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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 6 December 2006

[Derek Conway in the Chair]

Coastal Flooding

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Huw Irranca-Davies.]

9.30 am

Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): May I start by saying how pleased I am to see you in the Chair, Mr. Conway, and thanking Mr. Speaker for selecting this important debate? I am aware that it is of significant concern to Members of all parties, particularly those who represent constituencies along the east coast of England.

As the much-talked-about Stern report confirms, the evidence for climate change is now overwhelming and global warming poses a serious risk. Stern has calculated that if action is not taken soon, the earth’s temperature will rise by 2° C by 2035. Not only could climate change shrink the global economy by 20 per cent., but it could reduce crop yields. North sea storm surges, increasingly unpredictable weather and dramatic sea-level rises will put millions of homes and businesses at risk of flooding on an unprecedented scale. We in Britain must take action not only to mitigate future climate change, but to adapt to the damage already done. That will require detailed planning and investment in Britain’s flood defences to safeguard our coastal areas.

I shall put some stark statistics on the record to provide an overarching context for this debate. A 40 cm rise in sea levels, which could happen by 2040, will put an extra 130,000 properties at risk of flooding. In total, 400,000 properties will be at risk, counting only those that exist today and not those constructed in the future. Some 2.5 million people, 82,000 businesses and 2 million acres of agricultural land are also at risk from coastal flooding and erosion. Without improvements to existing flood defences, the cost of a single major coastal flood could soar by 400 per cent. to as much as £16 billion.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): In view of the statistics that my hon. Friend has given, would he agree that the Government are negligent in seeking to put so many thousands more houses on the Thames estuary flood plain?

Mark Simmonds: My hon. Friend makes a good point, which I shall put in context. The reduction in resource allocation to coastal flood defences is significant. It could be detrimental to his constituency and mine. The Government’s new funding regime for the internal drainage boards that take precipitation off the land, particularly land below sea level—I shall
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come to it in some detail later—could also have a significant and damaging impact not only on coastal erosion but on the safety of the people with businesses, livelihoods and homes in the areas that we are discussing, especially on the east coast of Lincolnshire.

It is not just the extra construction that my hon. Friend highlighted but essential services that are at risk: 15 per cent. of fire and ambulance stations and 12 per cent. of hospitals and schools are in areas likely to be flooded. As many as one in five could be affected following sea level rises. The elderly will be particularly affected, as the number of those over 75 living on or moving to the coast is expected to double by 2028.

To exacerbate the problem, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has recently announced that it is cutting £15 million of the £428 million flood defence budget. The budget constraints are partly a result of the Government’s mismanagement of single farm payments but also, I accept, of the unexpected expenditure of preparing for avian flu. The Government also have yet to agree the Environment Agency’s budget for 2007-08. We must ensure that they do not reduce any further the funding for coastal flood protection and therefore the security of livelihoods in the United Kingdom.

The statistics paint a bleak picture for many coastal communities in Britain that rely completely upon coastal flood defences for their survival. That is particularly true in my constituency, which lies entirely on a flood plain, much of it below sea level. The Environment Agency produced for every Member of Parliament a map demonstrating the impact of flooding on their constituency. I know that we are not allowed to use props, Mr. Conway, but has the Minister has seen the map and the effect that flooding would have on my constituency? It will be completely underwater unless sufficient resources are given to both coastal flood defences and internal drainage boards. The flood risk in Lincolnshire extends as far as Woodhall Spa, which is 25 miles inland. Much of the high-quality agricultural land making up my constituency was reclaimed from the sea in the past 400 years or so, but with the North sea continuing to rise by about 6 mm per year, it is once again at severe risk. Indeed, one report indicated a net sea level rise on the east coast of up to 34 cm by the middle of this century.

I pay tribute to the excellent work of numerous organisations that ensure that Lincolnshire is protected from flooding. Without their expertise, the majority of my constituency and some of the country’s finest agricultural land would be underwater. Given sufficient resource allocation and their skills and knowledge, it is difficult to envisage any circumstances in which inland flooding would occur as a result of precipitation alone. The internal drainage boards, in particular, play a vital role in monitoring and controlling water flow in Lincolnshire and the fenlands. I recognise the importance of the Boston combined strategy, which will manage the risk to Boston of tidal flooding. I also recognise that although this debate is on coastal flooding, inland and sea flood defences in east Lincolnshire are inextricably linked and must be considered together.

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Extreme coastal flooding has occurred. In 1953, numerous people were killed when flood waters reached many kilometres inland, destroying homes, businesses and infrastructure and salinating many square miles of high-quality agricultural land. It was the worst natural disaster to hit northern Europe in 200 years.

We do not want that to recur. If it did, the situation would be far worse and far more serious. On the east Lincolnshire coast between Skegness and Mablethorpe, there are 26,000 mobile homes, most of which would be seriously affected by any breach of the sea defences. The economic impact would also be substantial, as the tourist industry so vital to the coast would be devastated. Most of the areas that would be affected are areas of socio-economic deprivation, with a working population of 56 per cent. compared with the national average of 62 per cent. More than 40 per cent. of employment on the coast is part-time, compared with 32 per cent. nationally; 26 per cent. of residents are aged 65 or over, compared with 16 per cent. nationally; and 19 per cent. of residents have no qualifications, compared with 14.3 per cent. nationally. The area requires investment, but investment is unlikely without sound flood defences financed in the long term and with adequate maintenance budgets, as 40 per cent. of all flood defences currently require maintenance.

Flooding would submerge acres of high-quality agricultural land, destroying crops and having a long-term impact on soil productivity. Lincolnshire produces 20 per cent. of our national food supply, saving billions of pounds of imports and incalculable food miles. Loss of that important agricultural land would devastate the local economy and community, but would also have a wider impact on the national economy and national food security as well as carbon emissions.

My constituency has two very different types of coast—the Wash and the open coast—which require different solutions. The Wash is recognised as a site of special scientific interest and a special area of conservation for its international importance for wildlife. It is mainly natural salt marsh, which provides an effective buffer to wave action. Steps are being taken to create more natural salt marsh, which will increase the area’s ability to absorb water, but future schemes are highly dependent on funding from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs through the Environment Agency or the new higher-level environmental stewardship scheme. However, both funding instruments have been cut, and I would like the Minister’s assurance that all higher-level schemes protecting the shoreline will be adequately funded.

I welcome shoreline management plans, which are a useful tool for co-ordinating the various groups responsible for protecting our coast from flooding. I understand that they are currently being revised and urge the Minister to ensure that organisations involved with the second generation of shoreline management plans take into account local concerns and provide a robust and detailed assessment of economic, environmental and social factors. I also urge him to
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consider managed retreat—the example in my constituency is Freiston Shore—and the expansion of flood defences.

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): Would my hon. Friend agree that, in considering the form of flood defences that are to be taken forward, it is also vital to consider the amenity value of the area that is to be protected? Whether a coastal area is an area of natural beauty and environmental importance or a built environment, such as in my constituency, we must find a solution that is not just an engineering solution, but one that preserves the character and the amenity value of the place that we are trying to conserve.

Mark Simmonds: My hon. Friend makes a good point and he is absolutely right. The solution will be different in each local circumstance in our coastal regions in different parts of the country.

Bob Spink: My hon. Friend is most generous in giving way a second time. Does he accept that building a barrier to defend one community from flooding may affect another community on the other side of that barrier? That is particularly important in the Thames estuary. Placing a barrier downstream of Canvey Island would have a massive impact on the island, yet putting one upstream of the island could cost £5 billion.

Mark Simmonds: I am not an expert on the flood defences for Canvey Island, but my hon. Friend makes a good point that I am sure the Minister and his officials will note.

The first generation of shoreline management plans were 50-year plans. I urge the organisations that are now drafting them to take a longer-term view and to take account of the likely impact of climate change going into the next century. It would be helpful if the Minister could provide more detail about the improvements that are expected in the second generation of shoreline management plans, when they are expected to be completed and when they will be put into the public domain.

The other part of the coastline in my constituency is the open sea coast around Skegness, which is eroding naturally, thereby putting property and infrastructure at increased risk. The Lincolnshire project of dredging sand from offshore to recharge the beaches as a line of defence will cost more than £8 million this financial year, and future funding is not secure. It would be helpful if the Minister could provide an assurance, either this morning or in writing, that the Environment Agency will continue that dredging to protect the east Lincolnshire coast.

I am also deeply concerned by the recent announcement from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that it is to cut £15 million from the flood defence budget. I accept that that comes in the context of increases in funding since the Government came to power. However, the cut could have a detrimental impact on flood defences around
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the country, as funding may not be available for important capital projects. Additionally, the Government have yet to agree the Environment Agency’s budget, so it would be helpful if the Minister could provide an assurance that there will be no further reduction in funding for flood protection. The Association of British Insurers has calculated that an extra £8 billion needs to be spent over the next 25 to 30 years to improve coastal defences along the east coast alone, and that spending on flood defences needs to rise from the current level of £570 million a year to £750 million by 2011, which is an increase of around 10 per cent. a year.

The reductions in the revenue support grant for the flood defence service hit the areas that can least afford it. The demands of the service bear heavily on some councils, which have to meet the special levies payable to internal drainage boards, which in turn play a vital role in managing local water levels. The scaling factor within the revenue support grant system has fallen from 1.032 in 2000-01 to 0.870 in 2005-06. For some councils, particularly along the Lincolnshire coast, that outcome is severe and reduces their capacity to provide other services.

The revenue support grant funds revenue expenditure, special levies paid to the internal drainage boards and levies paid to the Environment Agency. However, those services have been increasingly underfunded through the scaling factor, with a shortfall of around £4 million in 2005-06. I do not want to get too technical, but that will be carried forward into the new four block model from 2006-07. Following the review of the formula grant in 2005, the four block grant model was introduced from 2006-07. The previous underfunding has effectively been embodied in the new funding system. The scaling factor for flood defence expenditure is the most severe under the new grant arrangements.

People might ask what the impact of that is. The result for local authorities is that they are obliged to pass the cost of flood defence expenditure on to the council tax payer. In 2005-06, East Lindsey district council, which is responsible for the Skegness and, further north, Mablethorpe parts of the east Lincolnshire coast, was expected to spend nearly £2.6 million on flood defences, yet received only £2.1 million in revenue support grant, which leaves a shortfall of just over £400,000 to be met by the taxpayer. Similarly, the flood defences in Boston will cost £1,579,000, yet the revenue support grant provided only £1,321,000, leaving a shortfall of £258,000. The impact of that on council tax is an increase of £14.19 in band D, which is a significant percentage in an area of socio-economic deprivation in a low-wage, low-skill part of the country.

The problem is exacerbated by the Government’s policy of capping council tax increases at 5 per cent. As expenditure on flood defences rises more rapidly, local councils face a stark choice: cut expenditure in other areas of service provision or leave the area vulnerable to flooding. Such cuts or tax rises could have a devastating impact in an area that already suffers from socio-economic deprivation and in which people already struggle to pay ever-increasing council tax bills. Yet spending pressures continue to rise. Inflationary pressures, additional demands to maintain current waterways, riparian recharges and the need for
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adequately serviced land for housing and economic development all demand additional resources.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): My hon. Friend makes his case extremely eloquently. I should like to add one more point to his list, which is that the consequences of coastal flooding are not limited to the areas to which the sea level may rise. Above that level, the consequences are erosion, rotational slip in my constituency, and damage to housing, infrastructure, roads, sewers and so on. They need to be added to the list of problems with which local authorities have to deal.

Mark Simmonds: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. As always, he is an assiduous Member of the House, with the interests of his constituency at the forefront of his mind. I am sure that the Minister and his officials will take on board what he has said.

I should like an assurance from the Minister today that the revenue support grant for both Boston borough council and East Lindsey district council will be increased in the next financial year to ensure that they receive sufficient resources for coastal flood defences and the internal drainage boards, and are not forced to make the terrible choice of raising council taxes, cutting public services or increasing the likelihood of flooding.

In addition, there is a moratorium on the approval of capital schemes for both internal drainage boards and local authorities, because the funding demand is greater than the funding available. It would be helpful if the Minister could provide further information on when the moratorium is likely to be lifted and about the backlog of applications for funding capital schemes. Internal drainage boards play a vital role in protecting Lincolnshire from flooding, but they will require significant capital investment in the near future, as many still operate with technology from the 1930s and 1940s that is reaching the end of its usable life. In the long run, that capital investment will result in efficiencies, but discussions need to be had now about how those funds are found.

I am also keen to ensure that the internal drainage boards retain their local control. In the past, it has been suggested that the Environment Agency should take control of the management of the boards. I am strongly opposed to that idea, as are the internal drainage boards, as they need to retain their detailed local knowledge and expertise. I should welcome a reassurance from the Minister that that suggestion is completely off the agenda.

Many of my constituents have contacted me concerning their nervousness about obtaining insurance for domestic properties and businesses in areas at risk of flooding. An excellent recent report by the Association of British Insurers raises concerns, of which I am sure the Minister is aware, about its statement of principles with DEFRA. The statement is an agreement between the Government and insurers to ensure that, in the long term, as the former continues to invest in flood protection, the latter will continueto provide cover to homeowners and small businesses.
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However, many members of the ABI will not insure any new building unless it has only a 0.5 per cent. chance of flooding or less, and the statement of principles covers only the majority of properties. The Government must work further with the ABI and its members to ensure that flood insurance is provided at a reasonable cost to as many homes and businesses as possible, particularly in areas of socio-economic deprivation, such as coastal Lincolnshire, where, for many businesses and individuals, the net financial cost of getting insurance constitutes a significant part of their outlays. Unavailable and expensive insurance could have a negative impact on the economy of the east Lincolnshire coast. The local authorities are keen to diversify the economy away from its traditional agricultural base, but without guaranteed insurance and the long-term protection of land, developers will struggle to attract new investment and new businesses into the area. The Government and the Environment Agency must do more to ensure that such security can be offered, so that new businesses feel confident in developing and investing in east Lincolnshire and other coastal strips across the country, providing sustainable, non-seasonal employment and stimulating economic regeneration and wealth creation.

The Government must ensure that flood defences—both hard, such as sea walls, and soft, such as salt marshes—are fully funded and maintained. That will require sufficient funding for the Environment Agency in the comprehensive spending review, and the revenue support grant to each council must be sufficient and appropriate for the financing of flood defences without cuts in public services.

The Environment Agency must give a clear commitment to maintaining the defences and, if necessary, when sea-level rise occurs, improving and increasing the defences to protect communities and valuable farm land in Lincolnshire and elsewhere. Currently, the ambiguity on the part of the Environment Agency is a major barrier to inward investment and is leading to a confused policy area, as other Government Departments push to improve economic growth, make social and educational improvements and make the quality of life better for residents in the area.

The Stern report provides evidence that global warming presents a serious threat and the Government must match not only taxation but expenditure to the threat of climate change. Nowhere is that more important and appropriate than in south and east Lincolnshire. I conclude by quoting Professor Sir David King, chief scientific adviser to Her Majesty’s Government and head of the Office of Science and Technology:

I assure the Minister that this is not the time for cuts.

9.52 am

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