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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 6 May 2008

[Mr. Eric Martlew in the Chair]

Flood Defences (Norfolk)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Blizzard.]

9.30 am

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Martlew. We almost have a full house of Norfolk MPs, and, from over the border, a Suffolk Whip. Alas, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) is unable to be with us. I suspect that he may still be waiting for his ministerial car.

I requested the debate because flood defences in Norfolk are a crucial local issue. It must be seen, of course, against a wider background. We are all conscious today that whatever problems we face, they pale into insignificance compared with the news of what has happened in Burma, where a cyclone has killed a minimum of 15,000 people. We know that many other low-lying parts of the world face appalling threats. I think in particular of the people of Bangladesh.

For many of us, the Norfolk coast is about being at the seaside. I can recall, when I was a child—it may be difficult for some people to believe that I was once a child—of about seven or eight, with glasses and an incipient moustache, being on the beach at Cromer. Later, I was with my son George, perhaps on the beach at Heacham with the tide out, building sandcastles. As you know, Mr. Martlew, however well one builds sandcastles—as a military historian, I did so in depth, using stone and with as much defensive preparation as possible—when the tide comes in, it always sweeps them away. There could be a sense that the flooding that we face from both the sea and on the land is somehow inevitable, and that there is therefore nothing much that we can do about it. I do not believe that that is so.

My interest in the debate is not because I have coastal land in my constituency; I do not. However, my area will be affected by any surge from the sea and by any flooding of the main rivers—either the River Yare, by Acle, the River Wensum or, of course, the southern broads line. The point of the debate is that significant coverage was given to a Natural England draft report outlining possible responses to the threat posed by climate change and the rise in sea levels overwhelming current coastal defences.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I am from land that is not directly affected, but a lot of Leicestershire people visit north Norfolk and settle there. I raised the matter last Thursday in the House—it is at column 432 of Hansard.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He refers to his times at Cromer, and I am tempted to ask him what Neville Chamberlain was really like. The point that I made on Thursday, to which the Minister replied, was that newspapers have a
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responsibility to report matters such as these sensitively and accurately, and not unnecessarily to alarm people. Government agencies should not go beyond their remit and into areas that they neither understand nor have responsibility for. That is a fair point, is it not?

Mr. Simpson: I do not necessarily agree with the hon. Gentleman’s inference that the local media somehow reported the matter irresponsibly. The trouble was that considerable angst was produced as a consequence of the Natural England report, the conclusions of which had been trailed in a previous report in 2003.

Interestingly, only today in the Eastern Daily Press, Dr. Viner, Natural England’s principal specialist in climate change, has apologised for any undermining of the morale of people living in north Norfolk and elsewhere. As I hope to show later, it was unfortunate to say the least, and some of the statements that were made gave people in Norfolk the impression that the future of their homes and communities was not necessarily the top priority for some organisations.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Simpson: I will if the hon. Gentleman intends to stay for the whole debate. Does he intend to do that?

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman must speak through the Chair.

Mr. Simpson: I beg your pardon, Mr. Martlew. Through the Chair, if the hon. Gentleman intends to stay until the winding-up speeches, I shall let him in.

Bob Spink: Yes, I intend to do that, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Will he accept that this is one issue for which we cannot blame the media? The buck stops with the Government and their policies. The media are drawing public attention to the need for good public policy that will tackle climate change and prevent the building of more houses on the flood plains in Norfolk and across the whole south-east of England.

Mr. Simpson: The hon. Gentleman is correct that the media, and certainly the Eastern Daily Press and local radio and television, have played an important role in stimulating debate. He is correct in that sense.

Natural England ended up producing four options for dealing with flood defences along the coast: holding the current line; moving the sea wall slightly inland; doing nothing and letting the sea spread in naturally; and, most controversially, maintaining 9 miles of sea defences to the west of Great Yarmouth only at a level sufficient to keep water out for the next 50 years. After that, Natural England concluded, breaches would be opened in the walls and water would flood in. That would mean giving up approximately 25 square miles of Norfolk coast, about 1,000 houses and many historic buildings, as well as valuable farmland. Under existing law, the owners would have no right of compensation. It is interesting that Dr. Viner is quoted in today’s Eastern Daily Press as saying that if that option were ever used,
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people who lost property or their livelihood should be compensated by the Government. I shall return to that point.

As the Minister knows, the leaked report provoked anger and dismay in the communities immediately affected, where property value has been lost, and throughout the whole of Norfolk. I remind you, Mr. Martlew, that Natural England’s report was basically concerned with the Norfolk broads. Of course, Natural England and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that these were proposals and that nothing had been decided. During departmental questions on 1 May, the Minister said:

Nevertheless, the people of Norfolk feel that they are merely bystanders in a debate that dramatically affects their lives and livelihoods while others take decisions.

It may be that the issues need debating in a dramatic way. In the Natural England document, it was obvious that the authors wanted the radical proposal to be leaked. The report actually states that

It predicts “strong political resistance”. That is probably an understatement. The chairman of Natural England, Sir Martin Doughty—interestingly, he was a Labour councillor at one stage—believes that his organisation is “showing leadership” and facing up to realities. No apology there. He believes that the options that he outlined are stark, and that everybody should address them, particularly politicians.

However, the scientists, environmentalists and administrators may not be taking into account the public opinion that questions some of their assumptions and values. Two senior men of Norfolk have articulated that opinion in public. My old friend General Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff, the professional head of the British Army, a Norfolk resident and this year president of the Royal Norfolk show, said to the Eastern Daily Press on 17 April:

Then the Bishop of Norwich, Graham James, who is a great man, said at the launch of the new inshore lifeboat at Sea Palling on Sunday:

Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): My hon. Friend makes an important point in quoting the Bishop of Norwich. Is there not underlying this whole debate, in some senses, the notion—semi-articulated—on the part of some of these official bodies that they do not think that people matter that much, and that, if
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there are wading birds or a rare species of grass or an area of special scientific interest, that counts for more than human beings?

Mr. Simpson: I would like to believe that the official bodies do not believe that and perhaps, in general terms, they do not. However, that is certainly the impression they give. We all know that there is a massive interconnection between the environment, wildlife, human habitat and what we do. Having said that, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) and myself have at times been surprised by the impression given in the debate about whether the Acle straight of the A47 should be dualled. That would involve moving dykes or ditches, and we are still in the process of looking at the environmental impact and the damage that might be done to a few elements of wildlife. I must say that the wrong value system is at work in that debate.

The threats facing the coastal and inland areas of Norfolk are, of course, replicated elsewhere in the United Kingdom, including along the rest of the east coast: in Yorkshire; Lincolnshire; Suffolk, and Essex. More than 15 million people live close to Britain’s coastline. Norfolk is just one of a number of low-lying communities that must confront a series of real threats and dilemmas over the next 50 years, which include the real cost of increased erosion, and the storms and sea level rises exacerbated by global warming. They present local people and the Government with a stark dilemma: is it worth spending billions of pounds to defend homes and livelihoods, or, faced with inexhaustible sea level rises, should expensive coastal defences be abandoned, leading to the evacuation of land and houses?

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): As my hon. Friend will recall, last Thursday, our hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) said that when the Lincolnshire coast was breached in 1953

It was not just homes and livelihoods that were lost, but lives too. Is my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) able to estimate what the worst-case scenario would be in Norfolk?

Mr. Simpson: No, but I thank my hon. Friend for intervening and I will return in a few minutes to the historical context. Although circumstances have changed, that historical context is important.

I want briefly to consider flood defences and Norfolk under six headings: the nature and extent of the threat; what can be done in the short and long terms; the Government’s strategy; Government funding; the Government institutions to deal with floods, and finally and most important of all, the role of local communities and institutions.

First, I shall refer back to the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh). What is the nature and extent of the threat to Norfolk? Norfolk, like other areas of the east coast, has faced serious floods before and I shall cite just two serious floods, and another incident when a serious flood nearly happened. In 1912, due to torrential rain, large parts of Norwich were flooded; indeed, at one stage, Norwich was physically cut off from the rest of the country for
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about a week. In 1953, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Lincolnshire were flooded, and, of course, the flooding was far worse in Holland. Then, the sea walls were breached, partly because of disrepair dating back to the second world war. It was the usual scenario: a high tide and a major surge. At that time, hundreds of people were killed and wounded, thousands of people had to be evacuated, and tens of thousands of square miles of farm land were ruined. In November 2007, we came very close to another serious flood, when there was another surge that could very well have swamped large parts of Great Yarmouth and could have perhaps breached sea defences and introduced salt into the Norfolk broads, which would have been very unfortunate. We were very lucky indeed that that did not happen at all. So we are well aware of the extent of the danger and the power of natural forces.

Natural England, the Environment Agency, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and many experts argue that the nature and extent of the threat, due to climate change and what we might very well call subsidence on a vast scale involving the eastern part of the United Kingdom, is much greater than any threat faced in previous crises. If the Minister concurs with such assessments which, within 50 years, might see the giving up of vast areas of the coast—not just along the east coast, but perhaps along the north-west coast too—he will recognise that this crisis is of a scale more associated with a major disaster or, indeed, a direct war against the United Kingdom. In that case, and if such assessments are correct, the Government’s response must be of a different order and on a different scale than we have seen before.

The Government’s response to this crisis is something that I assume is being addressed under their national security policy document. However, I must say that I am not convinced that, even if the Government accept the extent of this threat, they have yet to think through a strategy or produce a reorganisation of the relevant institutions, or indeed begun to communicate with public opinion on this subject. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s views on that.

Bob Spink: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Simpson: No, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind. Other colleagues wish to take part in the debate.

What can be done in the short and long term? I get a feeling from Ministers and from Baroness Young, who is currently chief executive of the Environment Agency, which of course is the agency taking the lead on coastal flooding, that there is a sense of deep inevitability about the extent of flooding and also, to a certain degree, a pessimistic attitude. I think that I caught that mood in the interview that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs gave to Radio 5 on 4 April, in which he said:

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That is hardly a clarion call to arms on this subject, and more like a sort of management, newspeak conclusion.

As I said, Baroness Young is the current chief executive of the Environment Agency. However, I am interested to see that she is about to go off to get another new job; she is down to be the chair of the new Care Quality Commission. That appointment must be agreed, but if she gets the job, she would leave her position with the Environment Agency. I only discovered that she might be getting that new position this morning by reading The House Magazine. That development, of course, would be crucially important. Given the lead role now taken by the Environment Agency, it will be up to the Government to get the best man or woman whom they can possibly find with the type of strategic vision and drive to deal with the major problems that we are facing.

Baroness Young has said:

She had earlier told an internal climate change seminar:

So she has already mentally decided that the game is up. I do not think that any of us—certainly those of us here who represent Norfolk constituencies—wish to take that view.

The Government’s strategy in facing the challenge appears to be one of fearing the worst and hoping for the best. We have seen the Pitt review and a plethora of DEFRA statements and policy papers, but I do not get the sense of the Government gripping this problem and providing reassurance to my constituents, those of other Norfolk Members, or those in other parts of the United Kingdom affected by both external and internal flooding.

The situation is not helped by the pseudo-military terminology adopted by many agencies, such as “holding the line” or “managed retreat”, although the latter term has now become “managed realignment”. Sadly, “managed retreat” gives the impression of embracing retreat. Many people in Norfolk lost relatives in the second world war in Singapore and Malaya. When General Percival, the officer commanding there, was faced with an appalling situation and the advancing Japanese, he decided to offer up space to buy time. There was a disorderly retreat down the Malayan peninsula, but he hoped that reinforcements would arrive by the time he reached Singapore. However, it was too little too late, and Singapore fell.

The Government need to set out a clear strategic plan—not a vision—for how they intend to face the challenges of flooding, the costs, the available options, and the robustness, or otherwise, of their Executive institutions. They must accept that we are looking for a multiplicity of in-depth flood defences and the involvement of local communities.

That brings me seamlessly to Government funding. The Government claim that they have increased funds for flood defences. That is true, but of course we must take into account that, in effect, there was a cut 18 months ago. They have increased spending on flood defences to £2.15 billion over the next three years, but that sum, much of which is for inland schemes, will fall far behind what is needed to protect the entire coast as sea levels rise.

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