Adjournment (Christmas)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:06 pm on 19th December 1990.

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Photo of Mr David Porter Mr David Porter , Waveney 7:06 pm, 19th December 1990

I hope that the House will agree that it would be wrong to adjourn for the Christmas recess without a further mention of sea defence and coastal protection, particularly in the light of the terrifying floods, the tides, the chilling flood warnings, the damage and the road closures that the Suffolk and Norfolk coasts suffered last week. We expect winter to give us a battering, but this winter it came early and with a vengeance that we have not felt for some time.

When Towyn was engulfed by the sea, it was only the direction of the wind that spared east Anglia. Last Wednesday's high tides were marked by those who remember the 1953 floods as very nearly as bad. It will be remembered that in England and Holland in 1953 some 2,000 people died.

I pay tribute to the people in Southwold, Easton Bavents, Oulton Broad, Lowestoft, Beccles and elsewhere in my constituency and in other parts of Suffolk and Norfolk who were evacuated, flooded, suffered damage and inconvenience and generally suffered loss of all kinds, save only death on this occasion. I also pay tribute to the officials of Waveney district council, the National Rivers Authority and the emergency services.

If I could give my remarks a title of my own choosing for tomorrow's Hansard, it would be "This Vulnerable Coast"—like the White Paper "This Common Inheritance", but without the glossy paper.

Those of us who live on the coast of east Anglia have always lived with the threat of the sea. Over the years the battle has generally been lost and substantial parts have gone for ever. Dunwich, that infamous rotten borough, sent two Members to the House until 1932, even though most of it had even then been washed into the North sea.

What is most feared is the storm surge. A surge in the North sea is caused when the weather upsets the normal pattern of tides. A northerly gale blowing across the surface of the sea tries to take the water with it, or lower atmospheric pressure in a severe depression draws up the water, and a wind-driven current piles up a massive sea. The curved rotation of the earth curves the current. It is funnelled by the shape and depth of the North sea, and when that continuous wall of angry water hits the coast square on we are in trouble. Most sea defences are built for the higher spring tides and do not usually cater for freak conditions—and the surge is a freak.

Some experts have argued that we can expect devastating surges once every 25 years, but the scientific evidence for that is flimsy. Reports published only last weekend suggest that the North sea is getting rougher, which may be due to global warming. Wave increases of more than 20 per cent. in the past 30 years have been measured in the Atlantic, and the North sea is now being studied. Computers and experts should be able to give us better predictions soon of storm surge dangers.

What do those predictions count for? We still have, in the main, defences that are coming to the end of their useful lives. In fairness, most have held up fairly well so far. My observations have been made many times previously in the House, by other right hon. and hon. Members—and twice this year alone. I have spoken about that worrying matter.

On both occasions, I raised the specific case of the hamlet of Easton Bavents, which is north of Southwold. Waveney district council this year refused planning permission for a scheme that would have secured the cliff, putting forward cost and environmental objections. Neither the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food nor the Department of the Environment could, or would, step in.

The cost argument remained on the table, but the environmental argument was wider. Do we as a nation want part of our coasts to erode naturally? If so, which parts—and how do we draw a line and defend other parts of our coasts? I am sorry to report that, following last week's weather, last Friday morning I stood and watched as an end cottage was demolished before it toppled on to the beach below. It was a holiday home, but the next property under sentence of death from the district council, before it meets the cliff edge, is the home of Mr. and Mrs. Liddell, who retired there two years ago. They had been evacuated to a council house in Reydon and are shattered. They had invested all their life savings in their property, having also been told that the house would, with a scheme below it, be good for 40 years. They have agreed to the property being demolished, and I understand that the council began that work this afternoon.

More houses will share the same fate, and if enough of that sand cliff goes, the sea will break right through to lower land behind, outflanking the Southwold sea wall. Southwold would then become an island, Reydon would be exposed to danger, and marshes would be lost under salt water. Will the National Rivers Authority have stepped in by then to lengthen its Southwold sea wall into an area that is the responsibility of Waveney district council—or will I have to report further losses in future debates, at Kessingland, Pakefield and Corton, along my coastline? There are too many questions, and too many maybes.

I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is to respond to the debate, because he once had ministerial responsibility for such matters and, as a neighbouring parliamentary colleague, he is also familiar with the area in question. He will appreciate that the issue is complicated if one adds rivers and land drainage to the picture that I have painted. My right hon. Friend will know also that time is not on our side. I have pressed him before, and will do so again, for an updating of the Coast Protection Act 1949, to introduce four new provisions.

First, let us provide compensation to be built into the structure of sea defence management—as it is in planning, development and industry—so that people living in vulnerable areas and who cannot insure themselves will not lose everything. Secondly, let us provide for a national sea defence strategy for the United Kingdom that draws on local knowledge, history, expertise and authorities in devising a plan of what is economically, socially and environmentally saveable by environmentally efficient means—giving overall responsibility for that to the NRA instead of to the umpteen different bodies that currently each do a bit, or do not. Local authorities in the eastern areas are working towards that end themselves. Let us go one stage further and make such a strategy compulsory.

Thirdly, let us provide for better controls on local authorities, to prevent further developments of any kind within areas that are deemed to be vulnerable, environmentally desirable to erode, or to be defended to a smaller extent—all within the terms of the national strategy that I just mentioned. Fourthly, let us provide for a proper channel of action and response—from people on the ground to police, local authorities, and the NRA—to keep to a minimum any delays in closing roads and evacuating homes when water floods through, as it surely will, even with a national strategy.

Finally, let us examine the question of funding all that sea defence. I will quote in support of my arguments two editorials from the Eastern Daily Press. The first was published last Thursday, the morning after the storm, under the headline Put Whitehall on flood alert. It stated: With East Anglian coastal and riverside communities last night under siege, the issue of the financing and organisation of sea defences assumes a chilling immediacy. A £40 million programme for this part of the coast faces a cutback unless Norfolk and Suffolk county councils commit more than the inflation-linked increase they are thus far prepared to contribute.The recently-announced doubling in annual support is a further encouraging sign that politicians are at last recognising the enormous, urgent dimensions of the flood threat around our coast. Even so, funding is below the level many experts regard as the minimum to keep existing defences in good repair, let alone develop the extensions necessary to meet new climatic threats. The second editorial appeared on Monday, after my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food toured stricken areas in my constituency and in his own neighbouring constituency, and defended the 70 per cent. national, 30 per cent. local split of sea defence funding. That editorial reported that my right hon. Friend cautioned critics of Britain's sea defence programmes that a balance must be struck between national and local funding. It is not clear why a small island like Britain should regard the protection of its coastline in these them-and-us terms. My right hon. Friend commented that maritime local authorities gain from sea defence and so have an interest in them. Is the Royal Navy's defence of Britain a 30 per cent. charge on maritime local authorities? Of course not. The article concluded: It is unreasonable to equate interest with ability to contribute almost a third to the vast capital costs. Our own preference is for the national comprehensive strategy which Mr. Gummer finds unnecessary. But even if we are to accept the system now in place, more urgency, imagination and, not least, more money are needed if Britain is to hold back the sea. I wrote to my right hon. Friend the new Secretary of State for the Environment asking him to examine the 70 per cent. to 30 per cent. split when he reviews local government finance.

No one seriously expects the dream of permanent, unbreachable sea and flood protection ever to come true, but our coastal defences can be organised in such a way as to give us more confidence that warnings can save life and keep damage to a minimum—but only if we get on with that task now.