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The Secretary of State has already admitted that the model and its outcome are partly affected by the amount that we are prepared to spend. What discussions has the Minister had with the Treasury about the matter? What consideration has been given to the balance between the costs of building flood defences, or using natural flood defences, against the costs of areas actually being flooded or coastal areas surrendered to the sea?

The National Farmers Union has rightly drawn our attention to the link between food security, which is now a Government priority, and flooding. Our most productive soils, many of which are in Norfolk, are found in some of the most low-lying areas. How will managed retreat impact on our agricultural production capacity?

My constituent, Mr. Michael Sayer, is a former chairman of the Norfolk branch of the Country Land and Business Association. He was speaking and writing about climate change long before it became fashionable. He recently stated in the Eastern Daily Press:

Sadly, many of us fear that that is true.

After Government strategy and funding, we come to institutions, which are important. I understand that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee will publish its report on flooding tomorrow. I have not seen it, but, given the oral evidence that has been submitted, I suspect that it will question who is responsible for flood planning and co-ordination inland. At present there is a multiplicity of agencies, including the Environment Agency, Natural England, local authorities, water boards and the Highways Agency.

Since April fools’ day this year, the Government have made the Environment Agency responsible for a strategic overview of all flood and coastal erosion matters in England. The agency is responsible for 6,000 miles of coastline and 800 miles of coastal defences. Its new role means that it is accountable for decisions on sea flood risk management, including whether works go ahead. Its brief on flood risk management and the Norfolk coastline states that, before 1 April, more than 90 different authorities managed the coast of England. The change will mean a consistency of approach, clarity for the Government and the public, and better targeting of investment.

Such executive clarity is to be welcomed, but it raises many questions about flood defences in Norfolk. Will the Environment Agency be responsible for flooding inland? If not, there will be a major disconnect. Does the agency have the resources to meet its new responsibilities? I have already touched on the opportunity for a new chief executive to get to grips with the matter.

Can we have any confidence that the management team at the top of the Environment Agency will be able to do more than just manage problems? Many excellent
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people work for the agency, but several hon. Members in the Chamber have unhappy memories of the agency being unable to deal with major challenges such as the foot and mouth outbreak and other problems, which led to public confidence being undermined. To use the Prime Minister’s terminology, this will be a challenge for the new Environment Agency, and we will be looking to the Minister to provide our constituents with a great deal more confidence.

Finally, I want to press the Minister on the role of local communities and institutions. The row over the leaked Natural England report highlighted the anger and fears of local communities that feel that they are the last to be consulted about their future and their homes. All of us in politics and in government know that the public are no longer prepared to be deferential and to accept the opinions of the Government or experts being handed down to them. They will not knuckle their forelocks and say, “Thank you very much, I agree with what you say.”

There is a fundamental question about flood defences on the coast and inland. The Dutch have long recognised that protecting the coast and managing inland waterways is a national undertaking. Those things must have priority in the Government’s national security strategy. Should coastal committees be overruled if they oppose managed retreat and suggest using, and start to use, their own resources to defend their own communities? That has already happened on a small scale in Suffolk and other parts of the country.

Norfolk people are not fools. They do not have their heads in the broads or anywhere else. They know from history the power, nature and risks of flooding. They recognise the kind of threats that they are likely to see in 50 years and beyond, but they object to a mood that appears to value wildlife above human life and well-established communities. Local farmers and people frequently say that their knowledge and expertise of the land, the environment and waterways is not sufficiently taken into account.

Norfolk people are not prepared for a managed retreat. All retreats end in defeat, unless there is a counter-attack. In August 1942, before the battle of El Alamein, General Sir Bernard Montgomery told his staff to tear up all plans for a withdrawal, to hold the line and to counter-attack. That is what our constituents demand.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Order. May I remind hon. Members that several of them wish to speak and that I intend to start the winding-up speeches at about 10.30 am?

9.58 am

Mr. Anthony Wright (Great Yarmouth) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing this timely debate. It is probably one of the few subjects on which we have joined together to press a point not just for our constituencies but for Norfolk and beyond. Indeed, it has always been seen as a cross-party issue, and I am pleased that several hon. Members have joined the debate today.

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My constituency of Great Yarmouth is in one of the lowest lying areas of the UK. It stretches from Winterton-on-Sea in the north to Hopton-on-Sea in the south. Much of that area is always under threat from the sea. It also goes west to the border of Potter Heigham, which is a significant area as far as the broads are concerned.

For centuries, the sea has been Yarmouth’s fortune: from the early centuries when the herring industry made Great Yarmouth one of the most important ports and towns in the UK, right through to Victorian times and the start of the tourism economy, to the 1960s and beyond with oil and gas, and now to the next phase. I hope that the new harbour will bring new hope and industry to Great Yarmouth. Each one of those eras has contributed to the nation’s economy.

As the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk explained, the floods in 1953 affected all the east coast areas. Great Yarmouth was one of the areas that was flooded, and several people along the coast lost their life as a result. At that time, flooding was regarded as a natural phenomenon. As has been said, in November 2007 the east coast was again under threat from a tidal surge, and apparently it would have been the same level as the one that occurred in 1953. Defences have been improved marginally since then, but unfortunately it was still touch and go as to whether Great Yarmouth would be inundated with water. That would have resulted in more than 6,000 properties being flooded for a considerable time. I know, Mr. Martlew, that you had experienced that in Cumbria from a different facet, and I understand that, years later, people are still suffering, so we know what the effect would have been if water had breached the banks on the east cost. We are thankful that we were not in that situation, but we had a warning that the sea is there and is dangerous. We accept that climate change is causing an increase in sea levels, and we need to take that on board.

The report from Natural England gave the worse-case scenario: that the retreat of the land to the sea would go back for miles, although that would not affect much of my constituency. A small area of West Somerton would be affected, but I will leave that to the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) to discuss. However, the scenario would have a serious effect on Great Yarmouth in several ways. If part of the land retreats to the north, it would eventually have an effect further south, and that would be the thin end of the wedge.

Over a number of years, the economies of Great Yarmouth, Norwich and further south would be affected. I am not saying that that will be the case, but I would like the Minister to reassure us that he will look seriously at these issues. I have been fighting on behalf on a number of communities on the coast because there has been a failure to understand that the problem is not flooding per se, but coastal erosion. Everything on the east coast is connected, and a number of cliffs are in danger—from Winterton to Caister and from Great Yarmouth to Hopton. Communities on the back edge of those cliffs are certainly at risk. For example, in Scratby, properties are within yards of the cliff edge and the speed at which erosion has taken place in the past four or five years is far in excess of what anyone could have anticipated. Projects have been put forward by the Scratby Coastal Erosion Group and the Winterton group, and they would delay erosion for a number of
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years and give security of tenure to residents—indeed, the projects would also provide value for money. Some 12 years ago, a berm was put in place in front of the cliffs, and it has held back the tide.

In the debates held over the past few years, one of the bones of contention, which has been alluded to already, is the question of why we are in this position. I believe that one reason for the problem is dredging. I know that some Government scientists will say that dredging has no effect whatsoever, but I have lived by the seaside and I have always said that if someone goes down to the sea edge and digs a hole, within a minute the hole will be filled up with sand from the extremities. That is a matter of simple technology and a simpleton could come to the conclusion that dredging will steepen beaches at the edge near coastal cliffs; it must have that effect.

I have called for the Government to abandon dredging, but my appeal has fallen on deaf ears. I have even asked them to stop the export of dredging materials, which would reduce that particular problem. Again, that has fallen on deaf ears because of the significant contribution made to Treasury coffers—the value added tax levy means that hundreds of millions of pounds go to the Treasury. Will the Minister either abandon dredging with immediate effect, or give the east coast communities that are affected by dredging the resources to deal with the effect that it has on coastal resorts? That may well cost £200 million to £300 million a year over a number of years, but I think that it would be money well spent. The Natural England report called for natural habitats, and it would be worth spending the money for environmental reasons. The area is of special scientific interest, with Ramsar sites and other sites of historic interest.

As has already been mentioned, we have fought for many years—too long to remember—for safety measures in relation to the dualling of the Acle straight and for the dykes to be moved. Halvergate marshes are always significant in the arguments about that, but if they are important, so are the Norfolk broads and the whole of north Norfolk to the ecology of the area and the Government should also defend them. They should also defend the communities affected and the important site of the broads, as that would bring more resources into the UK economy—through tourism, agriculture and other means.

Will the Minister take on board those comments? I understand that the scientists will say something completely different, but they should also take those comments on board given the issues that we need to address on the east coast. We should protect the communities and the natural environment as much as we possibly can, and we must invest in a good future for the rest of Norfolk and the UK.

10.6 am

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): I congratulate my neighbour, the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), on securing an incredibly important debate. It is good to see so many Norfolk MPs speaking with one voice on the issue—I think only one Norfolk MP is not here.

I shall start by stating a basic principle: it is the duty of the Government to defend their people and communities. It is an abdication of that duty if these communities are
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abandoned without the Government doing everything in their power to protect them and defend the coastline.

I speak as the Member of Parliament for the area most affected by this option—I recognise that it is no more than an option—but I want to leave the Minister in no doubt about the strength of feeling in the communities affected. In the last month, I have attended meetings at Hickling, Potter Heigham and Sea Palling. In those three meetings we have probably spoken to more than 3,000 people—remarkable numbers of people attended at short notice. The mood of those meetings was impressively calm, but there was no doubting the real anger, dismay and fear of many people in the those communities. People are absolutely determined to fight against this option being pursued further.

I wish to make it clear to the Minister that although on the face of it this is a theoretical, research exercise—as David Viner of Natural England described it in the Eastern Daily Pressthis morning—however far into the future the proposals will be, they will have a very real, immediate impact. The Minister and I have discussed those problems in the past in connection with the shoreline management plan, which affects a whole stretch of coastline in Norfolk and Suffolk, and covering the constituency of the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright).

The area affected is not a wealthy one; it is actually a low-wage economy and many of the people in those communities have everything that they have ever worked for invested in their home. However theoretical the option is, the publication of the leaked document has had an immediate impact on the value of their homes. My office has been contacted by people who have lost house sales and who have been told by estate agents that the value of their home has decreased. In addition, people who had decided to move to the area have now changed their plans. There has been a real and immediate impact. The area is beautiful and unspoiled; its landscape, its communities and its heritage are unique, and it is very much worth fighting for.

The heart of the problem seems to be a disconnect between the scientists investigating the impact of climate change and the people in the area. The scientists are right to carry out their investigations—the job needs to be done—but it is an academic exercise. They often look far into the future when considering the potential impact of rises in sea level. They inevitably speculate about the extent of that rise but without understanding sufficiently the impact that their words are having now on the communities involved. The words appear callous to those affected, even if they are not intended in that way. I believe that there is an innocence about the scientists. They are doing their job, but they fail to recognise the impact of their words. If we allow that to continue, the effects will appear callous, especially as something can be done to bring the matter to a close. The report makes no reference to people. Inevitably, the report is all about the natural environment, as that is what Natural England is charged with considering.

There is a way forward. First, the Government and the agencies involved—the Environment Agency and Natural England—must give a clear and unequivocal commitment that the coastline will be defended. Secondly, we should not speculate about the distant future without
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addressing the need for financial security for the people and communities affected. I note, as did the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk, that David Viner referred to compensation. The Minister and I have talked on the subject at some length, but it is something of a breakthrough that a scientist from Natural England should use that word. However, to continue discussing future options would show a callous disregard of the rights of the communities in the area, especially now that we know the immediate impact of those discussions.

I have no doubt that there is a threat from climate change, and I have always said that Norfolk is on the front line. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk was right to point out that the potential consequences are even more calamitous in countries such as Bangladesh, but for England, our county is on the front line. None of us knows what the impact of climate change will be, but if its impact is great we cannot leave those on the front line to bear all the costs. That is a basic principle that goes way beyond this issue. It is a societal problem, and the general principle should surely be that society as a whole should cope with the costs.

Adaptation is now included in the Climate Change Bill, but there is a cost attached to it. The Minister and I have spoken about the £30 million that has been allocated to considering adaptation over three years. It is a start, but the cost in the longer term will be much greater.

I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me and Malcolm Kirby, a local campaigner, to meet the working group from his Department to discuss the matter. However, we also need a proper review of the cost-benefit analysis when considering the losses that occur when the coast is lost to the sea. An initial analysis suggests that the cost-benefit analysis used in the shoreline management plan is deeply flawed as it does not properly show the losses that would probably occur.

In the short term, I call on Natural England formally to withdraw the option paper, and I wrote today to its chief executive. It seems to me that if the agency is apologising for its impact, it must withdraw the option. We cannot allow matters to fester. I call on the Minister to make a clear statement advocating withdrawal of the option. I know that he understands the importance of social justice, and that one cannot consider the science without also considering social justice. I also call on the Minister to visit Norfolk to meet local representatives, to talk to the communities and thus to understand the impact at first hand. We would welcome him to discuss the matter.

It is an issue of real urgency. We must not allow it to fester. We owe it to those communities to have the option withdrawn without delay, so that social justice is properly addressed.

10.15 am

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing the debate. I call him a friend because many Members are united in trying to protect the beautiful county of Norfolk. In the same spirit, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and his action team, which includes Malcolm Kirby.

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