HC Deb 06 May 2004 vol 420 cc1668-70W
Mr. Whittingdale

To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (1) if she will make a statement on her policy for maintaining sea defences in the Blackwater and Crouch estuaries; [168037]

(3) what her policy is on the payment of compensation to landowners affected by managed realignment; [168039]

(2) what estimate she has made of the cost of maintaining sea walls in (a) the Blackwater and Crouch estuaries and (b) Essex; [168038]

(4) if she will list the consents necessary to allow landowners to maintain sea walls; [168040]

(5) what assessment she has made of the state of repair of sea walls in the Maldon and East Chelmsford constituency; [168041]

(6) if she will list the length of sea defence in (a) the Maldon and East Chelmsford constituency and (b) Essex which falls into each of the four categories assigned by the Environment Agency for assessing the economic case for continued maintenance; [168042]

(7) if she will make a statement on the exit strategy for withdrawing from maintenance of uneconomic sea walls; [168043]

(8) if she will make a statement on the division of responsibility for maintenance of sea defences between land-owners, local authorities and the Environment Agency; [168044]

(9) if she will make a statement on the division of responsibility for maintenance of main drainage ditches between land-owners, local authorities and the Environment Agency. [168045]

Mr. Morley

Flood defence works funded by the taxpayer are supported on the basis of a full analysis of economic, environmental and social considerations and a full appraisal of benefits and costs. Doing nothing, maintaining the current line of defence and managed realignment are among the strategic options that Defra's guidance indicates should be considered before establishing a preferred flood management policy for any particular length of defence.

The Environment Agency (EA), with Defra's backing, is now promoting a comprehensive series of Essex estuary strategies that will provide a better understanding of how future flood risk can be reduced in the face of pressures such as sea level rise. The strategies are being developed over a number of years. The Roach and Crouch Estuary Flood Management Strategy should be launched later this summer, while Blackwater and Colne Estuary Flood Management Strategy is due to go to public consultation later this year. A strategic study on the Stour and Orwell tidal estuaries has just been started.

Where there is insufficient justification for the continued maintenance of an uneconomic sea wall, the EA will pursue a process to withdraw from publicly funded maintenance, as soon as possible. To ensure that the EA act in a reasonable way, they must pay due regard to my Department's policy guidance, and the Human Rights Act.

The EA estimates that the overall cost of maintaining sea walls in the area covered by the Essex Local Flood Defence Committee in 2004–05 is £1.266 million. Approximately 24 per cent. of this is for maintenance works in the Maldon and East Chelmsford constituency.

The EA's assessment of the state of repair of the sea walls in Maldon and East Chelmsford is limited to the Dengie Peninsula from Bradwell to Burnham. Data for the estuary sea walls has not yet been collected. However, visual inspections of these walls are undertaken on a regular basis and areas requiring repair are included in the annual maintenance programme.

The EA will, over the coming years, be categorising its defences into the four categories to which the hon. Member refers in line with the Shoreline Management Plan, and the Estuary Strategies when these are complete. Although the primary responsibility for the maintenance of both sea defences and land drainage watercourses rests with the riparian landowner, the EA has permissive powers to maintain sea defences and has taken responsibility for the majority of them. Local authorities have similar permissive powers and maintain sea defences as part of their coast protection activities.

To maintain sea walls landowners need the formal consent of the EA, in accordance with the Environment Agency Land Drainage and Sea Defence Byelaws, made under Schedule 25 (5) of the Water Resources Act 1991. Local authority consent may also be required depending on the nature and extent of the maintenance work to be carried out. Other consents such as assent from English Nature under the Wildlife and Countryside Act may also be necessary. Individuals should contact the EA in the first instance to establish what consents might be needed. Consent or permission from the owner of the sea wall will be required, where the person wishing to carry out maintenance is not already the owner of the specific sea wall to be maintained.

Where there is no legal requirement to provide flood defence there is similarly no provision for compensation to offset the disadvantage suffered by any landowners that may be flooded as a result of a change in flood management practices. However, if a landowner were refused consent to maintain their own defence on the grounds that allowing them to protect their land would be contrary to the public interest, for example for nature conservation reasons, a case for compensation might arise. There is no general provision for compensation to landowners in cases where an operating authority stops maintaining a seawall and the EA's Exit Strategy should ensure that interested parties are fully aware of their options. Landowners and occupiers must be given enough notice to enable them to make business decisions for the future.