Michelham Priory

– in the House of Commons at 6:42 pm on 15th September 2020.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David Duguid.)

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Conservative, Wealden

This urgent debate is about the viability and future of Michelham Priory, a medieval, historic Sussex feature in my beautiful constituency of Wealden. First, I must place on the record my thanks to Helen Anson and Lindsay Lawrence, two superb women who manage and run Michelham Priory with their hands tied behind their backs by the Environment Agency, whose failure to maintain water flows means that the priory’s moat is now on the brink of being completely lost. The Environment Agency—yet another unaccountable, bureaucratic and faceless body that is both exploiting Michelham Priory and, as I will argue, breaching its obligations—must be held responsible not only for the environmental damage, but the financial damage to the priory, as its lack of action has the priory in absolutely dire straits.

Michelham Priory is situated on a more than nine-acre site. It is designated an ancient monument and contains a grade I listed building that became a country house in the 1930s, homing many young children as they were evacuated from war-torn Britain during the second world war. It is a unique local gem in an area of nature conservation importance and attracts visitors from all across the country. However, it is at imminent risk of being lost forever.

Michelham Priory boasts Britain’s longest continual medieval water-filled moat, which stretches a mile and encircles the site. It is fed by the River Cuckmere and is a crucial factor in determining the atmosphere and tranquillity of the priory, and it is a vital component for weddings and other functions taking place at the priory. However, due to gradual silt deposition and the increasing invasive growth of aquatic plants, the moat has been deteriorating and must be desilted imminently or it will be completely lost. The site is currently run by the Sussex Archaeological Society, which has spent eight long, painful years trying to work with the Environment Agency to address the issues of sluice gates and desilting. Sadly, the Environment Agency has put hurdles in front of the society at every opportunity for eight years.

The Environment Agency is failing in its duty to operate and maintain two water-controlled structures that should let water from the River Cuckmere in and out of the priory moat. It shut the gate on the moat some 20 years ago, and has not been providing silt and water management of the River Cuckmere. That has caused the silting and drying up of the moat, as there is no significant throughflow of water. Cutting the moat off from the water supply from the River Cuckmere means that there is a total loss of water during the summer and autumn months, and currently, the only opportunity for a water supply to the moat is from continuous heavy rainfall. Subsequently, the moat has had its aquatic life decimated, which has damaged a unique natural ecosystem and caused huge regrowth of invasive vegetation.

When the Sussex Archaeological Society approached funding bodies to raise funds to save the moat, and attempt to maintain its listed Historic England status, it found that potential funders needed there to be an effective plan of water management in place. Such a plan would mean that when the moat is fully desilted, people could be assured that silt deposition would not recur in the short term and undermine the charitable objectives of the grant. The Sussex Archaeological Society is more than happy to clear the silt out of the moat, but the fundamental difficulty is that unless the Environment Agency repairs its sluice gates on the moat, the problem will keep recurring. Unless the gates are repaired and fully functional, the desilter would be a waste of the £800,000 needed for silt removal. We are not asking for any funding from any agency; we want the Environment Agency to step up and do its work. Because of the reluctance of the Environment Agency to commit to repairing its sluice gates, the society cannot apply for any financial aid to clear the moat.

The priory also has a unique working water mill—indeed, there has been one on the site since 1255. It is listed with Historic England, which clearly states that it is fed by the River Cuckmere. However, the Environment Agency has refused to acknowledge the priory’s milling rights, choosing to describe a river bypass around the site as the real River Cuckmere. The priory’s researchers have examined historical documents relating to the water mill, and they believe that the priory is entitled to ancient milling rights that are traceable back to the 1400s. Those ancient milling rights state that the priory must be supplied with two feet and nine inches of water, which must be in the moat at all times—they have definitely done their research—but the moat does not receive that water.

Although the Environment Agency has allowed water to be pumped directly from the stream into the moat, calculations show that to replenish the moat in such a way would take more than one month of continuous pumping of water. The mill has been unable to produce flour for sale since 2017, and the society has been unable to fundraise for urgent conservation of the water mill, due to the key component: lack of water. In the unprecedented times in which we find ourselves due to covid, a facility such as the mill is vital. The shortage of flour during spring was noted all over, particularly on television and among our constituents, and I believe even by you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Getting hold of flour was so hard that it became far more expensive than gold, and although we have a functioning mill, it cannot operate because of the Environment Agency.

The gradual loss of the moat has resulted in a loss of nearly £0.5 million of income over three years, due to the decrease in wedding bookings, photoshoots, and filming opportunities. The reduction in income has put the 175-year-old Sussex Archaeological Society at risk of closure. On top of these challenges, it has also had to deal with the pandemic, which has led to a loss of revenue. I argue that the Environment Agency is also responsible for the half a million pound shortfall in income, which is down to its irresponsible behaviour with the priory. The silting up of the moat has also caused the island’s water table to change. The change in levels of soil moisture has led to a gradual drying up of the listed buildings that have stood on the site for centuries. Not only is this causing great damage to the site, it is also resulting in additional maintenance and conservation costs for the society. I say to the Minister that, once again, the Environment Agency is responsible for those costs as well.

To add to the absurdity of the situation, in 2017, the Environment Agency found legislation that it claims meant that the Michelham Priory moat should be classified as a reservoir. So after eight years of negotiation, this is the absurdity that the Environment Agency comes up with. It is preposterous and unacceptable that we now have an empty medieval moat that has had to be classified as a reservoir despite not containing any water. Britain’s longest medieval water-filled moat lies empty because the faceless organisation that is the Environment Agency is unable to fulfil its obligations.

Michelham Priory is a wonderful piece of history and I am proud that Wealden is home to the UK’s longest medieval water-milled moat. It is absolutely vital that the moat is restored and that the water mill is operational again. It is staffed by wonderful people and, of course, by volunteers. The head gardener, James Neil, is incredibly passionate about the work that he does to keep the heritage site thriving and, of course, also oversees all the other volunteers who are exhausted after eight years of negotiations that have led to no responsible action being taken by the Environment Agency.

What is interesting is that the priory and the volunteers are not asking for any funding. They actually have a plan to fix this, but they urgently need to know the Environment Agency’s plans to repair and maintain the two gates in order to obtain the funds needed to desilt the moat and manage it going forward. If the Environment Agency is unable to provide any concrete answers as to why it is unable to address this case, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to get to the bottom of the matter. Why has it taken eight years for no strategy to have been put in place? Why do random people from the Environment Agency turn up at the priory without any understanding of the situation and without any answers as to how they can solve the problem?

I urge the Minister to outline what steps she can take—I appreciate that it is an arm’s length agency—to hold the Environment Agency to account and to ensure that Michelham Priory receives the attention and support it deserves from the Environment Agency. I know that it can be incredibly difficult for a departmental Minister to bring an agency in hand, but this is a critical case for us in Wealden. I hope the Minister understands how important this priory is for us, not because of its social and historical impact, but because of its economic impact on the community that it serves and right across the country—especially in east Sussex. I hope that she can also appreciate the frustration that we feel in east Sussex at having to deal with an agency that has failed to deliver over eight whole years. I hope that she can respond in a positive way to my constituents at the priory.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 6:53 pm, 15th September 2020

I congratulate my hon. Friend Ms Ghani on securing this Adjournment debate and on putting her case very strongly, and rightly so because it is such an important part of her constituency. Michelham Priory is, as she says, a grade I listed building. It is one of our foremost Augustinian priories, with a rich history, stretching back nearly 800 years. With its grade I listing, it boasts Britain’s longest continuous medieval water-filled moat, which is quite something actually, because only 2.5% of England’s 400,000-plus listed buildings are classed as grade I, so it is special.

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is essential that we do what we can to protect the historic environment, including the priory. As she mentions, the Environment Agency over many years has held many meetings with the Sussex Archaeological Society, the owners of the priory, to discuss matters of water management relating to the priory. Those conversations started long before my hon. Friend came to this place. Nevertheless, I understand that a key concern of the Sussex Archaeological Society has been to avoid flooding the priory grounds in the winter and drying out the moat in the summer—something which obviously has deterred the holding of events at the priory, which provide important income for the society. It is the Environment Agency that has to manage the water control structures to reduce that flooding aspect—that is one of the key areas that comes under its hat. Unfortunately, because of the wide expanse of the moat, fed by high flows through channels in the winter, salty river deposits have built up naturally. I have been told that at the moment the moat is 80% filled with silt. That can result in its drying out in the summer months, and there is a risk that the moat will be lost to posterity if it is not looked after, as my hon. Friend says.

To prevent the moat from drying up, in the past, the Environment Agency operated the upstream controls to divert the Cuckmere river into the moat, but that approach created an impassable barrier to fish, so it had to cease. My hon. Friend has not mentioned that then there appeared in the moat a plant called floating pennywort, a non-native invasive species that grows incredibly rapidly and is responsible for swamping waterways, blocking water flow, clogging up water channels, crowding out native plants and taking oxygen from fish and insects. It is not found anywhere else on the Cuckmere river. The landowner, the Sussex Archaeological Society, has a duty to prevent the spread of the infestation, and diverting the river through the moat in the summer months would have increased the chances of the plant’s escaping into the wider river environment. To intentionally do so would be classed as a criminal act. That is one of the big dilemmas of the situation.

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Conservative, Wealden

This is a medieval moat. I do not think the Environment Agency can come up with excuses of potential flooding when the moat has been in place longer than any person of expertise within the Environment Agency. The archaeological society, including the staff I mentioned within the priory, has procedures in place to make sure that no crime is committed. It just needs an understanding from the Environment Agency that it will open the sluice and let the water flow.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank my hon. Friend for that point, but I think she is slightly missing the point that if one let the water flow, the pennywort would flow out. The pennywort is a real obstacle in the chain of sorting this out, and that is what needs to be addressed.

I have talked very closely with the Environment Agency about this and I do get this point, which needs to be addressed. I would say—and will reiterate as I go through— that I think more conversations need to be held about this, because it is one of the keys to unlocking what I believe my hon. Friend is aiming to achieve.

The Environment Agency is managing the floating pennywort in the moat on the society’s behalf at its own expense because, even confined within the moat, it needs to be reduced. The agency is trying to tackle it, as part of its commitment and duties to conserve the environment and protect the downstream Cuckmere river. I want to be clear that the Environment Agency has duties in respect of the river, but they are very much in terms of protecting the wider environment; that is the agency’s role.

If my hon. Friend would like to discuss these matters further, I have asked the Environment Agency to meet her in order to further that.

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Conservative, Wealden

I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene again. The frustration is that there have been meetings over eight years—eight whole years during which the priory has been and is absolutely committed to working with the Environment Agency, taking on board any of the financial implications of desilting, and managing the plants; but the Environment Agency has not come up with a plan. How many more meetings can I expect them to have, after eight years have delivered nothing from the agency?

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am not surprised—this is the case that my hon. Friend has been making since the beginning. As she says, for the moat to be reinstated to a healthier and more resilient condition, the pennywort needs sorting out and the silt needs removing. Environment Agency staff have offered advice to the Sussex Archaeological Society about methods of silt removal and suggested efficient ways of dealing with the silt that could reduce the cost of the operation. They also offered to help with obtaining the permit to do the work, which obviously has to be achieved.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David Duguid.)

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 7:00 pm, 15th September 2020

The Environment Agency has suggested that the Sussex Archaeological Society can abstract 20,000 litres of water a day from the adjacent Cuckmere river channel without a permit, which would provide a source of water other than the rainfall that is naturally filling up the moat. That is another offer that the Environment Agency made.

I understand that the society was developing a plan for the priory site that was to include restoration of the moat, alongside other conservation repair work, and I know that it has been working hard on that. Understandably, the full project has not yet come through because of the difficulties of the current pandemic. As my hon. Friend will appreciate, funding of the Sussex Archaeological Society is not within my portfolio, but I understand that the society has recently received funding, including a business resilience grant from the national lottery to fund an operations manager post for 18 months and £250,000 through the heritage emergency fund. An application has also been made to the culture recovery fund for a grant of almost £500,000, which is being assessed, with the decision expected next month. That all comes under the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport rather than the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but all that funding is potentially in the pipeline.

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s concerns that any plan the Sussex Archaeological Society makes depends on the Environment Agency’s own plans for managing river flows and the environment, so I have asked the Environment Agency to keep working constructively with the society. I gather that many of the faces in the society have changed recently, so that might offer a chink of hope for future progress. I should note that the Environment Agency has its own duties that have to be considered when developing these plans, but I am confident that an acceptable solution can eventually be found.

The water environment is under pressure. It has been heavily affected by human activity, including abstraction, pollution and historical modifications. That pressure will only build as the climate changes and with the demands of the growing population, and we all have a role to play to try to limit the impact. Our 25-year environment plan sets out our commitment to protect our environment and how we will do that, to ensure that we have not only a resilient water environment but an environment which supports the activities that depend on it. The Environment Bill, which I hope will return to Parliament shortly, will build on that and help us to improve the environment.

Finally, I encourage the Sussex Archaeological Society to continue to work constructively. I understand my hon. Friend’s frustration, but she is clearly doing a good job in getting on the case, and I urge her to continue that. She spoke eloquently and, in fact, fairly starkly, but I expect nothing less. I have asked the Environment Agency to keep up these talks. They have been ongoing for eight years, but it is important that we highlight the issue of the floating pennywort, which clearly has to be addressed before anything else can be sorted out.

I am interested in the mill. My hon. Friend should pursue the issue of the gate repair and have some conversations about that, but she will find that there is a good response on that, as it is linked to the pennywort. I also encourage the society to work with other local interest groups and potential partners to find some imaginative solutions to the challenging issue of managing this moat in what is clearly a wonderful grade I listed historic property. On that note, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will leave you with the image of the moat and the priory, and I thank my hon. Friend.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Thank you.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.