HC Deb 21 November 2000 vol 357 cc33-40WH

12 noon

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)

I fear that I shall have to test the microphone system to its limit this morning, but I hope that you, Mr. O'Hara, and other hon. Members, will bear with me and my cold-affected voice.

I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss this subject. It is an appropriate moment for such a debate, as the world's nations are in the Hague deliberating on climate change and global warming. As inhabitants of an island, people in this country cannot but be concerned about rising sea levels, and in East Anglia, which is a low-lying peninsula, we need to be more aware of the consequences than most. However, I regard myself as fortunate to represent a constituency in coastal East Anglia.

One of the best things about the East Anglian coast is the great value of its wildlife, which is much enjoyed by many of my constituents and by the growing number of visitors. There are wonderful wetland nature reserves to visit on the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts, which happily bring in much-needed revenue and provide jobs, benefiting the local economies. Much of East Anglia's coast is estuary. The Wash in Lincolnshire and estuaries in Essex and Suffolk are, with hundreds of thousands of wintering wading birds and wildfowl, internationally important for wildlife.

As the Environment Ministers of the world ponder climate change, many people in this country clear up after the floods and wonder whether there is a link. It is not appreciated as widely as it could be that climate change is already having a tangible, measurable effect, in rising sea levels and coastal erosion in eastern England. I want to describe the effect of that process on the coast and estuaries of eastern England and what is being done in response, and to discuss future action.

Above all, we need a much speedier programme to create new inter-tidal habitats, salt marshes and mud flats. Eastern England is sinking and the high tide mark is moving progressively landwards. The most recent predictions are that the relative sea-level rise in the east of England will be between 21 cm and 76 cm by the 2050s. Coasts are, and always have been, places of dynamic change. Erosion in one place leads to accretion elsewhere, which is in part how the landscape and wildlife value of the coast has been created by the sea.

I may have the only coastal constituency in the east of England that is actually getting bigger. On the credit side, at Kessingland Ness, there is an accreting shingle area, which is moving northwards into my constituency and growing faster than anywhere else in the country. On the debit side, the cliffs at Pakefield, like sand cliffs elsewhere, are eroding, as they are at Corton. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has fond memories of Pakefield from younger days. If he returned there today he would find that the sea is somewhat closer to the establishment where he once worked.

If left alone, the profit and loss account for the coast and its wildlife habitats would, broadly speaking, break even. Normally, with rising sea levels, the coastal habitats would move inland. However, the coast of eastern England is no longer a pristine wilderness. Intertidal mud flats, sand flats and salt marshes are squeezed and eroded between fixed flood defences and rising sea levels. That process is exacerbated by increasing storminess. Freshwater habitats and coastal lagoons, often on famous bird reserves such as Minsmere in Suffolk, and Cley and Titchwell Marsh reserves in Norfolk, are more prone to salt water flooding, and in the long term are unlikely to survive where that happens.

The impact of what I have described is not always easy to see. The most obvious aspect of coastal losses on many estuaries is erosion of salt marshes. Salt marshes are expanses of vegetation, such as sea purslane, salt marsh grass and sea lavender, adapted to periodic salt water flooding. They are a valuable wildlife habitat. For example, redshanks nest on salt marshes in high density. Above all they are a scarce habitat. Some 12,500 hectares between north Lincolnshire and the Thames constitute a third of the UK's salt marshes. They are home to more than a million wildfowl and wading birds. When the last national survey was done, Essex alone had 10 per cent. of Europe's salt marshes, but erosion in recent years has reduced that to 7 or 8 per cent. That sounds like a rapid loss, and indeed it is. Net losses of salt marsh on the Essex estuaries between 1973 and 1998 ranged between 12 per cent. at best on the Colne estuary to 59 per cent. on the Stour estuary. Erosion on the Stour has been exacerbated by dredging in Harwich haven. The figures paint a bleak picture.

The projections for the loss of coastal habitats in eastern England are worrying. It is predicted that 31 per cent. of salt marshes and 37 per cent. of coastal lagoons will be lost by 2050. It is generally true that what is scarce is precious, and that is no less so in the natural world. The value of those habitats goes beyond the value of biodiversity. It is important to take action on biodiversity grounds alone, but the loss of salt marshes also has an impact on coastal defences because they bind together sediments, absorb and dissipate the force of the sea and reduce risks to people and development. Their economic value for flood and coastal defence is huge—a sea wall may cost up to 10 times more to build if it does not benefit from a wide fringe of salt marsh in front of it. They also have a value for tourism. For example, visitor spending linked to Cley and Titchwell nature reserves totals £4.3 million a year, supporting the equivalent of 91 jobs.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

My hon. Friend raises some serious issues. He mentioned Titchwell, which is in my constituency and has 100,000 visitors a year. The constituency has many other visitors who want to use coastal resources. Does he accept that as well as looking to nature we must also protect people? Work on the sea defences is very important. Does he understand the concern of my constituents in Heacham and Hunstanton that, despite four years of debate and discussion, the sea defence work has still not been started? We have not even had a decision.

Mr. Blizzard

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I must emphasise that this is an environment debate rather than a Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food debate, so I have to be careful. Coastal habitats can provide an important element of coastal defence. However, they are no good on their own—we clearly need other measures.

Another value of coastal ecosystems is that they provide a source of food and shelter for commercially exploited shellfish stocks, which I believe are also important in my hon. Friend's constituency. Those ecosystems play a critical role in maintaining water quality, because they lock up and process pesticides and other pollutants that come off the land.

Coastal habitats are vanishing at a frightening rate, with drastic implications for the wildlife that depends on them and for sea defences—and for the people and businesses that depend on the wildlife or the sea defences. All that has serious implications for our best wildlife sites. Most of the coastal areas of east England are designated as internationally important wildlife sites—special protection areas under the European Union's bird directive, internationally important wetlands under the Ramsar convention and candidate special areas for conservation under the EU's habitats directive. Those designations carry obligations, one of which is to maintain the overall coherence of the Natura 2000 network. That is EU jargon for protecting and maintaining our internationally important wildlife sites.

The overall coherence idea is useful. We must recognise that as coasts change there will be losses in some areas, and the challenge is to ensure that they are equalled or exceeded by gains elsewhere. Losing coastal habitats is not inevitable. New habitats can be created by working with coastal processes. That goes under the fancy name of managed realignment. It is already happening, but not nearly enough. There are many historic examples of unplanned retreats or realignments of the coast that have created excellent habitats, but we should not rely on accidental breaches to create them. There may not be enough, they may damage freshwater habitats behind sea walls, or they may threaten life and property.

Combining sound economics engineering and environmental practice, especially on the Essex coast, has led to several managed realignment and foreshore recharge projects. Foreshore recharge involves spraying harbour dredgings of sand and gravel on to vulnerable parts of the coast, which is an experimental but increasingly successful way of re-cycling valuable sediments, although it is unlikely to be a widespread or long-term solution to coastal erosion. Both managed realignment and foreshore recharge create soft sea defences and wildlife habitats, so how can we achieve more of them?

A recent study undertaken by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds showed that the greatest potential for inter-tidal habitat creation is on the Wash and the Essex coast. The RSPB identified 6,664 hectares of land on the coast of eastern England where inter-tidal habitat creation may be a realistic option. An example of that is the 65 hectares of salt marsh that are being created at Freiston Shore on the Wash in a partnership between the Environment Agency, the Prison Service and the RSPB, but even that took six years to come to fruition.

Unfortunately, less than 100 hectares of new habitat have been created in the past 10 years, while more than 10 times that figure has been lost to coastal squeeze. A university of Newcastle report, commissioned by the Environment Agency, states: The annual amount of salt marsh re-creation required in order simply to make good anticipated losses from this day forward is greater than the total amount of managed salt marsh re-creation that had by 1998 been undertaken in Essex. That is so, despite international recognition for the coast's wildlife value and the obligations under the European Union's habitats directive to "avoid deterioration" of key habitats.

Government Departments and agencies are planning, step by step, to manage the coast more sustainably. New guidance PPG 25 is being prepared on development in areas at risk of flooding. That needs to take account of when realigning the coast is the way forward. In the longer term, some development may need to be moved out of the flood risk zone. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has agreed that there will be grant aid for sea defences for internationally important freshwater wetlands, when it is practicable to protect them in situ. It is recognised that, when losses occur, new habitats will have to be created elsewhere. That principle has been applied already at Burnham Norton in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Turner) and will further benefit Cley Marshes in the constituency of the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior).

The Environment Agency and English Nature are preparing coastal habitat management plans—ChaMPs—for key coastal sites, which should start to tackle the need to create new habitats. However, creation of new habitats takes time from planning to reality, so much more needs to be done or the losses will continue to outweigh the gains. A much faster programme of action in the future is needed to keep pace with coastal change. Actions have been proposed by the RSPB, the wildlife trusts for Norfolk and Suffolk, the National Trust and the Worldwide Fund for Nature, which is campaigning most effectively on the issue. It is proposed to give greater recognition to the value of coastal habitats. Our flood defence strategy should give greater weight in project planning and appraisal to the multiple benefits that arise from healthy coastal habitats.

It is proposed to undertake extensive hydrodynamics studies to inform action. We urgently need them to show where it will be beneficial to create new inter-tidal habitats. We must provide effective mechanisms to create such habitats. The new inter-tidal habitat component of countryside stewardship needs to be effectively targeted and resourced to promote uptake. In addition, the Government should grant aid land purchase in conjunction with flood defence schemes when that will increase the sustainability of the coastal defence and contribute to the delivery of the United Kingdom biodiversity action plan targets.

We need to show what inter-tidal habitat creation means in practice. Such projects in Essex have highlighted the importance of demonstration sites to show habitat creation in practice to local people and organisations. Those sites increase the understanding and acceptability of sustainable coastal management. Site projects are vital to a change in attitudes, so that inter-tidal habitat creation becomes widely accepted. We need supportive land use planning policies in regional planning guidance, country structure plans and local plans that recognise the need for the creation of inter-tidal habitats and presume against development in areas at risk of flooding and suitable for habitat creation. I hope that the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions will give guidance to planning inspectors to take a firm line when they examine the plans produced by local authorities.

In August 1998, the Select Committee on Agriculture expressed support for that approach, and in responding to the Committee's report the Government agreed that the response to sea-level rise should not be the construction of ever higher defences that commit future generations to unsustainable levels of investment. The Government's strategy for sustainable development "Quality of Life Counts", published in 1999, determined the indicators. It was significant that the rise in global temperature, sea level rise and biodiversity in UK coastal areas were all defined as core indicators, with wild bird population being a headline indicator.

Evidence suggests that the Government understand and are willing to act. However, time is running out. All the signs suggest that such a strategy for coastal defence would be economically as well as environmentally efficient. It is certainly helpful that coastal defence and environmental needs are moving in the same direction, but we should go further than the practicalities of what is best for coastal defence. With past losses still to catch up on, and year-on-year erosion of internationally important wildlife habitats on the coast, we need a coordinated drive to create new coastal habitats. That should involve all Government Departments, the Environment Agency, English Nature and other agencies. Anything short of that and the value of the coast for wildlife and people will continue to decline.

Whatever is agreed this week at the Hague will be for the long term. Reversing climate change will take a long time. It is the ultimate supertanker to turn around, if indeed it can be reversed; perhaps it can only be slowed. That is why we need action on coastal habitats as a matter of urgency.

12.16 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin)

I have a distant acquaintance with my hon. Friend's constituency, having worked there as a waiter at Pontin's 33 years ago. Since then my career has nose-dived.

My hon. Friend raises an aspect of what is surely one of the most important long-term issues with which we will have to grapple in the coming years—the impact of climate change on our natural environment. As he said, it is especially appropriate that we are debating this matter in the week when discussions are taking place in the Hague.

I emphasise that a great deal of work is already in hand, as my hon. Friend acknowledged. Whatever the outcome of current discussions in the Hague, we have concluded that we must prepare for some inevitable climate change in the coming decades and put in place the most effective responses to what we judge to be its most likely effects. Anyone who needed convincing about the scale of the problem need only have watched the recent "Panorama" programme on the floods.

The impact of climate change on our biodiversity is a major issue. My Department, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and English Nature are all focusing on that issue as part of our extensive research programme on the effects of climate change. Only a couple of weeks ago, the DETR sponsored a wide-ranging workshop on the subject that brought together all the major interests involved.

I shall discuss three aspects. A project on climate change and nature conservation that is being carried out for us by the consultants ADAS and is sponsored jointly by my Department and MAFF is considering the species and habitats most likely to be affected by climate change, along with possible policy responses. One of the environments that it identified as most vulnerable is the soft coastal habitats to which my hon. Friend referred, which are typical of the part of the country that he represents. Such habitats are vulnerable because of the direct impact of sea level rise and the effects of greater storm frequencies that we expect to accompany climate change. Our responses to other impacts may add to the pressures on them. The need to respond to the increased possibility of floods may aggravate the processes of natural change. The final report of the project was published only last Friday.

We are also considering the specific effects of climate change on biodiversity through two complementary projects. First, the Monarch project, which is being carried out by a consortium of nature conservation agencies throughout the British Isles, is considering possible specific responses to the impact of changes on key species and habitats. Secondly, the Regis project, run by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, is examining the broader impact of climate change on two test regions, one of which is East Anglia. We expect the results of both projects to be published in early spring next year.

That work will assist us to develop strategies to cope with the effects of climate change on biodiversity. However, I am aware that we already have evidence for that change. My hon. Friend referred to the situation on the east coast, graphically described in the report produced by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the World Wildlife Fund and the wildlife trusts. That report highlights the consequences of the process for his part of the world, so I acknowledge that he does not exaggerate when he speaks of the drastic implications for wildlife. However, I believe that—belatedly, perhaps—we are developing the tools that may assist us to address the issues identified by the report.

We are well advanced in identifying and protecting habitats of national or international importance. In the next few months, we are hoping substantially to complete our contributions to the European Union's network of special areas of conservation and special protection areas under the directives on birds and habitats. I hope that my hon. Friend is aware of the policy statement, launched last week, on our commitment to internationally important wetlands, many of which are on the coast and notifiable under the Ramsar convention.

On the domestic front, the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill, which I hope will soon be on the statute book, will substantially strengthen the protection and management of our most valuable wildlife sites—those of special scientific importance. Furthermore, the biodiversity action plan identifies a series of priority coastal habitats. Last October, we published all the action plans dealing with those habitats. The plans are costed and contain medium-term targets over the next five to 10 years, including, where appropriate, for habitat recreation.

All those measures point to the fact that we are ensuring that coastal habitats are given the recognition that they deserve. We must also put in place better mechanisms for more effective interaction between coastal defence programmes and habitat protection. We have made a good start. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food already has a general policy towards coastal defence proposals of no loss of habitats covered by biodiversity action plan priorities.

Furthermore, we are considering the development of coastal habitat management plans to establish how we can better reconcile coastal change with our obligations to protect important habitats. Those plans are being implemented by English Nature and the Environment Agency, although Departments that have legal or funding responsibilities—especially my Department and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—are also important partners. We have been heartened by the support given by a range of other interests, both commercial and conservation. Six pilot management plans are being undertaken: at west Sussex to the Solent, Dungeness to Pett levels, north Kent estuaries and marshes, Essex and Suffolk coast and estuaries and Winterton dunes. They are due for completion in 2001.

Coastal habitat management plans are designed to reflect the fact that we may not be able to defend every hectare of valuable coastal habitat that is under threat. We will need to take account of other issues, such as the proper protection of coastal towns and villages and human health and safety. The plans specifically address the potential for offsetting habitat creation when loss is inevitable. They provide the potential to construct a strategic policy for the management of coastal habitats as a response to climate change. We will look to those plans to provide important input into future revisions of MAFF's shoreline management plans and the proposals and policies of coastal defence authorities.

Thirdly, we must address relationships to other policies. As my hon. Friend acknowledged, we are currently revising planning policy guidance note 25, which deals with development and flood risk, including coastal flooding. We hope to publish a revised PPG in the new year. We are also considering the need, in the long term, to revise PPG 20, which deals with more general coastal planning issues. That is in the context of continuing interest in integrated coastal zone management, which was stimulated by last month's European Union communication. We intend to respond positively in the new year.

I do not underestimate the difficulties that we face. I am aware that the difference between habitat loss and creation during the past decade has been unsatisfactory. I share my hon. Friend's view that only a programme of managed realignment can successfully address those problems. However, we must recognise that the procedures involved in any decision to realign existing coastal defences are bound to be complex—land long held by individuals or their families might be allowed to be flooded. We should not assume that our knowledge of the science underpinning the process of habitat creation is satisfactory. As my hon. Friend said, we need to understand the underlying hydrodynamic processes better. Under MAFF and the Environment Agency, extensive research is taking place into those issues.

I also agree that we must show how strategies can be turned into action through viable local pilot projects. We need to consider current policies and statutory processes in this country and in the context of our European obligations. Climate change is one of the issues being addressed by the European Environment Agency, and the United Kingdom is as well placed as any country to influence that work and its consequences for the provisions of European directives.

We may be faced with difficult decisions, but I assure my hon. Friend that we are taking steps to ensure that we take those decisions in the light of the best available scientific information. We have a clear obligation to protect important coastal habitats, and we are introducing measures that will give us the tools to cope with the pressures with which we are faced.

I therefore hope that some of what I have said will be of comfort to my hon. Friend. I thank him for raising such an important issue.