Previous Section Index Home Page

6 Dec 2006 : Column 90WH—continued

Clearly, any cuts in the Assembly’s budget would have to result in savings elsewhere. We are told that the cuts are for one year only, and that may be so; nevertheless, they go completely against the grain of the Government’s commitments on the effects of climate change. I congratulate the Government on their 35 per cent. increase in spending since 1997—it would be churlish to do otherwise—but this year is not the time to reverse that trend. That was borne out by the
6 Dec 2006 : Column 91WH
report of the Association of British Insurers last month, which made it crystal clear, as other hon. Members including the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) have said, that we should be hoping to increase spending by 10 per cent. a year, to £750 million by 2011, to combat flood risk. The Environment Agency Wales has similarly called for increases in resources to take account of the risk.

It is particularly galling to my constituents and others that the cuts seem to have been forced on DEFRA by the cost of the mismanagement of the single farm payment. As a result, the Welsh block grant and other DEFRA services provided to England and Wales at UK-wide level, such as the state veterinary service, will lose funding. As a point of principle it is wrong that we in Wales and people elsewhere should face serious shortfalls in budgets because of those decisions. So far the effect of DEFRA’s summer budget review in respect of Wales and the Welsh block grant has yet to be fully identified, but I ask the Minister to prove me wrong—I sincerely hope that he can—and to make a clear statement on how cuts to the flood maintenance budget, and the savings more generally, will affect us on the west coast, in Wales, and, of course, people on the east coast as well.

10.19 am

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I am grateful to you, Mr. Conway, for calling me to speak near the end of the debate. I represent an urban constituency that is8 miles from the sea, but it is on a tidal river and anything that happens at the coast could have an impact on urban areas upriver. Indeed, a barrier had to be constructed across the River Colne a few years ago to prevent surge tides from coming up and flooding the lower areas of Colchester. A mini-Thames barrier is the best way that I can describe it.

On the one hand, I congratulate the Government, but on the other, I strongly criticise them. I congratulate them on their work on managed retreats in coastal areas, where that can be achieved. At Abbotts Hall, the Essex Wildlife Trust has developed just such a policy by allowing the tide to breach the sea wall and come in and create new salt-meadow marshes. That is something to be praised. The hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), when he was a Minister, came to Abbotts Hall for the formal opening. It was quite an occasion to watch the tide come through the breached sea wall to engulf what only the week before had been a ploughed field; the corn crop had been harvested for the last time. Such developments are how coastal flooding can be dealt with in some places, certainly for a generation or two.

However, I echo the sentiments of the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge), because there are potential flooding problems in the north of the county that have been caused by Government decisions to allow housing to be built on areas prone to flooding that I can only describe as stark staring bonkers. Only three weeks ago, on appeal, a Government inspector allowed a housing development right next to the River Colne in an area that is known to be prone to flooding. Just as in the Thames Gateway area, it is not fair to build houses in such areas—it is
6 Dec 2006 : Column 92WH
not fair to the people who will be obliged to live there. I suspect that in many cases social housing will be put on such land, because the private sector may well take the view that such areas are not the place to build.

Therefore, although we can praise the Government for their work on managed retreat, as illustrated by the Essex Wildlife Trust at Abbotts Hall, I urge the Minister and his colleagues to take very seriously the point made by the hon. Gentleman and Southend, East, by me and, I am sure, by hon. Members up and down the country who represent not only coastal areas, but areas where tidal and other rivers have a habit of flooding on to surrounding land. Building houses on such land is not acceptable, and I hope that the Minister will work with his colleagues to stop such nonsense.

I hope also that the Minister will be able to stop the development on the flood plain in my town. The borough council, knowing the area, unanimously refused the application, but then an inspector was persuaded to allow it by experts who, it seems, will prostitute themselves and give evidence either for or against something, depending on who is paying. It is the community that ends up paying the ultimate price. The experts, planning inspectors and highly paid legal executives leave, having given their evidence. I ask the Minister, please, to work for common sense and to stop the building of houses on flood plains.

10.24 am

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) on securing the debate on an important but extremely sensitive issue. It demands honesty and political courage and, even more challenging, it sometimes demands support for the Government if they do the right thing and act realistically. However, realism also is demanded of the Government, and sometimes they must admit that some of the policies that they have espoused in the past may not be viable in the light of what we now know about flood plains. The remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) reinforce that.

The context is clear. We all know the statistics on climate change, so I shall not go over them again. However, as well as considering shorter-term rises in sea level, it may be worth our while to look at the longer-term scenarios. The most apocalyptic version that I know of involves the complete melting of the Antarctic ice cap, which would lead to a truly biblical rise in sea levels of some 60 m, but thankfully that is unlikely. However, a long-term scenario in which the Greenland ice cap melts over a century or so and leads to a rise of some 7 m is not beyond the realms of possibility if we do not take sufficient action on climate change worldwide. I am happy to say that Cheltenham, being on the edge of the Cotswolds, would be safe even in those circumstances, but I suspect that the constituencies of many current Members would be under water.

I do have one question for the Minister about the situation in Gloucestershire. In the scenario that I have outlined, the area containing Berkeley nuclear power station would be surrounded by water, which has two implications. The proposed time scale for
6 Dec 2006 : Column 93WH
decommissioning nuclear power station sites is some 100 years—the so-called deferred site clearance strategy. Have the Government taken climate change into account in planning the decommissioning of nuclear power stations?

The other obvious implication is for the next generation of nuclear power stations that the Government are planning. I cannot know the future, but I suspect that planning permission for many of those stations will be requested for sites that already have clearance for nuclear power stations. That is clearly where public opposition will be most limited because, in one sense, the planning arguments have already have been won. However, those sites are often in coastal positions or on flood plains. In the long term, which is what we have to think of with nuclear power stations, stations such as Berkeley would be threatened by the type of sea level rises that I have described. I would therefore be grateful for the Minister’s reassurance that he is discussing those implications with the Department of Trade and Industry.

The shorter-term scenarios offer various predictions for rises in sea level—for example, a 40 cm rise by 2040 from the Association of British Insurers, and a range of 20 to 80 cm in the Stern report. In evidence to the Communities and Local Government Committee, of which I am a member, the Environment Agency warned of a 30 cm rise by the 2080s, but said that that equated to an increase in the storm surge from the North sea of more than 1 m. Even though the absolute level of rise may not be very great, sometimes the storm surge amount may be much greater and have greater implications than is at first apparent. The Environment Agency admits that even that is a conservative estimate. In its evidence to the Select Committee, it stated:

In a sense, the agency is ruling out the worst answers before it has even asked the questions.

In a brief that it gave to hon. Members, the Environment Agency stated that the foresight future flooding report, which was published in April 2004, estimated that the risk of flooding from rivers and the sea will at least double by the 2080s and could increase by up to 20 times. There is a huge range of uncertainty. At the same time, the number of people at a high risk from flooding could increase from 1.5 million to between 2.3 million and 3.5 million. An enormous number of people could be affected. In its evidence to the Select Committee, the Environment Agency said that even those figures may be underestimates. It stated:

Yet again, our discussions about scenarios may well prove to be over-optimistic.

The warning bells that have been rung have been well expanded on by various hon. Members and I will not
6 Dec 2006 : Column 94WH
go over them all again. They include the fact that the potential costs to which the ABI has alerted us are very high. In terms of the people on whom flooding is likely to impact, one of the most worrying things that the ABI said was that insurers cannot guarantee that they will maintain cover in areas where there is a greater than 1.3 per cent. annual probability of flooding, which equates to one major flood event in 75 years, yet the foresight report said that by 2080 the UK could be facing major flood events that once happened once in 100 years once every three years. That is clearly an enormously increased potential cost. The foresight report said, too, that the cost of the annual damage from flooding could rise from £1 billion a year to a range between £1.5 billion and £21 billion a year. The false economy of cutting back on flood defence budgets when all the experts are screaming for more resources and warning of the much greater potential costs of doing nothing should be obvious to everybody.

We are now talking about an adaptation scenario. David King of the Environment Agency made it clear in his evidence to the Select Committee that that was what we should be thinking about. We are moving from a strategy based purely on flood defence to a more holistic policy based, I hope, on three points: realistic and sustainable solutions, adequate funding, and fairness to affected communities. On realistic and sustainable solutions, we may complain about the way in which the making space for water plan was launched, complete with maps that instantly reduced people’s house prices—I think that my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) complained vociferously at the time—but there is no doubt that an integrated approach that includes some acceptance of coastal realignment and the creation of new wetlands, carefully managed, must be right. The recent “Blueprint for Water”, published by an impressive range of non-governmental organisations, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and other environmental groups, welcomes that holistic approach.

If the Government demand such realism from coastal communities, we need to demand realism from them. The evidence that hon. Members have referred to about the Thames Gateway is very clear. Again, I refer to the evidence given to the Communities and Local Government Committee by the Environment Agency, which stated that

The agency also pointed out:

The agency is trying to be tactful to the Government, but it could have said that the Thames Gateway development is a disaster in the making—

6 Dec 2006 : Column 95WH

The Minister for Climate Change and the Environment (Ian Pearson) indicated dissent.

Martin Horwood: The Minister shakes his head, but he needs to read the evidence that came to the Select Committee. It is pretty clear. The agency highlighted the Thames Gateway as an area for concern, and the Department for Communities and Local Government needs urgently to rethink its policy. The fact that the Department is only consulting on whether the Environment Agency should be a statutory consultee, as I pointed out to the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge), shows that it is fiddling while Rome burns—or perhaps floods.

Secondly, on the issue of adequate funding—time is short, so I will not go into it at length—the Environment Agency suggested that, based on the foresight report, funding should rise to £1 billion a year. It said,

But do we have an upward trajectory? No, we have a downward one.

Finally, in a changing policy environment when we are talking more about adaptation and flood risk management than about flood defence, it is important that we remember the human dimension—we must consider the families from Happisburgh to Skegness to Canvey Island whose homes, savings and livelihoods are at risk. Consideration should be given to all the various proposals that have been discussed—the community development approach, the buy out and leaseback schemes that might protect house values and investment in those houses, the insurance and assurance schemes, and the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) that single farm payments could be used imaginatively. Mr. Rothwell of the Environment Agency told the Select Committee that the agency was due to report back by the end of the year on how it would recommend that the approach be developed. The end of the year is fast approaching and I would like the Minister to say whether there is any sign of a scheme that represents fairness to individuals and will not place the entire burden on coastal communities and their council tax payers. We urgently need to see action from the Government that is based on sustainable and realistic policy, adequate funding and fairness. At present, they are scoring one out of three, at best.

10.35 am

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) after that extensive speech. He raised many sensible points with which I agree.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) on securing the debate. He spoke powerfully about the threat of flooding and the issues that are converging to make the subject all the more urgent and topical at the end of 2006. I was struck during the debate by the intelligent way in which the representatives of coastal towns and communities are tackling the subject. We heard no Canute-like insistence that the tide must be turned, but a much more thoughtful analysis of the problems. The
6 Dec 2006 : Column 96WH
representatives and the communities on the coast are willing to engage with the Government in an intelligent way that acknowledges the force of rising sea levels, if, in turn, the Government are responsible in their actions.

We are starting to see that coastal communities accept some degree of incursion from the sea and are willing to adapt to it. However, they will not stick at any price ministerial incompetence and mismanagement that results in cuts to budgets at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that are totally avoidable and unnecessary. That is the point of today’s debate. On the one hand, we have an intelligent thoughtful response from coastal communities, and on the other, we have unthoughtful, poor management at DEFRA that results in budget cuts to much needed services.

It is not only the budget cuts at DEFRA that make the debate pertinent, but climate change as a whole. The Stern review published a couple of weeks ago brings together both the economics and the science of climate change in an unprecedented fashion and serves as a stark warning to us as a nation of communities and as an economy that we have to take action and simply cannot ignore the effects of man-made climate change. Climate change is happening, sea level rises are inevitable, and no one needs to take that on board more than coastal communities. As public policy makers, we have a duty to act decisively to prevent the most extreme impacts of man-made climate change. That requires the whole nation—the whole global community—to act together, but we must also work to adapt in our coastal areas, which will be in the front line of the effects of climate change as sea levels start, not to begin to rise, but to rise more quickly.

My hon. Friend graphically outlined the dangers to coastal communities along the east coast of Lincolnshire. He proved himself a champion not only of Boston and Skegness but of the whole of the east coast of England, highlighting the fact that by 2040 400,000 properties in eastern England could be at risk from coastal flooding. What is more, 15 per cent. of ambulance stations and 12 per cent. of schools and hospitals are increasingly at risk, and that could rise to one in four. He made the important point that inland flooding and sea defences must be linked—they must be treated as part of the whole. He also made an extremely good point about the severe impact that flooding could have on the huge population of mobile home residents in his part of the world, for whom flooding would be catastrophic. The water would not simply come in and then recede; it would wipe out their homes. Sound defences are an absolute prerequisite to giving peace of mind to those living in such communities.

As well as engineered defences, there is growing acceptance of the need to work with nature, turning over parts of the land to natural incursion, creating natural wave breaks and using shoreline management plans. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) emphasised the need to preserve the amenity value of our coastlands as well as using engineered solutions.

The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) made a thoughtful speech. I was grateful for his clarification on managed retreat. He said that it would
6 Dec 2006 : Column 97WH
require a more flexible and imaginative use of agricultural subsidy. I have not heard of the subject being raised before—certainly not on the Floor of the House—but it will certainly bear a lot more discussion. Coastal wetlands can enhance the amenity value and ecological benefits of coastal areas, but such a policy would need to be carefully managed as part of a deliberate process rather than it being a knee-jerk reaction to the sudden flooding of productive farmland or freshwater inland waterways.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge), who is a member of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, made a powerful speech. He spoke not only for his own constituency but for the many communities in Essex and the Thames Gateway. He drew attention to the Association of British Insurers report “Coastal Flood Risk—Thinking for tomorrow, acting today”, a welcome report that has greatly informed our debate. I was struck by its comprehensive analysis of the flood risks that we face. It is worth noting that that report states:

A number of Members referred to the flooding of 1953—the worst natural disaster in northern Europe for two centuries, when flood water broke through the coastal defences on the east coast in 1,200 places. That was this country’s glimpse of what happened in New Orleans, but the situation could get substantially worse. What the ABI report has to say on North sea storm surges is particularly worth noting. It states:

Next Section Index Home Page