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13 Mar 2003 : Column 504—continued

5.1 pm

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe): I apologise to the Minister for missing the first five minutes or so of his speech.

Many Members have described the distress and anger of their constituents following the flooding early this year. I encountered some of that distress and anger at a public meeting in Medmenham in my constituency, which I attended to find out what local people felt about the flooding that had afflicted Medmenham and Marlow.

I shall try to emulate the tone adopted by my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), who tried to approach the issue in a bipartisan way. I appreciate that there were very heavy levels of rainfall this year, and that, not being a rain god, the Minister cannot be held responsible for all the difficulties thrown up by nature. I was amused when my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Mr. Hendry) said he hoped that the Minister would still be there at the end of the current Parliament. I believe, although the Minister may correct me, that he is already the longest-serving Minister in the Government, but he may well look forward to continuing to serve for as long as my hon. Friend wishes him to.

As the Minister knows, some of my constituents believe that the Jubilee scheme was responsible for the exceptionally heavy flooding. As he also knows, the Environment Agency says that it was not, and proposes to run a hydraulic model downstream to confirm that. There are two difficulties for my constituents. First, the

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hydraulic model is not being run upstream to where they live; secondly, what if the model is wrong—a possibility that has already been raised today?

My view, for what it is worth, is that the agency may well be right, but let me return to a problem that has surfaced repeatedly today: the agency cannot be judge and jury in its own case. I commend to the Minister the ingenious suggestions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) about the need for re-examination of the agency's responsibilities, and urge him to look again at the arguments for an independent inquiry into what happened. I ask him to respond, perhaps in writing if he does not have time at the end of the debate, to the question of whether he would fund or help to fund any independent examinations upstream, perhaps by some public body, just as some of my hon. Friends want him to help to fund independent examinations downstream.

My constituents are concerned not merely about what has already happened but, naturally, about what will happen. I welcome in that context the announcement by the EA, which the Minister has made known in a written answer, that it will be undertaking pre-feasibility studies to identify options for the alleviation of flooding in both Marlow and Medmenham. I put on record my appreciation for the courteous way in which the EA has always dealt with me in providing information.

I would appreciate it if the Minister let me know in due course what the timetable for that is and what efforts the EA will make to discuss those plans with other bodies. In the written answer, the Minister made it known that the EA would be discussing the matter with the district council but I would be grateful for any further information that the Minister has available.

Many hon. Members have already referred to the difficulties of dealing with flooding when it is dealt with by such a wide variety and number of bodies. As the Minister will know, what constituents want in these circumstances is effectively a one-stop shop, somewhere they can go to with ease to find solutions to the problems that they face. I will want to examine carefully the Minister's announcement earlier about the way in which he is rebalancing the responsibilities of the public bodies for flooding. Since he said earlier that he is always willing to meet any delegation of constituents—

Mr. Morley: Within reason.

Mr. Goodman: The Minister is now adding "within reason". I hope that, when he says that, he is not indicating that he would not be prepared—I apologise for the double negative—to meet a body of my constituents if they wished to come to see him about these matters. I may make such an approach to him and I trust that he will respond favourably.

5.7 pm

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), although like every other contribution to the debate, his tended to be a bit landlocked. As the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby and, as you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, as a chartered civil engineer, I shall take this opportunity to make some general and some specific points. I made the Minister

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aware of those in advance of the debate in the hope that he could answer some fairly key questions that my constituents have asked me to raise.

While I am on my feet and paying due acknowledgment to the facility of being involved in this important debate on behalf of my constituents who live at the seaside, I remind the House that Scarborough and Whitby is one of the largest rural constituencies in the whole country, certainly in Yorkshire.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: Rubbish.

Lawrie Quinn: In the context of the area of the national park that I represent, it is fairly large. The annual mileage on my car indicates a fairly large constituency.

I have a technical and complicated problem to resolve. I was concerned to find that the journal that I receive every week as a chartered civil engineer, the New Civil Engineer, was not available in the Library of the House. I have taken the suggestion of the Speaker's Office that I provide not only the Minister, but the two Opposition spokespersons, with a copy of a document to which I shall refer later. I want to thank the Speaker's Office and the Library, which will make the document available to other hon. Members, should they need to look at it.

Before I turn my remarks seaward, as it were, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider some of the experiences of those communities in the landlocked part of Scarborough and Whitby. I think immediately of Stepney road in Scarborough or the residents of Golden grove in Whitby, whose lives have been blighted and their health affected by nasty sewage spillages that are still being investigated. I pay tribute to the Environment Agency and to Yorkshire Water, who have done their utmost to try to get to the bottom of the problem. Some of the problems might be associated with an overload—as we have heard today from Members on both sides—in which properties are added to an area and overload the system. We will find out in due course.

I pay tribute to the Minister's immediate team, and to Mr. Reg Purnell, the chief engineer at DEFRA and his team. We have heard many compliments paid to the team, particularly with regard to its work with the all-party group on flooding. My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) referred to its contribution. The team is excellent and the level of professionalism is to be admired. Members will understand later why I make that comment.

The Minister is a regular visitor to my constituency and he is welcomed whenever he comes, particularly by members of the fishing industry. With me, he has visited remarkable works along the River Derwent and the River Esk nearer Whitby. However, local parish councils have asked me to ask him whether parish councils could be more formally included in the emergency recovery programme. In the area covered by Scarborough borough council, it can take a long time for sandbags to be delivered to some of the more remote parishes. Often, because of the nature of flash floods in small streams across the national park, the problem has gone from villages such as Lealholm, but the damage has been done. Could a closer liaison be achieved, or could the Minister suggest that local authorities work

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more closely, and try to get contingency plans in place, with parish councils, which are on the spot and can respond more quickly to emergencies?

We have had serious problems with the so-called "sea cut" that goes into the sea adjacent to Scarborough. The Minister will be aware of that man-made feature, which was constructed by Lord Derwent's ancestors, who drained the family land to help their agricultural pursuits. Recently, the sea cut has been subject to flash floods and the Environment Agency has tried to respond to the flooding in the communities immediately around it.

I urge the Minister and the Environment Agency to remember that the people affected by flooding remember it and, as has been graphically suggested today, they remember those moments when they cannot get on with their lives because of flooding. The more work done to bolster the relationship between the Environment Agency's experts and technical engineers with parish councils, the stronger community bond there will be, so that communities understand the difficult technical issues.

As an engineer, I often tried to solve problems by applying lateral thinking. Given the nature of my work—bridge design and geo-technical matters—I was often cash-strapped and had to work within a very tight budget. That is why engineers seek lateral solutions to some of the problems that they face. With that in mind, I commend the excellent scheme introduced at the estuary of the River Eske, in Whitby. We found it difficult to attract grant for the necessary sea defence work, because the affected area was within the harbour bar. The very good engineering team, with encouragement from me, applied lateral thinking and, with the help of the Admiralty, redefined what was estuary and what was sea. By redefining the cliffs within the harbour bar, which are immediately underneath St. Mary's church and Whitby abbey, we were able not only to protect numerous properties, but to keep alive a very vibrant part of Whitby and to sustain it for probably the next 100 years. Such lateral thinking and the excellent experience of the Haggerlythe, in Whitby, are a tribute to what can be achieved by engineers who work with communities.

The Minister will know that my main purpose in speaking today is to highlight what my constituents regard as a big success: the considerable resources that this Labour Government have provided for the coastline of north-east Yorkshire. For the nation to recognise the need to sustain this attractive heritage coastline for communities along the Yorkshire coast is a fantastic step forward. I pay tribute to the officers of Scarborough borough council, in particular, who have taken a leading role in seeking innovative solutions to coastal defence problems along the wider Yorkshire coast—from the Humber to the north-east, as far as the River Wear. Excellent work has been carried out at Runswick Bay, at Robin Hood's Bay and along the coastline in general. Such projects would not have been possible without the resources that the Government have supplied for the people of the Yorkshire coast.

As if that were not good enough, I also pay great tribute to the abilities of my hon. Friend the Minister, and for his excellent work in persuading our friends at

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the Treasury, as evidenced in his statement. I am sure that many of my constituents will regard that as a great success, and my remaining comments will make it clear why I say that.

The main problem that I want to bring to the attention of the House concerns the classic landscape of the town of Scarborough. I hope that Members on both sides of the House have been able to visit Scarborough. It is a great conference town, and most people who work in politics get an opportunity to visit it at some point in their careers. The promenade, the classic Marine Drive, is the result of the forethought and foresight of Victorian engineers, and it is a classic example of Victorian engineering. It is a beauty to behold, but sadly, in the decades before I became the Member of Parliament for Scarborough and Whitby, it was neglected. Like many seaside communities throughout the country, the basic infrastructure did not get the attention that it demanded. As I have said, the fact that we have considerable resources to put right years of neglect is a great tribute to the work of the Minister and his team.

It is not just about years of neglect; we must recognise the power of the sea and mother nature. People who live on the coast know that, ultimately, the sea will always win. Although many Members have rightly paid tribute to him today, not even the Minister would claim to be Canute. The sea will always win—I know that as an engineer, and everyone who lives on the coast does too. However, for perhaps the next 50 years, we have an opportunity to protect vital parts of our local economy, and support and protect residential areas in Scarborough. I urge the Minister to recognise that the partnerships that have evolved since 1997 between the local authority, Yorkshire Water, the ministerial team and engineers have failed to give due acknowledgement to the sentiment, affection and high regard that many of my constituents have for that fantastic part of our heritage on the Yorkshire coast.

The Minister was able to support with a 75 per cent. grant works to East pier, Castle headland and the Holms—a coastal protection scheme, the like of which Scarborough has never seen before. Work started in earnest in April 2002, but unfortunately a number of technical problems arose in the first season of operations. I hope that Members will recognise that it is difficult to do any work next to the sea because there are problems with the tide, weather and storms, which can inflict considerable damage as people try to achieve a technical solution. The problems on the coastline that the Government inherited demand considerable attention, technical understanding and lateral thinking. Above all, community members must feel that they are stakeholders in the solution that emerges.

The Minister knows that those works have run into considerable financial difficulty, and I believe that at the beginning of last week the Department received an application from Scarborough borough council, the main promoter or client in the contract for the works, for extra funding of £7.6 million. I hope that the Minister can confirm whether yesterday's ministerial statement on resources means that the consideration of that application can be expedited, or whether the community will have to wait and see whether the final estimated cost of the works will be fully funded by central Government and the Treasury. I trust that he will give a response in his winding-up speech.

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Communities in Scarborough, Whitby and other parts of my constituency are waiting to find out whether they will have to use their council tax resources to fill the funding gap caused by the extra costs of those works. The Minister knows that locally we have a strong civic society and an internationally recognised environmental group, the Sons of Neptune. Indeed, he has met some of the individuals involved. They have strong reservations about a small aspect of the scheme, which I shall attempt to bring to the attention of the House and the Minister; otherwise the community in Scarborough will feel that its MP is failing them.

The document to which I referred earlier is available in the House of Commons Library. I hope that the House will consider using visual aids in the near future, so that hon. Members will be better able to consider complicated technical matters such as this.

The scheme involves reinforcing a lot of promenade masonry. Part of it is called a wave return wall, which will run for about 1,500 m along the promenade. The wall will be a considerable lump of concrete. It will replace some Victorian railings that are much loved by local people and the millions of visitors to Scarborough.

The Sons of Neptune and Scarborough's civic society have never been happy with the local authority's plan to replace an elegant sweep of Victorian cast-iron railing with a 3 ft-high lump of concrete around the whole of the town's bay area. They feel that it will blight the area and attract graffiti. They are also worried about health and safety aspects of the replacement wave return wall, and believe that the Minister is giving generous funding for dental work in the face of Scarborough that will never allow the city to smile again.

I hear that accusation regularly. People's affection for Scarborough has shown itself in a campaign of letters—to me, and to local newspapers and radio stations. Last Sunday, objectors to the proposal got local residents to tie ribbons to the railings. More than 1,000 ribbons were tied and, within two hours, almost 400 people had urged me, as their local MP, to ask the Minister to consider the matter.

The Minister must deal with the matter of costs. I know that he has great respect for the technical people involved. I hope that he will urge Scarborough borough council to sit down with the technical experts put up by the Sons of Neptune and the civic society. In that way, the experts and engineers might be able to find some way of restoring the smile to the face of Scarborough. That would reduce the overall cost of the works, and enhance the Minister's already considerable reputation. I hope that he will respond to the heartfelt plea of the people of Scarborough and Whitby when he responds to the debate.

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