Coastal Erosion

– in the House of Lords at 5:06 pm on 7th June 2000.

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Photo of Lord Bridges Lord Bridges Crossbench 5:06 pm, 7th June 2000

rose to call attention to the long-term problems caused by coastal erosion; and to move for Papers.

My Lords, the subject on which we now embark is no less contentious and difficult than that which we have just been debating. However, it is a good deal less well known. My motive in tabling the Motion is to try to draw public attention to the consequences of coastal erosion and to invite the Government to review some of their current arrangements for policy-making.

In order to understand this whole topic, one must begin with a brief account of the cause of the increase in coastal erosion which is taking place. The underlying cause of the growing problem is, of course, the increase in global warming. The Government have done much good work on this topic during their period of office, having undertaken a major publicity campaign to make the extent of global warming better known and having taken some difficult and rather controversial decisions to implement the agreements made at the Rio conference.

I have no quarrel with their actions on global warming. However, I suggest that the record on coastal erosion is somewhat less satisfactory. Erosion of our coastline is by no means a new phenomenon. The last time the matter was considered seriously by government was in 1905 when a Royal Commission was set up. It reported six years later. Things were evidently more leisurely in those days. The chairman was Lord Ashby of St Legers and the writer, Sir Rider Haggard, was one of its members.

The commission did much to establish a proper understanding of the main processes involved, particularly the way in which beaches are created. It explained that while beach material may be moved along the coastline and reshaped, that material provides the best protection against erosion. Therefore, the material should not be removed or lost. Interestingly, the commission concluded that in the previous century more land had been gained through accretion and drainage than by erosion. That is not something that we could say today. There has been a big and lasting change in the situation.

The outbreak of the First World War and the years of social and economic difficulty which followed diverted attention to more urgent issues and nothing was done. It is of particular regret that nothing was done to implement the recommendation that responsibility for all coastline issues should be concentrated in a single department. There is now good reason to regret that failure of political processes two generations ago. Coastal erosion is now a major problem for many regions of this country, particularly on the east and south coasts where the beaches and cliffs are made of soft and historically recent sedimentary deposits.

It is calculated that because of global warming, the sea level around our shores can be expected to rise by about half a metre over the next century. That reflects what is happening globally. The estimate is a gradual rise of between 40 and 50 centimetres per year by the year 2100. To that, unfortunately, must be added the continued steady sinking of the shoreline of eastern England, estimated to be a small amount of perhaps 2 millimetres annually as the underlying rocks adjust gradually to the thawing of the heavy layer of ice which used to cover north-west Britain in pre-historic times.

It is interesting that the deglaciation which took place in the 7th millennium BC is still having major consequences on our climate and the level of coastal erosion. The next deglaciation of the polar icecaps will also affect us. We can only speculate about what it will do. But it appears, for example, that the melting of the Greenland icecap may cause a diversion of the Gulf Stream in a northerly direction through the Denmark Strait and between Greenland and Iceland, turning its warm waters away from the west coast of Scotland towards Spitsbergen, the Barents Sea, Franz Josef Land and points east.

I venture to mention that because while the nature and extent of coastal erosion is uncertain in many respects, there is no doubt about its importance to us as a nation living as we do in a densely-populated group of islands surrounded by strong tidal currents washing vigorously against a soft coastline. Of our neighbours in Europe, only the Netherlands and Belgium have a greater density of population. We all know how seriously the Dutch take their coastal defences. It is my plea that we should do likewise.

I wish to make a specific suggestion that the Government should take steps to inform local authorities of the need to avoid construction of houses or factories in areas particularly at risk. It seems, for example, that the Thames Barrier will be unable to control serious occasional floods in London, even if the barrier and the embankment are increased in height. I have seen predictions that parts of London close to the Thames can expect such floods to occur regularly in the next century. I suggest that the DETR should make it a priority to inform local authorities concerned of the areas most likely to be affected and for local plans to be revised to avoid new construction there.

I should also like to draw attention to the publicity given in East Anglia where I live to the Government's evident desire to promote a new, high-technology electronic science park in a Fen between Cambridge and Huntingdon. As much of that area is below sea level and perhaps 35 miles from the Wash, that seems a little imprudent. Perhaps I may also remind the noble Baroness of the loss of the baggage train of King John containing all his portable values and current cash resources in that very area in October 1216. I suggest it would be mistaken to make such an important investment in that vulnerable area, at least until all the necessary improvements have been made to the coastal defences. We hear a great deal about joined-up thinking, but I think we would want to avoid joined-up swimming.

I turn to the organisation of the Government's work in this field. Traditionally, the Minister of Agriculture has been responsible for drainage and sea defences, and that is the case today. Policy advice on all-important technical aspects is provided by the Environment Agency which in turn derives expert knowledge from the Government's hydraulics research institute at Wallingford known as HR Wallingford, an expert group of international reputation.

Local knowledge is provided by the flood defence committees (FDCs) whose members are appointed partly by the Ministry of Agriculture and partly by county councils. Sector plans are drawn up by the FDCs. Their operations are funded by county councils and the rate support grant. It is, of course, the Treasury in Whitehall which controls the rate support grant. I do not believe that that is the ideal arrangement in the present circumstances. I must presume that Whitehall outlines the maximum spending limits, the spending envelope, and that that is the determining factor which shapes both the nature of expert advice as well as the decision of the local defence committee.

To illustrate what happens, I propose to quote from recent events in the area in which I live. My home is in a village in east Suffolk which lies on the estuary of the Alde and Ore, a single river which changes its name, confusingly, in mid-course. Rising in central Suffolk, it follows an easterly course until it reaches Aldeburgh where it meets a shingle bank dividing river and sea, perhaps only 30 metres wide. Here it turns south through 90 degrees and runs parallel to the sea for about 10 miles being separated from the sea by the substantial shingle spit of Orford Ness.

My home is 16 feet above sea level and some way from the river. We are in no danger of early immersion and I own no property beyond my home and garden, but I have a grandstand view of what is happening. A plan is being prepared for future management of the estuary. The Environment Agency appointed a firm of reputable consultants called Posford Duvivier, which worked in association with HR Wallingford. The terms of reference for that work were drawn so as to fall within MAFF funding guidelines. It is thus not surprising that a large area of land was held to be impossible to defend and was included in a special category called "Managed Retreat". That concept means that the existing earth embankments will not be reinforced or maintained and will be allowed to succumb to tidal action in the hope that each successive tidal flow will leave behind a sediment, thus encouraging fresh plant growth and recreating a self-sustaining grazing marsh. That is the hope. There have, indeed, been some places on the east coast where the plan has worked. But it is not yet clear whether that will work on Orford Ness where Lantern Marshes were for centuries a grazing marsh for animals.

First indications are unclear, but it is feared that the increased tidal currents will scour the plants still living on the marsh leaving behind a new, large, unusable mudflat of interest only to passing wading birds. Having inspected the site recently, I am inclined to suspend judgment for a while, but many of my neighbours suspect that the whole concept of managed retreat in this environment is unsound. It seems that the financial envelope within which the consultants operated did not permit them to consider seriously the option of a tidal barrier at the entrance to the estuary. I certainly think that that should have been looked at as we are told that the tidal flow in our estuary may increase in volume by as much as 40 per cent and in velocity by as much as 50 per cent. A tidal barrier would have tackled that problem at source.

Under current policy we shall lose some 5,000 acres of cultivated land if irrigated land made unusable through the entry of salt water into the aquifer is taken into account. This is a matter of some importance locally. It is an area which previously had been much dedicated to animal husbandry but, since the effects of the common agricultural policy, the animals have largely gone. The inventive local farmers have turned to light land irrigated from the aquifer on which they grow market garden crops and irrigated sugar beet. This will all stop once the salt gets into the aquifer and the water would not be able to be used for irrigation.

There is also the question of financial loss and insurance. House insurance does not normally cover damage caused by flood but prudent householders can generally obtain it for an extra charge. Let us take a common example. An elderly couple who decide to move to a coastal district on retirement may calculate that the rate of erosion they observe happening will not affect their home during their lifetimes. But if the sea accelerates its advance to, say, the one metre per year which is happening on the coast between Aldeburgh and Southwold, the family I postulate, would not be able to obtain or continue flood insurance cover when the sea approached their property. The property would become unsaleable in those circumstances. Such situations cause much human tragedy and one hears of families having to move into tents or trailers.

The House of Commons Select Committee, which reported on July 1988, recommended,

"a robust financial mechanism for the reimbursement of property holders whose assets are sacrificed for the wider benefit of the community".

I believe that was well put. The Government reply says that,

"transferring these responsibilities to the public sector would be expensive and difficult to justify".

Sniff! But surely it is difficult to justify doing nothing. In that regard I have a small practical suggestion to offer. Could not the Government examine a scheme like that in the United States, which has a national flood insurance scheme organised and underwritten by the federal government. That would not be unlike the underwriting in the last resort of the damage caused by riots in the City of London, which our Government already do after the breakdown of law and order. The two situations seem fairly analogous. In my book, the Government have a responsibility to protect our citizens and their homes and property from coastal erosion. After all, it is not something they can undertake by themselves.

Underlying all that, my main anxiety concerns the Government's administrative arrangements. It does not make much sense to me that a predetermined sum of money is fixed before an estimate is made of the damage which would be suffered if no protection is put in place. What we lack on coastal defence arrangements is a proper threat analysis, followed by an examination of what feasible defences might cost and what the value of lost property may amount to. That approach is not unlike that recommended by the Agriculture Committee in the other place. The Government's considered reply indicates a strong preference for the status quo. I urge them to reconsider this whole question. What is happening on our river suggests that the current system is not working and needs proper re-examination.

The Government's dilemma is, in a curious way, rather well summed-up in a poem by a 17th century writer, Andrew Marvell, in his poem called "The character of Holland". Marvell was a Cambridge scholar who succeeded Milton as Cromwell's Latin secretary. He knew Holland well and his poem contained the following six lines:

"Therefore necessity, that first made Kings,

Something like Government among them brings. For as with pygmees who best kills the Crane [a large bird] Among the hungry he that treasures Grain, Among the blind the one-eyed blinkard reigns, So rules among the drowned he that draines".

Paraphrasing Marvell's message in our own times, I believe it means this. If we live on an island, we must take care to defend it. Otherwise our successors at the end of the century may find that they live on an island of a very different shape. They may even lack the terrain on which their legs may stand.

This is one of those long-term problems which tend to be pushed to one side by other urgent tasks, and there are always plenty of them. But I hope that this Government, with their strong majority and sense of purpose, can address it in the way that it deserves. If they can do that, our successors will be grateful and know to whom to give the credit.

I look forward to hearing the other speakers on this subject. It is a pleasure to know that we are to hear the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, and I shall listen with great attention to what the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, says in reply for the Government. We know how seriously she prepares for these occasions. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Chesterton Lord Hunt of Chesterton Labour 5:23 pm, 7th June 2000

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, for introducing this timely debate. This gives me the opportunity to make my maiden speech on a topic that could hardly be more important for this House; namely, the future of our coasts and of the endangered communities which reside there. My great-grandfather built a home in Seagrove Bay, Isle of Wight, on clay foundations. It slipped into the sea 40 years later. I am sure that the new Baron Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay, whose home is nearby, will be more fortunate.

My training as an engineer, specialising in hydrodynamics, led on to a career in universities, industry and consulting. I worked on practical and research problems concerned with the environment, meteorology and climate. Indeed, our current research at University College touches on the polar questions just raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bridges.

I developed an interest in coastal problems and sea level rise when, for five and a half years, I was responsible for climate change research at the Hadley Centre, which is part of the Meteorological Office. Also, as chief executive of a trading fund agency of the Ministry of Defence, I oversaw more than 30 contracts with departments and agencies of government. I concluded that government can deal efficiently with complex problems through well-constructed, devolved arrangements between responsible agencies, provided that the overall objectives are clear, as again the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, explained.

I should like to raise a few points about how government and other responsible organisations can best manage the effects of climate change on coastal erosion. It is, I believe, a custom that a maiden speech is not controversial. Therefore, it is fortunate that in this country global warming is an accepted fact. That is not the case in some other countries.

International research has concluded that, as a result of human emissions of greenhouse gases, averages of ground-level air temperature will rise between 2 and 3 degrees Celsius over the next 100 years. That will produce average rises in sea level of between 0.3 and 0.5 metres over that time—again, figures which have just been mentioned. One hopes that the efforts of the international community, in which the UK plays a leading role, will be successful in reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. But even then the sea level will continue to rise for around another 100 years.

Another consequence of climate change is the likelihood of increasing floods driven by high winds and bigger ocean waves reaching our coast. The forecasting of coastal floods are now generally reliable, thanks to the computer models developed by the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory and the Meteorological Office. They enable warnings to be given up to five days in advance in some situations. They are used in the operation of the Thames Barrier and for flood warnings to communities. Such forecasts and warning procedures are essential, but are complementary to the long-term measures that have to be introduced for managing these coastal areas over the next 100 years. They will be expensive and may involve communities in considerable upheaval. The Government have a particular responsibility to explain those developments and to ensure that appropriate investigations and basic research are undertaken now to ensure that the right decisions are taken.

I was interested to read that in 1998 the agriculture committee and the speakers in the following debate in the other place all agreed about the progressive worsening of coastal flooding problems and that climate change would further exacerbate them. They and the Government agreed that flexible approaches are needed, with "hard" engineering solutions in some areas, but "adaptive" solutions in others to allow for controlled flooding of salt marshes and to develop the agriculture and landscape appropriately. It may even be possible to develop new economic activities, such as fishing and tourism from rising sea levels and warming sea temperatures, as some coastal areas return to the forms they had hundreds of years ago. Some historians have noted that there was as much employment in East Anglia before the Fens were drained as afterwards.

That brings me to the first of my three points. Choice of appropriate technical, economic and ecological long-term solutions are, at this stage of our knowledge, quite uncertain. Despite the recent advances in the subject based on the contributions of the great Victorian giants of hydrodynamics, Lord Kelvin, who was a Member of this House, and Sir George Gabriel Stokes, who was MP for Cambridge University in the other place, there are still major uncertainties in how large waves and currents interact in coastal waters. In geology there are uncertainties about how coastal sediments will move as the sea level rises. Engineering predictions can be at fault. There have been recent examples of sea defence works that have damaged the local environment and deterred tourism.

Not surprisingly, local communities now want to know more about those and all other environmental developments, what to expect and with what confidence technical solutions are being proposed. So it is essential that there be no further reduction in the research budget of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The research results from its work should be widely published as they become available. Indeed, the Royal Society made that point in recent submissions to the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser.

Next, as the agriculture committee indicates, there should be international comparisons, and I would add collaboration, in dealing with these problems. As chief executive of the Meteorological Office, I was the UK representative at the World Meteorological Organisation, which is the United Nations technical agency responsible not only for meteorology and climatology, but also for the practical aspects of flooding and water resources.

However, despite the huge economic and social importance of operational hydrology, as the subject is called, that activity within that organisation receives about 20 per cent of the funds received for meteorology. Within that organisation and in Whitehall I called attention to that anomalous situation, which is based on the misguided distinction of meteorology being international and hydrology being national because flooding and water movement are local factors, whereas winds blow across continents.

The fact is that coastal problems and rising sea levels are huge international problems. Our European neighbours in the Netherlands have much to tell us. Their research from practical experience is second to none, as indeed the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, mentioned. I believe that the UK's work on coastal problems should be developed in an international context. Meteorology greatly benefits from regular international comparisons in which, incidentally, the Meteorological Office does very well. Hydrology should move in the same direction.

My last point concerns the matter of leadership in this area. I welcome the emerging consensus that the Environment Agency should be more emphatic in its technical and administrative roles for coastal and flooding problems. Therefore, it would be natural if it became the lead agency for representing the UK at the World Meteorological Organisation in operational hydrological matters, and contributing to the costs of those international activities. Currently, that position is held by the excellent research establishment, the Institute of Hydrology, but it cannot provide the requisite funding.

I should like to thank the House of Lords' Library for help with background material. I thank your Lordships for your patient attention to these important technical and administrative issues. I hope that I may be able to return to them in later debates.

Photo of Lord Harris of High Cross Lord Harris of High Cross Crossbench 5:31 pm, 7th June 2000

My Lords, it falls to me, on behalf of the whole House, to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, to our counsels and to congratulate him on his most expert and thoughtful maiden speech. He comes to us as a Fellow of the Royal Society and currently professor in climate modelling at University College, London. I am not sure whether he will thank me for reporting that he was educated at Westminster School and at what I, as a Cambridge man, venture to call the better half of Oxbridge. Why is it not called "Camford"? That would afford us a certain amount of concealment from the attacks of Gordon Brown and others.

The noble Lord achieved his PhD at Warwick and after a short spell with the Central Electricity Research Laboratories, became a fellow of Cambridge University, senior research fellow at Trinity, and lecturer, reader and professor in fluid mechanics. Then he graced various American universities as visiting professor at Colorado, Arizona, Stamford and perhaps others.

The noble Lord had a spell as an entrepreneur with the Cambridge Environmental Research Consultants Limited and amidst all that he found time to be leader of the Labour group on Cambridge County Council. His most controversial sounding job to date was with the European Research Community on flow turbulence and combustion. Otherwise, there is not a quiver of argumentation. I hope that he will find time to come to the House frequently when such matters are discussed and to make a contribution. I regret only that, as a fellow Cambridge man, I may have to enter a note of dissent, if he will allow that.

I apologise to my noble friend Lord Bridges for sitting within a spear-thrust of him. Although I welcome much of what he said, I am afraid that in my principal contribution I shall bear witness to the fact that independents cannot be depended upon. I am glad that he has raised this issue because it comes at an important time for discussion of a particular example of coastal erosion which is dear to my heart and, I know, it is dear to the heart of the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon.

It is a good subject for us to discuss because we have no constituency interest to bias our judgment; we have no concern for short-term party political pleadings; and there are no narrow ideological lobbies, I hope, to bombard us with partisan briefs. We are free to write our own speeches.

However, with all that non-party introduction there is still scope for strong differences of judgment as to what may be done. In the specific case that I shall bring before your Lordships, I find myself at odds with other noble Lords who represent powerful quangos such as the National Trust, English Nature, the Sussex Downs Conservation Board and sundry others. Against those Goliaths, I stand alone with the Birling Gap Cliff Protection Association. As chairman since 1997, I have no interest to declare beyond supporting local people and tourists in defending homes, jobs and widely-valued amenities.

I propose to focus attention on that specific example, where erosion threatens the total destruction of a picturesque, vigorous and thriving community. As the sea continues its remorseless advance by an average of about two feet per year, their plight acutely dramatises the conflict between affording a community protection, or standing idly by while the sea claims half a dozen cottage homes, a hotel, a coffee shop, a bar and restaurant, plus a large car park which is available for those who tramp over the Downs but want to have the car standing by to get them home.

Birling Gap is in East Sussex. It lies between Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters. It is the only dip in the towering cliffs between Eastbourne and the Cuckmere valley that allows access to the beach for bathing, picnicking and so on. Unlike the higher, more durable chalk cliffs on either side, Birling Gap is formed of chalk with a softer combe deposit on top, filling a dry river valley. For all its charm and amenities, that fatal geology brings two disadvantages. First, combe rock erodes far more rapidly than chalk, and, secondly, alas, it is apparently of acute scientific interest to a new species in my experience known as "geomorphologists". I believe that we shall hear more on that subject from the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone.

An early initiative of the Birling Gap Cliff Protection Association was to test support for the continuance of the facilities by raising a local petition that called for action to halt the erosion. Without any wide publicity, over 56,000 visitors have signed up. A second initiative was to join Wealden Council in funding a study by the internationally respected coastal engineering consultants, Posford Duvivier, mentioned by my noble friend Lord Bridges. Posford Duvivier's favourable report on the practicality and effectiveness of a 30-yard revetment to protect the threatened properties was obstructed by local officials until last autumn when a change in the Wealden Council led to the recommendation for planning consent.

At once the combined forces of reaction pressed for an inspector's inquiry which is to be held at Alfriston in July. Inevitably, it will be an unequal contest. Against a handful of local residents, including the noble Lord, Lord Howie, who will defend the amenities enjoyed by some 250,000 widely-scattered tourists each year, there will be pitted the big battalions of well-funded quangos such as the National Trust, English Nature, the Sussex Downs Conservation Board, plus their armies of full-time officials, backed by lawyers and assorted experts.

Of course, I acknowledge that there are two sides to the problems of coastal protection, but one test is that if the bureaucratic institutional forces ranged against us had a strong case for the "managed retreat", which in their papers is brutally called the "do nothing" policy, why have they repeatedly resorted to official obfuscation and even, in my view, chicanery?

Thus un-elected Wealden district officials revealed their own partisanship by trying to keep from elected councillors a legal counsel's opinion on the liability of land owners, not the council, to protect private property from predictable hazards. Similarly, officials at the Sussex Downs Conservation Board commissioned what I regard as a disreputable survey, based on 60 interviews against almost 60,000 petitioners in my little corner, which they quote endlessly as evidence of public opposition to cliff protection. Alas, I have to tell noble Lords that local National Trust officials obligingly expressed their support for this blatant misrepresentation.

Finally—in a much longer catalogue of official shenanigans—a local trust official tried privately to besmirch the professional integrity of Posford Duvivier as parti pris and not to be depended upon, because it dared to report that a low level barrier, or revetment, could protect the buildings at Birling Gap from the advancing sea. In the same spirit, I am afraid that the legal advisers to the National Trust went on for many long months resisting the lessons of Scarborough versus Holbeck Hall that they had a measured duty of care to undertake protection where damage was predictable and defence was both possible and affordable.

I must put on record the fact that both Martin Drury and his predecessor as Director-General of the National Trust have always shown courtesy and consideration. However, I suspect that, as with other powerful and unaccountable quangos, we are faced with what academics have come to analyse as "capture" by campaigning officials.

In similar style, these dedicated, self-absorbed experts—like their scientific colleagues who do not shrink from experimentation on human beings and foetuses—have only one use for Birling Gap; namely, as a free, natural laboratory. Their myopic interest—in layman's terms—is periodically to take a day by the sea in order to peer into their instruments and study the processes of erosion for any light that they might conceivably cast on the history and geology of that area. In the mean while, the houses above are collapsing. We might almost admire such single-minded devotion to research—real or hypothetical—if it were not for the cost in human sacrifice imposed on innocent neighbours who seek only the peaceful enjoyment of their homes, employment and amenities.

Most recently, the National Trust raised the spectre of global warming as rendering all coastal defences ineffective. The trust implies that it dare not yield on Birling Gap for fear of creating a precedent for elsewhere and what one of its officials calls "armouring the coast" of our island.

Evidence that the science of climate change is less than conclusive is suggested by the fact that Professor Stephen Schneider, a leading US apostle of global warming, was predicting global freezing in the 1970s with a new ice age in prospect. I fear that I must draw the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and others to a particular quotation from Professor Schneider in 1989, when he said:

"To capture the public's imagination . . . we have to offer up some scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and little mention of any doubts one might have. Each of us has to decide the right balance between being effective and being honest".

Early projections of CO2 emissions and global warming implied the need for such a degree of reduction in greenhouse gases as would inevitably drastically reduce production, employment and GNP. One good effect of that was to galvanise increasing scientific research. As knowledge has improved, predictions of catastrophe from the 1980s have somewhat receded. I believe that our best considered response should not be to resort to Stalinist long-term comprehensive plans and prohibitions, but to encourage local, flexible adaptation, exactly as proposed by my Birling Gap Cliff Protection Association.

In direct opposition to the negative bias of scientists, my association defends a more human cause with deep historic roots. These go back at least to the 18th century when the local preoccupation was with smuggling and unwelcome French immigrants. Thomas Paine, symbolically the author of The Rights of Man, was an exciseman at Birling Gap. When the original coastguard cottages fell into the sea, the present seven cottages were built inland, around 1890. The end one has already been demolished for safety, leaving No. 2 perched a few yards from the cliff edge.

I conclude with two specific questions for the Minister. First, does she believe that remote, speculative pretensions of science should invariably take absolute precedence over the proven, immediate threat to the property, freedom and amenities of private individuals? Secondly, might the Human Rights Act 1998, which will shortly come into effect, have some bearing on the right of individuals to protect their own property against the avoidable ravages of coastal erosion?

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat 5:46 pm, 7th June 2000

My Lords, I should like, first, to thank the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, for giving me the opportunity to take part in this very important debate. Perhaps I may follow that by saying what a privilege it is to be able to take part in the same debate as such a distinguished expert as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, who made his maiden speech this afternoon. I certainly look forward to hearing many more of his speeches. Without any doubt, there is growing concern throughout England about the state of our coastlines and about the erosion of coastlines both in cliff areas and on flat coastlines where there is a risk of flooding of marshes, and so on. There is a growing number of reported incidents and problems, which increase the difficulties for local authorities on the coasts—not least at Birling Gap. I have to say that I had the privilege of visiting Birling Gap to see what all the fuss was about. What has happened there is most interesting. There is now a cliff of perhaps 25 to 30 feet between the end of the valley and the beginning of the beach. During my visit, there was ladder that one could climb up and down; indeed, it may still be there. The valley went right down to the beach when the houses there were built and one could, I assume, walk down it in Victorian times. That is the degree of erosion that has taken place.

I confess that I dabbled in geomorphology in my youth. The Seven Sisters are a classic example of what is now happening a little further on at Birling Gap. As noble Lords will recall, the Seven Sisters consist of seven what one might call "female-shaped" cliff tops, with valleys between them. Those valleys end at the cliff top. At some time in the geological/geomorphological past, those valleys would also have ended on the beach. That is the extent to which coastal erosion takes place and, indeed, is a very good example of it.

However, despite that, we have had perhaps 1,000 or 2,000 years of relative stability geologically/geomorphologically in this country. The sea level has been more or less static; the climate has been more or less equable and has not been subject to huge changes during that time; and there have not been many changes to the land mass, other than those which take place regularly and gradually year by year, and those which have been created by the activities of man—for example, the reclamation of the Fens, parts of east Yorkshire, and so on.

As I say, there has been a long period of relative stability which has coincided with the development of the densely populated, civilised society in which we now live. This may now be coming to an end. That is the danger which now faces us. We may face a period of much greater instability. In geomorphological terms, the events that matter in terms of changes to the surface and configuration of the earth, the coastline and the land are not necessarily those that take place slowly year after year. The changes that really matter are the catastrophic ones which occur as a result of often dramatic changes in climate or other changes. Those catastrophic changes have created most of the landscape which we now enjoy. The danger is that we may now be entering a period when catastrophic changes occur far more frequently than in the past 1,000 or 2,000 years.

I now refer to the past million years, give or take a year or two—the period which people call the "Ice Age" in popular terms. Geologists may refer to it as the Quaternary or Pleistocene period. Many people do not understand that we are still in that period. There have been huge changes during the past million years. There have been several onsets of glaciation and several periods in which there has been a build-up and an extension of the ice out from the polar areas and in the main mountain masses. Several times during the past million years the ice has melted away altogether. Inevitably at those times, the sea level must have been much higher than it is now. Those periods are referred to as the "interglacial periods" in the jargon.

We face the danger of entering an interglacial period in which the ice which exists on large parts of the earth's surface, particularly in the polar regions, may disappear altogether. That is the real danger that we face. It will not happen next year and probably not in the next hundred years, but it may happen in the next few hundred years if we are not careful. These processes take on a momentum of their own once they get going. The human race may now trigger such a process which will gain such momentum that we shall not be able to stop it. If that happens, we shall not face the 12 or 15-inch rise in mean sea level—I apologise to the House; I do not understand centimetres; I still think in inches—which is now forecast, probably reliably, for the next 50 years; we shall face a rise measured in feet or perhaps even in yards. That would have disastrous implications.

I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, said that we cannot stop the current rise in sea levels and that they will continue to rise. However, for the sake of future generations and our coastline, we must do everything possible to prevent catastrophic events occurring. Those catastrophic events would occur if there were a significant melt of the continental ice, particularly the Antarctic ice and the Greenland ice. If that occurred, we would be in serious trouble. At present, some people say that that process has already started; others say that it has not. You read the statements of one expert and hire the next! The present situation is alarming enough, but the potential for calamity is huge unless we stop the continuing increase in the amount of so-called "greenhouse" gases that are emitted into our atmosphere.

The problems in this country in this regard have been well set out by previous speakers. I refer to the rise in sea level and the differential effect of the country's tilt, in that the North West is tilting upwards while the South East is tilting downwards a little. I refer in particular to the effect of manmade structures. It is now clear—this was mentioned in the report of the Agriculture Select Committee in another place—that the effect of manmade structures on coastal erosion is even less understood than that of the natural processes that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, mentioned.

A continuous belt of our coastline between Durham and Dorset is in a permanent state of difficulty with regard to erosion, or at least local authorities and other agencies which are responsible for it face that difficulty. The rest of the coastline may not experience such uninterrupted erosion, but there are nevertheless great difficulties in many places. In my part of the country, the North West, the Lancashire coast south of Southport, Morecambe Bay and the Dee estuary at Chester are just three areas which are experiencing problems in this regard at the moment.

In preparing my speech, I consulted a number of my political colleagues in different parts of the country. I consulted colleagues in east Yorkshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Kent, Sussex and in other places. I was interested to note that they made similar points. They were almost unanimous in their views. First, there is continued concern at the division of the legal responsibility for coastal erosion and flooding. That point was also brought out in the House of Commons Select Committee report. Coastal erosion and flooding are two sides of the same coin. Erosion causes flooding and flooding causes erosion. They simply cannot be considered separately. The development of shoreline management plans and other measures introduced by the Government have improved the situation. However, there is still a basic problem in terms of the legal framework.

Secondly, a distinction is drawn between urban coasts and rural coasts. My colleague in another place, the MP for Torbay, Adrian Sanders, raised that matter some time ago in an Adjournment debate. Much of the activity of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to counter coastal erosion is concentrated on rural coasts. Coastal resorts, which depend on their beaches to attract tourists, and depend on them for their economic survival, do not necessarily receive the same treatment.

There is much concern about finance. Again, I recognise that in the past 18 months progress has been made and that this year the budget has been increased for the first time for some years. However, small district councils face severe problems. A colleague of mine on Lewes District Council in Sussex reports that of the revenue budget of £8 million a year, £1 million is allocated to repayment of debt and other charges on capital projects connected with coastal work. That is a huge imposition on a small district council. That figure takes into account the grants that the council received for that work.

There is a widespread belief that there are still too many different authorities looking into this matter. This is the case at both national and regional level. An extraordinary number of bodies is involved; MAFF has an overall strategic responsibility. The Environment Agency has an increasing and, in my view, correct involvement. However, many other agencies, particularly at local level, are also involved. I refer to local drainage committees, local coastal committees and others. Progress is being made. The high targets which were announced by the Government last November will help. However, there is a generally held view that the Government do not attach sufficient seriousness to this matter or accord it a high enough priority.

There clearly must be an overriding national strategy. However, it is absolutely clear that the right solution in every case cannot be determined nationally. There clearly must be local democratic input, but somebody, somewhere, must strike the balance. What the affected residents want may not be what is in the general community interest. The Agriculture Select Committee identified the region as the level at which a crucial co-ordination and strategic overview should take place. The Government have side-stepped that. It seems fairly obvious to us on these Benches that the regional level is probably the right level for coastal work, because it provides a sufficiently large span of the coast for the assessment of a project's effects further along the coast. There certainly will be effects.

We on these Benches are strongly in favour of the development of elected regional government within England, and it seems to us that, in the medium term, elected regional government is the answer to the strategic overview and the carrying out of major projects on the coast. In the mean time, people will no doubt muddle through.

I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, for introducing the debate. With other noble Lords, I look forward to hearing further contributions.

Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour 6:00 pm, 7th June 2000

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, for the opportunity to discuss this important subject, which is clearly causing much anxiety and concern. I also add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, on his expert contribution. I am particularly pleased that he was here today in order to quell any doubts about the reality of climate change, even if the noble Lord, Lord Harris of High Cross, does not believe in it.

I should declare an interest, as chairman of English Nature. We take part in advising on coastal management where important geological sites and processes, and wildlife habitats are involved. Nevertheless, I shall not comment on the specific cases raised by noble Lords, particularly that raised by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, since, as he said, the case of Birling Gap is about to be the subject of a planning inquiry. I simply hope that the House will detect from my remarks today, first, that I disagree with him, and, secondly, that his case does not stand up.

I should like to come at the issue from a slightly different direction. The coast makes the UK very special. We are an island and we have nationally and internationally important geological features on our coasts, some of a type that make them a world heritage site. We are also renowned for our landscape coasts: wild Cornwall; the Welsh coast; Lancashire, which has been mentioned, where Morecambe Bay is a delightful spot; and of course the Yorkshire coast.

We are also famous for the wildlife interests of our coast: the seabird cliffs; the sand dunes and the many plants and invertebrates that depend on them; the softer coasts such as Norfolk and Suffolk, which are particularly important for migratory waders, ducks and geese; and the inter-tidal and coastal grazing marshes. If we consider what the UK is important for in biodiversity terms, we see that we are a sort of "ginormous" pit-stop for migratory species flying both north and south, a sort of refuelling centre for alien species, without which they would not survive.

Therefore, it is not surprising that it is a mark of its importance for geology, landscape and wildlife that much of the remaining undeveloped coast of the UK is designated as nationally or internationally important for those interests. In many cases that depends on habitats, species and features of geological interest being allowed to move and respond naturally to the powers of the sea. Cliffs need to be allowed to erode, because that creates a variety of habitats upon which important species depend. Indeed, erosion is a fundamental principle for maintaining important geological exposures or the geomorphological processes on which the noble Lord, Lord Harris, is not too keen. To reduce this to the point of absurdity, as an example, the White Cliffs of Dover would be the "green cliffs of Dover" if they were not in a process of erosion.

There is huge pressure on the coast, for a variety of reasons: leisure development; the expansion of our ports; shipping; dredging and aggregates-winning; and housing and other built development. All of those matters are increasing the pressure on habitats and geological sites.

For centuries the major pressure on our coast has been the sea itself. We have shown considerable ingenuity in the way in which we have constructed coastal defences, defended crumbling cliffs and, indeed, often reclaimed coastal processes, and particularly salt marshes, for agriculture and development. The Wash is a prime example. I live virtually in the middle of England, at the point the Wash would reach if it were still a natural estuarine system. Bedford-by-the-Sea may yet be a reality, because we are living on borrowed land in many cases, and the sea is still inexorably there.

We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, that there are two additional factors—the sinking of the east coast and the rise in sea level as a result of indubitable climate change, and its impact on increased storminess and flooding. In the face of all that, we must reassess the processes that we have adopted in the past of built and hard defences. I have come to the conclusion that they are not necessarily the answer. There are four reasons why we need to reassess them.

First, we cannot simply continue to build ever-bigger and higher defences to stop the sea. That way madness lies, both economically and visually.

Secondly, we could, of course, try building our defences slightly further back, but there are problems with that as well. Some of our most sensitive wildlife sites, because of a process of coastal squeeze, where the sea comes into a new defended spot, means that we lose both inter-tidal habitats, including salt marsh, and coastal grazing. That means that the very important stop-off point that we provide for migratory species would simply disappear.

The third reason why we must reassess the hard defences is that we cannot be like Canute. We kid ourselves if we think that by building hard defences, we tame the sea. The sea does not go away; the tide just comes in somewhere else. Hard defences often interfere with powerful natural processes which are in themselves useful; for example, if we build defences, the natural charging of beaches is interfered with and beaches disappear, causing erosion problems elsewhere on the coast. Erosion does not stop; it simply tends to move around.

The final reason why we must reassess the process of building hard coastal defences is economic. They are expensive and in many cases are not the most cost-effective option for the protection of property. It may be more cost-effective for us as a nation to let non-distinctive built structures and general farmland simply go. It is wrong to spend more and more on short-term hard defences, which will eventually again be defeated by the sea, rather than investing now in more sustainable long-term solutions.

What are the ways forward? We have already heard about shoreline management plans, which are indeed the first step. They consider land use, the human and built environment and the natural environment, and they lead to coastal defence strategies that are particular to each length of coastline. They raise a number of options, the first of which is the much reviled "do nothing" option. It is the appropriate option where physical processes and economics, or the importance of geological or conservation interests, make that the sensible way forward. But in those circumstances, where there may be considerable human inconvenience, there is a need for careful exposition of the processes and the economic arguments that led to the decision. It raises a very difficult question for a government in terms of how we handle the question of incentives or compensation. I am sure that my noble friend the Minister will want to address that matter. I do not believe that we are in a position to compensate from the public purse every property owner in all circumstances. So the "do nothing" option is one that we cannot avoid in many places.

The second option that can be identified by these coastal defence strategies is to develop a series of soft defences; to go back to a much more natural process of defending our coasts; to use coastal habitats and natural features in a more sustainable way; to harness dunes, shingle ridges, salt marshes and mud flats which act as natural energy-absorbing barriers; to allow cliffs to erode and provide fresh material to form new habitats, which in turn protect low-lying land.

This is often a much cheaper solution; for example, the Environment Agency estimates that on average coast defences which have an 80-metre width of salt marsh fronting an eroding coast cost about £400 per metre; without that 80- metre width of salt marsh, without that soft, natural defence, the estimate rockets up to £5,000 per metre.

A third option that the coastal defence strategies have identified is the technique of managed retreat; the managed realignment of defences. Examples of this are already being tried on our east coast to ascertain whether that is a viable proposition for the future. Basically, managed retreat tries to tackle the problem of coastal squeeze and habitat loss as the sea comes inland against hard defences. We want to try to avoid that by recreating a series of the same coastal habitats further inland so that there is a natural succession of coastal habitats, often up river valleys.

This would involve a fairly large scale re-engineering of the face of parts of our coast, but it is probably one of the most cost-effective ways forward. It would involve, for example, conversion of agricultural land to coastal habitats. Indeed, MAFF is already involved in a payments scheme to enable that to happen. I do not think that it is entirely out of order in the present agricultural setting to believe that managing coastal habitats for coastal defence may be as valid an alternative activity for farmers and for land use as the current uneconomic and environmentally damaging use of some of that coastal land, which has often been only recently reclaimed from the sea. So let us see farmers managing realignment as part of their income stream in diversified rural holdings.

Another option that we need to tackle as part of the coastal defence strategy is to get our estuaries into more natural shape; to foster the occurrence within our estuaries of large areas of gradually rising ground, where tides can expand and contract safely and act as a natural pressure valve which will allow built structures elsewhere on the coast to be safe.

Last but not least—and a point which has already been mentioned—we should learn the lessons of the past. We should not be building on eroding coasts; we need greater integration between shoreline management plans and land-use planning. English Nature, of which I am the chairman, is delighted to be involved with MAFF, the Environment Agency, landowners, conservation groups and local authorities in a project (which is funded by the European Union through LIFE programme money) called "Living with the Sea". It is exploring on a pilot basis the fundamental rethinking necessary with regard to what lands can be protected, and how they can best be protected in sustainable and natural ways by working not against dynamic coastal processes, but with them.

Photo of Lord Walpole Lord Walpole Crossbench 6:13 pm, 7th June 2000

My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, for initiating the debate. I was interested to hear the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. There seems to be an enormous claim among those in the Chamber at the moment to have gone to Cambridge. I did.

I am afraid that I shall be parochial. This is not because I have not listened carefully to what the previous speaker said—I agree absolutely with the noble Baroness, particularly in regard to the north Norfolk coast—but because I wish to bring two particular problems to the attention of the House. They are typical of a wider problem that is found everywhere else.

I live about six miles south of the north Norfolk coast, 92 feet above sea level—so I have a year or two yet to go—and the highest point in Norfolk, which is some 350 feet, is between me and the coast. It is said that if you stand there and face east, no land is higher than you until you get to the Urals. That gives one some idea of how flat that part of Europe is all the way across the Baltic states.

I saw a nice photograph of a Minister visiting North Norfolk. I am sorry that that Minister is not responding to the debate today, but I am glad that the Minister of Agriculture is responding instead. I had hoped that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, would have replied, but two replies running would have been too much for him.

It depends on what one means by "long-term". I was a member of the coastal defence committee of the Erpingham RDC. This was before the last local government reorganisation, or the one before that, or whatever. The problems are exactly the same now. We had a small amount of sea defence work to carry out; we then had a couple of urban district councils in our middle; and when we got clear of the urban district councils, my goodness, it was done by the Ministry of Agriculture. Until the local government reorganisation and the coming into being of the North Norfolk District Council the co-ordination along that part of the north Norfolk coast was haphazard.

But even now the new North Norfolk District Council runs only from Weybourne to Bacton. From Weybourne to Wells in a westerly direction it is the Ministry of Agriculture again that is responsible.

Since 1996, a points system has been worked out for the allocation of money for sea defences. This points system militates very strongly against small rural coastal communities. To get points under the system, one either has to have a large urban area or, even better, a disaster. Then one can get some money. I am afraid that we are among the four most disadvantaged areas, which I understand are West Dorset, Holderness, Waveney and north Norfolk.

There are two specific areas of the North Norfolk District Council coastline to which I should like to draw your Lordships' attention. They are very important and they illustrate what the noble Baroness said. The first area is Happisburgh. I was warned that if used the words "Happisburgh" and "flooding" it would halve the value of properties in the village. That is absolutely true. The values of properties there have plummeted because of the so-called danger. I should like to make it absolutely clear to anyone who thinks that that is true that the village is all right. We are not talking about the village but a few outlying farmsteads—we do not want them flooded either—and farmland.

The important thing about Happisburgh is that it is the back door to the Broads. It is possible that if there was a flood at Happisburgh the whole of the Broads area—the whole of the national park—could become saline overnight. It has happened before; it will happen again. For that reason alone the sea defences there must be looked into. I am not saying that we want hard sea defences.

As has been referred to, work has been carried out further along the coast at Bacton using large pieces of Sweden, which were brought over in boats and dropped in the water. I think it has worked quite well: it has improved the lobster and crab fishing and it seems to defend the coast. That is the kind of thing we should be looking at, not at hard defences. Incidentally, that was the result of co-operation between the Environment Agency and the district council, which work very well together.

To give the House some idea of the situation at Happisburgh, one farmer in the past eight years has lost 40 metres of land over a length of more than 700 metres. If I work that out correctly, that is 2.48 hectares over that period of time.

When you are playing "brownie points" you are not allowed to take 100 per cent of the value of land because you have to take into account the CAP money that the farmer receives, so when a cost-benefit analysis is carried out a figure of only 40 per cent of the value is allowed.

A little saline flooding is bad because it takes years to recover, but if land has eroded it has gone altogether. I say to the Minister that discussions are urgently needed in that particular area because so many people are affected. It is not just about houses; it is about the back door of the Broads.

When I was a member of the Cley district council in the old days the problems were the same. They have not changed at all. We still have a lot of bulldozers pushing up the bank every time the tide pushes it down. However, we have a slight advantage there, which I shall controversially call the birds and the bees or people. I support the birds and the bees because Cley is one of the Natura 2000 sites. In other words, it is one of the sites which this country has selected under the EC biodiversity directive, which unfortunately I have not brought to this House. I believe that we shall be discussing the Select Committee's report on that directive in about three weeks' time. I hope that by then the Ministry of Agriculture will have answered our questions and will have responded to them. It has not yet done so because, I am told, it is busy doing something to do with the countryside.

The suggestion at Cley is that the sea should take its natural course. As long as the salt marshes remain roughly the same size, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young, said, the salt marshes, marshes and wading bird areas should be taken further up the river. That is an obligation under the Natura 2000. We should then let the sea take its course. I do not know exactly what is happening at the moment. Perhaps the Government will clarify the position because I am not at all clear. I understand that the concept has been agreed by the local authorities. I believe that the matter is now with the Government and I would love an answer to that question.

There are two general questions I should particularly like to ask. The first is the question asked 25 or 35 years ago by the Royal Commission. Is it not time that we had one authority to look after our sea defences? At the moment it is not just a problem of cutting up the cake; it is a question of how big a cake there is anyway.

Secondly, the Environment Agency, which is, after all, a quango, is not responsible to anyone as far as I can see. I think the Environment Agency is doing a very, very good job in our part of the world and I make no criticism, but is it accountable to anyone and, if so, to whom?

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative 6:23 pm, 7th June 2000

My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, for giving us the opportunity to discuss this subject. Like him, I share a love of the Suffolk coast and often visit Southwold which the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, would describe as protected, whereas the area to the north and to the south, at Dunwich, has already fallen into the sea. It is a part of the world of which I am extremely fond.

I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, for a superb maiden speech. It showed an extremely sound knowledge of the topic and the width and breadth of knowledge that he will bring to this House. We welcome him most warmly and look forward to his participation in debates, not only on this sort of topic but many others.

There is something especially horrible about watching someone's home disappear over a cliff. It challenges all the basic certainties of life. It is even more devastating when one imagines lying in bed listening to the storm and feeling the ground shake as 50 foot waves pound the cliffs in their perennial attempts to get at you–double glazing, central heating, fitted carpets and all. No one is secure.

Hitherto the problem has affected small numbers of people and relatively few coastal areas. The honourable Member, Elliot Morley, who is with us at the moment, in another place on 24th June 1998 said:

"Responsibility for the protection of the land against erosion or encroachment by the sea rests with the maritime district councils".—[Official Report, Commons, 24/6/98; col. 1147.]

In the same debate the MP for Torbay, referred to earlier by other noble Lords, pointed out, at col. 1144:

"MAFF has policy responsibility in England for flood defence and coastal protection ... to reduce the risk to people and to the developed and natural environment from flooding and coastal erosion".

Effectively, as a result, government have been distanced from the responsibility. Nobody, as other noble Lords have pointed out, has overall responsibility.

Now that the climate change has been officially recognised to the extent of having its own levy, this distance will be even more difficult to maintain. Areas subject to erosion are losing bigger chunks of land, for example, Beachy Head. The number of areas affected is growing as sea levels rise by between four and six millimetres a year and the autumn storms increase in frequency and ferocity. The knock-on effects of the actions of any one local authority is increasingly affecting neighbouring districts.

The evidence is well documented in Hansard. I need only cite the debate on 24th February 1999 in another place when Alan Hurst MP stated that,

"the barriers on the lower Thames are being closed much more often nowadays".—[Official Report, Commons, 24/2/99; col. 328.]

Derek Wyatt spoke of the Thames Barrier and of its effect on Sheerness. Claire Curtis-Thomas pointed out that a new development in Southport had exacerbated problems in Hightown.

The time is coming when government will have to play a bigger part in either managing the effects of climate change or in adjudicating between district councils.

So far I have spoken in terms mainly of the impact of coastal erosion on buildings, but it has much wider effects. I am sure ramblers could specify how many miles of coastal paths are lost each year and testify to the difficulties of finding alternative routes. Farmers lose grazing and arable land, and sometimes animals, every year. Fishermen lose spawning areas as underwater currents are changed when hundreds of tons of rock and clay redesign the contours of the seabed. Seaside towns lose stretches of sandy beach and have to pay for wiring off dangerous areas or erecting warning signs. Wildlife is caught unawares and is crushed or drowned in sizeable numbers. In fact, I cannot find a single beneficial result of coastal erosion although I acknowledge that some of our soft cliff faces provide, according to English Nature, homes for at least 11 rare species of bees and wasps.

As climate change worsens, our problems too are greater and we shall have to find new ways of tackling them and adopt new attitudes to managing their impact on our society.

The 1998 Commons Agriculture Select Committee report was well received in that place and the debate contains much helpful data. At the moment in its policy role the ministry encourages local authorities to develop shoreline management plans and provides grants for coastal protection schemes. These grants are awarded under the Coast Protection Act 1949 for between 35 per cent and 75 per cent of the total scheme cost. In comparison, awards for flood defence work carried out by the Department of the Environment under the Water Resources Act 1991 vary according to the region and location of the rivers from 15 per cent to 65 per cent, and for tidal waters from 35 per cent to 85 per cent.

If the flood defence work is done under the Land Drainage Act 1991 by district councils or the internal drainage boards, the grants are cut to a flat rate of 25 per cent for rivers and 45 per cent for tidal waters. As circumstances have changed quite dramatically over the last three to four years, will the Minister indicate whether the Government are looking at these rates with a view to standardising and improving them?

I have been surprised—I suspect like others—at the cost of some defence works. In the debate of 24th June 1998 the Member for Torbay quoted the example of a cliff fall that had destroyed an access path to Redgate beach and rendered sections of the cliff unstable. The cost of repairs was estimated at £350,000, compared with a standard spending assessment for coastal protection in Torbay of £14,000. More recently, a MAFF news release of 26th May announced a grant of £900,000 towards a total cost of £2.6 million for the reconstruction of existing tidal defences over a distance of about 2.5 kilometres or just over a quarter of a mile on the River Severn.

The granting of these sums is done according to a scoring system, mentioned by Mr Elliot Morley in the other place on 24th June 1998. The priorities of this scoring system works thus, in descending order:

"flood warning; urban coastal and tidal defences; ... urban flood defences and environmental assets of international importance; rural coastal and tidal defences, existing rural flood defences and drainage works, and environmental assets of national significance; and new rural flood defence works, and environmental assets of local significance".—[Official Report, Commons, 24/6/98; col. 1149.]

In the same debate the Secretary of State stated that these priorities would apply in exactly the same way for rural and urban areas. Nonetheless, urban areas are clearly higher up the priority list. I should be grateful if the Minister would tell us how much money and what average percentage total funding has been granted under each of those five headings in each of the last three years.

As we move forward into this era of rising tides, more severe storms, higher rainfall during autumn and winter and longer periods of drought in spring and summer, we have to anticipate that coastal erosion, estuary damage and river flooding will become more frequent and more extreme. Certain of the consequences that are bandied about are truly terrifying. A report in the Observer on 6th February claimed that government scientists and experts in the nuclear industry fear that former nuclear power plants will be threatened by flooding from the sea. It pointed out that all but one of Britain's nuclear plants is on the coast, many intentionally sited in low-lying areas to give easy access to sea water. Indeed in my own area we have one. If that report turns out to be true I hope that the Government will absolve the hapless maritime councils where these stations are situated from responsibility for protection of the land against erosion or encroachment by the sea. The cost of carrying out the work to the required standards would, I fear, be well beyond the means of any district council, even given the current maximum grant of 75 per cent.

Loss of land to the sea will increase. In the South East it will be made worse by the natural tilt, to which reference has been made. Before 1949 individual landowners were responsible for coastal defence and decided for themselves the balance between the cost of maintaining the line and losing chunks of land. After that the landowner lost the power of choice and simply had to accept the loss of the land. Time has marched on and changing circumstances have led to a policy of "managed retreat" or "managed realignment". Both mean that the sea is allowed to claim the dunes, the rock wall or the cliff face in one area in order to avoid coastal erosion elsewhere. Both are used to protect life and property but increasingly also to recreate particular habitats such as salt marshes.

Only in very special circumstances is compensation paid for the loss of the land, for loss of buildings standing on the land, or for consequential loss of profit. I remember the story of the Kent farmer who found himself faced with the uncompensated loss of some 100 acres of his 400 acre farm. At a very conservative £2,500 per acre that works out at a loss of a quarter of a million pounds. At the time I wondered what would have happened if the land in question had belonged to a developer with outline permission for, say, 200 retirement homes. It did not. But as this century matures, the possibility of enormous consequential loss, especially in the South East, with its plans for 1.1 million extra homes, will continue to grow.

The Select Committee report, already referred to, commented both on current levels of funding and the way in which that funding is delivered and recommended that the funding be reconsidered. Like other noble Lords I would support that. It also stated that compensation was an issue. In the words of the committee chairman, Peter Luff MP:

"If individuals are required to make sacrifices for some wider social benefit, they should be compensated".—[Official Report, Commons, 24/2/99; col. 327.]

I endorse that sentiment. At the moment it is mainly farmland that is affected. But eventually, I suspect, other interests and maybe whole communities, like those on the Isle of Sheppey, Canvey Island, and along the Severn estuary, will be involved. I do not think that it is fair to deny compensation now to farmers and to a few individuals only to have to pay later to different groups of people in greater numbers. I shall be most interested to hear the Minister's reply.

This has been a very interesting debate. It has covered a wide range of examples from the personal knowledge of people who have had to deal with the problems. I have spoken briefly regarding farmers and those living in affected areas. It is clear that a situation in which several authorities are responsible for various matters is not the best way to preserve our countryside. I thank again the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, for making the debate possible and look forward to the Minister's response.

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) 6:36 pm, 7th June 2000

My Lords, I should like to echo the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. It has been a fascinating debate and we should congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, on initiating it and, indeed, on the speech in which he did so. Equally, I think we ought to congratulate him on his tenacity in ensuring that we did eventually debate this important subject. I have been noting his interest for many weeks and months. It is right that we have finally managed to have a debate on this. I hope that he has been pleased with what I think were very high quality contributions.

Like everyone else, I think that I should point out how the whole House, I felt, was particularly impressed by the erudite and wise maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Hunt of Chesterton. We recognise in him someone who has a contribution to make on this important topic that we will all wish to take very seriously. Climate change is a subject to which, in various guises, I am certain the House will return, and all of us will look forward to having the value of the noble Lord's expertise and experience in our future deliberations on this matter.

The noble Lord said that he had been told that it was not appropriate to make a controversial maiden speech, which of course was absolutely right; and he assumed that the existence of climate change would not be controversial in your Lordships' House. We managed to have some controversy in the course of the debate and I suspect that the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of High Cross, would not have passed the "maiden speech" test. Luckily, it did not have to. However, it did illustrate that there is controversy in this field still and that there is also high emotion. Flooding and coastal erosion, with the damage to, or loss of, land and property, is a highly emotive subject. It affects people's lives. Damage and distress are sustained by those affected, and are often very severe—and not only in economic terms.

This week we saw the effects of flooding in Todmorden and elsewhere in northern England. Perhaps I may take this opportunity to express the Government's sympathy to all those who have been affected by those floods. Although natural events such as flooding and coastal erosion can never be entirely prevented, it is obviously right that those public authorities which are empowered to take measures to alleviate the risk take action where it is reasonable and right to do so.

It has been pointed out that there are a range of public authorities involved in this issue. Lead strategy and policy-making for flood and coastal defences rest with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but of course other national bodies under local authorities must rightly be involved in these considerations. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, spoke of the importance of the regional dimension. I suspect that it will be impossible ever to give a single authority total powers in this area. The challenge is to maintain both leadership and the appropriate co-ordination that is warranted by individual circumstances.

Perhaps I may now retreat from the local question and speak about climate change. That has underpinned many of the contributions in today's debate. The majority opinion expressed in this debate in your Lordships' House has suggested that climate change is with us and that we have to take action to recognise that and do what needs to be done and what can be done to combat the causes of climate change. The lead department in this area is, of course, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and the House will know of the efforts being made. Measures are being undertaken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The current campaign asks citizens, "Are you doing your Bit?". I was grateful for the support for those campaigns demonstrated by the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, in his remarks when opening the debate.

We need to take action to adapt to the effects of climate change that are taking place and will be with us for some decades. So far as concerns flood and coastal defences, these adaptation measures are within the policy area of the ministry. We work closely with the operating authorities—the Environment Agency, internal drainage boards and local authorities—which are responsible for the planning, design, construction, maintenance and operation of flood and coastal defences. In particular, they need to ensure that, in considering defence options, they take account of sea level rise. Research is under way to investigate other impacts such as increased storminess and changing rainfall patterns. We shall be offering appropriate guidance as our understanding of these impacts develops.

Since 1899—I apologise, I was thinking of the 12th century which was mentioned in the original contribution—since 1989 MAFF has issued allowances to the operating authorities to take into account when designing schemes and considering defence options. The allowances are relevant for defences with a design life of up to 40 years. Beyond that, defences should be flexible so that they can be constructed in a way that will allow for future modification. Allowances are based on an expected rise of 18 centimetres over 40 years in global sea level, which represents an average of 4.5 millimetres a year, which is close to the mid range of predictions that have been expressed in the House today.

The allowances also take account of another issue that has been raised by several noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves; that is, long-term geological tilt, resulting from the last ice age. That means that the South and East of the country are sinking while the North and West are rising. The overall figure is therefore modified for different areas of the country to produce net allowances of between 4 millimetres and 6 millimetres a year according to region. Those allowances are kept under review in the light of emerging scientific evidence. If extreme events follow the predicted pattern of global sea level rise, indications are that the allowances should be adequate at least to the middle of the 21st century.

In that context, the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, asked specifically about the Thames Barrier. This is a robust and flexible installation with a design based on rates of sea level rise predicted in the 1970s which were higher than those currently anticipated. It provides London with a high level of protection from tidal flooding and, with normal care and maintenance, should continue to do so until at least the latter part of this century. Even then, although the barrier may need to be closed more frequently, it will continue to fulfil its primary function of protecting London.

Overall, the Government's policy is to reduce the risk to people and the developed and natural environment from flooding and coastal erosion by encouraging the provision of technically, environmentally and economically sound and sustainable defence measures. There are three key strands which support that policy aim.

First, we encourage the provision of adequate and cost-effective flood warning systems. We do this by grant-aiding flood warning systems and by supporting underpinning measures. In the past year the Environment Agency has produced indicative flood risk maps which show the areas most at risk of flooding. These 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. Noble Lords will perhaps remember the message in the Environment Agency's flood awareness campaign last winter, that, "Floods don't just happen to other people".

People also need to ensure that they have adequate insurance against flooding. However much sympathy the Government have for those who are affected, we cannot act as "insurer of last resort" for those who simply decide not to take out cover. But what the Government can do is to encourage the provision of flood and coastal defence measures, which forms the second strand of the policy. We do this by providing grant aid to schemes that are technically, environmentally and economically sound and which achieve an appropriate priority score based on urgency, ministerial priorities and benefit/cost ratios. Schemes must be sustainable; we cannot commit future generations to maintaining defences in areas where it is not sustainable. Such defence measures need to be based on an understanding of natural processes and, as far as possible, they need to work with those processes. I believe that was the point to which my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone referred. The key issue here is sustainability.

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, which were referred to by my noble friend Lady Young and by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, who, I believe, recognised the value of the contribution those plans can make.

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. This approach enables evolving knowledge of physical processes, environmental issues and land use to be drawn into the planning process. 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 shoreline management plans (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. Indeed, a timetable for review 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 come forward with relevant plans that are cost-effective and sound in engineering and environmental terms.

One of the issues that has come out of the debate is the need for flexibility in this area. It is important that we recognise that, given the tremendous diversity of coastal formations in this country, there can be no uniform approach to coastal defence. In particular, we have to be ready to use some of the more novel approaches that have been recommended—my noble friend Lord Hunt referred to them—to look at the possibilities for using beaches and to recognise that coastlines do recede or advance with changes in current, wind and tide. It is therefore unrealistic to expect to maintain every inch of coastline as it is now. Instead, authorities need to look at a range of options and consider the impacts of defending a particular stretch of coast so as to avoid, wherever possible, burdening future generations with the maintenance of unsustainable defences.

As the bulk of expenditure on flood and coastal defences is provided by taxpayers, many of whom may personally derive little direct benefit from the money spent on their behalf, both the ministry and the operating authorities have a responsibility to ensure that value for money is obtained when funding schemes. Economic analysis is an effective tool for comparing the impacts of flooding and erosion and the cost of reducing that risk in order to arrive at an optimum solution. It is not applied in isolation, however, 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 optimum solution.

The ministry provides grant aid for capital flood defence and coast protection schemes which are technically sound, economically worth while, and environmentally acceptable. Funding takes the form of direct grants at varying rates and, for local authorities, the ministry also provides approvals to enable them to borrow the balance of the cost of approved schemes net of grant. This was one of the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves.

In the face of ever-increasing demands for MAFF 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, urgency, and benefit/cost ratio. For the first time, sites of environmental interest were specifically identified within ministerial priorities, which 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. It is important that we recognise that the protection of people and property, infrastructure and the environment, and not simply rural coastal schemes, do receive high priority.

Whatever decisions are taken about the future level of MAFF funding for flood and coastal defence, it would be unrealistic to assume that it would be sufficient to meet all demand. That is why I would say, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, that we need a means of setting schemes in order of priority; and that was the purpose of this scheme. It may not be perfect; that is why we regard it as a pilot and indicate that we are prepared to consider revisions. A review of the score arrangements will be initiated later this year.

While I am on this point, the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, asked about the state of play on the protection of Cley. My understanding is that the project rests with the Environment Agency, which, I believe, is awaiting the agreement of the local planning authority. My honourable friend in another place heard the noble Lord's contribution on this particular point, and I am sure that he will have noted it.

There has been much debate tonight about managed retreat or managed realignment of defences. It is obviously a contentious issue. Ministers have made it clear that any proposals for managed retreat must be specific and must be considered locally. There is no intention to abandon large tracts of land to the sea. Realigning defences further inland, or indeed allowing natural erosion to continue, are simply two of the many options that local flood or coastal defence authorities should review when formulating coastal defence proposals, particularly in rural areas. They will clearly not be appropriate in many circumstances but, as my noble friend Lady Young pointed out, they may well be appropriate in some, and they should at least be considered.

That also raises the question of compensation. In general, no compensation is payable to those affected by flooding or erosion, including cases where it is decided not to defend a particular area or to undertake managed realignment. This approach has been adopted by successive governments and is justified by current legislation which provides operating authorities with permissive powers to undertake flood and coastal defence works. Save for the specific requirements of the habitats directive, there is no general obligation to build or maintain defences either at all or to a particular standard. Consonant with this approach, the legislation also makes no provision for compensation from public funds to persons whose property or land are affected by erosion or flooding.

Payment is possible, however, where quantifiable beneficial use arises. Thus land may be acquired for the construction or maintenance of defences and compensation paid for damage arising expressly from such operations.

Also, in some circumstances where land seaward of justifiable new defences can be shown to contribute to effective defence, whether locally or remotely, landowners may be eligible for payment for depreciation or for loss of land.

Finally, if a defence is realigned landward, land currently in agricultural use may be considered for payments under agri-environmental schemes, if a long-term return to inter-tidal habitats fulfils the relevant objectives. I was interested to hear what my noble friend had to say on the possibilities in agricultural terms.

The Government recognise the importance of sustaining flood defences and coast protection. The outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review meant, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, pointed out, that an additional £23 million was provided from ministry funding over the past, this and next year, bringing the total available in those three years to £230 million. Funding for future years will obviously be considered in this year's spending review.

I acknowledge the important point made by my noble friend Lord Hunt about the significance of maintaining efforts in R&D in this area. The ministry does co-ordinate work closely with the research councils and the Environment Agency in establishing the flood and coastal defence research programme. We also liaise closely on these matters with other states bordering the North Sea, including the Netherlands, which has received such favourable mention. We have also ensured that results of research are disseminated and fully integrated into revised guidance and policy development.

The third strand of government policy is to discourage inappropriate development in areas at risk of flooding and coastal erosion. I stress the word "inappropriate". We have to ask the question: does it make sense to place this particular development in this particular area? The 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 ensuring that they 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. I hope that will give some reassurance to the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, about the recognition of the need for joined-up policy in this area.

There is also guidance on the need for developers to make contributions to defences which are necessary as a result of the development, not just now, but for their whole life.

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

I have set out the Government's policy aim and objectives for flood and coastal defence. However good these are, we need to ensure that they are delivered on the ground by some 650 operating authorities. In April, therefore, the Government put in place a series of high-level targets to help to achieve a more certain delivery. Operating authorities are required to produce policy statements setting out how they will achieve the Government's aim and objectives. There are targets in relation to the identification and inspection of defences; the recording of results and assessing flood and erosion risks; flood warning and emergency exercises; and development control in areas at risk of flooding and coastal erosion. We shall be reporting on the achievement of those targets.

The noble Lord, Lord Walpole, may wish to note that successful delivery of the policy aim depends on an effective partnership with local operating authorities, including the Environment Agency, which is accountable to government. In the particular case of flood defence, that responsibility rests with MAFF.

This has been a fascinating debate. Not only have we learnt about geomorphology; I have also learnt about a piece of Marvell poetry that I had not heard before. The poem that I have always known begins,

"Had we but world enough, and time".

It may be significant and sensible to remind ourselves that in this area we should all hear,

"Time's winged chariot hurrying near", and make sure that the policies are appropriate to the needs.

Photo of Lord Bridges Lord Bridges Crossbench 7:01 pm, 7th June 2000

My Lords, I have a couple of minutes in which to express my thanks to all who have taken part in the debate. I must admit that when I tabled this Motion I was not sure of how much interest it would prove to your Lordships. I need not have worried, need I? We have heard some fascinating contributions. I think particularly of the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, who is a famous meteorologist. I hope that the noble Lord will not have mistaken or misunderstood the very warm welcome that we all gave to his words. We long to hear from the noble Lord often again.

There was an important contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, who is a geographer. There was also an interesting speech from my noble friend Lord Harris, who spoke with characteristic fire, but in directions which took me by surprise. It was not until I realised that my noble friend came from the Birling Gap fraternity that I understood. I may have got the adjectives wrong, but I thought that one point he was referring to the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, as "picturesque"—but perhaps that was the gap to which he was referring at that point.

I shall, of course, read the Hansard account of the debate. I was glad to hear what the noble Baroness said about the Thames Barrier. It was much more comforting than other information that has reached me.

On the question of insurance, I do not think that the noble Baroness answered the proposition that I put. I did not expect her to do so; however, perhaps she could take the trouble to examine my suggestion. It was not that the Government should give out money to people who had not taken the trouble to insure themselves, but that the Government might help to support an insurance scheme in circumstances where the insurers themselves withdrew cover. That is the kind of supportive activity that the Government might be able to undertake.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for her authoritative remarks. She may have misunderstood me in thinking that I was in favour of hard defences—I am not. All I was saying was that we should not choose managed retreat merely because it is the cheapest option—and I suspect that there may be an element of that in some of the judgments that are taking place. I say no more. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.