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Somerset Levels

1 pm

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater): I am delighted to hold a debate on the Somerset Levels.

The Somerset Levels are a unique feature in the United Kingdom. If you will cast your mind back, Mr. Hurst, to prehistoric times, the Levels began as an alluvial flood plain, and have, over the years, seen enormous change. At the time of floating villages across the Mendip hills and near Street, the area was built up by alluvial flooding and the destruction of forests. Over the years, the change has been the change of man. Avalon is at the heart of the Somerset Levels; one can imagine Arthur being taken off to Avalon, and ultimately to Glastonbury, to be buried. It is said that there was an inland waterway or lake, which was really a sea that ran from Bridgwater, around Glastonbury, and then covered the area surrounding what is now the Somerset Levels.

Since that time, man's intervention has created the Levels that we see now. We, as prehistoric man and his successors, decided to drain the Levels because we needed them for high-quality grassland and to keep back the flood water. By doing that, however, we created an artificial area. The Dutch are way ahead of us on that. In relation to the Levels, we have created a flood plain held back by walls of mud.

The problem, of which the Under-Secretary is fully aware, is that global warming is upon us. The water is rising by millimetres a year; that may not seem a great deal, but if it continues for 50 to 75 years, the entire area could suddenly become an alluvial flood plain once again. In the past, one year in 60 was the average frequency of a major flood, so it could be guaranteed that nothing would probably happen for 59 years; a little water might come, but the dam walls could hold it back.

The past five years have seen three major floods. That flooding has not just come over the banks; it has brought Bridgwater, Taunton, Langport and others under a direct threat. If that continues, the area could be cut off not only from the M5, but from the two railways that service London and Bristol, and from the A303 into Yeovil, although that does not quite come under the Levels.

I have just printed off two maps from the Environment Agency's website. The first shows the flooding area over the years. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), whose constituency is the other side of the Somerset Levels, has just joined me. The map is interesting because it includes a considerable amount of Bridgwater, much of Illminster and a considerable portion of my right hon. Friend's constituency in Wells.

The second map is the flood plan, which shows a completely different situation. One sees a waft of blue that would leave Glastonbury, Street, Bridgwater, Langport and Yeovil under serious threat in a major flood. The agency is not being alarmist, but showing where it believes there could be a major flood in future. If we go by what happened two years ago, when there was enormous pressure on dam walls throughout the levels, it is clear that the agency is not scaremongering, but suggesting a possibility. The agency is now rightly

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saying, through the Under-Secretary, that building on flood plains must be seriously questioned. I shall return to that point, but I urge him to stick to what he has said because our worry is not simply to do with insurance. If there were a major problem, we would not be able to reach people because of the speed of the water coming in. Having seen it, I know that it is positively frightening.

What is the role of the Environment Agency? The Environment Agency was a slightly hybrid organisation, set up to administer the rivers and waterways, and it has now taken on flooding as one of its major areas of work. It has done sterling work in the Somerset Levels—I have no problem with that—but what backing does it receive from the Department for an area that faces a direct threat?

The Environment Agency's problem is that the flood defence banks in the Levels are not in good shape. A massive amount of money needs to be spent on them. Over the past few years, when the walls have shifted, the Environment Agency has spent money on them. But when we ask the agency how much more money it needs to spend on what is a difficult plain to defend, the figure runs into many millions. The Environment Agency needs the backing of the Department to do the job that it is charged to do, which is to defend the Levels from wholesale flooding.

Over the past few years, a problem has arisen between the drainage boards and the Environment Agency, of which I know the Under-Secretary is aware. The problem is that there are two competing organisations. The drainage board is charged with looking at the reans—or streams—and cleaning them out and keeping them clear, with the Environment Agency overseeing the work. However, because the precepts have not always been paid to the Environment Agency by the drainage boards, as the Under-Secretary is aware, the bodies have been at loggerheads for some time. I urge him—I have no easy answer—to bring them together somehow. If the two bodies—one established for many generations and the other comparatively new—remain at loggerheads, that will cause problems for the future.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells): As my hon. Friend knows, we share the Somerset Levels and I am delighted that he is raising this important issue. He has put his finger on the nub of the problem. The Environment Agency and many other environmental bodies seem to regard the rivers and drainage reans of the Levels primarily as environmental assets, when they were put in there in the middle ages for drainage purposes to protect agriculture and those who live and work there. Is there not a case for reorienting our efforts by recognising the utilitarian and industrial purposes of these assets, instead of treating them simply as environmental assets?

Mr. Liddell-Grainger : I agree, and I shall come to that point. The Levels have three facets; industry, tourism and a thriving farming community that has been there for generations.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells said, the drainage boards were set up to deal with drainage, but the problem is that there are an enormous number of them. The Under-Secretary is aware how many there are. I am not sure that I know myself, because they cover

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a vast area. If we could find a way to bring all the bodies together so that there were no conflicts of interest—as a result of which precepts are not always not paid because of ongoing disputes—we could produce a much better overall strategy in the Parrett catchment area. The problem has been going on for a long time, but it worries me that it is continuing, because the moment a disaster occurs, the finger of blame is always pointed, and it is a fickle finger.

The Parrett catchment area project, in which the Under-Secretary was heavily involved, was set up to manage the water and the future of a highly floodable area. The Department has now put £61.5 million into the Environment Agency, rising to £65 million, and ultimately the allocation will be £114 million in 2003–04. I am delighted about that. Will he consider how we structure that money? My right hon. Friend the Member for Wells made a valuable point about the environment. The environment is marvellous and we must protect it, but we must also take a broader view. The Levels have an enormous industrial base, going back centuries, including Clarks in my right hon. Friend's constituency, British Cellophane in mine, Royal Ordnance and many other organisations. If they went under water, it would be catastrophic for the area. Will the Under-Secretary comment on that?

How can we approach the problem? The Under-Secretary knows what I am going to say. I want to refer to the Parrett barrage and the Parrett sluice, which is a way of controlling the Parrett. From Bridgwater to the sea, for eight miles, there is only a 4 ft drop; that is very little to play with. The Environment Agency—with the Parrett project, under Humphrey Temperley—has looked at putting a barrage or sluice at that point. If Hinckley C power station had been built, that would have helped to pay for it; but it is not on the agenda at the moment. Between £15 million and £20 million is needed. I accept that it must be seen as a long-term project, but I hope that the Under-Secretary will agree that it deserves serious attention, even if money is made available only for a detailed study to demonstrate whether it is a viable operation. If it is, we need to build it; if it is not, we still have to address the problem of flooding in the area.

There is nothing clever about the sluice; it controls the water up to 4 ft or 5 ft, the water builds up behind it, the tide goes out and the water goes out. That is straightforward. However, what it allows is a stop-gap between the backing-up of the Tone through Taunton and the Parrett through Bridgwater. If we can stop the water from coming back up at high tide, we will save the homes of a great number of people.

To give an example, there has been talk of managed retreat on the Steart peninsula, which is a marvellous area for bird watching. I do not accept the concept of managed retreat. We are not in a position to do it because we cannot control the power of water; we know that. If we try to control the power of nature, we do it at our cost. In that example, we would spend an enormous amount of money on few homes. However, if we did not, there would be serious repercussions for the environment, and the confidence of my constituents and those of my right hon. Friend the member for Wells—certainly in Burnham-on-Sea and Highbridge—would be fatally undermined.

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How, then, can we proceed? Two inland seas projects have been considered, involving low-level water-holding catchment areas, one covering 4,000 sq m, at the cost of £23,000, and the other covering some 75,000 sq m. If we cannot control water, I agree with the idea of inland seas. I put it to the Under-Secretary that such projects will cost millions of pounds. That is not a lot, relatively, but I worry about the effect that they will have on local economics, on the local and surrounding landowners and on the people who live nearby.

We can create the seas, but how will the compensation for this environmentally sensitive area be put in place, given the existing constraints of the common agricultural policy, which I hope will be reformed? I do not believe that the two can be balanced. The studies are ongoing, but I worry about the aspiration to move 3,500 m of soil out to allow a sea to move in. I have grave worries, and constituents who have written to me—it does not affect my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells' area, but the principle is the same—are concerned about the consequences for their homes in the long term.

We must keep the Levels vibrant, so what else can we consider? Tourism is massively important; the M5, two railway lines and the A303 come through the area, but people do not stop there. They go to Glastonbury to climb the tor and to enjoy festivals, but they do not naturally come to the Levels because we have no attraction that automatically brings them in. The battle of Sedgemoor took place in the area; had that had a different result, we might not all be here. If we want to have a thriving community, we must encourage tourism.

The Government have looked at a lot of ways to attract tourists to the south-west. The regional development agency—not an organisation with which I always agree—is charged with that and promotes the whole area. There are more sites of special scientific interest on the Levels than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. It is a unique area. I do not say that it should be a world heritage site, but it is at that sort of level. If we want a thriving community there, people need to brought in to enjoy the area.

What about the wildlife? That is a subject close to the Under-Secretary's heart. For instance, Berwick swans, golden plover, teal, widgeon and other water fowl live on the levels—as many as 20,000 of them. That is stunning. I am an ornithologist, and I find it a beautiful place. Can we not encourage more people to come and enjoy it?

In its latest advertising campaign, the regional development agency showed the Clifton suspension bridge at Bristol with giraffes on it. The Under-Secretary knows that we do not have many giraffes on the Levels. We need to bring people to the area; if we can bring money to the area, we can do more to secure it. What about making it a special area of conservation? I know that that is being considered. If it were achieved, would more money be available? Could money be made available from Europe, through whatever mechanism we can find? I have already touched on the need to increase tourism. We have had cider growers and a vineyard in Somerset, and many people visited the area. However, many left because farming changed.

People are reluctant to set up business on the Levels. The recent opening of the catchment project offices is Middlezoy is a fine example, but it is unusual. People do

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not want to move down there because of the flooding problems. If we want to encourage people to do that, we should not just emphasise the Bridgwater area. As the House is well aware, the area has problems in finding industrial land that is not on the flood plain. The last industrial land to be created had to be raised by 4 ft.

Building homes on flood plains is a thorny problem. The Environment Agency has set down firm guidelines. However, Sedgemore has been asked by the Government to build about 2,000 houses—an enormous number. However, houses cannot be built on the escarpments; the Levels are difficult to build on; homes cannot be built on much of the Quantocks; the coastline is somewhat erodeable. So where do we put the homes? The Government may say that we must build those houses without the land being available. We are going through the planning inquiry now, and the targets are difficult to achieve. I hope that the Under-Secretary will tell his colleagues that it is not always easy.

The Curry report mentioned three things that would be especially useful in our area. The first was modulation. I am not a great fan of it, but if we had modulation in farming, could it be used for only one part of an area? Could the modulation of 10 per cent. of an area be more useful in helping the environment than if it were applied collectively? I do not know the answer to that. Secondly, Curry mentions rural enterprise schemes and talks about a substantial increase, with a mid-term review, for rural enterprise. What is available to help rural enterprise in areas that are important to the well being of an area as vital as the Somerset Levels?

Lastly, Curry spoke of encouraging co-operatives. Rather like badgers, the subject seems to come round every two weeks. Is any mechanism available to the Under-Secretary to consider co-operation? That happens with cider to an extent, and with farmers markets and so on, but the Levels are unique. Many farms there are organic farms, which produce extremely high-quality produce in an area that comes under the category "special". I hope that he will respond to that.

I assure the Under-Secretary that I shall keep going on; indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells and I will continue to push for the future of an area of outstanding beauty. The west country would be badly depleted if anything happened to that area. Along with the Environment Agency and other organisations—including the Department—we will work together to ensure a future for the Levels. I hope that, in 50 years' time—we will probably be pushing ourselves around in wheelchairs by then—we can look back and say that we did a good job. If we do not do a good job, I worry for the future.

1.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) on securing a further Adjournment debate, following that of 25 March on the subject of farming in Somerset. I understand the points that he raises, which he made in a reasonable, articulate and reasoned way. As he is aware, I know the area well. I have been involved in discussions about it for some

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years, and I am pleased to see the progress that has been made, especially through people coming together to tackle the problems. There was tension in years gone by, and people took polarised positions, and I am glad to see that change.

The hon. Gentlemen touched on the major issue of flood management, and I understand the point. We must take global warming into account, but I assure him that it is taken into account in our investment programmes, engineering standards and projections. The potential impact of global warming—rising sea levels and changing weather patterns—has been built into our long-term projections. We are working on the worst-case scenario, as that is the most sensible way to act. The projections may turn out to be worse than reality, but it is better to be on the safe side than to put people at risk.

The flood risk maps were a good innovation by the Environment Agency, as they gave people an idea of where there was flood risk. However, they do not quantify the level of risk. People need not panic if they see their areas within the maps; the maps need to be more sophisticated, but that will come over time. The agency is considering the issue, and hopes to give people a clearer idea of what the maps mean.

I also understand the hon. Gentleman's point about drainage boards. I declare an interest in that I am the honorary vice-president of the Association of Drainage Authorities, so I have a close connection to those authorities. I have a long interest in the subject, as much of my constituency in north Lincolnshire is low-lying and relies heavily on drainage boards to keep it from going under water. I have followed the progress of drainage authorities with some interest.

DEFRA and the Environment Agency support the production of water level management plans. Every drainage board will have to produce such a plan, which will provide an opportunity to talk to the agency and other interested parties in the Somerset Levels about ways of tackling points such as those made by the hon. Gentleman. There would not necessarily be a conflict in terms of a pattern of drainage between environmental interests and the interests of agriculture or the wider community. The important issue is management.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory : I know that the Under-Secretary knows a good deal about the subject, but will he acknowledge that the reluctance of the Environment Agency to dredge reans and drainage rivers is a problem? Dredging can disturb wildlife and fauna, but the water needs to keep flowing for drainage purposes, which requires dredging. There can be a conflict—as was well articulated by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater—with the balance shifting too far in favour of conservation to the detriment of the primary duty, which is to drain areas in our constituencies.

Mr. Morley : Yes, I can see when that balance—that is the key word—between conservation interests and those of the agricultural community is needed on occasion. Sometimes there is a role for dredging and keeping drains clear, and that is the principle responsibility of the drainage authorities and boards. However, dredging can sometimes have marginal benefits, depending on the circumstances of where it is done and what it is for. As

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the right hon. Gentleman will know, the agency is obliged to take the relevant legislation on wildlife protection into account, especially in areas of special scientific importance. It must consider certain European Union directives as well, such as the habitats directive. The question is one of balance, and that balance can be struck.

Specific points were made about the Parrett sluice, in which there is plenty of interest. I acknowledge the work that has been done to try to identify a more sustainable approach to flood management in the Somerset Levels. As the hon. Member for Bridgwater will know, I met with Humphrey Temperley and discussed the options for future flood management in the catchment area. The report is an important step towards a solution. Everyone involved should be congratulated on that.

Much remains to be done on the report because many more technical assessments must be made, including investigating the role of a sluice and whether it would be effective. That work is under way, and DEFRA is funding a catchment area study, which is complementary to the work being done by the catchment area project study.

In addition, DEFRA is providing some £3 million in grant to the Environment Agency for strengthening flood defences on the lower River Tone at Baltmoor wall and Stanmoor bank. The Stanmoor bank reduces the risk of flooding to residential and commercial properties, a main line rail track and agricultural land in Stanmoor. The Baltmoor wall retains floodwaters within Currymoor and Haymoor, thereby defending Northmoor and Saltmoor, which also protects residential and commercial properties and a main trunk road.

In response to the autumn 2000 floods, grant-eligible expenditure for Somerset's local flood defence committee has increased from £3.5 million in 2001–02 to £4.4 million in 2002–03. The grant rate has increased from 65 per cent. to 75 per cent. in Somerset, in recognition of its particular needs.

The possibility of a sluice is being considered, with the normal technical, economic and environmental criteria being taken into account. However, big engineering projects that seem to represent the solution to a problem may not, in fact, be the solution. With periods of high river flow, backing up may occur even with a sluice, and if the water could not then escape there could still be a flood risk. That solution must be examined, as the Environment Agency is doing.

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I accept, too, that there is an issue of structural funding. An advantage of DEFRA, which brings together environmental and flood defence funding, is that it can take a holistic approach. I do not rule out the possibility that we could give support through our agri-environment programmes to landowners who deliberately flood their land as part of an overall project. We should draw a distinction between land that floods regularly and land that is deliberately flooded, as a strategy.

I ask the hon. Member for Bridgwater to consider issues such as managed retreats on their merits, as they are a sustainable form of flood defence. We must consider each area on its individual merits. We do not take a blanket approach to the idea of managed retreats, as there may be different solutions for different areas, with different management and engineering options.

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point about the tourist potential of the Levels, which is an internationally important wildlife centre. Many people go there for that reason. On my visits, I have seen farming businesses that have diversified, with on-farm shops selling produce and providing facilities for visitors, which has been good for the farms, for the area and for tourism. There may be more potential for such moves, and the regional development agency will consider that possibility along with the local authorities.

The area has some fantastic attractions and is internationally important. We recognise that it is also an environmentally sensitive area, and put considerable sums into the area through ESA—environmentally sensitive area—agreements. Farmers in the Somerset Levels received £3.3 million of direct support to maintain landscape and wildlife last year. Some 70 per cent. of the area and 65 per cent. of the SSSI land fall within the ESA boundary. The ESA is well established, and we are devoting considerable resources to it.

With regard to the hon. Gentleman's final three points, we are considering the Curry report and the question of modulation. Ring-fencing for an area is a double-edged sword, because the east of England would be keen on that, too, which would distort the amount of money available nationally. We will consider that issue, although it is difficult.

I discussed the rural enterprise scheme this morning with the Minister for Rural Affairs, and we are looking to see whether we can simplify and extend it.

On co-ops, there is potential support through the Farm Business Advice Service and the Rural Development Service. We also fund and provide planning advice, which I hope that farmers will take up. We are only too happy to give them that support.

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