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15 Dec 2004 : Column 323WH—continued

Coastal Defences (Newbiggin-by-the-Sea)

4 pm

Mr. Denis Murphy (Wansbeck) (Lab): I thank Mr. Speaker for allowing me this debate, the purpose of which is to seek clarification from my hon. Friend the Minister on the current status of the project to build new coastal defences at Newbiggin-by-the-Sea.

The history of the erosion of Newbiggin bay is well documented. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Newbiggin was an important trading centre for shipments of corn, and the bay appears to have been very stable. The first reports of erosion in the bay were made at the turn of the last century.

In the 1920s, major erosion was noticed at Church Point. That erosion was due to a combination of mining subsidence and increased wave movement. From the 1920s to the 1950s, the northern part of the bay suffered mining subsidence of more than 2 m, and the southern part of the bay subsided by more than 1 m. Major storms in the 1950s caused significant erosion of up to 15 m in some places, rapidly lowering sand levels between Bridge street and Church Point.

In the 1960s, the lower clay levels below the sand were exposed in the centre of the bay during very bad storms. During major storms in 1972 and 1973, the promenade foundations were exposed. Again, in 1978, major damage was caused to Newbiggin promenade. Serious flooding occurred at Bridge street in the 1980s, culminating in severe damage in 1988.

Between 1989 and 1992, a major sea wall defence system was completed. It became apparent soon after the sea defences were built that even they were not adequate, and a major study was commissioned by Wansbeck district council. W.S. Atkins, the engineering company chosen to conduct the study, produced its first report in 1996. It identified the fact that the northern part of the bay had subsided by more than 2.4 m, and that the southern part of the bay had subsided by 1.2 m. It also carried out a review of the existing defences at Bridge street and the south-west promenade. It concluded that the sea wall was operating within its designed values, but that beach levels were giving serious cause for concern.

Continued erosion would result in the exposure of up to 2 m of the sea defence foundations, increasing the wave energy and thus accelerating further erosion. W.S. Atkins concluded that the risk of collapse would be very high if no further works were done. At that time—this was 1996—it estimated that, on the basis of predicted erosion rates, the Bridge street works would have a residual life of no more than 10 years.

W.S. Atkins also examined the rock armour at the south-west promenade and concluded that it was successful in reflecting wave energy, but that the rocks used in the armour were too small to provide long-term protection. There is evidence that the rock is being displaced by frequent storms. The combined effects of undersized armour stone and continuing erosion will, without major remedial works, lead to early failure. W.S. Atkins estimated the life of the armour stone to be only five years. In its conclusions and recommendations, it stated that mining subsidence had caused a lowering of the seabed of between 1 m and 2.5 m, which had
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altered the wave propagation into the bay. The bay is not stable, erosion continues, and the bay is changing shape.

Most of the beach sand has been lost as a direct result of mining subsidence. There has been a permanent loss of beach height due to the erosion of the clay that underlies the sand. Erosion will cause a further reduction in the beach level by an estimated 2 m in the next 10 years.

The Bridge street sea defences have an estimated residual life of less than 10 years, and the south-west promenade has an estimated residual life of approximately five years. As I said, that was in 1996. W.S. Atkins recommended that the technical feasibility and economic viability of the options be examined in detail, including an evaluation of the ground stability for predicted reduced beach levels; that beach levels should be monitored regularly to identify trends and to assess the stability of sea walls; and that the scheme's proposals be considered in the future development plans of Newbiggin and the forthcoming shoreline management plan.

On receiving the report, Wansbeck district council sought counsel's legal opinion as to whether it could seek compensation for subsidence from the Coal Authority. As I recall, the advice received was that because the subsidence was below the high water mark, and therefore technically offshore, it did not fall under the responsibilities of the Coal Authority, and that it would be difficult to obtain evidence confirming the extent and timing of the under-sea subsidence. The local authority was advised that it would be expensive to pursue High Court action, and that the outcome was doubtful. Wansbeck did, however, at great financial risk, pursue the original engineers who were responsible for the sea defence scheme, and received a substantial out-of-court settlement, which was returned in full to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Since the 1996 study, the local authority has been required to obtain a further six expensive and time-consuming studies in order to get to the position in which we find ourselves today. The second study was a feasibility study into coast protection options, which was completed in 1998, the conclusions of which were similar to those in the 1996 study. Its recommendations covered several options, including beach recharge and offshore breakwaters. The engineers thought that those options would restore the amenity value to the beach, and that beach nourishment would provide a useable sandy beach with crest levels similar to those with the existing sea wall, thus allowing direct access on to the beach from the promenade. It was also felt that restoration of the sand beach would greatly enhance the potential for recreation and tourism and would undoubtedly be a significant aesthetic improvement, and that a lower-crested breakwater would be less visually obtrusive. Of several options put forward, those formed the basis of what was expected to be an excellent coastal protection scheme at Newbiggin-by-the-Sea.

DEFRA then requested a pilot valuation study, which was completed in 2000, after which it asked for a fuller valuation study, which was completed in 2001. An options appraisal report and a report on the Newbiggin bay coast defence strategy were completed in 2003, and an appraisal of the Newbiggin beach recharge scheme
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was completed in 2004. Before the debate, I met Mr. Trevor Straker, who is Wansbeck district council's senior engineer, to whom I am indebted for his help and advice on the scheme. I suggested to him that if the scheme does not get final approval from DEFRA, we could cement together some of the reports that have been compiled—they would certainly make a high sea wall.

The scheme has been developed with extensive community consultation and engagement. Detailed planning consent has been obtained, and it was formally submitted for DEFRA grant approval in October, with a view to proceeding to construction in 2006–07. The estimated cost of the scheme is £10.5 million, and it has a priority score of 13.8.

Eight years of hard work was, at last, about to deliver a first-class scheme, which would provide a new, restored beach, and substantial coastal protection, but, on 18 November, a letter from the head of DEFRA flood management arrived, which stated that the priority scoring had changed, and that only schemes with a score of 19 would now be given the go-ahead for 2006–07, whereas those with a score of 15 could start in 2007–08. I understand that engineers are reworking the numbers for the Newbiggin bay scheme with a view to reaching a new score of 15, but there is a significant risk that the project will be left stranded and unable to obtain formal DEFRA approval. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to reassure me and the 7,000 people who live in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea that that will not be the case.

Newbiggin Life is a public-private partnership set up to deliver a wide range of initiatives, and it is bringing together the whole community to regenerate the village. Newbiggin was subjected to the same economic and social changes faced by all coalfield areas. The dramatic run-down in the mining industry in the 1980s and 1990s affected employment levels, housing, shops and the very fabric of the village. It became difficult to let some local authority houses, and parts of the village began to take on a look of dereliction and decay. That is no longer the case and Newbiggin faces a bright future.

Recently, I had the privilege to open the new Gateway project in Newbiggin, in which for the first time in nearly 50 years private sector housing developers are queuing up to build new homes. The local authority is working with traders, and they have ambitious plans to restore the shopping areas to their former Edwardian glory. New play areas, car parks and village parks are planned. Walkways, cycleways and even a sustainable forest at   the end of the village are now at or beyond the planning stage.

A sea defence system that provides access to the beach would complement the environmental schemes already under way. The beach at Church Point unfortunately has a problem with fine coal deposits, making the area unsightly. I recently brought together a number of interested parties with a view to finding a long-term solution to that problem. Although it was not possible for the engineers to model the movement of coal, it is felt that a beach recharge scheme could help significantly in reducing those unsightly fine coal deposits.

The beach and promenade at Newbiggin are used mainly by the residents, but plans to expand an adjacent    caravan park and provide bungalow-style
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accommodation will bring many more day visitors into the village. The Sandy Bay and Church Point caravan parks allow thousands of visitors to enjoy the excellent facilities available each year. Completion of a new sea defence system that will also allow the restoration of the beach will encourage further much-needed investment.

Newbiggin-by-the-Sea sailing club provides an excellent facility for the whole community. Both able-bodied and disabled people are taught the enjoyment of sailing in a safe environment, and it is constructing an extension to its clubhouse, which is situated on the seafront. That is being financed mainly from the coalfield regeneration trust. That facility and many others will be at risk if the sea defences do not go ahead.

I have the utmost respect for the traders in Newbiggin. They have demonstrated their commitment to the village and the people by continuing to trade during sometimes difficult periods. Every business will be put at risk if sea defences are not constructed.

The entire community supports this project, which will protect Newbiggin from the severe storms that batter the north-east coast and restore the beach to its former glory, providing residents and visitors with a first-class facility. I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify the status of the project and reassure the residents of Newbiggin that their village will be protected and enhanced. I ask of him only two things: first, that the scheme be given the go-ahead; and secondly, that it will commence on the previously agreed date of 2006.

4.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) on securing this debate and apologise for the fact that my colleague the Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment is unable to respond personally—he is abroad on Government business. I shall set my hon. Friend's points in a wider context before dealing with his specific concerns and those of his constituents in Newbiggin.

Improvement projects funded by DEFRA must meet specified economic, technical and environmental criteria and achieve an appropriate priority score to be eligible for funding. DEFRA neither builds defences nor directs the operating authorities on what specific projects to undertake. The works programme to manage risk is driven by the operating authorities.

The Government are strongly committed to reducing flood and coastal erosion risk. We have increased investment significantly, and total Government expenditure will be £478 million this year, rising to £570 million next year and the following two years—an increase of more than £250 million per year against the 1997–98 level.

The criteria that we use in deciding which projects will be funded are published and transparent. The scoring system is objective and based on the benefits to be gained from defences as compared with their cost. The aim is to ensure that the improvement programme will deliver maximum benefit for the nation as a whole for a given total cost. We give the greatest priority to projects that protect people and important environmental assets.

To be eligible for DEFRA grant, all proposed projects must achieve our priority score threshold for the year in which they are due to start. The threshold is
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set each autumn for the following financial year and is based on operating authorities' forward plans, as notified to us in an annual exercise. At the same time as the firm threshold score for next year is confirmed, we announce indicative scores for the following two years. The aim is to indicate to authorities the minimum score that the projects are likely to have to meet in order to be funded.

In order to increase the certainty of the delivery of the improvement programme, we encourage authorities to apply for grant as early as possible and have made it clear that we are willing to consider projects for start in later years against the indicative thresholds applying in those later years. There is a strong incentive for authorities to do that, as once a project has been approved, future changes to the threshold will not affect an approval already given.

Our intention is to set the priority score thresholds for grant as low as possible and also for the indicative threshold for a given year, once announced, not to increase in subsequent years. However, we have to base the indicative thresholds on operating authority forecasts of spend against fixed funding levels. That means that thresholds often change from one year to the next, to reflect changes in the forecasts when authorities refine their plans, increase their forecast spend or identify further works of which they have not previously notified us. It is unfortunate that, for just those reasons, the thresholds for future years in this autumn's review have had to increase significantly. That has caused the problem at Newbiggin bay.

In April 2004 we announced that the indicative priority score for 2005–06 would have to rise from 10 to 15, but that the threshold for 2006–07 would be 10, meaning that the project at Newbiggin would remain eligible for approval to start in 2006–07. Wansbeck district council therefore had the opportunity to submit its application for grant for the scheme, which has been in gestation for many years, as my hon. Friend said. Such approval would have secured funding, as changes to the thresholds do not affect projects that have already been secured. As the council will have been aware, there is always a distinct possibility that the threshold priority score will increase in the autumn, which means that schemes that were previously eligible for consideration may no longer be so.

We have made it clear to authorities that applications will always be considered for grant against the thresholds that apply at the time of consideration. It is clear that that must be so. Considerations of fairness as well as optimum use of our grant allocation mean that we could not exceptionally allow certain projects to gain approval under thresholds that we know we can no longer afford for all. That would be an unacceptable
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departure from the principles of objectivity and openness, as well as not being the best use of taxpayers' money.

Although we might make an exception in cases where a scheme has already been submitted to us and we are well advanced in our consideration of it when thresholds change, that did not apply in the case of the Newbiggin bay proposal. The application for the scheme was not received until towards the end of October, only three weeks before we announced the revised threshold scores, and too late for us to approve before the announcement. Indeed, Wansbeck district council was advised in August that any application would have to be considered against whatever thresholds were set in the autumn.

Of course it is unfortunate that increased thresholds meant that, under the currently assessed score of 13 points, the Newbiggin bay project was no longer eligible for approval, whereas it probably would have been had the council been able to submit its application some months previously. I know that that was unwelcome to the council and to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Murphy : The problem for the district council was the request for the final copy of the project appraisal report, which was not published and complete until October 2004. It was therefore not possible for the council to apply before it could get that document in with the application.

Mr. Bradshaw : I am grateful for that clarification. As I said, I know that the news was unwelcome to him, to the local council and mainly to the thousands of residents of Newbiggin. Now that my Department has seen the latest data from the council, however, I understand that the council's current estimated score of 13 for Newbiggin may not have taken full account of revised guidance on the benefit appraisal of the scheme. That relates in particular to how the potential impact of   coastal erosion and flooding should be measured, including the health and stress effects on people and the particular social and economic circumstances of the community. I also understand that the council is now reappraising its proposal in the light of this to see if that will increase the score. If this results in a proposal that meets the scoring thresholds that now apply, my Department will look forward to considering it for approval to start in 2007–08, subject, of course, to compliance with all technical and other criteria. I hope that my hon. Friend welcomes that prospect, and that it will encourage Wansbeck district council to re-evaluate its scheme and to resubmit it to DEFRA as quickly as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

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