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6 May 2008 : Column 186WH—continued

I have lived in Norwich since 1965. One of the beauties of living in Norwich is that is it easy to get to the sea; the trouble is that the sea is now coming to us.
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Indeed, published works show that Norwich-by-the-sea is not an unrealistic expectation. We might not have to bother about that in our lifetimes, but it will certainly be a problem in the longer term.

Much has been said about the science, and scientists are very good at getting information. I believe in climate change. I know that Lord Lawson does not, but who cares? The effects of climate change are there to be seen. The university of East Anglia has a distinguished department of environmental sciences, which was founded by the father of the hon. Member for North Norfolk. Many people have been through it, and have done some distinguished, world-class work—including David Viner.

The trouble is that scientists know nothing about politics or the social scene. They spend their lives cocooned—don’t I know it?—in a university academic environment, and do not get out to see what problems people are having. I welcome the fact that there has been some resistance to the report, leaked though it might be.

The problems for the area’s farm land have been mentioned. We know that we will need to increase the amount of farm land in our country—and in the world. There will be problems with having enough maize, rice and other crops to feed starving people—not only in the developing world, but perhaps here. Every time the sea comes in, farm land disappears, crops disappear, and farmers disappear or become bankrupt. That is very much part of the Norfolk way of life.

Science is useful for telling us what can happen, but it is very poor at deciding on new technology to do something about it. Science is about knowing the facts, but technology is about knowing what to do. I believe that we have not invested enough in considering how we might hold back the sea.

A friend of mine—Professor Vincent of the university of East Anglia—wrote to me about his work on the Sea Palling breakwaters. Sea Palling is a fine place with a great cricket square, and its people are wonderful. It is a lovely village that needs to be protected. When the Tennessee valley authority flooded areas in the United States, I remember that there was uproar there and that fights continued for years. Again, compensation was an issue, and consultation was poor.

Professor Vincent looked at the breakwaters in place to protect the sea wall and dune line at Sea Palling. He says that they are

As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright), that also puts Great Yarmouth at risk, because the sand does not move down there. Scientists tell us that the protection creates problems elsewhere, so we need to do something about both problems. We cannot sort one out and leave to the other to continue. It is important to remember that there is a knock-on effect. The Environment Agency has propped up the beaches down Happisburgh way for two years or so, and things seem all right at the moment, but the problem is ongoing.

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We have heard much about what the Environment Agency has said, but I finish with a final irony. At 4 pm tomorrow, the House will consider the Broads Authority Bill, but if we allow things to continue, will we have the broads to protect, and will any legislation be worth it?

10.19 am

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing the debate. I shall speak briefly about North-West Norfolk and then touch on some of the points that have already been made about the Natural England option paper and villages in north Norfolk.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, severe floods in 1953 led to great loss of life. In fact, the 1978 floods were worse, but by that time sea defences had improved immeasurably. Although there was significant damage to property, only four lives were lost—I say “only four”, but that is in contrast with the hundreds lost in 1953. Since then, there have been significant improvements in sea defences in my constituency, much of which lies below sea level. King’s Lynn has always been under threat, and I was fortunate enough, roughly 20 years ago, to be afforded the honour of unveiling the plaque to mark the completion of its sea defences. The plaque, which is still in King’s Staithe square, has survived the ravages of the elements, marauding youths and eight years of a Labour-controlled council, and I am proud of it.

The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) has raised the issue of flood sirens on a number of occasions. They played an important role during the 1978 floods in getting people out of their properties, particularly beach houses in places such as Heacham, Hunstanton and Snettisham. The Environment Agency argues that it has a mobile telephone alert system, and that people are on the internet and have land lines, but half the joy of owning a beach house in Heacham, for example, is getting away from the madding crowd and modern appliances, so some people do not have land lines or internet access, and some will not have their mobile phones with them. I thus argue that keeping the flood sirens is important. Will the Minister address that point?

On the leaked paper, people in my constituency say that if plans are being considered by a major Government conservation body for parts of north Norfolk, they could be considered for other parts of Norfolk. That is why there is so much concern and anger about the way in which the leaked paper went about portraying and explaining that option. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk and the hon. Member for North Norfolk pointed out, we are talking about 11 sites of special scientific interest in the area totalling 8,000 acres, and 25 square miles of low-lying farmland. As my hon. Friend pointed out, grain prices are rising sharply and world food shortages are predicted, so Britain’s prime arable land is even more vital. We are talking about four freshwater lakes and broads, 6,000 houses worth roughly £2 billion, six villages and five mediaeval churches. I find it ironic that Natural England, which is the Government’s principal conservation body, is even considering a paper that would lead to the destruction of those 11 SSSIs.

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I had a close look at Natural England’s report. It is riddled with platitudes, glib generalisations and typical new Labour speak. As my hon. Friend pointed out, Natural England is a classic new Labour body. However, it should not interfere in such an issue, and it has caused huge alarm.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk—he is my friend for the day—mentioned the blight on properties and farmland. Who will move to those villages? How will someone sell their house in such a market? Who is going to go to work on a farm or take another job opportunity with a business that is located in a village with that blight hanging over it? Natural England must wake up to the fact that it has caused a huge amount of damage to that community, and that it has had wider ramifications and implications across Norfolk and, indeed, the whole of East Anglia.

The hon. Member for North Norfolk said that Holland has a system for sea defences; indeed; the Dutch are passionate about that. I have been to have a look at some sea defences in Holland, which are a national policy priority. Furthermore, local farming interests are represented on Dutch bodies, and local farming co-operatives have made money available to help to pay for sea defences. I gather that the Environment Agency is not prepared to countenance such a situation in Suffolk. Will the Minister comment on that?

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning Holland. The Dutch have made a significant contribution to Norfolk and the fens over the centuries, and to the development of our drainage and dyke systems. There is an awful lot of expertise there. If Natural England is not able to show the way forward, should we not get on the phone and call up the Dutch?

Mr. Bellingham: My hon. Friend is right. The great Dutch engineer Vermuyden was responsible for draining much of my constituency, which is still way below sea level. The Dutch pride themselves on protecting their sea and agricultural farming communities. So much of the country lies below sea level that that is a major national priority. We in this country should attach a similar priority to that.

Dredging, which the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) mentioned, is vital. Pat Gowan has briefed us comprehensively on sea defence and dredging. In a recently published paper, he stated:

That eloquently sums up the point. However, according to Pat Gowan, in the past 18 years, 189 million tonnes of sand and shingle has been dredged from the area off the Yarmouth coast, raising £1.6 billion in royalties and VAT for the Exchequer. I find it distressing that 30 per cent. of that dredging is not for our own building and construction industries and that it is instead exported to
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the continent—I find that completely unacceptable. Surely some of those revenues could be earmarked for improving and shoring up our sea defences.

The Minister must give a firm undertaking that the Government will take seriously the concerns set out by Norfolk Members from across the political spectrum. He must give an undertaking that the Government will protect these communities. As I said the other day, if he does not, I fear that those communities and others will be submerged under a tidal wave of new Labour complacency.

10.27 am

Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): I am conscious that I have a short time in which to speak, so I shall keep my comments brief.

I am afraid that the Government have, over a period, focused on coastal defences somewhat at the expense of inland defences. Like my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), much of my constituency is at sea level, and much of the surrounding area is below sea level. We have a particular problem in the fens. Year after year, the Ouse washes are flooded by water flowing from effective flood alleviation measures in Milton Keynes and Bedford, which causes havoc to people who live in the fens, particularly in the village of Welney. Its residents cannot cope with the problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) talked about national priorities, so why has Norfolk suffered year after year because of the Government’s good will elsewhere? Welney is connected to the rest of Norfolk by the A1101, but only when the road is not under 3 ft of water. Last year, the area was flooded for more than 100 days. At the start of the year, the village was cut off on two sides because of heavy flooding. Local residents face long detours simply to reach their homes and places of work.

Fen flooding has had a terrible impact on local trade and business, and particularly on the rural economy, which my hon. Friend mentioned. It seems to my constituents that nothing is being done, despite the frequency of the flooding. A little more than a year ago, I raised the matter with the Government in an Adjournment debate. I highlighted how flooding in the fens had become significantly worse in the past seven years and how people in the area were worried that that would ultimately result in businesses closing and people having to relocate from their houses. I was assured that the Government were as committed to rural areas as they were to urban areas. However, that is simply not the case in my constituency. It appears that less value is put on people’s lives in South-West Norfolk than elsewhere in the country, which is outrageous—[Interruption.] Why—I put this to the Minister, who has just intervened—does it seem that nothing concrete has been done a year on from that debate? How many more years must the area suffer before decisive action is taken?

Last month, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs pledged at least £34.5 million towards fulfilling the final recommendations of the Pitt review. Will the Minister make a commitment today to invest some of that money in finding a solution for people living in Norfolk’s low-lying fen areas and particularly in Welney, in my constituency? Those people
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need assurances that their plight is being considered in equal measure to that of people living elsewhere in the country.

Finally, the Environment Agency has been given £1.8 billion to spend over the next three years on ensuring that Britain can deal effectively and efficiently with the threat of flooding. Does the Minister agree, however, that the Government must exercise strong leadership to reassure people in places such as Welney, and indeed the wider Norfolk population, that Ministers are not passing the buck, as they have recently done? A solution must be found and found soon.

10.31 am

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): I warmly and sincerely congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) not only on securing the debate, but on the measured yet powerful way in which he introduced it. Notwithstanding one or two contributions, there has been a striking degree of cross-party consensus, and that is because the people of Norfolk are united in their profound concern about not only what is happening, but what they perceive to be happening. Indeed, one of my concerns is how much people think is going on behind closed doors. There is a sense that there is a conspiracy of silence and that members of the public are having to find things out through leaked documents.

When we quizzed the Minister at oral questions last week, he said that it was not Natural England’s job to decide the matters before us, but it is producing reports based on the assumption that it is its job to do so, and no one is telling it not to. I therefore very much echo the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) that Natural England should withdraw its report. If the proposed option is out of line with Government thinking, there should be no cause for the alarm and concern that we have heard about. If it is in line with Government thinking, the Government should come clean, rather than just saying, “Oh well, it’s not Natural England’s job.”

At the moment, all we are getting are Orwellian euphemisms, such as “managed retreat”, “coastal realignment” and “embayment”, which, although I would not call it my favourite, does sounds quite attractive until one realises what it actually means. However, the people of Norfolk deserve clarity. In responding to oral questions last Thursday, the Minister appeared to say something very clear, but then I read the transcript. He appeared to say that there was no question of abandoning communities, but when I read the transcript, it was clear that he had said that there was no question of abandoning them in the way described in the press. I therefore hope that he can remove any caveats today and say exactly what the Government’s position is, because, having heard him attempt to clarify it once, I am not clear what it is.

We have heard about compensation, which is a central issue. Talking about compensation does not mean that we have given up the ghost; indeed, it might actually mean that we will not abandon communities. If the Government had to pay compensation, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk said in a debate three years ago, the cost-benefit analysis would show that abandoning a community would cease to be costless—to be a write-off—and would have a bill attached
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to it. That might change the decision, so talking about compensation is not giving in. Furthermore, if those who are trying to sell, insure or mortgage their properties knew that their financial position was at least secure, they would have some reassurance. At the moment, however, we have nothing.

Can the Minister therefore clarify the position? In today’s Eastern Daily Press, David Viner says:

When I asked about compensation on Thursday, the Minister said, “No, we are not paying taxpayers’ money for this,” and that appears to be the Government’s position. There is therefore some ambiguity about the position, and we need to know. It is not as if people come along, buy a house on the edge of a cliff and then say to the Government, “Oh, the cliff is giving way. We’d like some compensation.” We are talking about communities that have lived in their villages and built up their livelihoods over generations, and they are suffering only as a direct consequence of a Government decision—that is the critical point. We are not talking just about the forces of nature; the Government have a choice about how much money they spend and how committed they are, and we have heard of the different approaches taken in Holland. There are alternatives, and if the Government choose to abandon communities, they should surely have compensation.

Also on the issue of compensation, I want to home in on the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk, who represents the set of villages that are most directly affected. To the extent that we are talking about climate change causing rising sea levels, this is a problem that we have all caused. It is not exclusively the people of Norfolk who have caused this climate change—we have all caused it. If one set of people are particularly affected by something that we have all done, we should surely all share the burden of helping them. That is why we have government, public services and public goods. When we all cause a problem, we all share in the cost of putting things right, and I hope that the Minister accepts that important principle, which has been advanced in the debate.

The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) raised the issue of dredging, which my hon. Friend has discussed in the past. Will the Minister clarify the Government’s views on that? Do they have a clear view about whether dredging is an issue? It certainly needs to be looked at.

The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who is no longer in his place, mentioned not only the scientists who alert us to the problem, but the use of technology to tackle it. He asked whether enough investment was going into technological solutions that could, at the very least, ameliorate the problems.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) mentioned the flood sirens. That is an important issue, which I hope that the Minister will address.

Taking all these issues together, I was struck by the analogy that the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk drew with the impact of a war and its potential for casualties. The issue before us should be seen as a national emergency because it affects not just one small part of the country, but big stretches of the coastline. We have heard the
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thin-end-of-the-wedge argument, and the same issue will have to be addressed up and down the coast, so it should be seen as a national strategic issue, not delegated to quangos. Yes, such bodies should have day-to-day operational responsibility, but there is also the question of democratic responsibility, and that is where there is a big gap in the process. People read that Natural England is thinking about what would happen if communities were abandoned, but who takes the decision to abandon them? It is not Natural England, but nor should it be the Environment Agency, because it is not democratically accountable either. It is Ministers who are accountable.

As we have heard, the head of the Environment Agency said in a private or semi-private meeting that “The broads will go,” but whom is she accountable to? [Interruption.] That is a verbatim quote, and I will be happy to give the Minister the source for it. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk and I have both heard that the head of the Environment Agency thinks that the broads will go. Does the Minister think that they will? It would be interesting to have his views on that.

What is DEFRA’s response to all this, apart from to say that it is the Environment Agency’s job to deal with the issue? In 1993, the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food produced a flood control and defence strategy. Guess what the Government are doing about it—they are consulting on changing it. The consultation has been going on for years.

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Phil Woolas) indicated dissent.

Steve Webb: The Minister shakes his head, and I would not expect him to be believe me, so I have brought a House of Commons Library note with me. It says:

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