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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. We must conclude the debate at that point and proceed to the report of the Select Committee on Agriculture. I call Mr. Luff.

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Flood and Coastal Defence

[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

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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

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 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.]

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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:

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:

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.

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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

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?

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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 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

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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:

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:

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

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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.

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