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6 Dec 2006 : Column 83WH—continued

Mr. Anthony Wright (Great Yarmouth) (Lab): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) on securing this debate on
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flooding, one of many in which I have participated in the past few years. I am sure that there will be many more in future. I concur with many of the points that he made.

I shall be relatively brief, because I do not want to go over again what has been discussed before. I want to relay the views held in my constituency of Great Yarmouth as a result of recent flooding. Although it was not to do with coastal flooding, we must be aware that such events will increase because of climate change. For four or five weeks, we had such heavy rainfall that some places in town were flooded on three separate occasions. One particular instance was regarded as a one-in-100-year event, although for the residents who suffered from that flood, that is no excuse. Many are still suffering from its effects.

Given the onslaught of climate change, had that event happened at the same time as the high tides and high winds that we experienced two or three weeks later, the borough of Great Yarmouth would, I suggest, have been severely flooded. We need to look clearly at the question of flood defences around the entirety of the east coast in particular—certainly my part of the region.

Three or four separate consultations are going on at the moment, including the shoreline management plan, which has proved controversial in my part of the region and in north Norfolk. The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) is not here, but I know that he is sincerely worried about the effects of coastal erosion in the area. The broadland rivers catchment flood management plan or CFMP mentions that any breaches in sea defences at Winterton or further north could flood and have a severe effect on the Norfolk broads; obviously the River Thurne would be covered by that as well. The CFNP relies on the shoreline management plan to put sea defences in place to prevent that happening, yet the shoreline management plan does not suggest further improvements to that shoreline. Two consultative documents are considering their own areas, but do not seem to be working together to find a solution. There was also the broadlands flood alleviation project.

My constituency is surrounded by water: the sea to the east and the broads to the west. Great Yarmouth itself has the River Yare as well. We are really up against the problems associated with coastal flooding. Part of the shoreline management plan is about managed retreat. Although I accept that there is concern about the agricultural land that may well be destined to be flooded, I am sure—or, at least, I hope—that a part of that plan will take the relevant effects into account.

My concern is really for my communities, which range from Winterton in the north to Hopton in the south. The northern part of the parishes—Winterton, California, Hemsby, Scratby—are seriously under threat, and action teams are trying to raise the profile of the problem of coastal erosion.

I accept that we cannot stop the force of nature. Unfortunately, climate change has gone so far that it will be very difficult to reverse the trend. However, there are things that we can do. It is significant that the
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Association of British Insurers, representatives of which I met recently for discussions after the flooding in Great Yarmouth, is calling clearly for a 10 per cent. increase in funding year on year for the next 15 or 20 years, to take into account the necessity of improving our flood defences.

The human and financial costs are clear from the statistics of a number of years. The ABI report says that claims for storm and flood damage in the UK in 1998 to 2003 were £6.2 billion, double the figure for the previous five years, and it estimates that the figures could triple by 2050. That is a real problem. In January and February 1990, storms and coastal flooding led to £2.1 billion in insurance claims alone. In 1998, floods cost the insurance industry £500 million, and in 2000—the wettest autumn for almost 300 years—they led to insurance claims of almost £1 billion. We can see some of the issues that are coming forward. We should not take such issues lightly, but take on board the effects on communities.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that successive reports of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Committee and its successor, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, have talked about managed retreat, but also about the need to pay farmers to allow their fields to flood when flood water needs to be removed. I do not know how far we have got with that; to me, it seems a very sensible use of the single farm payment. It would add certainty. Like my hon. Friend, I have talked to the ABI. Bringing that idea forward would be an appropriate way of using the single farm payment and protecting the land that we want to protect. Does he agree?

Mr. Wright: Absolutely; my hon. Friend makes a valid point, which I am sure the National Farmers Union, many of my constituents and others throughout Norfolk would welcome as an initiative. I hope that the Minister will respond directly to the point and take the issue forward.

It would be remiss of me if I did not say that although there will be criticism of the fact that we do not spend enough on coastal flooding, the Government clearly have a feather in their cap: since 1997, they have taken the issue seriously. Just recently, there was an increase.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s points about his area. Will he clarify something? There is a fundamental difference, particularly for agriculture, between coastal flooding from the sea and inland flooding. Obviously, the flooding of productive land by salt water, as opposed to seasonal water, has horrific long-term consequences. Was he suggesting that farmers in his area should welcome seawater on their land as a part of the new arrangement?

Mr. Wright: No, absolutely not. What I am suggesting is that, if we accept that there has to be managed retreat and farmers accept that there will be a
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negotiated settlement with suitable compensation for agricultural and other land, I do not see why we should not go forward on that basis. What I do not accept is the premise that we should accept that we will have flooding—it may well be inland flooding, which occurs when river levels rise over a number of years—and that landowners will, unfortunately, probably be flooded inadvertently. Following the recent heavy rains, the ingress of salt water into the fresh water riverways did a huge amount of environmental damage and destroyed an awful lot of fish in the rivers in the Norfolk broads. There are therefore concerns about the issue, and I accept that there is possibly a need for managed retreat, but I also suggest that there must be relevant compensation. If the single payment fund is used following negotiations—and provisions have to be accepted on that basis—I see no problem with going ahead in that way.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the World Wide Fund for Nature, to give it its new title, has suggested that there might be environmental benefits to carefully managed retreat, such as increasing the potential for fish nurseries and new wetlands?

Mr. Wright: Absolutely. I agree that that is perhaps another avenue that needs to be looked at. Indeed, one of the proposals for urban regeneration in my constituency is to form a new wetland just outside the town. The proposal has certainly received positive comments, and I see it as a positive way forward. If we can have a dialogue with all the interested parties, I see no problem with accepting that as the way forward. However, I disagree with people—whether the Government or any of the other agencies—who come along and say, “This is what is going to happen, whether you like it or not.” That is not the attitude that we need. We need to put clearly in place the funding strategy that is needed to protect areas with large communities and, indeed, many valuable environmental areas, such as the Norfolk broads, from an ingress of water; that must be the priority.

I welcomed the Government’s increase in funding for flood defences against coastal and inland flooding, but I am a bit perturbed that there is an element of cuts when we should be moving forward year on year. The ABI’s recommendation of a 10 per cent. increase should not be considered as too far out of the way—there is too much for us to lose.

While we are talking about flooding, I want to return to one of my pet subjects, which I have been going on about in such debates for many years. Part of the coastal erosion that we are seeing is really down to some of the dredging activities in the North sea. My area of the coastline has certainly seen significant licences awarded in recent months and years, which seems a bit perverse. To use an analogy, I used to go on to Yarmouth beach as a lad to dig holes in the sand near the sea, but as soon as the water came in, the sand at the side of the hole filled it in. If we dredge millions of tonnes of aggregate and sand from the sea, something has to fill the hole, and, over the years, that
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material will come from the edges. It seems a bit perverse to talk about replenishing beaches with sand that we have dredged from the North sea, when that sand will presumably go back into the hole and when we are paying significant sums in the process. Once again, I call on the Government to at least consider stopping the export of aggregate and sand. That would prevent the dredging activities in the North sea or at least cut back a significant part of them. I know that the scientists will argue among themselves and say, “Yes, dredging has an effect” or “No, it doesn’t have an effect.” However, we really should have a significant report on the issue, because I still consider that dredging has an effect on coastal erosion. The problem is that when we find out that it has had an effect, it will be too late.

Before I finish, I have one question that I really want to ask the Minister. Has any authority in my constituency put in any capital applications in the past 12 months in relation to looking at coastal defences? Thank you.

10.5 am

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): I am grateful that we are having this debate, because coastal flooding is a major issue for people in my constituency.

In some way, the ABI’s report “Coastal Flood Risk—Thinking for tomorrow, acting today” precipitated this debate, and it is a useful contribution to the overall debate on coastal flooding. It was particularly useful for me, because Southend was pinpointed as one of the areas that would be under increased risk of flooding in the coming years.

Let us get things straight: this is not a hypothetical issue, but a real concern, which is faced by all our constituents. The great storm in 1953, which was mentioned in the report and by my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds), killed nine individuals from around Southend, Great Wakering and Foulness. The total death toll around the UK was 309. There is a vivid living memory of that event in my constituency, and no one wants to see it repeated.

The ABI predicts that, with the existing defences in my constituency, 1,400 residential and commercial properties would face significant flooding if the 1953 storms were repeated, causing losses of anything up to £86 million. Let us look at what would happen if, as the ABI predicts, sea levels rose by 40 cm. With the current levels of protection, the same storm would significantly increase the number of properties flooded to more than 24,000—a huge increase. The financial cost would go up to more than £330 million.

On top of all that, the Government are planning to develop the Thames Gateway, with 160,000 houses planned by 2016—the 120,000 originally planned are not sufficient. Some 35 per cent. of the developments are planned for the flood plain in south Essex, which makes absolutely no sense to me. A very worrying picture is building up.

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We also need to look at communication. Charles Beardall, the eastern region manager at the Environment Agency, has been making a lot of effort to keep me and the local community informed and updated about the projects that the agency is running. Indeed, the agency ran a public consultation, as part of which it held a successful event in the village hall at Great Wakering. Local people could come along and talk to the experts about what was happening, and I look forward to the outcome of that consultation.

However, there is no real money to deliver the projects; indeed, there was none even before the cuts at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Flood risk management at DEFRA has seen funding cuts to the tune of £14.9 million, and there is no doubt that the Environment Agency will suffer and that individuals will suffer as a result. As the Minister will know, I am a member of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. As recently as Monday we took oral evidence in public from Helen Ghosh, the permanent secretary at DEFRA, as part of our inquiry into its annual report. We talked about the impact of the cuts, and it would be fair to say that it might be as follows: there will be reductions in the rate of repairs on flood defences; in channel clearing and maintenance; in asset management plans and structural asset services, which are so important; in risk-based assessments; in flood warnings; in flood mapping; and in studies and the collection of data, which is essential. There will also be a reduction in the number of pre-feasibility studies, or else existing feasibility studies will be slowed down. In many cases, catchment flood management plans will be delayed. Action on water level management plans, where they affect sites of special scientific interest, will be reduced and delayed.

I do not think there is any doubt that the Environment Agency’s services will be harmed, and it is vital that the agency should be given necessary funding. It is also important that it should be made a statutory consultee on proposed developments. Planning policy statement 25 on development and flood risk still has not been published. There was a consultation on it a year ago, which indeed proposed that the Environment Agency should be a statutory consultee, but the promised statement has yet to be delivered.

Martin Horwood: Would the hon. Gentleman be interested to know that my latest information is that the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government is currently consulting on whether that consultation should take place?

James Duddridge: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that information, which I am sure the Minister will note with interest.

In the Select Committee inquiry the agency noted that it already lacked the appropriate resources to carry out basic planning applications, so this year’s budget cuts do not bode well, especially if the consultee status is indeed delivered.

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The ABI has made it clear that insurers do not want to insure new developments on flood plain lands in high risk areas. That will put off the private sector, which will not want to go into the development of projects and properties that it will not be able to sell. Perhaps we will be saved, after all, in the Thames Gateway, as the plan falls flat on its face because the Government have not done their homework on flooding, and consequently have scared off investors. That issue has not escaped the academic world. Writing in Regeneration and Renewal, Professor Sir Peter Hall of University college London noted that according to the interim plan published last week, most of the Thames Gateway jobs will be at the London end:

He goes on to say:

The whole Thames Gateway development faces a very watery grave—I hope that the Minister will forgive the pun. We in south Essex are deeply concerned about the Government’s plans and would like the Government to reconsider the position before hard-working families move into properties that will ultimately be flooded.

As to infrastructure, the bulk of flooding that the ABI has predicted in applying its catastrophic model will take place at the eastern end of Southend and Shoeburyness. For hon. Members who are not entirely au fait with the constituency map, Shoeburyness is literally at the end of the line, following the Thames on the northern banks. If a major storm occurs there will be a disruption in rail links between Southend and Shoeburyness, and flooding on the main roads linking those two areas. That would have a severe impact on local residents at the very time when infrastructure links would be vital. The floods in New Orleans following hurricane Katrina showed dramatically what happens when the right infrastructure is not there. In particular it showed the human impact of flooding and the disproportionate impact on vulnerable groups, which my hon. Friend has already highlighted. In Shoeburyness not only would residents be cut off, but a large proportion of those residents would be elderly and frail, and there would be a lower proportion of young and able-bodied people to assist them.

In summary, I shudder when I think of the ABI catastrophic impact scenario playing out in my area. People in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia face such floods today. This debate is not the place for a plea for assistance for them; but what is happening in those places is evidence that climate change is happening now. When it reaches us it will not be pretty. I am very grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate.

10.14 am

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): My remarks will be brief, as time is getting on. First, I congratulate the
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hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) on securing this timely debate. So far it has necessarily, and perhaps rightly, focused on the east coast of the country, but I want to say a few words about the other side, the west coast.

Our country has one of the longest coastlines in Europe. Wales, with about 6 per cent. of the UK population, has about 10 per cent. of its coastline. My constituency of Ceredigion has 50 miles of that coastline, with towns such as Aberystwyth, Aberaeron, New Quay and Borth, to name a few, lying within the sea’s reach. In my brief speech I hope to develop the theme of how funding decisions taken in recent months by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will impinge on the capacity of the Environment Agency Wales to provide the coastal protection that we seek. The Environment Agency Wales is funded by the National Assembly, but is still part of the larger Environment Agency of England and Wales.

The natural strength and unpredictability of the seas and seasonal changes have always meant that living by the sea is a risk. The sandbags have been out in my communities for the past few months. Year in, year out, that risk is always present. However, the realities of climate change and the resulting rises in sea level have made the threat even more potent. The Government-funded UK climate impacts programme predicts that sea levels on the Welsh coast could rise by as much as 74 cm by 2080, and the Stern report, which was hailed by the Prime Minister as the great wake-up call, alerts us all to the need to adapt and to prepare for the impact of climate change. That message has not been lost on my constituents or other people in Wales: there has been a 28 per cent. increase in registrations—that is 15,000 new customers—for the Environment Agency’s flood warning service in Wales.

Constituents of mine have for years faced the rough edge of nature’s sword. In November 2005 the river harbour wall in the town of Aberaeron collapsed under the weight of flood waters. Other areas of my community are under threat, and three priority projects still await funding. Other hon. Members have alluded to the funding shortfall; it is estimated that the total spend required on capital projects is £69.7 million, yet I am told that the Environment Agency Wales has £6 million in its coastal defence budget. I appreciate that the funding of flood and coastal defences is a devolved matter, but by my calculations the proposed £15 million cuts to the Environment Agency’s flood defence maintenance budget may mean—I seek clarification from the Minister—a corresponding cut in the Assembly’s block grant of anything up to £900,000. That would be lamentable. The Minister shakes his head; I seek reassurance that that will not happen.

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