What a pleasure it is that you always preside in this Chamber whenever I speak, Mr. Winterton.
I am grateful for this opportunity for the debate and I thank my hon. Friend the Minister who is to reply, as I know that he has more difficult problems to deal with. He is familiar with my constituency and has visited it on several occasions. Only recently, he met a delegation from my constituency of Redcar and Cleveland councillors and residents about the floods in Skinningrove. I put on record my appreciation for that useful and productive meeting.
The basic thrust of my subject affects only a small number of my constituents, but that small number is faced with serious worries. Their fears are shared by others living in neighbouring areas that are represented by Mr. Quinn and other hon. Members representing constituencies along the North sea coast. I refer to coastal erosion, coastal stability and the problems that they cause for people living on the edge of cliffs and shorelines--problems that threaten them as property or business owners.
Many of the seaside towns and villages in the region started as fishing villages or small ports and have become residential holiday and retirement centres. Along the coast in my constituency, the ground is made up of what geologists call glacial till, clay shale resting on harder sub-surface rock. By its nature, this is an unstable geological formation. With little water penetration the clay can rapidly acquire a plasticity that makes it vulnerable to landslides. The local shale is by its nature oily and slippery. A combination of those surfaces, along with the pounding that cliffs and foreshores receive from the remorseless action of the sea, makes slippage inevitable.
The instability is exacerbated by the constant erosive removal of material by wave action from the base of our local cliffs, some of which are around 600 ft high--the highest in Britain. That erosion results in the undercutting of the cliff, leading to more cliff falls and steepening, setting up a cycle of erosion that is so pronounced that its progress can be measured year by year and, indeed, month by month. I do not intend to enter the debate about global warming as we do not have the time, but weather patterns have changed significantly in the past few years and heavy storms and prolonged rain happen more frequently. If we accept the basic premise of global warming, we must accept rising sea levels and rising levels of coastal erosion.
I am pleased that the Government take the problem seriously and thank my hon. Friend the Minister for overseeing the new shoreline management plan, which involves an examination of the North sea shoreline. The plan process is democratic, embracing the local councils, communities and local water and drainage companies. The study also involves scientific engineering, and outlines in scientific and technological terms where the process of erosion can be halted and checked, where the line can be held and where there can be only a managed retreat, as it is called. That is where the problems start for my constituents.
I refer to the small village of Cowbar as an example of the problem. It is situated high on the cliffs overlooking the picturesque and much larger fishing village of Staithes, where Captain Cook learned his seafaring skills. It has about 50 residents. Most of them are local people, some of whom are employed at the Boulby potash mine, which is nearby. Among the other inhabitants of the village are fishermen, retired people, and also the owners of holiday homes who, although they are only occasional visitors, are residents none the less.
About a year ago, those responsible for the shoreline management plan visited Cowbar, where the problems caused by erosion are well known and thoroughly understood. The road that serves the village snakes along the cliff edge. It has had to be repaired and re-sited twice within living memory; the last occasion was very recently. It is well known that rocks sometimes fall on to the shoreline below; that has been recorded for a long time. Engineers and academics have studied the area, and they have reached some sombre conclusions. The evidence before them suggested that, although there were no immediate problems, the erosion was unstoppable and that, within the next few years, subsidence might threaten some houses in Cowbar.
The impact of that prediction must be understood. The fact that it was stated in a public document was enough to frighten the financial institutions. The value of many houses fell because what had to be said had been said. No surveyor could ignore the findings of engineering professionals and no estate agency or mortgage lender could disregard the possible financial consequences of negotiating a property sale that ignored those findings.
The family home of Mr. Colin Mann, the chairman of the local residents' association, is situated far away from the cliff top. However, his mortgage lender has sent him a letter stating that it considered his home to be "unsuitable security" and, therefore, that it could not proceed further with his application.
I emphasise that I am not saying that public agencies should keep such reports secret. That would be a hundred times worse and could lead to charges that central and local government were keeping people in the dark about potential threats to them and their communities.
Increases in coastal erosion are starting to have an impact on people as well as on the countryside and the Government have a moral duty to take action. Coastal erosion will also start to impose costs on the wider community. Those costs are often unexpected.
I want, briefly, to adduce another example from my community that also arose as a result of the shoreline management plan process. One of the highest and most prominent natural features in my constituency is called Hunt cliff. It towers over the seaside resort town of Saltburn. Indeed, the town's very successful secondary school is named after it. A single-track railway line runs along the cliff top. It was constructed by Victorian railway engineers who sought a direct route from Teesside to Whitby. The line was an outlet for the limestone that was mined in dozens of local pits to feed blast furnaces. Passengers are no longer able to appreciate the great views from the cliff, but freight trains still use the line, carrying steel blooms into the Skinningrove steelworks and finished steel out.
The line is also constantly used by heavy freight trains moving potash and salt from east Cleveland's biggest employer, the Boulby potash mine, to which I have already referred. Heavy and bulky loads are moved quickly, cleanly and efficiently by rail and are, therefore, kept off the local road network, to the great relief of local people. However, the line has been indirectly threatened by the shoreline management plan, which takes a pessimistic view of the long-term stability of the cliff edge on Hunt cliff. It is recognised that there is not an immediate problem, but I am worried that the seeds of doubt might now have been sown. If big investment decisions were to be made about infrastructure repairs or new job creation projects, the report could have an impact on such matters. Increased movement of goods by road may be considered--movements that would have an impact on the environment of the area and the quality of life of local people and which would impose a cost on road maintenance and repair. For those reasons, the Minister and his Department should carry out an investigation.
That investigation should include whether the scope of the coastal protection budget--a budget informed by the work of the shoreline management project--could be extended to cover the impact of coastal erosion on homes, businesses and infrastructure. Such a budgetary extension could be catered for by the existing public finance provision that applies to, for example, the compulsory purchase of properties needed for new roads or civil works. It could, in effect, be ring-fenced by saying that in a 30-year period it would apply only to properties that partly or wholly lie within 200 m of a coastline.
Such a scheme could operate on a basis similar to the compulsory purchase order where, if agreement cannot be reached between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the individual affected by erosion, the matter could be subject to a public examination. The scheme would have a marked effect on restoring confidence to home and property owners who have an interest in land adjoining the shoreline, and investors and lenders would know that they were not running a high risk. I am aware that legal and insurance remedies exist for people affected by coastal erosion.
Given the increasing importance of the issue and of climatic change, we must look to new remedies. Our response to climate changes must be more than merely ensuring that the pumps are operating or that enough sandbags are on hand. We must recognise that coastal erosion has a profound impact on our society--an impact that takes a financial and legal as well as an environmental form. The adoption of such a scheme would make a start on recognising that impact, as well as giving much hope to a small number of householders in my constituency, who at present feel threatened by a combination of natural forces.
I congratulate Dr. Kumar on so clearly expressing the problems that people face in respect of coastal erosion. He has been to see me several times about the problem and I have visited his constituency. I pay tribute to the energetic and effective way in which he has represented his constituents in taking such issues up with the Ministry. I fully understand that coastal erosion, with the associated loss of land and property, is a highly emotional subject. It puts great stress on people and not only in economic terms. I have the utmost sympathy for my hon. Friend's constituents who are facing such problems.
Although natural events such as coastal erosion can never be prevented entirely, it is right that maritime district councils should take measures to alleviate the risk when it is sustainable to do so. However, it is unrealistic to expect to maintain all the coastline as it is now. We cannot completely surround the country with a wall of concrete. That is not only unrealistic, but undesirable. It would have consequences, given that our coastline is dynamic and erosion is part of a natural process. In that respect, we should base defence measures on an understanding of such natural processes and work with the processes as far as possible, while keeping the impact on defences elsewhere on the coastline in mind, rather than work against them.
As my hon. Friend stated, that is the reason why the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has encouraged the setting-up of coastal defence groups to provide a forum for discussion and co-operation. That leads to the preparation of shoreline management plans. They provide a basis for a sustainable coastal defence policy and set objectives for future coastline management, while taking into account natural coastal processes, coastal defence needs, environmental considerations, planning issues and current and future land use. Shoreline management plans are in place for the whole English coastline and are intended to be living documents, which can adapt to changing circumstances and which will be reviewed regularly to ensure that they are relevant to the needs of the people whom they protect and the coastline that they manage.
I understand my hon. Friend's strong case about the financial consequences of planning blight on people whose homes are identified in shoreline management plans as being at risk from erosion. However, I am sorry to say that compensation is not payable to people who are affected by flooding or erosion, except in limited circumstances. That includes cases where it has been decided not to defend a particular area or to undertake managed realignment. That is not the case in this instance, as it is natural erosion.
That approach, which has been adopted by successive Governments, is justified by current legislation, which provides operating authorities with permissive powers to undertake flood and coastal defence work. Apart from the requirements of the habitats directive, there is no general obligation to build or to maintain defences at all, or to a particular standard. Consistent with that approach, the legislation makes no provision for compensation payable from public funds for people whose property or land is affected by erosion or flooding.
That sounds harsh, but coastal erosion is not a new process. It has occurred for centuries and people who live in areas that experience coastal erosion are aware of the inherent risks. The use of funding for flood and coastal defence would be unsustainable, given the funds that are available, although such funds have been increased. MAFF does not have the framework to provide such compensation. We do not have assessors or people who can advise on compensation levels. Also, we cannot compete with insurance companies, which have a role in flood and coastal defence, and nor should we.
I understand that that is not of great comfort to people who face such blight. However, I can offer my hon. Friend words of comfort about the grant aid that is provided for capital for flood defence and coast protection schemes that meet the criteria of being technically sound, economically worth while and environmentally acceptable. The priority score arrangements that we use for that are under review and a formal consultation is under way.
Schemes that meet such criteria may receive grant and approvals from MAFF to allow local authorities to borrow the balance of the cost of the approval schemes, net of grant. That funding has been increased in the past two spending reviews. Further funding has been announced as a result of the severe floods that the country has experienced. MAFF funding for flood and coastal defence capital is set to increase by 50 per cent: from £76 million this year to £114 million in 2003-04.
In recent years, MAFF has given grant aid for emergency coast protection works that have been undertaken by Redcar and Cleveland council at Redcar and Skinningrove and has funded strategic studies. My hon. Friend brought representatives of the local council to see me. I was impressed with them because, in contrast to others I have met, they did not sit wringing their hands and expecting the Government to step in and do everything for them. The council allocated its own resources and got on with the job of dealing with the coastal erosion problems and severe flooding that Skinningrove has experienced. It did not wait: it recognised the needs of the people that it represents and tried to provide for them. The council put forward some of its own money and attracted MAFF grant money. As my hon. Friend knows, I have agreed to consider a retrospective grant application for the flood defence works at Skinningrove.
Redcar and Cleveland council is undertaking some works at Cowbar. I assure my hon. Friend that, if the works meet the normal criteria, grant funding will be available to help the local council to provide coastal defences. That is a far more appropriate way of using Government funds. Although we cannot take on compensation for any type of blight, we can remove the blight by contributing to properly costed and evaluated flood and coastal defence schemes. The local council, which is considering that, is welcome to submit any proposals to MAFF to establish whether they qualify for grant aid. That may deal with the problems that my hon. Friend's constituents currently face.
I stress that we have clear criteria for giving grant aid, as my hon. Friend is aware. The key objectives of our flood and coastal defence policy are, first, to encourage the provision of adequate and cost-effective flood warning systems. No Government can guarantee that floods will not happen. We can, however, reduce the risk of floods and coastal flooding by encouraging people to provide good advanced warning. Secondly, we will encourage the provision of adequate, economically, technically and environmentally sound and sustainable flood and coastal defence measures. Thirdly, we will discourage inappropriate development in areas at risk from flooding and coastal erosion--a policy that has not been given sufficient weight in years gone by. Lessons have been learned from planning policies in the past.
Authorities are being asked to report on the extent to which local authority development plans contain coastal erosion statements and on planning applications in which coastal erosion was a material consideration. That does not affect Cowbar, but it is part of a strategic approach for the future. We must try to consider the future as well as dealing with the present.
I can offer my hon. Friend some support on the question of research and development. We should investigate the forces behind flooding and coastal erosion; the knowledge that we acquire will help to shape the technical means of responding to them. Local authorities would naturally find it difficult to find the resources for such research and development and we would not expect them to do so. It is appropriate that the Government take on the considerable spending involved to find the information needed to understand the forces along the coastline represented by my hon. Friend. That will give us some ideas in predicting the rate of erosion and about the responses that we need to make.
We are increasingly aware that we should regard holistically such issues as coastal erosion and flood defences. If one considers only one particular spot on the coastline and installs defences, it may have implications for other parts of the coastline. That consideration is taken into account in the research that we have commissioned and the funds that we have made available to assist the schemes that I am sure my hon. Friend wants.
We cannot, unfortunately, help with compensation for the sort of blight that my hon. Friend outlined so well. He made a strong case, but there is no facility for the Government to do that. However, we can help with capital support for his local council to enable it to defend some areas where it is sustainable to do so. That must be a key condition. I have a lot of respect for my hon. Friend's local council, which has done a good job in looking after the people whom it represents. If it suggests a scheme in accordance with the criteria that I have outlined, I shall be sympathetic to its case for Government grant support.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Two o'clock.