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6 May 2008 : Column 193WH—continued

Perhaps the Library is wrong on that. The worry is that we have quangos that are accountable to no one in discussing options that they are apparently not supposed to discuss because that is not their job. At the same time, we have Ministers who are not saying anything terribly clear and who are leaving people with uncertainty.

I simply conclude by asking the Minister one question. I want him to suppose that we were talking about his house and that he opened his local newspaper to discover that a Government body was looking at options to abandon his house to the sea, with the result that it was unsellable and uninsurable. If so, would he be happy with the management of the current process? The buck stops with him when it comes to the management of the process. We have heard from the communities affected that they are not happy with the situation, and I hope that the Minister will take the message to heart.

10.38 am

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Martlew. It is a pleasure to serve under you. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) not only on securing the debate, but on introducing it so eloquently and researching the issue so thoroughly.

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Under the proposals, about 6,000 acres—25 square miles—of the Norfolk broads would be allowed to flood, and the scale of that loss has been reflected with passion in our excellent debate. We have had excellent contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk, the hon. Members for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright), for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) and for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), as well as from my hon. Friends the Members for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) and for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser).

The one issue that was not covered was insurance. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk did mention the properties being blighted, but what representations has the Minister received about the immediate impact that there will be on home owners and on businesses that operate on the Norfolk broads—in particular boating and other leisure amenities?

Home and business owners are between a rock and a hard place. The Natural England report will undoubtedly have led to a blight on property prices, and the insurance companies and, notably, the Association of British Insurers, have said that they want to renegotiate the statement of principles with the Government on the basis that those insurance companies will continue to give insurance cover only if the Government will pledge to increase the funding for sea defences. If the report has damaged the credibility of those sea defences in the long term, that will have an immediate impact on the ability of home owners and businesses to insure themselves and their properties, and it will affect the cost of the premium and any excess.

The Minister must have an answer for us today. According to the Natural England report, if the proposal were to go ahead, the sea would be allowed to breach 15 miles of the north Norfolk coast. The area would be flooded and would revert to salt marsh, to create a new habitat for wildlife. That takes us back to what my hon. Friends have said about the possibility that wildlife and birds sadly have a bigger Government following than home owners.

Will the Minister respond to what has been said about dredging? It has been put to the Government that dredging would have prevented the flooding in Yorkshire and other parts of the country that flooded very badly last year. The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth has said today that dredging has had a perverse impact in relation to sea level, leading to increased flooding. Will the Minister respond to the point that there are apparently plans to build a barrage on the Wash? If that is true, it would also have the perverse effect of increasing the flood risk to the Norfolk broads.

Mr. Bellingham: My hon. Friend is right to point out that a barrage across the Wash has been suggested, but most people in Norfolk think that that is a completely unrealistic scheme, which would do untold damage to one of the most important wildlife areas in the country, to say nothing of the economic importance of fishing and shipping.

Miss McIntosh: The Minister will have heard what my hon. Friend has to say, but I want to ask what the impact will be of forcing the water on to the broads and forcing the fenland even further below sea level.

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The Minister heard me say last week—and I think that my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk raised this point too—that there is a divide at work; it is not so much the north-south divide that we have seen in the past, but an urban-rural divide. Even in the eastern area, it appears that urban areas are being promised and given concrete flood defences, whereas all that rural areas are offered are feasibility studies. Will the Minister redress that balance when he responds to the debate?

The Conservatives consider the risk of coastal flooding to be one of the greatest challenges that the country faces. It is incumbent on any Government or incoming Government to draft a national strategy to consider every possible solution for the protection of the nation’s coastline. If the Government are not prepared to do that, an incoming Conservative Government would certainly be prepared to take up the cudgels. Conservatives would see allowing the sea to flood the land, and realigning the coast of north Norfolk, as the last possible option. That would be highly regrettable with respect to the loss of property, of part of our cherished national heritage in the Norfolk broads, and of prized farmland.

The Government must answer the charge that they are being completely inconsistent about the science on flooding and on the response and adaptation to climate change. Will the Minister solve this matter for us today? The outgoing Government chief scientific adviser, David King, claimed that global warming and climate change were the greatest international threat that the country and the whole global community faced, whereas the incoming chief scientific adviser, Professor John Beddington, has claimed that the threat in relation to food security is greater even than that from climate change. If that is so, why are the Government even considering a report on the possibility of allowing 25 square miles, or 6,000 acres, of prime land in the Norfolk broads to be lost? Conservatives believe that it would be deeply regrettable, while we face challenges on food security and climate change, to lose prime productive farm land to flooding, as well as suffering the serious loss of a large part of the Norfolk broads as a leisure amenity. Alternative options should be explored first, and it is incumbent on the Minister to share with the Committee today what those are.

What, in principle, are the alternative options, and what would they cost? The Opposition do not have access to that information. What would be the cost of a rolling programme—the Government seem to like rolling programmes—to shore up the sea defences, perhaps by taking up the suggestions about using materials that are dredged up, which were put forward today by the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth.

Mr. Bellingham: That was my idea as well.

Miss McIntosh: And by my hon. Friend. Will the Minister give us an indication of the costs of the alternative programmes?

We have generally recognised that fluvial flooding has been one of our greatest challenges. Last year, dramatically, we saw for the first time the damage that surface water flooding can do, when 48,000 homes were flooded, 7,000 businesses were damaged, and 13 people died. More traditionally the role of the Environment Agency, and the responsibility of the Government, through DEFRA, has been to deal with coastal flooding
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and inundations from the sea. Today’s debate shows that low-lying areas of eastern England are particularly vulnerable in that respect.

The hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) raised the question of compensation. Home owners and businesses that operate in the Norfolk broads have generally been led to believe, like the rest of the public, that their property will be protected from flooding. As the law stands, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk has said, there is, regrettably, no right of compensation under existing law. However, we do have the concept of human rights.

The possibility of a change of Government policy, given the fact that the people in question have had an expectation that their homes would be protected from flooding, means in our view that, at the very least, the principle of human rights would apply in relation to the loss of enjoyment of the Norfolk broads as an amenity, and loss of farm land, but even more importantly in relation to the possible loss of lives, homes and businesses. If the Minister is again unable to respond to the point about compensation, will he explain what right anyone living in any of the constituencies so eloquently represented here today would have to make a claim for loss of enjoyment, loss of the right to a home, or loss of the right to a livelihood, under the human rights strategy?

The Government have an opportunity to respond to widespread, indeed national, reports about this matter—they are not just in the Eastern Daily Press. I had the good fortune to represent the whole Essex coast for 10 years in the European Parliament. I am now a Yorkshire MP and last year we suffered, after Gloucestershire, or perhaps jointly with it, very badly. For all those reasons—to protect a leisure amenity that is probably the most widely enjoyed in Great Britain, and, more important, to protect home owners, businesses and farm land—we wait expectantly for the Government’s response.

10.49 am

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Phil Woolas): It is a pleasure to be able to respond to this debate. Sincere congratulations are due to the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson). As a Minister, I know that when Members from throughout an area attend a debate, it reflects real public concern, and it is important that I should be able to respond.

Unfortunately, a number of misunderstandings and myths have been perpetuated in this debate. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk for giving me a platform for putting some of them right. I shall respond first to the substantial points made by the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), rather than to the detailed points made, which I will cover if I have time. In my view, the hon. Lady is perpetuating a number of myths that are causing great public concern. I understand the seriousness of concern about house prices and the economic prospects for particular areas, and I note that the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) said, quite fairly, that there is a difference between policy and perception of policy. We must cover both.

It is not true that, as the hon. Lady said, the Association of British Insurers is trying to re-negotiate the statement of principles because not enough money has been put aside for flood defence. The statement of principles was
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due to be discussed anyway; that is built into it. It is discussed every three years. The ABI has not said that it will not agree a new one unless there is more money. She said that dredging had been used in Yorkshire, but it is different in Norfolk and Suffolk. In east Yorkshire, rivers and drains were dredged; in Norfolk, we are talking about dredging the sea.

Hon. Members mentioned plans to build a barrage across the Wash. My only knowledge of that is what I have read in the papers. The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) rejected the idea on the ground of environmental protection, and quite right too. That is Natural England’s concern as well. The hon. Member for Vale of York perpetuated the line, which I can only conclude is party political, that the Government are protecting urban areas and not rural ones. That is simply not the case. It is borne out by the facts about money spent in the area to protect Norfolk from flooding from the sea, for example. We have spent more than £40 million in the past 15 years. The Environment Agency has £7 million under this year’s programme and a total of £21 million approved for planned works between 2008 and 2013.

The Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Northavon, criticised us for reviewing a policy established in 1993. That is another myth that Opposition parties wish to perpetuate for party political reasons—the idea that in rural areas, we simply review policies rather than spend money. That is not the case. I have said that we have spent money. In fact, more money is spent in many rural areas than in urban areas. There is no difference. I must hammer the myth that all we do is review. Of course capital programmes are based on rolling programmes. All finance decisions are based on that.

I come to the nub of this debate and the issue that I imagine the people of Norfolk will be looking at. The Government have not changed our policy towards fluvial or sea defences in Norfolk. The report by Natural England considered the potential impacts of climate change, including on the natural environment, based on different possible options in a post-50 year scenario. The Government are committed to our existing policy to protect Norfolk as best we can for the next 50 years. The shoreline management plan is subject to discussion with the local authorities in the area, and many hundreds, if not thousands, of people have participated in the consultation on it. Although it is in draft form at the moment, it is public and transparent, and it commits to defence for 50 years. By April next year, although I intend to publish it before that, it will lay out proposals for the post-50 year scenario.

Norman Lamb: Does the Minister understand that even though we are talking about a post-50 year period, if no financial security is in place now—no compensation scheme or whatever one wants to call it—even discussing options for some future date can have an immediate blighting effect? That must be addressed. I know that he understands the importance of social justice.

Mr. Woolas: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making an important and serious point. We are having that discussion.

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The hon. Member for Vale of York said that the public expect no change in policy. She must address the issue of climate change. If she is serious, her policy must state what the response to it should be. She must answer the question that we must all answer and that was posed to us by the hon. Member for Northavon: is there an argument for compensation if damage has been caused by climate change rather than by the natural processes of erosion or flooding? The question of how to determine that differentiation is exactly the reason why Natural England is charged with its task. It was said that Natural England gives the impression of being more concerned about the environment than people. Of course it is; it is the body responsible for the natural environment. That is like saying that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds gives the impression of being more concerned about birds than people. That is its job.

I must hit on the point made by the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser). He said that the lives of his constituents were not given equal value to the lives of others. That is not a fair accusation, it is not true and it is not backed up by the statistics. I give his constituents that reassurance.

Christopher Fraser: Can the Minister explain, then, the economic equation used to assess the financial viability of flood alleviation programmes as against the impact that they will have downstream in the Welney area where there is nothing?

Mr. Woolas: A house on the sea front at Poole is worth substantially more than a house by the river in the centre of Leeds. Does that mean that the Government care more about the people of Poole than the people of Leeds? That accusation has been made by local authority leaders in Leeds. Those are matters of consideration for the Government. The hon. Member for Vale of York, who purports to speak for a party that wishes to form a Government, must answer those questions rather than bandying about accusations that are not based on fact.

Miss McIntosh rose—

Mr. Woolas: This Government have significantly increased the resources spent on flood defences.

Christopher Fraser: In Labour constituencies.

Mr. Woolas: The hon. Gentleman, from a sedentary position, makes the very serious accusation that the Government deliberately allocate resources based on the party political representation of constituencies.

Christopher Fraser: No, I did not say that. I said that they were Labour constituencies.

Mr. Woolas: The hon. Gentleman, from a sedentary position, has withdrawn his accusation. I am grateful to him. To move on to the point about compensation, one of the important debates—

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Woolas: May I make this point about compensation? A number of hon. Members have asked about it. It is not the Government’s policy to give compensation for the impact of floods and coastal erosion. One of the
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measures at our disposal is—I apologise for the title—the adaptation toolkit. [Interruption.] It is not a great title; I concede that. It considers what measures can be taken, particularly to address the point made by the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb). The discussion includes hon. Members representing the areas concerned.

I reject the charges that have been made. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk said that funding was inadequate, which I reject, and that the institutions were inadequate. I admit that there has been some confusion in the press; I suspect that that confusion has been deliberately fuelled. He suggested that the role of communities was not considered important, yet consultation on the shoreline management plan, which is causing the perceived delay, is occurring precisely so that hon. Members and their constituents can be involved. He also said that the Government are defeatist. Far from it. We are spending enormous sums of taxpayers’ money on the matter.

Christopher Fraser: Not in Norfolk.

Mr. Woolas: I have read out the sums being spent in Norfolk. They involve tens of millions of pounds, and they have increased through successive comprehensive spending review periods. I reject the accusation of defeatism.

Mr. Keith Simpson: I hope that the Minister accepts that I, and most of my colleagues, were trying to make some serious points. However, he only had a short time in which to answer, so I would be most grateful if he would give a commitment to read through the report of this debate and then to answer in detail the specific questions raised.

Mr. Woolas: I shall do that, because it is important. I also wanted to make some policy announcements.

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