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12 Oct 2004 : Column 63WH—continued

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Sea Defences (Essex)

4 pm

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): I am grateful for this opportunity to debate an issue of enormous importance to my constituents, particularly those living in the Maldon district.

Essex has more than 275 miles of sea walls. Perhaps up to one third of those are within my own constituency and a significant part of the rest lie in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois), whom I am pleased to see in this debate. Last year, he and I attended the service in Chelmsford cathedral to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the great floods, which resulted in more than 100 deaths in Essex. All of us are very conscious, therefore, of the ever-present threat from the sea.

That threat is increasing for several reasons. Climate change is leading to rising sea levels, the rate of which some estimate at around 30 cm a century. On top of that, the land is sinking at about the same rate, owing to the tilt that results from settling following the retreat of the ice age some 15,000 years ago. Although there may be some disagreement about the precise rate at which that is happening, there is no doubt that the combined effect of those two processes is that the sea level is rising relative to the land in Essex. The Government's estimate of the rate is about 6 mm every year. At the same time, salt-marsh is being steadily eroded, at about 1 per cent. a year. That not only destroys an enormously important natural habitat, but results in the loss of its value in absorbing the wave and tidal energy, thus increasing the pressure elsewhere.

According to a recent parliamentary answer that I obtained, the Environment Agency assessed 86.6 per cent. of the flood defences in Essex as fair or better. However, that figure is deceptive, since it includes fluvial as well as tidal defences. A recent engineer's report that I have seen rated the sea defences at Steeple Wick, Mayland creek and Tollesbury in my constituency as very poor, with a residual life of less than five years. At Mayland and Maylandsea, where there is a significant population, the defences are also rated as poor. Maldon district council has expressed concern about the threat to the Southminster branch railway line, which passes uncomfortably close to the high water mark at Stow creek on the Crouch estuary.

According to parliamentary answers, 63 miles of Essex sea wall—about 23 per cent. of the total—have been raised and improved in the past 20 years. Of that total, however, just 0.62 miles have been improved in the past five years. In 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2003, no improvement took place at all. Instead, there have been a succession of studies: the Roach and Crouch estuary strategy study, which cost £400,000, the Colne and Blackwater estuary strategy study, which cost £400,000, the Stour and Orwell estuary strategy study, which cost £350,000, the Essex coastal habitat management plan, which cost £50,000, and the Essex shoreline management plan, which cost about £250,000.

In April, the Environment Agency published a report entitled "Maintenance of Uneconomic Sea Flood Defences: A Way forward". The report concentrates on Essex, where, it says:
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The report states that

The report therefore proposes to classify each length of sea wall into one of four categories.

For those defences in category 4, the report recommends that the Environment Agency should begin withdrawing maintenance as soon as possible. In those cases, it states that landowners should be informed of the anticipated residual life, the existing standard of defence and the condition of the structures at the earliest opportunity. Landowners will be able to apply to the Environment Agency for permission to maintain defences on their land at their own expense. An alternative is to apply for countryside stewardship intertidal habitat creation payments, but the paper also makes it clear that there is no legal requirement or general provision for compensation to be paid.

At present, we have no firm indication of how much land is affected, but in the Crouch/Roach estuary system, the Environment Agency has estimated it at 389 hectares. It is worth noting that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs consultation document "Making Space for Water", published in July, states that on a national assessment, it is estimated that up to 500,000 hectares of agricultural land are currently behind potentially non-viable flood defences and are therefore candidate areas for restoration and realignment policies.

Although I do not dispute the logic of the Department's approach, it raises an awful lot of questions. Landowners are not convinced of the method used to calculate either the cost of maintaining the defences or the value of the land lost if they are abandoned. The method of economic appraisal undervalues heritage, environment and community assets such as footpaths. The phased introduction of the single farm payment will make the process even more confusing.

There is real suspicion, too, that policy is being driven in large part by the habitats directive, and that greater concern is being paid to the preservation of wildlife habitat than to the preservation of agricultural land for food production or our heritage. It seems extraordinary that there is a raft of protections for a reed bed providing habitat for birds, together with a requirement for the provision of compensatory habitat should it be lost, while a grade 1 listed building has no legal right to protection nor do its occupants have any entitlement to rehousing in the event of its flooding.

The failure to carry out almost any improvement works to sea defences in the past five years may well be explained in part by the directive requirement that compensatory habitats should be provided. At one time it appeared that even maintenance work would trigger the same requirement, and I should be grateful for the Minister's confirmation that that is not the case.

The priority points-scoring system used by DEFRA to assess projects is also set so that no flood defence scheme in the whole county of Essex qualifies. What is more, it is distorted in favour of fluvial works rather
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than coastal defence. On the one occasion when it appeared likely that a scheme would score sufficiently, the Government promptly raised the threshold. The position will be made worse by the abolition of the Essex local flood defence committee and its incorporation into a regional committee including Norfolk and Suffolk. That will mean that future decisions will be taken by a body that is more remote and has little knowledge of the particular problems in the county.

The option that causes most controversy—managed realignment—will have a part to play, which most landowners and farmers accept. There have already been a number of small-scale trials of managed retreat in my own constituency: at Northey island, St. Lawrence and Tollesbury. However, the Minister might be aware that a recent proposal to create 170 hectares of wetland at Weymarks in Bradwell had to be withdrawn because of the strength of public opposition. At the very least, therefore, people need to be convinced that the alternative options have been fully considered before managed realignment takes place.

Where landowners choose to maintain the walls themselves, they need to be able to do so easily without having to obtain myriad consents, which drives up costs and leads to lengthy delays. Although in the Maldon district the council has been supportive of landowners and not insisted on planning permission for maintenance work, that is not always the case elsewhere.

We also need to examine more carefully the effect of dredging for aggregates, which may exacerbate the problem. In Holland, there is a moratorium on dredging within 20 km of the coast, whereas here dredging may take place from 5 km out. The effect may well be to accelerate the loss of salt-marsh. Where dredging takes place in ports and harbours, the sediment is usually dumped at sea. It would be relatively easy instead for it to be used to replenish frontages, as happens in Holland. There, more than 9 million cu m of beach recharge takes place each year, compared with just 2 million cu m here.

Where realignment does take place, it needs to be planned and managed, not left to be determined by chance wherever the defences happen to fail. A breach in the wrong place could do more damage than good to the estuary. Nor can we necessarily rely on natural processes to create salt-marsh. In some areas, all that has resulted is an expanse of mudflat, which has done little to mitigate the problem.

We should also recognise that the decision to abandon land that has, until now, been defended carries with it a responsibility to compensate the owners who are affected. Realignment results in public benefit in the form of sustainable defences, creation of habitat and protection of economic assets. Landowners are therefore entitled to payment in recognition of the positive environmental benefits. In "Making Space for Water", the Government suggest that payment might be available through the environmental stewardship agri-environmental scheme, but that is time limited and it may not be sufficient, particularly if entitlement to single farm payment on the land is lost.

It is, of course, right that there should be proper consultation and study before the strategy for maintaining our sea defences is agreed, but that consultation has been going on for long enough. Defences in Essex are deteriorating and there is a real
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fear that the Government's approach is one of abandonment by stealth. My constituents want action. That means clarity on managed retreat, reasonable compensation where retreat is shown to be appropriate, and prompt and proper expenditure on flood defences that will be retained.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con) rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. John McWilliam) : Does the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) have the Minister's permission to speak?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw ) indicated assent.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : The hon. Gentleman has not asked me either, and he should have done so beforehand, but I will call him.

4.11 pm

Mr. Francois : I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) for securing the debate and for introducing it so ably.

I, too, recall the cathedral service that my hon. Friend referred to, when the congregation was addressed by county councillor Ray Howard. He spoke movingly of his experience as a boy living on Canvey Island on that fateful night in 1953. It is important for Ministers to appreciate that sea defences and protection against flooding remain emotive issues in Essex to this day. That is evidenced by the presence this afternoon of four Essex Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) and for Castle Point (Bob Spink), which includes Canvey Island. In our county, we take these issues seriously. I want to drive that home to the Minister.

Given that, it is a shame that Ministers have decided to abolish our Essex local flood defence committee. The system has operated successfully for many years. It was in no way broken, so it is a shame that the Government have deemed it necessary to fix it. Last year, I led a delegation to see the Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment on these matters. That delegation included County Councillor Ray Howard and County Councillor Tracey Chapman, who has specific responsibility for those matters at County hall. We did our best to impress upon the Minister the need to retain our local committee in Essex. While I stress for the record that he gave us no guarantees, we left his office rather hopeful.

Therefore, I am sure that Ministers will understand our collective disappointment at the decision to merge us with Norfolk and Suffolk on these matters. In those places, the issues are, in some respects, somewhat different. I do not believe that that decision was undertaken for any practical reason. I believe that it was taken simply to fit in with the Government's wider regional agenda. Therefore, I deprecate it. I suspect that it will be no more popular in Norfolk and Suffolk than it is in Essex, so I want to take the opportunity to look
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the Minister in the eye and tell him, respectfully, that I genuinely believe that he and his fellow Ministers have made a mistake.

In the brief time remaining, I want to stress one further point about the maintenance of sea walls, which was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford. In recent years, there has been considerable confusion about the interplay between the habitats directive and the granting of consent to undertake traditional maintenance work on existing sea walls. It would be pernicious if the Government were to withdraw funding for sea defences in some areas—essentially, leaving it to local farmers—and then so to tie those farmers up in environmental red tape that they were not allowed to maintain the walls, even if they elected to do so at their own expense. Like my hon. Friend, I would be grateful if the Minister clarified the fact that traditional maintenance does not require compensatory habitat to be provided—indeed, that formal planning permission is not required for traditional maintenance to be undertaken in the normal way.

Finally, I stress that in this area there are important environmental issues, which we all recognise, but that safety remains paramount. We in Essex have not forgotten the lessons learned from the great flood of 1953. We are still conscious of the risks. I hope that others, including those in positions of authority, will remain conscious of those risks in all that they decide to do.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. If a Member wishes to make a speech in a half-hour Adjournment debate, he should obtain the permission of the Member who secured the debate and of the Minister before the debate, and he should inform the occupant of the Chair before he rises.

4.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) on securing this debate. I know from the numerous parliamentary questions that he has tabled that he takes a keen interest in this issue and is very active on behalf of his constituents.

I start by apologising on behalf of the Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment, who usually speaks on flooding issues. He is unable to be here today because he is representing the UK at the conference on the convention on international trade in endangered species.

I will set out some points about the wider context of Government policies before coming to some of the specific issues raised by the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford, and by the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois). The Government have provided a major increase in investment in funding for flood defence and flood risk management over recent years, which is set to continue. I think that that increase is recognised across the board. Total Government expenditure will exceed £478 million this year and will rise to over £564 million next year. That is an increase of £252 million a year against the 1997–98 level. However,
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as the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford said, there will never be enough funding to meet every flood and coastal defence need. We have to spend taxpayers' money in ways that maximise the benefit of our investment. We need to make sure that the Government's provision for flood defence is spent where it is needed most, protecting people and their homes and possessions from the trauma of flooding.

In the face of all the natural, economic and other pressures that we face, including those of climate change, sea-level rise and the sinking of the eastern part of south-east England, the response cannot be automatically to carry on defending every last inch of coastline to the same standard. We need to consider the cost of maintaining existing defences against the benefits that that work provides. Those evaluations must be applied to flooding from rivers and the sea, in Essex and beyond. If the cost of maintenance exceeds the benefits, it is difficult, if not impossible, to justify spending public money on doing that, knowing that there are well justified schemes waiting to be brought forward for many vulnerable communities.

Allowing sea walls to be breached can have significant environmental and conservation benefits. The hon. Member for Rayleigh may not be aware of this, but I originate from Norfolk, which was also traumatised by the terrible floods of 50 years ago, so I am aware of the importance, in the consciousness and memories of the people of East Anglia, of the trauma of that flooding. I think that he would accept that, in some ways, managed retreat can help to avoid catastrophic flooding of the type that occurred then, which we hope not to have to witness again.

Inter-tidal areas in front of defences are coming under increasing pressure as sea levels rise and coastal squeeze takes place. I stress, however, that the policy is to consider the economic justification of maintenance, and that the withdrawal of maintenance by the Environment Agency does not automatically mean that walls will be breached, as landowners might carry on maintaining them.

DEFRA has published a recent policy statement on uneconomic flood defences to assist the agency in preparing its strategic assessment of flood defence needs. It incorporates the classification of existing sea walls into one of four categories: those with a clear economic case for continued maintenance; those that protect internationally designated environmental features from the damaging effect of tidal flooding; those not in the first two categories, for which maintenance is justified on a precautionary basis because the effects of withdrawal are uncertain; and those not in the first three categories. Category 4 walls are likely to protect only agricultural land, or land of little economic or social value.

The Environment Agency will work with English Nature in adopting that structured approach to considering the justification of future maintenance of all coastal sea walls through a comprehensive series of estuary strategies and shoreline management plans. If
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the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford will allow me to, I promise to write to him, and to the hon. Member for Rayleigh, about some of the details of the points system that he raised.

Essex estuary strategies are in preparation. Coupled with a revised Essex shoreline management plan, they will provide the information and framework necessary for making the best medium to long-term decisions. The full programme of strategy development in Essex is planned to be complete by 2007.

The presumption is that the agency will not continue to maintain category 4 defences and that the withdrawal process should begin as quickly as possible. However, where, as a result of the studies, defences are assigned to category 4, the agency will withdraw maintenance only after full discussion with the landowners affected and will always ensure that sufficient notice is given, so that landowners can consider their options and factor them into future business plans.

Landowners will have the option to maintain the sea walls at their own expense, subject to consent from the Environment Agency. Where the landowner proposes to continue the existing maintenance regime, there are unlikely to be grounds for refusal. Where the landowner decides not to maintain the wall or fails to gain the agency's consent to do so, their options could include applying for agri-environment payments to create inter-tidal habitats, and selling or leasing the property for habitat creation, for example. In many cases, sea walls for which there is no maintenance justification may have a substantial residual life of several years. It will not be a case of the agency refusing maintenance one day, and inundation the next.

We cannot undertake to defend all areas for all time whatever the cost, not least in the face of climate change. The coastline is dynamic and we need to let it move where we can for economic and environmental reasons. This is not a new policy; it is a truth that has been recognised by successive Governments. For example, the 1993 strategy for flood and coastal defence in England and Wales, issued by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and by the Welsh Office, stated:

The 1993 strategy also emphasised the need to consider a range of flood management options, including setting back the existing line of defence.

I assure hon. Members that we will take rational and precautionary decisions on future maintenance regimes and that landowners will be able to consider an alternative arrangement if the decision is made to withdraw maintenance. Those principles will be fundamental to our approach.

Question put and agreed to.

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