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.