Michelham Priory

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:00 pm on 15th September 2020.

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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.