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13 Mar 2003 : Column 509—continued

5.28 pm

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater): I am delighted to know that the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) is a chartered engineer. I did not know that. I must say that my constituency is bigger than his—so there.

I want to bring some points to the Minister's attention. He knows that one problem in the south-west is that the Environment Agency sets river catchment areas. I have a unique problem in the Wessex catchment area, in that one end of my constituency creates the

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rainfall that floods the other end. If the catchment area were slightly bigger, the agency would be able to deal with many more of the problems that it faces, as its funding would then be lumped together.

The Minister will not be surprised that I want to talk about the River Parrett catchment project. As he found out when he visited, many people are unhappy that their homes are being flooded. He will recall meeting a few homeowners who were a little upset. Also, the drainage board has threatened to keep the sluice gates shut. The Minister is aware that that would pose a threat to Taunton. Finally, some landowners are refusing to pay their precepts, because their land is to be used for inland waterways or water holding areas.

Given all that, has not the time come to look at the possibility of getting rid of the Parrett catchment project? The flood defence committees would disappear, but a committee covering the whole of Wessex would take care of rivers such as the Parrett—which in fact rises in Dorset, outside the present catchment project area.

I shall raise briefly one or two other problems. The Minister kindly alluded to the service sector. In Willaton, the water pipes run under the bridge, which has reduced the flow of the river by almost half. Is there any way that the Environment Agency can use its powers to inform statutory bodies, such as water, gas and electric, to move those pipes? In another village, Kilve, that has happened. As a result, once the river is blocked the volume cannot get any more, simply because of the concrete balustrades underneath the bridges.

There is the additional problem in our area with the drainage boards. I know that the Minister is aware of this. We have a lot of drainage boards across the levels. If he is looking to amalgamate the smaller ones with the larger ones, would he care to think about when a large one is large enough and a small one too small? The reams of Somerset are not ditches; they are quite wide. Many drainage boards have done a good job over many generations. The problem is that if they are too big, they cannot cope because the precepts are set by landowners under the Environment Agency. If the Environment Agency is judge, jury and executioner, we need the ability to say that a certain drainage board has done a very good job over a long period—I am thinking of King Sedgemore, which the Minister has been to see and which has done a remarkable job. Its problem is that the volume of water is now out of proportion to what the Stowey river, which goes between Taunton and Bridgewater, was ever capable of carrying. Could there not be some arbitrary figure—perhaps the Minister himself—who could take on these situations where drainage boards will be deeply upset with the changes that they will have to face?

Mr. Morley: In these proposed changes there is a possibility of a drainage board going to the ombudsman if it felt that it was being unfairly treated by the Environment Agency. Members can also come directly to me, although I do not have statutory duties in relation to any formal appeal. I will respond to individuals. As for the King Sedgemore drainage board, it threatened to flood the hon. Gentleman's colleague in Taunton. I was

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deeply unimpressed by that. Given that that was in the middle of a review of the IDBs, it was not the best move either.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I could not agree more with the Minister. The reason why that happened was that the amount of water that the Parrett can carry because of the delay in the dredging meant that the Stowey had to be opened up, so the landowners felt that they were being used as water-holding areas. I accept that, as the Minister said, the middle of a review was not a good time to do that.

Finally I come to the massive problem of coastal erosion. The Minister is aware of the Steart peninsular. We must look at the concept of managed retreat. I have not seen any of that in this. We will have to talk about managed retreat because there is no way, unless we are given a massive amount of money, that we can defend the likes of Steart common. Then there is the problem of compensation for landowners and of a village on the end of a peninsular and what happens if the river Parrett changes its course. The costs will be astronomical. The lesser of evils would be not to lose the whole village, but to have major floods coming into Bridgewater because of the backing up of the water. The Environment Agency needs to look at coastal realignment much more closely. We have heard very little about it.

Another problem off Bridgewater bay, which is better known as the Bristol channel, is that the main sandbanks are now moving down from Weston. I know that the Minister is keen on wind turbines off the coast. We have looked at that in the Severn, including the Severn barrage. I urge the Minister, under the Environment Agency, which will be responsible for this, to look much more closely at the changes that could be done to the coast by the longer-term attributes of, for example, wind turbines or a barrage. The changes in the coastline along there, as the Minister is well aware because of what has been happening in certain parts of my constituency, have been much more profound in the past five years because of the enormous differentials in tide. We have one of the highest tidal races in the world. When it backs up with rain from Exmoor, we know perfectly well that we will have a flood, no matter what we do. If there are any blockages, the problems could be even greater in future.

In my area, we have much low-lying land and land at sea level. If the Met Office projections for the next 50 years are correct, and I have no reason to disbelieve them, Bridgwater could be a metre under water, regardless of what we do. The Environment Agency must be able to finance capital rather than environmental projects, so that we can hold back the river through dredging or higher banks. We need a much longer programme of defence, perhaps extending over 20 years. We should consider such projects under the EA and the proposed new drainage board system, as they could save homeowners and insurance companies from enormous anxiety in the years to come.

5.36 pm

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. Unlike the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie

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Quinn), who is half landlocked, I am not landlocked at all, so I shall talk not about flooding, but about coastal protection.

We need to add to the Minister's statement yesterday by extending his observations that flood protection arrangements were too complex and needed streamlining to the arrangements for coastal protection. Does he agree that we need similar streamlining for coastal defence work?

I shall draw some conclusions from a particular case. I have always been told not to do that, but it is appropriate on this occasion. Nine years ago, in 1994, there was a large landslip in Castlehaven at Reeth Lodge, which is no longer seriously inhabitable. In 1996, the local authority lodged a planning application for coastal defence measures. English Nature objected on the ground that there would be short-term and long-term effects on "European features". However, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food agreed that the scheme was cost beneficial.

At that time, there was also a proposal that south Wight should be designated a special area of conservation. English Nature said that Government policy was

That is one of the complaints that I have passed on to the Minister. In 1998, south Wight's candidature for SAC was confirmed. In November 1999, MAFF set new high targets for flood and coastal defence.

The UK biodiversity action plan set five targets, one of which was that 4,000 km of maritime cliff and slope should be retained as unstable. I understand why the targets were needed, but how accountable to the House was the body that set them? Such changing targets were among the many within which my local authority had to operate.

In 2000, the special invertebrate interest group—I believe that means that its members are looking for invertebrates, not that they have no backbone—of the Hampshire Wildlife Trust made an exhaustive study of that cliff area and could find no rare invertebrates, yet in 1996 English Nature had objected to the planning application on the ground that the scheme would damage wildlife.

In early spring 2001, there was a landslip at Undercliff drive on the A3055. One of my constituents, Mr. Cyril Hobbs of Niton Undercliff, wrote to the Environment Agency to point out that the problem

That was because of English Nature's objections to the proposed defence scheme. Later in 2001, English Nature approved the scheme subject to certain conditions that it had set, but Hampshire Wildlife Trust did not withdraw its objection. That meant that there had to be a local hearing, which did not take place until July 2001, and the Minister was unable to announce his approval for the scheme—I thank him for doing so—until December 2001. So we are now seven and a half years from the time the landslip took place. One of the conditions of the scheme was that the local authority should purchase another site to mitigate the loss of the unstable land, but that was not achieved until earlier this

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year. This month, tenders will go out for the work to be implemented, and it is hoped that it will start in early summer.

I should like to ask the Minister a few questions, and I hope that he will forgive me if I rush through them. First, what is mitigation? In other words, what is being mitigated? Just before the landslip took place, there was no unstable cliff to be mitigated. Since the landslip, other landslips have created new unstable cliff, yet the mitigation is still required to fulfil the conditions of the scheme. Why is it necessary to protect morphology rather than wildlife, and why do the diversity action plans talk about such and such a length or area of coastline rather than talking about the animals or other wildlife that live there? Is it not the case that English Nature has a stranglehold on the process, and is therefore acting as judge and jury? Most local authorities are loth to go to public inquiry where they see the danger of great cost and would prefer, if at all possible, to do a deal with English Nature.

I want to make one final point. DEFRA believes that natural river and coastal processes should not be disturbed until life or valuable natural or man-made assets are at risk. Yet it is only when something happens that it is possible to show that an asset is at risk, and if seven, eight or nine years are then added to the point at which it becomes clear that it is at risk, it is often too late to do anything to protect it. Will the Minister please do something about that?

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