Orders of the Day — Bird Reserves

– in the House of Commons at 9:15 pm on 2 December 1997.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Ms Bridget prentice.]

Photo of Mr David Prior Mr David Prior Conservative, North Norfolk 10:01, 2 December 1997

I am delighted to have secured a debate on the impact of coastal erosion, saltwater and flooding on bird reserves and wetlands. The matter is of vital concern not only to people living on the coast but to many bird watchers throughout the country.

It is difficult to imagine, when standing in the Chamber, what it is like to walk along the coasts of Norfolk and Suffolk, with that wonderful Norfolk sky above one and the sea pounding into the beach. As one walks along the beach, one will see that there are very few cliffs, because all that separates the sea from most of the land is raised beaches, shingle and shingle banks.

In so far as there are cliffs, they are largely composed of clay and sand, and the coast is retreating all the time. At places such as Benacre and Covehithe in Suffolk one can see yards of land given up to the sea every year. I went to Cley in my constituency in February 1996, just after the main flood in that month. There was 6 ft of water across the Cley and Salthouse marshes, and much of the village was flooded. There were six breaches in that year.

I have since been back several times, once with the Royal Society for the protection of Birds. The ferrymen at Morston, the fishermen at Wells and Salthouse and the wildfowlers who operate along that part of the coast tell me that there are more ducks and geese now than there were 40 or 50 years ago. That is testament to the essential vitality of the habitat.

There are few more exhilarating sights than the Brent geese rising at Minsmere or sounds than the calling of widgeon at the mudflats at Blakeney or the boom of the bittern over the Cley marshes; but all is not well along that part of the coast. Sea levels are rising, partly because of climatic changes but also because of the long sink of the eastern part of the country, which has been in progress since the ice age.

The best guess of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is that, by the year 2050, sea levels will have risen by about 50 cm. What is probably worse for this part of the world is the growing unpredictability of the weather, with high tides and strong storms. Local people fear that Governments, regardless of their political persuasion, will take action only when it is too late, and that funds will be available to take action only when their houses and bird reserves are under water.

There are two essential habitats close to the sea that I wish to speak about. The first is the salt marshes, many of which have been squeezed between rising sea levels and coastal defences. It is estimated that about a third of the salt marsh in East Anglia has gone in the past 15 years.

The second—and much more important—habitat is the freshwater wetlands comprising lagoons, grazing marshes and reed beds. About 50 per cent. of the United Kingdom's freshwater reedbeds are located in East Anglia. Those important wetlands mainly shelter behind shingle banks, which have become weakened by constant breaches, by a diminution in the natural supplies of shingle and by constant bulldozing, which has reduced their integrity.

In Norfolk and Suffolk, we have three bird reserves of international importance, at Minsmere, Cley and Titchwell. They have their high-profile birds—we have 14 of the 20 known booming bitterns in this country, we have marsh harriers and we have bearded tits—but for the amateur twitcher such as myself, it is the great mass of pintail, mallard, widgeon, geese of all kinds, avocets, terns which nest on Blakeney point, snipe and lapwing that make that part of the country unique.

Those sites are recognised in the Ramsar convention and under the EU bird directive and habitats directive as sites of international importance. Hundreds of thousands of people visit Titchwell, Cley and Minsmere each year. Those habitats are at risk.

I should like tout three points to the Minister. First, we must have a national strategy for our coastline. At the moment, responsibility falls between cash-strapped district councils, the Environment Agency, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Surely it would make sense to have one body to co-ordinate activities, to ensure that shore management plans are properly integrated, to pool expertise, to avoid duplication and, above all in the context of this debate, to ensure that environmental considerations are given a higher weighting.

Existing shore management plans assume that a further 770 hectares of freshwater reserves will be lost in the foreseeable future. I do not believe that that is acceptable.

Secondly, on funding, MAFF recently proposed a new funding formula, which North Norfolk district council believes will greatly discriminate against rural areas in favour of urban areas. It will do so because it is much easier to assess the economic benefits in an urban area than to assess the intangible value of environmental assets. Specifically, I ask the Minister to consider giving greater recognition to the value of wildlife habitats and adjusting the MAFF formula accordingly.

Thirdly, there should be effective mechanisms and financial incentives to create replacement habitats where existing sites cannot be maintained. The Royal Society for the protection of Birds and I are not asking for existing sites to be preserved at all costs. Obviously, there will be times when the economics do not stack up or, for geological or landscape reasons, coastal defences do not make sense, but in those cases we should like new habitats to be established so that there is not a net loss of habitat in freshwater areas.

I recommend the Minister, if he is ever in north Norfolk, to spend a few minutes at Stiffkey, where he will see that Lord Buxton has recreated a new freshwater habitat designed to—

Photo of Mr David Prior Mr David Prior Conservative, North Norfolk

Perhaps the Minister has been there. That habitat was created with the bittern especially in mind.

There is an urgency about this matter. It would be tragic if we had to have this same discussion in two, three or four years' time when these areas have been flooded. The Minister will know of the damage that saltwater can do to these habitats. Only this year, the bittern population at Cley has declined dramatically owing to the saltwater flooding of just a year ago. I would ask the Minister to consider a funded, comprehensive plan of action for the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts, giving greater emphasis to rural areas and wildlife interests; and where habitat loss is unavoidable, ensuring that it is replaced elsewhere.

Photo of Bob Blizzard Bob Blizzard Labour, Waveney

I should like to add my support to virtually everything the hon. Gentleman has said. The wetland nature reserves of the Suffolk coast attract significant numbers of visitors, just as they must do in Norfolk. They are thus of economic benefit to my constituency and the surrounding area. While I support the environmental thrust of the hon. Gentleman's argument, I would also point to the economic value of coastal protection schemes.

Photo of Mr David Prior Mr David Prior Conservative, North Norfolk

The hon. Gentleman is right. Tourism is a vital part of the economies of Suffolk and north Norfolk.

Photo of Dr George Turner Dr George Turner Labour, North West Norfolk

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that only yesterday I opened a new visitor centre at Titchwell which already attracts about 140,000 visitors a year. As well as their international importance for wildlife, these unique places on the north Norfolk coast are also some of the jewels in our tourist industry—Titchwell is a good example. I hope that the Minister will take account of that when allocating resources to protect this sort of environment.

Photo of Mr David Prior Mr David Prior Conservative, North Norfolk

I agree. The three bird reserves, Minsmere, Cley and Titchwell, are unique assets that bring many visitors to Suffolk and north Norfolk.

Photo of Ian Gibson Ian Gibson Labour, Norwich North

I welcome the debate because I believe that an ecological disaster is waiting to happen, not just in Norfolk but throughout the world. Saltwater infusion causes the death of the freshwater fish on which the birds feed and breed. On the broads, the salination of the wetlands owing to higher sea levels is the cause of considerable anxiety.

The climatic research unit at our local university of East Anglia made the national headlines today for pointing out that there will be temperature rises—despite all the good work that we hope will be done in Kyoto this week. That will mean that the sea will rise, and these magical areas in Norfolk and the rest of the world will find that their habitats will be compromised—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat when I am on my feet. This is an Adjournment debate in which a short intervention is permitted, but not a speech—unless the hon. Gentleman has the prior permission both of the hon. Member who initiated the debate and of the Minister.

Photo of Mr David Prior Mr David Prior Conservative, North Norfolk

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. There is no doubt that a fundamental change which will affect sea levels is under way. There are limits to what Governments or anyone else can do to limit the implications. The difficulty for wildlife habitats is that there is, in a sense, nowhere for the sea to go because of developments along the coast. If the coastal roads and houses had not been built, the coastline would have found its own natural place. However, that is not the position.

If we want to preserve these habitats, some of them will have to be moved. The Minister will be aware of the claybank scheme at Salthouse, which is being proposed with the general support of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and others. Even with that scheme, which is generally recognised to be a good one, we will lose one third of the grazing marshes at Salthouse. That is a price which we will have to pay.

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Conservative, Mid Norfolk

I reinforce the comments of the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson). There is a major impact not only on the north Norfolk coast, but on the whole of Norfolk and Suffolk and my constituency, which borders the Broads. All the people who live in the area feel that the environmental changes will have a major impact not just on the wildlife, but on the areas in which they live. As my hon. Friend said, unless action is taken soon, we will have to take retrospective action, when it will almost certainly be too late.

Photo of Mr David Prior Mr David Prior Conservative, North Norfolk

I thank my hon. Friend. We should pay tribute to the work being done by the Environment Agency in protecting the Norfolk Broads. The scheme at Sea palling and Hattisburgh—the offshore reach—is remarkable. It is not yet proven scheme, but it is a remarkable feat of engineering.

I know that the parliamentary Secretary is a keen birdwatcher. I am sure that he has that at the forefront of his mind. In Norfolk and Suffolk, the issues that I have raised are crucial, and many people outside the area will listen carefully to what he says tonight.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Secretary (Fisheries and the Countryside), Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food 10:15, 2 December 1997

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Mr. prior) on the way in which he has pursued this Adjournment debate. He has spoken with great authority and knowledge. The matter is important, and I am delighted to see so many hon. Members present for the debate.

I welcome the contributions of the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner)—I envy any hon. Member who has palace as marvellous as Titchwell in his constituency—of my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard), who mentioned the similar problems and pressures experienced on the Suffolk coast, and of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who described the problems of global warming and rising sea level—an issue raised by the hon. Member for North Norfolk.

I am aware of the problems of habitat loss and the practicalities of recreating the habitat elsewhere. The hon. Gentleman painted a wonderful picture of the north Norfolk coast. It is an area with which I am extremely familiar, having gone there for many years. I know the Minsmere, Cley, Titchwell and Salthouse bird reserves very well, and have spent many happy hours there pursuing many different species—not always with great success.

In East Anglia alone it has been estimated that more than 770 hectares of internationally important wetlands are at risk from coastal erosion and saltwater flooding. The hon. Gentleman asked—quite reasonably—what is being done to protect them. I visited Cley, not while it was flooded, but shortly afterwards, and I saw the damage caused to the habitat there. I am aware of the understandable concern of local people.

The United Kingdom is laying a leading role in the protection of key habitats, birds, plants and animal species through the on-going programme of special protection areas for birds, special areas of conservation for key habitats and species other than birds, and Ramsar designations for important wetlands.

The SPAs and proposed SACs will form part of the largest Europewide network of Nature 2000 important wildlife sites. In Norfolk, two overlapping such sites are the north Norfolk coast SPA and Ramsar site, and the proposed Wash and north Norfolk coast coastal SAC. They encompass a number of habitats of prime importance including fresh and saltwater grazing marsh, reedbeds, salt marsh and shingle structures.

Those are among the 38 key habitats identified by the UK biodiversity steering group as requiring urgent conservation action. In addition, they are home to a number of rare birds, animals and plants. Action plans for coastal floodplain, grazing marsh and reedbeds were published, together with 12 other key habitats as part of the steering group's 1995 report.

Implementation of these plans has now begun and among the actions proposed are the conservation, creation and re-establishment of such habitat types. Action plans for the remaining key habitats, including salt marsh and shingle structures, are being prepared and we expect to publish them by the end of 1998. Such habitat improvement work is also being undertaken as part of the salt marsh option of the Ministry's habitat scheme. That has considerable scope for recreating habitat.

Over the past decade the Ministry has been developing an integrated and strategic approach to sea defence and coast protection. I shall deal with the questions raised by the hon. Member for North Norfolk on that issue. I shall deal also with shore management.

The hon. Gentleman raised an important point about the need for co-ordination, an issue that needs to be considered. I shall take it up with my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the funding formula for flood and drainage schemes. I can reassure him in that he is right in saying that a funding formula has been reintroduced. That is right and proper because if there are limited resources there must be a priority scheme. It is necessary to identify the schemes that must be given to priority in terms of Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food spending and capital grant. Within the new formula, for the first time, environmental factors are recognised. That will be to the benefit of many rural schemes as it will be to the benefit of important habitat areas such as those which have been discussed tonight. I shall deal later with the replacement of habitats.

In 1993 the Ministry published, with the Welsh Office, a strategy for flood and coastal defence. The strategy set out a comprehensive framework within which Government and the operating authorities can work. In particular, the strategy advocates that defence measures should be based on an understanding of natural processes and, as far as possible, work with those processes. It is for operating authorities such as the Environment Agency and local authorities to assess what measures are needed to reduce flooding and coastal erosion in their areas, and to come forward with plans for dealing with those problems that are cost-effective and sound in engineering and environmental terms. For its part. the Ministry makes grant aid available for capital defence schemes which meet these criteria. They are now part of the formula.

As part of the strategic approach to flood and coastal defence problems, the Ministry encourages operating authorities to take and consider a wide range of possible options. It has also promoted the setting up of coastal defence groups, which provide a forum for discussion and co-operation and help ensure that coastal processes taking place within particular stretches of coast are taken into account.

To assist those groups in the strategic management of discrete stretches of coast, the Ministry has encouraged the preparation of shoreline management plans and has issued guidance on their preparation. The aim of the plans is to provide a basis for sustainable coastal defence policies and to set objectives for the future management of coastline, taking into account natural coastal processes, coastal defence needs, environmental considerations, planning issues and current and future land use.

Plans should be the subject of wide consultation with all bodies with an interest in the coastline and should take due account of other coastal initiatives. Coastal groups also play an important role in integrating SMPs with the work of local planning authorities with a view to avoiding problems in the future by discouraging inappropriate development.

Shoreline management plans are intended to be living documents and will need to be reviewed at regular intervals.

Mr. Tam Dalyellk:

What is my hon. Friend's policy on sand dunes and their preservation?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Secretary (Fisheries and the Countryside), Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

My hon. Friend raises an issue that is slightly beyond the scope of the debate. I know that he has raised it because sand dunes and sand dune stability are an important part of preventing coastal erosion. There are strategies for dealing with the issue that involve the planting of suitable grasses and vegetation, along with proper management plans. We listened to the advice of our statutory advisers—English Nature in England and the appropriate countryside bodies in Scotland and Wales.

We intend to have a timetable for reviews, which should be included in shoreline management plans. This approach enables evolving knowledge of physical processes, environmental issues and land use to be drawn into the planning process.

As our understanding of coastal processes has improved, we have seen attention turn to adapting and supplementing the natural processes with the aim of adopting responses to flood and erosion risk that are more environmentally acceptable and sustainable in engineering terms. By moving sea walls landward, we may be able to reinstate areas of valuable salt marsh and intertidal flat, and, by creating a new buffer zone seaward of the defended line, improve the defences. This "managed realignment" has been piloted at a number of sites in Essex by a series of joint projects involving the Ministry, the Environment Agency, English Nature and the National Trust. These trials are still in progress, but preliminary results suggest that good results can be obtained. A consensus is emerging that managed realignment will play a significant part in the future management of low-lying coasts, and a joint Environment Agency/ English Nature policy paper on the subject is in preparation.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

I had a meeting earlier today on this very subject. We discussed the precise examples in Essex that the Minister has given. The creation of the new salt marshes conflicts to some extent with the water abstraction policy of some of the water companies. Does he have any view on that in respect of the trials?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Secretary (Fisheries and the Countryside), Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that in Essex that was not the case. When using that strategy, other considerations have to be taken into account, and water abstraction is one. We have to look at where it is most appropriate for such a policy to be implemented. That is part of the study that is taking place.

I am aware that some environmental and conservation bodies feel that the current initiatives do not go far enough. However, as the hon. Member for North Norfolk has acknowledged, these are very difficult and complex issues and their resolution is still very much in its infancy. That is why Ministry officials have already been involved in a series of discussions with colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the Environment Agency and English Nature about how we might resolve them.

In some cases, the managed realignment of flood defences will be the best option in terms of sustainability and cost. In other cases, it may not be appropriate to spend large amounts of public money for little environmental gain. We do not yet have a full picture of what area of freshwater coastal wetland is at risk. English Nature, the Environment Agency and the Countryside Council for Wales have just commissioned a joint study that will assess the potential impact of coastal processes on internationally important sites around the coast of England and Wales by utilising shoreline management plans. The report, due next year, will give us a clearer picture of the extent of the problem. The sites that the hon. Gentleman has discussed tonight will be included within the management plan, and it will be an opportunity to look at the serious issues that he has raised. I am particularly pleased that the Ministry initiative—shoreline management plans—will allow a better understanding of the natural impacts in environmentally important coastal sites.

As I have said, there are no easy answers to these problems, but I am grateful to English Nature, the Royal Society for the protection of Birds and other conservation bodies for their contribution to the debate in their leaflet entitled "Coast in Crisis". They, too, accept that it may not be possible or, indeed, wise to try to protect some sites from flooding. Building new sea walls or continuing to maintain existing walls may disrupt the natural processes of erosion and deposition of sediments and simply shift the problem—or create a new problem—elsewhere.

It is worth mentioning that the avocet—the symbol of the RSPB—has returned to Britain, and its habitat is the result of a breach in the floodbank due to the failure of sea defences. The point that I am making is that, sometimes, changes to the coast, to the wetlands, can have beneficial as well as detrimental effects in terms of wildlife.

The decisions that are taken must try to achieve a balance between the various competing interests. Although human health and safety must be paramount, it may mean that tough decisions will have to be taken in relation to the enormous investment and costs of flood defence and sea defence. I can assure hon. Members who have spoken so eloquently tonight and made so well the case for coastal protection that we will take into account very carefully the points that they have made in this short debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.