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14 Feb 2001 : Column 114WH

Flood Defences (South Devon)

1.29 pm

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): I want to discuss sea defences and flooding in the west country because, in the past year, global warming and changes in the weather pattern have seriously affected the communication corridors linking the entire south-west with the rest of Britain.

The railway embankments between Exeter and Tiverton Parkway have collapsed, particularly at Cowley bridge and Stafford bridge, as a result of river flooding closing the main railway line from Exeter to the rest of the country. I have been one of the passengers who have been regularly bussed along what are already congested roads to reach my destinations. What is the point of spending two and a half hours on a train to be turfed out at Taunton railway station and put on a bus that travels along the M5? We may as well go by bus all the way from Victoria coach station, which is about a quarter of the price of the railway fare.

A few weeks ago, a landslip closed the main line at Teignmouth. An 80-tonne boulder and 10,000 tonnes of cliff rubble had to be removed from the railway track before the mainline track could be re-opened. As for Dawlish on the main railway line, for many years the sea defences have been under threat with spring high tides damaging the rail embankment and destroying the track. Over the past couple of months, the main line between Penzance, Plymouth, Bristol and London has been closed, either because of floods outside Exeter, cliff slip around Teignmouth or the constant battering of the sea at Dawlish Warren. That is a regular occurrence, not an isolated incident. The number of times that I have jumped on a bus, having started my journey on a train, is too many to recall.

More recently, storm damage at Slapton sands has closed the A379, a road that links the two communities of Kingsbridge and Dartmouth. That latest catastrophe drives home the long-term problems presented by global warming, particularly the predicted rise in sea levels. It is clear that any long-term solution to global warming will come too late to halt the dramatic change in weather patterns and the predicted rise in sea level. Expert opinion suggests that for every 3 ft rise in the sea levels, more than 500 ft of foreshore could be lost in areas such as Slapton. The consequences for south Devon of such a rise, coupled with a switch from the prevailing south westerly winds, the easterly gales and other changes, could sever the existing mainline rail link outside Exeter, at Teignmouth, Dawlish, Tiverton and places between. Some road networks could be severely disrupted, too.

For at least a decade, it has been my view that an alternative rail route between Exeter and Plymouth is long overdue. Those with a branch-line mentality--and they are numerous--are shortsighted in suggesting that all that is needed is a rail bypass of Dawlish and Teignmouth. A more radical and ambitious vision would see a new line running along the A38 with a tunnel through Haldon hill. Provided that the track is there and that First Great Western is allowed to operate at the speeds it would like, it would make a journey time of two and a half hours between London and Plymouth. We must link Plymouth to London by rail in that time.

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An alternative would be to rebuild the Okehampton line to Plymouth, which was removed during the Beeching cuts. I am not hung up about where the new railway line goes, but it must go somewhere other than along such a wonderful tourist track that was built many years ago, when Brunel had the vision to lay a track to Penzance. Small-minded people whinge about making Newton Abbot and Totnes stations less important, because they will be bypassed by the new line. They are incapable of seeing the bigger picture. There is no other option if the west country is to survive as a major player. Bristol to Plymouth should be an important business corridor, as London is to Bristol, and that could be the case if it were not for the lack of vision and the branch-line mentality. Communities could be built along the road and the rail infrastructure with employment opportunities close by. In the meantime, planners persist in building doughnut rings of executive homes around what are already poorly served communities and small market towns.

On 11 and 12 January this year, something significant happened. Easterly storms coincided with spring tides to devastate a section of the A379 at Slapton sands near Strete Gate, undermining the foundations of some of the two-mile stretch known as the Slapton line and cutting off communities in my constituency as well as connections between Kingsbridge and Dartmouth. Local historian, Anne Born, explained that the shingle barrier is about 1,800 years old. The road or "the line", as it is called, was probably so named when the turnpike was created in 1856 and was originally a walkway across the sand ridge. The first artificial road surface was based on faggots or reeds and was metalled in about 1920, at first with a dry bound macadam road and later a bitumen road.

The beach was used as a practice ground for the Normandy landings. Three thousand people in the area were evacuated at the end of 1943 to make way for 15,000 troops arriving for battle exercises. A 20 ft obelisk was erected by the American Government beside Slapton beach as a tribute to those who gave up their homes for the war effort and to commemorate those who sadly died during those exercises. The monument has had to be dismantled following the storm as a temporary measure as the sea had undermined its foundations.

To the landward side of the line is Slapton Ley. It is the largest fresh water lagoon in south England. The ley is an important wildfowl habitat in winter in which rare flowers and lichens flourish. Slapton Ley and the ridge were designated as a site of special scientific interest, reflecting both their biological and geological characteristics. It is also a nature reserve. Under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, the district council, the county council and the Whitley Trust--the owner of the site--have a duty to protect that habitat and English Nature is a consultee.

Not only is the site of historical and ecological significance, but it is important economically and socially for the region and that cannot be underestimated. As the Coleridge Association of Parish Councils said:

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The situation cannot be permitted to go on any longer, but what has happened so far is like a farce. I recognise, however, that everyone is well intentioned and that all the public authorities are doing their best. We have had parish meetings, district meetings, county meetings and public meetings. Because of the SSSI status of Slapton Ley, English Nature is involved, as is the Environment Agency.

The Slapton Ley field centre then threw a spanner in the works when it suggested a policy of managed retreat, on the basis that King Canute found that there was no stopping the sea. The centre is highly regarded for its work, but its initial studies suggest substituting for the road cycle tracks, picnic areas and other green tourist features that the Liberal Democrats consider to be "simply splendid". That will result in fewer, more discerning visitors--but not the hoi polloi who are preferred by the Tories and the Labour party. It has not gone down well with local businesses or the tourist centre.

What is worse is that the leader of the county council has been wheeled in. Poor Mr. Greenslade's feet have not touched the ground; he is being wheeled round by all the Liberal Democrat prospective parliamentary candidates to see floods, sea defences and coastal retreats. My impression was that initially he was well disposed towards the managed retreat--they could have picnic areas, cycle tracks, and so on--but he has now turned round and said, "No, we've got to reopen the road"; but the road remains closed. If the sea had destroyed the two-mile road between Torcross and Strete Gate on other occasions, perhaps a policy of managed retreat would have been a more serious candidate for discussion, but as the last storms to create such havoc were more than 20 years ago, there is an overwhelming desire for two-way traffic to be reinstated as soon as possible.

Thankfully, the Devon county council officer injected some sense into the debate when he acknowledged that we need to get our priorities straight. He rightly pointed out that

To make matters worse, the Liberal Democrats are doing their level best to exploit the situation politically, showing special concern ahead of the elections: popping

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up in every picture; chucking out press releases at a rate of knots; and suggesting, of all things, that Europe could save the A379--as if Europe has anything to do with it. As the Liberal Democrats are the party of the single currency and a federal Europe, one can understand why they dragged the only Liberal Democrat MEP for the area down to view the place. He has come down, as has the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the county; everybody is down there. The only snag is that the road is still closed.

Heaven knows why Europe has been involved. Giles Chichester, the MEP, told me that he looked at the matter years ago and that no European money is available. He explained that Slapton is unlike Venice--we probably understand that--because it is not a city sinking into the mire. The road at Slapton is the responsibility of the county council, not Europe: the council must find the solution, which is surely not beyond the wit of man today.

We have some strange goings on involving the hon. Member for North Devon (Mr. Harvey)--I do not blame him for not being in his place, because he did not know that I intended to mention him. According to a Liberal Democrat press release, he intends to call on the Government for coastal funding. Surprise, surprise, questions appeared on the Order Paper asking for money for coastal funding. I wonder whether those questions were drafted by the hon. Gentleman or by the Liberal Democrat prospective parliamentary candidate for my area. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman sent the questions to the Table Office or whether she sent them there. The Minister probably does not know the answer to that, because I do not. However, some strange things are going on.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair ): Order. If the Table Office accepted those questions, they must have been in order, and they must have been submitted by a Member of the House. It is important to put that on the record.

Mr. Steen : Of course they have been correctly submitted, Mr. Winterton. The point is that once the written question is signed by the Member of Parliament, anyone can send it in.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair ): I must also tell the hon. Gentleman that if he makes an allegation against another hon. Member, as I perceive him to have done, he is obliged to give him notice. I hope that he understands that.

Mr. Steen : Enough public money has already been wasted on achieving nothing--everyone involved is publicly funded. The Coast and Countryside Service is publicly funded; the Slapton Ley field centre receives public funds; English Nature is publicly funded; Devon county council is publicly funded; South Hams district council; the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Environment Agency are publicly funded. An enormous number of people are involved, all funded by the taxpayer.

The communities do not want a massive granite structure--a sea defence-to try to deflect the sea at Start bay. If they did, the district council would of course

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approach MAFF, but no one to whom I have spoken wants that unique, beautiful bay spoilt in such a way. Meanwhile, the county council has put up limestone boulders along the seaward side of the stricken road that are interacting chemically with the sea water, attracting some criticism. I wonder why they bothered to shore up the track when that is not what is needed. They said that they could not open the single track to heavy road vehicles because it would sink--but what about opening it to light vehicles?

It is common knowledge that the road has been reduced to half its width and seriously undermined. It is worth noting that, despite all the meetings between county engineers and other interested parties, no further progress appears to have been made to reopen the road from a month ago. Although Rome was not built in a day, I cannot believe that the Italians or the French would not have found a speedier solution.

The electorate want their road back. I have received endless letters from people at Slapton, Torcross, Dartmouth, Chillington and Strete, and from businesses such as the Torcross Gallery, the Park West holiday bungalows, Roxborough house hotel and the proprietors of the esteemed watering hole called the Start bay inn, which does a good plate of fish and chips. The new owners of the Tradesmans arms, which is also doing well, wrote to me as well. All my correspondents despair about what is happening--or, rather, what is not happening.

On 26 January, I asked the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport if he would assess the impact on tourism of the Slapton-Start bay road remaining closed during the summer of 2001. He replied that no decision had been taken on whether the closed section of the road between the monument and Strete Gate would remain closed for the summer. Is that still the case on 14 February? Will the Minister give the House some idea as to the timetable for reopening the road, and what the cost of stabilising measures might be?

The parliamentary answer provided on 6 February referred to joint meetings with relevant agencies discussing draft shoreline management plans. What has come of those discussions, and will they make any difference? What are the serious long-terms options if a new road is built next to the old one? I am told that no planning permission is needed for that option. However, the snag is that the road will fall into the sea at the next spring high tide, so the option is, sensibly, not being canvassed. The best idea so far is to build a 150 ft loop back from the present line, but planners, English Nature and the landowners must give approval.

Meanwhile, as Richard Kennell of Chillington said in a letter to the Dartmouth Chronicle on 9 February,

The A379 is a vital link between Kingsbridge and Dartmouth. It is a recognised route of great scenic beauty, attracting much-needed tourist trade to an area hard pressed by the decline of agriculture and fishing. Local businesses rely heavily on passing trade to survive. The closure of the A379 above Blackpool sands a few years ago started the decline of local businesses, several of which have closed. The closure of that stretch of road forces motorists to use inadequate back lanes with few

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passing places. The lanes were an attractive feature of the area, but the erosion of the high banks after prolonged rain and increased traffic has turned it into a mud bath. There is a real danger to life and limb, as Mr. and Mrs. Green told me with regard to Gara Mill, which is on that backwater route.

The emergency services cannot get to places within the proper response time. Those sharing the services of neighbouring communities, such as schools and doctors' surgeries, are under tremendous pressure. The closure creates a long and complex journey of an extra 20 miles. The notion that the road should not be reopened beggars belief. If we do not have a serviceable two-track road by Easter, how will charabancs get across the bay in the summer? It is imperative that transport should flow again as soon as possible between Torcross and Strete.

There is a simple solution: call in the Army. They should cease live firing on Dartmoor for a few weeks and throw their engineering expertise into creating a lifeline for the communities of south Devon. They could build a Bailey bridge overnight; if they did that in Bosnia, why not in Slapton? That would provide access for traffic in both directions which could be open by Easter. The permanent solution may take years to materialise, but the military solution could alleviate the problem.

I cannot impress on the House how important the road is to the communities involved. Any further prevarication, however well intentioned, verges on a dereliction of duty towards rural communities that are fighting for survival.

1.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Robert Ainsworth ): I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing this debate about an issue that concerns his constituency. I recognise that he is worried about transportation problems in south Devon caused by the damage to the A379. On the night of 11-12 January, exceptional weather conditions in the form of an easterly gale, coinciding with high tides, caused severe damage to the A379 Slapton line. About 250 m of the road were reduced to a single lane. It is appropriate to pay tribute to those who carried out the emergency work in difficult and dangerous conditions. If it had not been carried out, it is highly probable that the shingle ridge would have been breached and the road completely lost. I understand that the work, including the provision of rock armouring, cost Devon county council close to £150,000. However, in spite of those efforts, the road remains closed while the conditions remain unsafe and until an appropriate solution can be found to allow it to reopen.

The context in which any decision can be taken on the future of the Slapton line is complicated. The shingle ridge and Slapton Ley, which it retains, lie within the South Devon area of outstanding natural beauty and heritage coast. The area is also a designated site of special scientific interest, as the hon. Gentleman said, and a national nature reserve, in recognition of its biological and geological importance. The site is owned by the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust, which in

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turn leases it to a field studies centre that operates the Slapton Ley field centre and manages the national nature reserve. The site is extensively used for educational courses and research, and is probably one of the best documented in Great Britain. Schedule 9 to the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 sets out a formal procedure that requires statutory undertakers, including local highway authorities, to obtain English Nature's approval before undertaking work affecting an SSSI.

I understand that some conservation interests criticised the emergency actions to protect the Slapton line, considering that they interfered unacceptably with the prevailing coastal processes. They remain concerned that measures to reinstate or replace the A379 should not adversely affect the SSSI or the NNR. However, following a meeting between the county council, the district council, the conservation bodies, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Environment Agency, those initial criticisms have diminished, with the greater awareness of the road's importance to the community's social and economic well-being.

The Slapton line provides a vital communication link between the settlements east of Kingsbridge and west of Dartmouth and is a popular route for tourists and visitors throughout the year. It is identified as the emergency alternative route to the A3122/A381 between Kingsbridge and Dartmouth, should that be blocked. I know that business and community interests in the severed communities have expressed considerable concern about the disruption and loss of trade, as well as the inconvenience and damage caused by increased use of the surrounding minor road network.

Clearly the county council's immediate concern is to reopen the road for safe use by traffic as quickly as possible but in a way that causes as little damage as possible to the special features of Slapton Ley. It is also apparent that a permanent solution is an ambition that can be achieved only in the long term. Given the complexity of the issues involved, considerable research will be needed to inform the design and the decision-making process, including assessments of present and projected coastal processes, the impact on the natural environment and economic considerations. Such research could take between two and three years, and it is unlikely that a new permanent road would be in place within less than five years.

Devon county council is therefore urgently seeking a long-term solution and, in the interim, a temporary scheme that will serve the local community's needs and have the least damaging affect on the SSSI and the nature reserve.

Mr. Steen : Will the Minister give way on that point, or is he pushed for time?

Mr. Ainsworth : I am pushed for time, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind.

Although a distinction is drawn between the maintenance of coastal defence works and the maintenance of the highway--particularly in terms of the responsibilities of public bodies and funding sources--in the determination of a long-term solution, they are closely interrelated. South Hams district council has discretionary powers to undertake coastal

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protection work and apply for coast protection funding from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, while the county council takes responsibility as the highway authority.

There are advantages to both authorities working in partnership to secure an appropriate long-term solution. To that end, a meeting between the two was held on Friday 2 February, where it was recognised that considerable research would be required, which would probably entail the employment of consultants at significant cost. There is a need to identify possible funding sources, both national and European. It was agreed to establish three groups to develop a long-term solution. I welcome the decision of both authorities to work closely to develop a long-term solution and to engage the local community.

On the issue of an interim solution--the hon. Gentleman majored on that--Devon county council has examined various options. Reopening the existing road as a single lane stretch with passing bays and temporary traffic lights has been ruled out because of the storm damage to the ridge on the seaward side. At its meeting on 12 February, Devon county council resolved to seek the necessary approvals, which include planning consent and/or assent under schedule 9 of the 2000 Act, for the construction of one of three options for a short-term solution to reopen the road.

The first option is a scheme that allows for realigning the road by moving the carriageway up to 25 m from the edge of the existing carriageway. That would be sufficient distance from the area subject to erosion to give a reasonable expectation of at least five years' use, but without the need for extensive and expensive coastal protection works, which would be strongly resisted by English Nature and the landowners. The county council will continue to pursue an application for planning permission for that scheme, which will be accompanied

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by an environmental impact assessment, in the hope that the consent of English Nature and the landowner will be forthcoming.

The second option is a lateral extension of the existing carriageway to provide a two-lane carriageway, including rock armouring or equivalent coastal protection works. The county council considers that those works would be a permitted development and would not require planning permission. The third option is a lateral extension of the existing carriageway, but without the rock armouring or other coastal protection works. The views of English Nature and the landowners are awaited on all three options.

It seems clear that the county council's immediate concern is to reopen the road as quickly as possible because of its importance to the local community and economy, and its role as an emergency route.

Mr. Steen : Will the Minister investigate whether the Army can help? Nobody has yet considered bringing it in, it is located on Dartmoor and it would enjoy a real-life challenge.

Mr. Ainsworth : I am certain that if a solution can be agreed, the county council will look for help wherever it is available. The agreement of the landowners and English Nature will be needed, so I cannot see there being an immediate solution. In my view, the county council should be commended for the speed of its emergency action and for its partnership working to develop a long-term solution that takes account of the area's biological and geological importance.

I am aware of the meetings with Railtrack and I shall try to get back to the hon. Gentleman at a later date on the rail issue.

Question put and agreed to.

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