through an important coastal protection scheme. After the serious damage done to the sea defences in Minehead, important work has been carried out to put the main defences in place. The last element is a surcharge of sand across the beach. Unfortunately, there is a shortage of money, or the programme has run ahead of itself. I understand that the Environment Agency recognises that, unless something is done now, there is a serious risk that the work that has already been carried out will be damaged and further costs will be incurred. I believe that the Environment Agency is likely to approach the Minister for authority for certain facilities to enable the work to go ahead. I hope that he will be able to respond sympathetically.

Almost every Select Committee report recommends a reorganisation and finds reasons why something should be changed. I have lived through the same building bearing the successive nameplates of the Somerset River Authority, the Wessex Water Authority, the Wessex division of the National Rivers Authority and now the North Wessex Environment Agency. Change usually leads to problems of hiatus, delay and people not taking decisions because they are wondering what job they will have in the new organisation. Select Committees should proceed with great care when proposing further reorganisations. That is why I have some suspicion about the proposal for regional flood defence committees. A bit of evolutionary change would be better than wholesale reorganisation in this case. The Select Committee warned that such a change would require primary legislation. The chances of securing time for that in the short term are pretty slim, so why not accept that the best is the enemy of the good and go for evolutionary change that would secure rationalisation of the present confusing structure without the wholesale upheaval that regional flood defence committees would entail?

Mr. Luff

My right hon. Friend is probably right in the case of his area, but we saw the problems on the east coast of England, where one set of authorities is taking decisions that impact on another set of authorities with different responsibilities. One group deals with coastal erosion and another with coastal flooding. They work against each other rather than together. The evolutionary approach will not work in that case. Radical change is essential for coastal issues.

Mr. King

I have great respect for my hon. Friend's point. I have found the structure confusing and get muddled about who is dealing with what. There is some playing off of one body against another. He will have heard my warning that major upheaval often leads to major hiatus, which we cannot afford.

I have always found internal drainage boards, of which there are several in my constituency, rather curious. There is every argument for changing them or getting rid of them, but they deal with minor problems at a local level that the Environment Agency should not be bogged down with. There are arguments on the Somerset levels about keeping levels to within 6 in, 3 in or even 1 in, so that the water is held up to a certain level in some areas that the RSPB is interested in, and lower in other areas where the farmers can harvest their crops. Those details are much better worked out locally. The Environment Agency's recommendation for a rationalisation of IDBs is better than a wholesale dismissal.

There is all-party recognition of the importance of the role of the Environment Agency—under its present and previous names—and its greater significance to the modern world. It has not yet understood that. There is a timidity about the agency's position. Hon. Members have spoken about the need for it to assert itself more on planning and other issues. It should be encouraged to realise that it has powers. It may have to face some tough times with developers and others, but it must be prepared to stand up and fight its corner and know that it will have greater support than it realises in the House and among the public.

I appreciate having had an opportunity to contribute to the debate and I congratulate the Select Committee on its report on an important issue.

11.58 am
Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby)

My constituency is bounded by approximately 30 miles of coastline. Two of our communities—Formby and Hightown—are under threat. Formby is bounded by extensive woodland and faces significant erosion. It also contains a site of special scientific interest and has world status for its dune structure. However, the site faces many difficulties. Three or four miles down the coast, Hightown faces different problems. Formby has no property directly on the coastline, but in Hightown there are properties 200 ft from the shore. We are starting to contemplate the influence of climate change and rising sea levels on those two distinct communities.

During the past six months, Sefton council has got to grips with the difficult task of constructing a coastal management plan and a shoreline management plan. Both plans have been produced. They are 90 pages long and have been distributed to more than 100 organisations.

Opinions are being sought from everyone, from individuals with a vested interest in the development of the shore to societies such as the RSPB and myriad organisations. Therein lies a problem. Many of the individuals concerned are producing reports and views on the plans that will need to be collated before another plan is produced. There are conflicting views about how best to develop the shoreline and the different vested interests confuse matters. It would help enormously if we could rationalise the number of individuals involved. I continually ask who are the experts who will decide how to proceed and wherein lies their expertise.

I welcome the fact that the Government's response to the report says that they are considering an integrated coastal zone management plan. Many of our local problems have been exacerbated by what is going on further along the coast adjacent to Sefton. Unless there is some attempt to integrate the various agencies along the coastline, many of us will be the victims of other people's protection.

A new development has been built in Southport, which is essential if we are to defend the economy and let the resort prosper, but it has exacerbated problems in Hightown. In the past, we could protect the small community of only 1,000 people in approximately 700 houses because there was a reasonable rate of erosion that could be managed by the dumping of sand; but now we simply cannot cope with the rate at which sand is being removed.

We seek sustainable solutions for some parts of the coastline and hard solutions for others. I expect that we will find sustainable solutions for Formby, provided that we can agree. English Nature, along with another 40 agencies, manages the Formby coastline. It is set on taking at least half the pine woods away in an attempt to develop the dune structure, but we do not think that it has developed coherent arguments to justify that and many people in my constituency firmly believe that it will reduce our flood defences even further.

Until we have expert opinions that can be accepted by the different factions in the community, the region will be insecure and lack the confidence to develop inward investment, albeit on a small scale. Hightown was allowed to develop. It is a lovely, attractive, isolated community. It is quite perfect: lovely modern houses and flats, protected, for the most part, by bluff sand dunes.

Most of the residents do not know what is happening behind the sand dunes, but many do. The dunes are being eroded more or less daily. Sea levels rising between 4 mm and 6 mm, every year for the next 50 years, can bring nothing but disaster for the community. We will need about £8 million to construct a hard sea defence to protect the residents of Hightown.

I understand that, in return for being allowed to build the properties in the area, the developers contributed £800,000. That is nothing in comparison with the cost of the defences that we will have to construct to protect the properties in the long term. I would commend any action that invites the developers to play a greater role in the defence of the properties before they are allowed to build.

We need far greater emphasis in the planning regulations on the role and responsibility of the developer and on appropriate flood and erosion assessments.

12.5 pm

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester)

I strongly agree with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) said about the report and about the fact that there has been some mutual self-congratulation by the authors, but as I am not an author I can congratulate them in all sincerity from some distance.

I have a constituency interest because Selsey was flooded just over a year ago. That was my introduction to this issue. I have had lengthy exchanges with the Minister, and I thank him very much for his courtesy and for the time that he has taken to listen to my concerns. By that alone, he has shown what is required to help to allay some local concerns.

Despite the Government's response to the report, I do not think that we will get the cost-benefit analysis that we need. First, the relationship between spending on maintenance and on capital needs to be considered. We are in a catch-22 situation in Selsey, as in many other areas, where money spent on maintenance comes from a budget that could ultimately be used to build permanent sea defences. That seems a crazy situation. I am also worried that the spending on Selsey could delay work on the Chichester flood relief scheme, and I seek an assurance from the Minister that that will not be the case.

Secondly, I am concerned that no serious consideration is being given to overall revenue flows from land that could be lost through strategic retreat. For example, there is a caravan site in Selsey that generates large revenues for the Exchequer, but I understand that those revenues, which could be lost, are not put into the pot to work out the cost-benefit of the proposed strategic retreat. The owner is not being given the opportunity even to say whether he would put up some private cash to maintain his site.

Thirdly, there is compensation. At first sight, compensation seems to be merely an issue of fairness, but in fact it is again a matter of cost-benefit analysis. To work out whether land should be lost, one must determine its value, which should be reflected in the compensation offered to the owner. A constituent recently wrote and said that, before the 1950s, he had been able to choose what to do with sea defences on his land—it was caveat emptor—but that now he has been told that he has no choice and that the land may be lost without his getting any compensation. The Government will eventually have to deal with that unacceptable situation.

The speed at which some decisions are being taken, certainly in my area, is unsatisfactory. The continued uncertainty in Selsey is the cause of great local concern. Few people have been convinced that strategic retreat, managed retreat, managed realignment, or whatever it may be called, is necessary on the west beach; but if it is—we have been expecting a study from the Environment Agency for about a year—that really must be brought into the open, discussed publicly and explained to local people. That has not happened, and I ask the Minister to do whatever he can to speed the decision, so that we can have clarity in Selsey.

12.9 pm

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate on a matter of considerable importance to my constituency. I approach the issue unashamedly from a constituency angle. I have tried to find out why essential flood defence works for the coast at Seaford and in Lewes town are not being funded. I asked the Library for information about the funding of flood defence works and it provided a helpful diagram.

Mr. Tom King

We need a screen.

Mr. Baker

If we had a screen, I could project the diagram for the House. It demonstrates the intricacies of the funding arrangements and the problems that exist. Lord de Ramsey, the chairman of the Environment Agency, wrote to me on 15 February admitting that we have an overall shortfall of some £4M in the funding which Flood Defence Committees have made available for 1999/2000. His letter continues: Under current arrangements for funding Flood Defence the Agency has no powers to interfere in the democratic process whereby Flood Defence Committees approve their levies. The problem seems to be that the Environment Agency, as the body responsible for assessing what work needs to be done, has determined that certain works should be done in my constituency, but the flood defence committee has elected not to fund those works. That leaves my constituents in an impossible situation. The county council's response to that—and it is the local authority members on the flood defence committees who have voted not to fund the work properly—is that levies from external bodies should be exempted when decisions on budget capping are being considered. I would be grateful if the Minister would respond to that specific point.

I shall explain the position in Seaford and Lewes by means of a quotation from another letter from Lord de Ramsey. He says: In addition, although the whole Flood Defence Committee endorsed the Agency plan for the coming 12 months, the voting Local Authority members felt that they could not meet the full levy requirement to fund the work. As a result, the levy settlement was cut from an 8 per cent. increase to 6.3 per cent., with a recommendation that major sea defence maintenance at Seaford be halted. Seaford is at the bottom of the Sussex Ouse below Lewes. Any problems or failure of the sea defences here have serious implications for Seaford, nearby Newhaven and Lewes. A press release issued by the Environment Agency on 9 December after the flood defence committee had agreed not to fund the necessary work stated that it would mean that essential maintenance will halt. The Agency will be unable to carry out work at Seaford which it considers is essential to the security of the Ouse Valley. That is worrying indeed and I have written to the Minister, who has kindly replied, on the general subject of the funding of flood defence committees. I do not underestimate the Government's difficulties in trying to deal with the situation, but the Minister will understand that my concerns arise from my constituents' concerns. In Seaford, essential work to protect the coast and properties along the beach will not take place this year, despite the fact that the Environment Agency has deemed it essential for the security of the Ouse valley. All those properties will be left unprotected this year, because the flood defence committee has not voted through the money. That is an irresponsible position, but the consequences for my constituents is that they are unprotected, and that is unsustainable.

I am also concerned about the banks of the Ouse in Lewes. According to the Environment Agency, there is a real danger that the banks will collapse, with all sorts of consequences for properties, business and tourism in the county town. The works that have been identified as essential by the Environment Agency will not proceed in 2000–01. They have been put back further and we do not even have a date for a proper assessment by the flood defence committee of when the work will be incorporated into its budget plan. Lewes and Seaford will be left defenceless because of the myriad arrangements for funding that apply to flood defence work.

The Minister replied to my letter within two weeks, which is amazingly quick for a Government Department. I have also written to the Environment Agency and the chairman of the flood defence committee. The buck is being passed around, but the result is that none of the work that has been deemed essential by all parties will be carried out. Will the Minister consider the arrangements between the flood defence committees and the Environment Agency? Either the flood defence committees' powers should be taken away and given to the Environment Agency, so that one body deals with the issue, or the flood defence committees should receive the necessary finance and expertise so that decisions can be taken locally. The present arrangements do not work for my constituents. What comfort can the Minister offer to my constituents in Seaford and Lewes who have been left defenceless by the failure to fund essential works?

12.15 pm
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

I shall dwell on three aspects of the report. I was pleased to serve on the Select Committee and I am grateful for the positive comments that have been made about its work, although the bulk of the credit must go to our Chairman. I am sure that he will reward me for that compliment at an appropriate time in an appropriate place.

My first point relates to development in the flood plain and I wish to amplify some of the remarks that have been made already. There is not much more to say, except that it is important to increase the statutory responsibility on local authorities to take account of Environment Agency advice. There is already a responsibility to consult, but it should have more force than that. I speak as someone who is very interested in local democracy and who values the independence of local authorities, but this issue is so important and the record is so patchy under the current arrangements that we need to strengthen the arm of the Environment Agency.

I also entirely endorse the Committee's recommendations and the comments in the debate today about flood risk warning. The Government made helpful comments on that issue in their response and also on the warnings for the people who buy houses in the flood plain. Many of the communities affected have an incoming population who do not necessarily understand the history of the issue. The local population may be well aware of the problems, but those who move into an area of flood risk may not understand them. Such people live in blissful ignorance until the worst occurs.

The second matter about which I wish to comment is drainage. I felt that my right hon. Friend from Somerset—

Mr. Tom King


Mr. Hayes

I am sorry, I should have known. Mr. King: Of course you should.

Mr. Hayes

I was about to criticise mildly my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and I am tempted now to strengthen that criticism, but I will not. I disagree with him somewhat about internal drainage boards. He is right to say that they are important, but they are more important than he implied. They are a model of the public and private sectors working together, as lean organisations that act and deliver a product in a very cost effective way. They embody a degree of local knowledge and understanding that is unparalleled—as my right hon. Friend acknowledged. I strongly support IDBs.

The Committee probably paid too little attention to drainage, perhaps because coastal defence and protection from the sea is more dramatic. The need for such protection is more tangible, but drainage is the success story that cannot be seen. Its success makes it invisible and, with the benefit of hindsight, I think that we may have spent too little time on it. I wish to advertise the many benefits and qualities of IDBs, which are reflected in the Government's response. I know that the Minister enjoys a long relationship with those bodies and is well regarded by them.

The third aspect of the report on which I shall dwell is the management of flood defence and drainage, which the Committee considered in some detail. At first glance, the structure and organisation seems extremely complex. However, it is difficult to deliver a better alternative, with one exception—the district council's responsibility for coastal defence. When we visited Happisburgh in Norfolk, for example, the idea that the district council should be responsible for funding some of the significant strategic work there seemed to me to be a bit of a nonsense. It is too onerous and demanding a responsibility for a district council to accept. The Chairman of the Select Committee and I were chatting about that, and he asked whether I wanted local democracy for drainage but not for coastal policy. My response was, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Drainage works well and has stood the test of time, but coastal policy needs review.

I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to the three main points that I have made.

12.20 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley)

In the limited time that remains, I shall certainly try to respond to the points that have been made. All hon. Members who have spoken have mentioned the quality of the report produced by the Agriculture Committee. It is an excellent piece of work, which I enjoyed reading. It raised a great many questions, as I hope was evident from the Government's comprehensive response.

For the sake of the record, I should declare my involvement as vice-president of the Association of Drainage Authorities—a post that I am proud to hold. I echo what the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) said about drainage being very much a part of flood defence and coastal defence. The Government's belief that we should adopt an integrated approach to those matters informed our response to the Select Committee report.

I absolutely agree that we need sustainable defences, as they will allow national and local economies to prosper and will protect life and property. As has been noted, we must also take account of wildlife sites of international importance.

The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) made a good and succinct opening speech, in which he made it clear that flood and coastal defences are a very complex matter. I do not know whether the Select Committee is psychic, but its report was produced in a year when we have had some of the worst floods and rains for more than a century. We must not forget the tragedy suffered by people who have lost homes, agricultural land and even their lives as a result. I know that the House accepts that the bad weather caused disruption across the country.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

My hon. Friend will know of my interest in the Hatch End flood alleviation scheme. If implemented, that scheme would complete a programme of measures to protect against flooding in the north-east part of my constituency. Will he assure me that he will keep under review the funding and priority rating formula that he and his officials use to determine whether such schemes go ahead?

Mr. Morley

I know that my hon. Friend has raised this matter before, and that he has written to the Ministry about it. I shall write to my hon. Friend with the latest information and I shall take into consideration the points that he has raised.

I do not know whether the visit that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister made by helicopter was occasioned by flood levels, but the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire very nearly also got a similar visit from me. I should point out that it is very rare for me to travel by helicopter, but I wanted to observe the floods in the Severn valley and to visit Bewdley. However, the helicopter developed engine trouble, which does not fill one with confidence before a journey, and the weather was so bad—perhaps not surprisingly—that it was impossible to fly and I had to make the journey by road. Unfortunately, that meant that I was unable to visit the hon. Gentleman's constituency, which was on my original itinerary.

I apologise for that, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that I was aware of the problems his constituency faced as a result of the floods. However, I thought it was a little hard of the local newspaper to criticise me for not wearing Wellington boots that day. I must point out that I did not go to the Severn valley to wade through floods; I went to make sure that people were being looked after and that the proper procedures were in hand.

Mr. Luff

The newspaper has apologised handsomely.

Mr. Morley

I accept that apology with the good grace with which it was given.

We have to accept, in relation to coastal defence, that we cannot ring Britain with a concrete wall, and it would be undesirable to do so. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire was right to say that that is generally recognised. The report provoked a good debate, in which many sensible points were made. It got people thinking about the question of coastal defence and about the best strategies to be adopted.

The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire raised three points. The first had to do with institutions and democratic input, a matter that was also raised by the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker). The Government believe that it is difficult to draw a distinction between coastal defence and inland defence, and that effective delivery depends on co-ordination.

As a Minister, I am a great supporter of local government input in such matters. I believe that there ought to be local accountability and local democracy. I accept that in some cases, as a result of decisions taken locally about funding, the full standard spending assessment has not been passed on by local councils to regional flood defence committees. I have written to a number of councils expressing my concern, but I have to tell the hon. Member for Lewes that some of the worst offenders are councils under Liberal Democrat control. I have written also to the Local Government Association, because this is an issue for the whole country. However, it seems that local councils have been better at passing on the increased SSA this year.

In connection with funding, we have pledged an increase of £23 million over the next three years for flood and coastal defence, and we have put in place a 6.3 per cent. increase in SSAs for regional flood defence committees. In addition, following the Bye report, we have earmarked £3 million this year to improve flood warning. A number of hon. Members raised the matter of flood plains. We intend to keep the present guidance under review, and we are also introducing flood plain mapping. We have made a start on long-term policy with the implementation of the Bye report. Targets have been set, and we recognise the case made by the report for managed realignment.

No Government can enter into open-ended commitments over compensation for land loss. That process has been going on for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. We have pledged, as part of the Agenda 2000 reforms, to widen our agri-environment schemes and, through managed realignment, give some support to landowners who lose land. However, those cases would have to be dealt with on their merits.

I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) that I have visited Canvey island, and I am glad to say that the defences there are in good shape and that we shall keep them under review. In addition, I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) that there is a balance to be struck between the local industry and some important environmental sites, such as the sites of special scientific interest in the north Kent marshes. I accept that the regional development agency has a responsibility in that matter, and it will have an increasing role to play.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey asked about the respective roles of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. We have no great ideological hang-ups about which Department should have lead responsibility in a variety of matters, but the question was considered in the Select Committee report. MAFF is responsible for land use: as the bulk of the land in question is farm land, it therefore makes sense, in terms of co-ordination, for MAFF to deliver flood defence and coastal defence planning as part of an integrated land-use policy. However, there is very close co-ordination between MAFF and the DETR, and both Departments are charged to develop joint planning as part of the comprehensive spending review. By that means, we will be able to integrate some of our activities.

The right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) spoke about Minehead. I understand that the Environment Agency was unable to complete the beach defences within the ideal timetable, because of budgeting restraints imposed by the Somerset local flood defence committee. The level of the MAFF grant has been increased to help with beach recharge, and I hope that the matter is resolved as soon as possible. We are awaiting proposals from the Environment Agency, which we shall consider as soon as we receive them.

A number of other hon. Members made important contributions. However, time does not allow me to deal with them in this speech. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) and the hon. Members for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) and for Lewes that I shall answer by letter the points that they have raised.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. We must now move on to the next debate.