Orders of the Day — Sea Defences (Norfolk)

– in the House of Commons at 11:30 pm on 4th July 2000.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Robert Ainsworth.]

Photo of Dr George Turner Dr George Turner Labour, North West Norfolk 11:44 pm, 4th July 2000

I am privileged to represent my Norfolk constituency. It is a good place to live and it is also particularly attractive to visitors; it has much to offer them. Much of the area that is the subject of this debate is important in residential and tourism terms, with its mixture of holiday parks and permanent properties as well as expanses of open land. However, it is also of international environmental importance, falling, as it does, within the Wash site of special scientific interest and a designated special protected area now formally recognised under the European habitats directive.

Currently, sea defences are mixed in character and include concrete walls and shingle embankments. In many parts, the beach itself is also an important feature of the defence. The need for effective sea defences in this part of Norfolk is well documented—the danger of flooding is writ large in the minds of my constituents. In 1978, flooding caused considerable disruption and damage to property, but in 1953 the position was tragically worse and 65 people died as a result of sea flooding.

Much has been done in west Norfolk since then, but I shall seek to persuade the Government that more needs to be done and, indeed, is overdue. In 1997, the Environment Agency, which has much delegated responsibility for these issues, published proposals for a "Hunstanton and Heacham Sea Defence Strategy". Its report pointed out that the residual life of some existing defences would be unacceptably low in the absence of recycling and maintenance. It concluded that current standards are too low, with existing practices and beach management insufficient.

The new strategy that the agency proposed involved a mixture of hard defences, beach nourishment and beach management. The strategy was in line with the shoreline management plans for both the Wash and north Norfolk. The estimated cost was some £10 million over five years. Locally, the plans enjoy wide support, and they will defend about £50 million worth of assets.

Following completion of the proposed strategy, the Government introduced a new points system on a pilot basis with the laudable object of providing a more rational basis for comparing competing schemes. The west Norfolk proposals were caught by the changes and remain the subject of heated debate. It is for the Environment Agency to carry out the required assessments under the points system. It is charged with ensuring value for money and sound engineering work. It is, however, for the Government to make final decisions. I understand that the Environment Agency will soon finalise its recommendations for our scheme.

There are, however, a number of important issues that I fear could be lost in the detail of the points scheme as explained to me. The most important of my concerns is over the proper assessment of the value to their owners and the community of the 3,500 essentially static caravans, mobile homes and park homes—call them what we will—that would be protected by the proposed scheme.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who is the Minister responsible for fisheries and the countryside, came to west Norfolk where he met and listened carefully to representations from some of those most directly involved. They included Terry Evans, the chairman of the Heacham beach bungalow owners association, and Richard Searle, whose family has provided family holidays in my part of Norfolk for many years and who also speaks at a national level for those in the park home industry.

Following my hon. Friend's visit and at his suggestion, I have met further with appropriate representatives of the Environment Agency. They were thorough in explaining the technical detail and I am grateful to them. However, happily, I do not need to dwell too much on the detail tonight, for my conclusion is that this is a case where the engineers and officials can advise, but the buck must rest very firmly indeed with Ministers. As explained to me, the technical argument is not conclusive. Politics not science will determine the outcome.

The nub of the problem was summarised in earlier correspondence with my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, who told me: Because most expenditure on flood and coastal defence falls on UK tax payers as a whole, costs and benefits have to be appraised from a National, rather than a regional, local, individual or corporate perspective. In the case of caravans, mobile homes and other temporary structures, it must be recognised that if a decision is taken to abandon a site, the National economic loss is limited as the actual assets still have a value if moved elsewhere. This is a key argument to be addressed in west Norfolk. In some circumstances, it may be entirely valid, but I would argue otherwise in west Norfolk. It is simply too narrow a viewpoint. A final decision needs to take a broader perspective. In modern parlance, we need joined-up government.

We also need to recognise the need for local and regional circumstances to be taken into account. In particular, we should have regard to the Government's policies for tourism and the need to encourage economic regeneration in rural areas such as mine. The Government have firmly identified tourism as a growth industry of particular importance in the rural economy, which is suffering from the major problems of agriculture. Will the Government not then acknowledge that the estimated £157 million contribution from tourism is a vital part of the west Norfolk economy?

However, 60 per cent. of all holiday accommodation is in caravans, mobile homes and park homes, and 90 per cent, of them are located in the coastal areas that are under threat. Ministers must not allow the current formula considerably to underestimate the costs of moving or replacing such accommodation and to ignore the huge negative impact that its loss would cause the local economy.

I understand the theoretical point that the accountants have made—after all, I was trained as a theoretical physicist. In a more perfect world, such erudite points would suffice, but what of the real world in which people have to make practical decisions? What do the Government expect owners of those properties to do? Richard Searle tells me that it would cost him more than £16 million to relocate his park, which contains only 15 per cent. of the pitches affected. That means that the bill for full relocation is estimated at £90 million.

How can owners square such practicalities with a theory that assumes a seamless move, without planning complications, to bare agricultural land valued without planning consent? When should owners abandon their current sites? If Richard Searle waits until a flood warning is given, it will be too late to protect his property. The alternative is effectively to abandon his business. Richard Searle's summary of the situation is forthright. He says: The loss of this holiday area would be devastating to both the individuals concerned and to the area. For a comparatively small cost, involving a modest change of policy this could all be avoided. Will the Government acknowledge that if parks such as Searle's were to move inland to escape the sea, which is the focus of attraction for many tourists, they would lose customers in droves? Is it realistic to assume that those displaced will simply go elsewhere in the UK? I doubt it. Much of the competition will be from Europe, and European competitors are increasing their investment in tourist areas, providing marinas and specialised bathing beaches, and protecting existing developments. I have little doubt that much of the tourism displaced from North-West Norfolk would be lost abroad. The high hurdles set for planning permissions for park home sites, which are almost a universal feature of many structure plans, would help to ensure that.

I have also had strong representations from private owners of properties in the threatened areas, including those of the association of bungalow owners at Heacham. Interestingly, their chairman, Mr. Terry Evans, lives in Cambridgeshire. Many properties are second homes or are let. Mr. Evans and those whom he represents are, of course, anxious to see their property protected, but they have particularly emphasised the real danger of loss of life with continued delay in the implementation of the proposed scheme. They make a good point.

During the periods of highest risk of flooding, there are nowadays increasing numbers of tourists in residence because the holiday season has become extended as more people take short breaks. There could easily be 10,000 people to be evacuated if there were a serious threat. I have been advised that proper evacuation would require about four hours' warning.

The threat is of high winds from the worst direction when tides are high. However, the tides in the area are notorious for coming in much more quickly than they go out, and the tide would still be out when warnings would be most effective. It would be only two hours later, as the tide came in, that it would become clear, with the onset of damage to defences, whether fears were well founded—and of course that might be too late.

There is then a dilemma for those responsible for flood warnings. If they wait too long, there will be much more damage and possible loss of life. But if they are perceived to cry wolf regularly, the final outcome could easily be even worse. Formulae do not give weight to such local factors; Ministers must.

From my briefing with officers of the Environment Agency, I understand that our scheme now sits on the threshold of the required points total of 22 out of a maximum of 30. However, I was sorry to hear that additional advice at the end of last year further changed the details in the way that costs and benefits are analysed, and raised the hurdle to be jumped by the scheme. Work was still proceeding when I spoke with the agency, but it was clear that that issue, too, could be make or break by autumn.

More positively, I was reminded that exceptions are considered when important environmental habitats are involved, which is an interesting contrast to the rule-bound approach which I have heard to date when pressing the interests of my constituents as people. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister can offer some assurance of balance in the final outcome.

I suggest that the time is fast approaching when Ministers will need to make decisions. With my own scientific and engineering background, I do not seek to undermine the usefulness of developing point-scoring systems. I am a former chairman of Norfolk education committee and I oversaw the introduction of just such a scheme in assigning capital funds for schools. However, formulae should inform political argument, not determine outcomes, and should provide guidance, not shelter for politicians.

Property and livelihoods are at stake in my constituency, and I ask the Government to add a dash of practicality to the theory. An important sector of the local economy in west Norfolk could be devastated and, of course, there must be overriding concern for the risk that getting it wrong poses to human life. My constituents' views are strongly held and I share them. We want a green light for the scheme.

I am pleased to note that, despite the lateness of the hour and her just-in-time arrival, my right hon. Friend the Minister has listened carefully to what I have had to say. Tonight, I know that I cannot realistically expect the decision that my constituents seek, but will she assure them that their case will be properly and carefully considered and that the points that I have made on their behalf will be appropriately weighted? Will she also assure them that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will give those points appropriate priority in his bid for Treasury funding in the spending review and in the allocation of Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food budgets?

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food 11:57 pm, 4th July 2000

I welcome the debate and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) on drawing the House's attention to this subject and, indeed, on the way in which he spoke.

Flooding and coastal erosion, with damage to or loss of land and property, is an important and emotive subject, and understandably so. The damage and distress sustained by those affected is often severe, and not just in economic terms. We have seen the effects of flooding recently in Todmorden and in Bishop Auckland. That served as a timely and regular reminder that natural forces can overcome man. Although natural events such as flooding and coastal erosion can probably never be entirely prevented, it is obviously right that public authorities that are empowered to take measures to alleviate the risk act where it is reasonable to do so.

Government policy is to reduce the risks to people and to the developed and natural environment from flooding and coastal erosion by encouraging the provision of technically, environmentally and economically sound and sustainable defence measures. Three key strands support that policy aim. First, we encourage the provision of adequate and cost-effective flood warning systems by grant-aiding them. We also support underpinning measures. For example, in the past year, the Environment Agency has produced indicative flood risk maps that show the areas most at risk of flooding. Those are important tools in deciding where flood warning systems are needed, but whatever warning systems are in place, individuals must take action to protect themselves—they need to heed warnings.

Hon. Members will remember the message in the Environment Agency's flood awareness campaign last winter, which was part funded by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food: "Floods don't just happen to other people". The risk to caravan parks and other vulnerable temporary occupancy sites was identified following the major flooding at Easter 1998, and the agency has written to site owners to raise awareness of flood risk with a request that they make visitors aware of such risks and of what they should do in the event of a flood.

Secondly, the Government encourage the provision of flood and coastal defence measures. We do so by providing grant aid to schemes that achieve an appropriate priority score—to which my hon. Friend referred—based on urgency, ministerial priorities and the cost:benefit ratio. Schemes also need to be sustainable. We cannot commit future generations to maintaining defences in areas where that is not sustainable. Defence measures need to be based on an understanding of natural processes and, as far as possible, should work with those processes.

As part of the strategic approach to flood and coastal defence problems, the Ministry has promoted the setting up of coastal defence groups which provide a forum for discussion and stimulus for co-operation, to help to ensure that coastal processes 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 the coastline, taking into account natural coastal processes, coastal defence needs, environmental considerations, planning issues and current and future land use. Shoreline management plans are intended to be living documents and will need to be reviewed at regular intervals. Indeed, a timetable for reviews should be included in the plans. The Ministry intends to issue revised guidance for the next generation of plans later this year.

It is for operating authorities to assess what measures are needed to reduce flooding and coastal erosion in their areas, and to produce relevant plans that are cost-effective and sound in engineering and environmental terms. It is important to recognise that, given the tremendous diversity of coastal formations in this country, there can be no uniform approach to coastal defence.

Coastlines recede or advance with changes in current, wind and tide. It is therefore unrealistic to expect that every inch of coastline will remain exactly as it is now. Instead, authorities must look at a range of options and consider what the impacts of defending a particular stretch of coast are, so as to avoid, wherever possible, burdening future generations with the maintenance of unsustainable defences.

The bulk of expenditure on flood and coastal defences is, of course, provided by the taxpayer. The Ministry and the operating authorities therefore have a responsibility to ensure that value for money is obtained when schemes are funded. Because the expenditure falls on taxpayers as a whole, costs and benefits of proposed schemes are appraised from a national, rather than a regional, local, corporate or individual perspective.

Although economic analysis is an important aid to decision making, I can tell my hon. Friend that it is not applied in isolation and authorities are required to consider other matters, including environmental impact and sustainability, when deciding where investment in defences should be directed and determining the optimal solution.

The Government recognise the importance of sustaining flood defences and coast protection, and the outcome of the comprehensive spending review was that an additional £23 million was provided for Ministry funding over the past year, the current year and next year, bringing the total available to £230 million. Funding for future years will be considered in this year's spending review.

Next, the Government discourage inappropriate development in areas at risk from flooding and coastal erosion. I stress the word "inappropriate". It is necessary to ask whether it makes sense to place a development in a particular area. A key test is sustainability. Even if defence measures are put in place today to protect a new development, there will be continuing costs in maintaining them and in ensuring that they continue to do their job in decades to come, against the challenges of rising sea levels.

In 1992, guidance was issued to local planning authorities to steer development away from areas at risk of flooding. In April the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions issued a consultation draft of strengthened guidance, which will make flood risk a material consideration for local planning authorities. There is also guidance on the need for developers to make contributions to defences which are necessary as a result of a development, not just now, but throughout the likely lifespan of the development.

The Environment Agency remains a consultee on development proposals, and the agency's flood risk maps are important tools for local planning authorities in considering development plans and planning applications.

Having set out the Government's policy aim and objectives for flood and coastal defence, I should say that, however good they are, there is a need to ensure that they are delivered on the ground by some 650 operating authorities. In April this year the Government therefore put in place a series of high-level targets to help achieve a more certain delivery. We are requiring the operating authorities to produce policy statements to set out how they will achieve the Government's aims and objectives. There are targets in relation to identification and inspection of defences, recording of results and assessing flood and erosion risk. We will, of course, be reporting on the achievement of these targets.

I now turn to some of the specific matters that my hon. Friend raised. He knows that the Ministry provides grant aid for capital flood and coastal defences and coast protection schemes, which have to be technically sound, economically worth while and environmentally acceptable. In the face of ever increasing demands for funding, priority scoring arrangements were introduced in June 1997 on a pilot basis, with a view to optimising the allocation of available funds. The priority scores take account of ministerial priorities, which my hon. Friend mentioned, as well as urgency and cost:benefit ratio. I welcome my hon. Friend's very reasonable comments about the priority scoring system and his understanding of it, and I listened carefully to some of the reservations that he expressed about the system.

For the first time sites of environmental interest were specifically identified within ministerial priorities, which of course also recognise the emphasis placed on the protection of life and hence on those parts of the country where large numbers of people live and work. The priorities are, first, flood warning; secondly, urban coastal and tidal defences, and environmental assets of international importance; thirdly, urban flood defences; fourthly, rural coastal and tidal defences, existing rural flood defences and drainage works, and environmental assets of national significance; and fifthly, new rural flood defence works and environmental assets of local significance.

We recognise that the priority scoring system may not be perfect; that is why we have regarded it as a pilot and indicated that we are prepared to consider revisions. A full review of the arrangements will be initiated later this year. However, it is in the nature of such arrangements that arguments are always made for higher priority, but rarely, if at all, for lower priority. Difficult choices therefore ensue.

In recognition of the United Kingdom's obligations towards internationally important habitats, the Government have decided that there must be no question of such habitats being lost. In some cases this could mean recreating habitats elsewhere as an alternative to saving a site, where strategic studies show this to be the more sustainable option. Where necessary, exceptional treatment regarding priority score will be considered for schemes designed to protect such habitats.

In relation to the defences for Hunstanton and Heacham, significant beach renourishment was undertaken in 1991 following agreement of a long-term strategy for the frontage. An ongoing programme of beach management has been in place since then. More recent reviews by the Environment Agency and its consultants have identified a number of shortcomings in the standards and longevity of the defences.

An updated sea defence strategy is being developed by the Environment Agency. It will need to satisfy the Ministry's engineering, environmental and economic criteria and be sustainable. If the works are to attract grant aid, they will need to equal, or exceed, the priority scores threshold; for the current year the threshold is 22.

A particular issue is the sustainability of the proposed defences in the light of the review of the earlier strategy. Also at issue is the priority score of the scheme. A significant component in this relates to economics, which I know my hon. Friend is aware of, in which the value to be attributed to caravans in the holiday park is a major factor. In the case of caravans, mobile homes and other temporary structures, it is recognised that if a decision is taken to abandon a site the national economic loss is limited, as the actual assets still have a value if moved elsewhere. The agency is reconsidering in this light—including consideration of whether a case can be made for an alternative approach to the economic methodology. Any such departure would need to be considered with colleagues in the Treasury for their guidance, too.

I hope that, in the light of my remarks, my hon. Friend will be reassured that my Ministry will receive further representations from him. I know that the Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), who leads within the Ministry on the issue, is keen to ensure that applicants for support are treated seriously and that their treatment is based on detailed examination of all the relevant issues.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past Twelve midnight.