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22 Jan 2002 : Column 200WH

Coastal Flood Defence

11 am

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise the important issue of coastal flood defence in this Chamber. A casual onlooker might be entitled to wonder why I, with one of the most inland constituencies in England, am doing so. My defence could be that Parliament should consider all matters of public interest and that our island is small enough for a problem in one area to translate into another area and be of common concern. To borrow and slightly modify the concept of John Donne, no man is an island unto himself, and what goes on in Waveney—I see the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) arriving—or Boston is of as much concern to me as it is to the constituents of the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds).

In these days of hypersensitivity to matters of personal interest, I can say that I have no conceivable constituency interest to advance or declare on the subject and I must make time for those present with such interests to participate. However, there are three good reasons for my involvement with the topic. First, under the Conservative Administration, I was the Minister with responsibility for flood defence and coastal protection immediately prior to the current Minister. There are now not too many Tories in such a position. I am glad that the Minister is present and will respond to the debate. I have some reasonable idea of the general structure of the making and execution of policy on the subject. Although it is characteristic of neither the Minister nor, I hope, myself, we could trade insults about our comparative performances or the weaknesses of the planning structure. However, I want to secure for all hon. Members a constructive and forward-looking debate on an important topic.

My second reason is personal. Although I have lived in my constituency in Northamptonshire for 34 years, I was born and grew up in Essex. I never lived on the coastline, but I know it well and know some people who farm locally. My mother is now in her 90s and has a fund of ready stories. It may amuse hon. Members to know that she claims to be the undefeated ladies' golf champion of Mersea island. Today's subject affects that island very much. She won the championship in 1939 and the course was closed for the duration of hostilities. It has not reopened and has been largely subject to inundation, so she remains triumphant.

Be that as it may, I was in Essex as a boy for the disastrous floods of 1953, which caused great loss of life and may be said to have had an indelible effect on attitudes in the east of England. Even when the water subsided, the immediate tragedy began to heal and houses and lives were rebuilt, so far as they could be, there was a need for careful land restoration and the reconstruction of sea walls. In Essex alone, there are still 300 km of sea walls for coastal protection.

My third reason for bringing this matter to the attention of hon. Members is that, as farmers and constituency MPs in the midlands, our prime concern is inland flood defence. We were much exercised by the floods of Easter 1998, which involved some loss of life locally. However, it is impossible completely to divorce coastal management from the upland areas. Rivers such

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as the Ouse and the Nene—we pronounce it "Nen" west of Northampton—rise in my constituency and flow to the North sea. Heavy rain in the midlands might easily lead to surcharged rivers, and if a change in the wind direction followed there could be a storm surge of 5 m or 6 m from the North sea up the coast. If those two pressures met, the water would have nowhere to go, which would inevitably lead to terrible damage in urban areas. That may be an extreme case scenario, but it is not inconceivable. That is why there is a common interest in getting our flood defences right.

All those factors have been known for the past half-century, since the 1953 floods, but they have been made worse by the combination of global warming and the tilting of England towards the south-east. That has led to constant changes in sea levels, which is another reason for my concentrating most of my remarks on the south-east. However, I am aware that there are important coastal defence and coast protection issues in other areas.

The Hadley centre for climate prediction, which is associated with the Met Office, forecasts that sea levels will rise by an average of 24 cm in the next 50 years, owing to the thermal expansion of the oceans and the melting glaciers. If the tilt effect is taken into account, the sea levels in Scotland will rise by about 16 cm, while those in southern England will rise by 31 cm. In imperial measurements, that is more than a foot. The figures are entirely consistent with existing data, which suggest that sea levels are rising between 4 mm and 7 mm a year. That constitutes a perceptible yearly increase and raises questions about the long-term viability of the Thames barrier as a flood defence. This is a serious issue, which brooks no ministerial complacency.

I share with colleagues my single favourite lobbying postcard, which reached me 10 years ago. I never entirely understood why I received one. It is the only lobbying postcard that I remember to this day. It was a colourful card with a picture on it, which came from Friends of the Earth. Its message was clear. Under the heading "Global Warming: Doncaster Races", it showed a horse passing the winning post—one needed a second or two to notice that it was a seahorse.

I turn from the general agreement about the pressure on coastal protection and defence to the action required by the Government and public authorities. Those matters are in one sense less complicated than they are with inland flood defence, because with inland areas the Minister must deal with the mish-mash of various responsibilities, the need to tune the various interests together, and the possibility that the disputed ownership by a district council of a particular culvert may nullify the benefit of a scheme. Those issues need attending to, but we cannot discuss them all this morning. On the coast, the main players are the Environment Agency, the local coastal protection authorities and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs itself. The Department is the facilitator and ultimately the grant-giver for schemes, although private local providers of protection and secondary sea walls, often to their own property, including agricultural property, are important.

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Incidentally, I have one concern in all the statistics on which the Minister may like to reflect. As I was putting together briefing material for this debate, I found that it is still difficult to differentiate between internal flood defence and coastal protection. I have already explained why they cannot be treated as separate issues, but in terms of planning and the effort going into the two, perhaps more thought should be given to drawing out the statistics so that they are easier to use. I am aware that it is possible, inadvertently, to stray into adding the two together and confusing the result, but this morning we should concentrate on the sea, coastal defence and coastal protection.

Shoreline management plans were a positive development in our time in government and were designed primarily by coastal protection authorities under the aegis and encouragement of the Government. I hope that the revised plans will be published after the current sheaf of consultation exercises, and that they will be put in place as soon as practicable.

Before I deal with what the Government should do I will suggest two things that they should not regard as solutions to the problems. Action must depend on local conditions and, wherever possible, local consent. The Minister will know from his broad agricultural remit that he can get a great deal out of farmers with their consent. It is much more difficult to impose solutions on them without their consent. He may also know that I am wary of sweeping solutions in this context. Unusually perhaps for someone on the Conservative Benches, I approve of some remarks that he made in March last year. He said:

So far, so good. Nothing that the Minister said then is wrong, but I am worried, when he speaks in those terms, that he may have set up an Aunt Sally. Who is in the list, defending every inch regardless of cost? When Ministers set up an Aunt Sally, it is often to knock it down.

That introduces two apparently seductive concepts. I acknowledge that both may have a role, but they do not amount to a comprehensive solution—the Minister is a prominent activist in the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, while I am a modest member, but I have every respect for it. The first is managed retreat—letting the sea in. I can remember touring the first experiment on the Essex coast, which was interesting and, in certain respects, encouraging. It may have a role in particular cases, although, as I said, farmers are unlikely to agree with it wittingly and willingly in the absence of adequate compensation or inducement.

I am aware that the Minister has published consultations on this exercise. However, the experiment is limited to matters of local adjustment, as set out in his consultation paper. If I may use a slightly risky analogy, it is a little like straightening out the western front in 1914-18, removing the salients and producing a more defensible position, rather than retreating comprehensively to a completely different line of defence.

The second somewhat seductive concept is closely related to managed retreat: it is soft defences. I well remember seeing those on the Norfolk coast, where the

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eroded beach was described, in a very attractive phrase, as being "nourished" by artificial offshore reefs. The beach was visibly regenerating and looked a lot better. That is a good thing, and I am not suggesting for a moment that it is not, but it is not the solution in every situation. I leave the Minister with the thought that he must acknowledge the need for what the Prime Minister once memorably described as hard choices. In this case, that must mean some hard sea defences as well.

On positive suggestions, I shall deal first with the regulatory and appraisal process. Farmers in the eastern counties are concerned that the present Minister's environmental enthusiasms might make things unreasonably difficult for the conduct of traditional activities and practices. There is a general problem for any farmer involved in environmentally sensitive land. I declare an interest in that an environmentally sensitive area impinges on my farm, for which I get a modest acknowledgment payment. It is one thing to have one ESA, but there can be a series of overlapping responsibilities and farmers' problems with them often rise not in arithmetic but geometric proportion to the number of requests and requirements involved. When I prepared for the debate, concerns were expressed to me about the fact that the Government are interpreting the European habitats directive as strictly site specific. It was inferred that proposals for even simple maintenance of existing sea walls at a landowner's own initiative and cost might not be permitted without exhaustive inquiry and regulatory investigation.

A wider concern—bringing in the Department's role—is whether provisions for cost-benefit analysis of schemes, which are currently subject to consultation, adequately score the value of agricultural land with reference to not only its current productivity once European subsidies are taken out—not all crops are subsidised—but its much higher capital value and its potential for diversification. In my general approach to such issues, I have some sympathy with the Dutch. They have extended their country and improved the protection of residents at huge capital expense and are unlikely to want to give the land back to the sea. As Mark Twain put it rather more succinctly across the Atlantic,

If it is being made, however great the costs, we must think long and hard about a general retreat from the land frontier.

My final point centres on the objectives of the coastal protection process. Whatever our different views on the value of agricultural land, there is an important human interface. I will always remember inspecting the crumbling Norfolk cliffs at Happisburgh and being made uncomfortably aware that any major sea incursion through the cliffs could surge straight through the broads. Once the sea got through the cliffs, there would be little to stop it.

The Association of British Insurers, which briefed me for the debate, said:

In other words, an individual's ability to protect themselves economically depends on there being a Government commitment, just as an individual's physical security also depends on that commitment.

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The ABI goes on to recommend an increase

For the avoidance of doubt, I remind the Minister that that includes internal flood defence as well as coastal protection—an area in which we need to draw the figures out more distinctly. That line of figuring is consistent with DEFRA's published research, which shows that a range of incremental spending of between £84 million and £204 million per annum will be required to bring defences up to the Government's standard, which is a 100-year return frequency, or to put it another way one flood every 100 years, in densely populated urban areas and to make allowance for the climate change to which I referred.

I welcome the fact that after what was a sluggish start by the Government, Ministers are getting round to claiming, if not necessarily delivering, extra funding. One or two of my hon. Friends may have something to say about the split between coastal and inland areas in that respect. I have done battle with the Treasury in my time and I know, as the Minister does, that it is always easy to find a more pressing need and to put off this sort of thing in the hope that we will not have a problem in the next year.

I warn the Minister in all friendliness and seriousness that whether the issue is inland or coastal flooding, he must be prepared to contemplate and effect a serious and sustained capital programme. That would entail not a dramatic change from one year to another, but building on the shoreline management plans and the greatest priorities indicated by his studies. At the same time, I hope that he will remain sensitive to environmental concerns, as the idea of willy-nilly capital work without paying those any regard has long passed. He must also have regard to the worries of farmers, landowners and others who live in the areas at risk.

I conclude, as I began, by recording that when all is said and done almost any problem of flood defence or coastal protection comes back to individuals. They may live in directly affected areas, they may be at risk and some of them may be less mobile or less able to manage the situation than others. Many of our citizens live under the shadow of those risks and we cannot honestly tell them that we can remove all of them regardless of the cost or environmental impact; no one is asking for that. It is helpful to ventilate the issues and local problems and to hear the Minister respond to them. Even if the issue is not one that hits the headlines day to day, we are uncomfortably aware that one day it may do so dramatically. It behoves us all to do our best to ensure that, if and when such a day arises, we have got our defences in order.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook): Order. I remind hon. Members that the common convention at these sittings is for the three Front-Bench speakers, and three are present today, to commence their winding-up speeches 30 minutes before the termination of the debate. I hope that hon. Members will bear that in mind and make their comments pertinent, clear and concise.

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11.24 am

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) for securing the debate, especially given that his constituency is about as far from the sea as one can get.

My constituency is the most easterly in the country and Lowestoft is Britain's easternmost cardinal point. We are therefore as exposed as anywhere to the ferocity of the sea. Those of us in low-lying East Anglia look with more than a keen interest at predictions of the impact on our region of global warming and rising sea levels. Ironically, Kessingland, one of the lowest-lying stretches of the 20 miles or so of coastline in my constituency, is one of the very few areas where accretion is occurring. Some of the people of Kessingland say that it will eventually replace Lowestoft as the country's most easterly point. We shall have to wait and see about that. The two main areas of Waveney that are under attack from the sea both feature sandy cliffs. One is to the south of Lowestoft between Lowestoft and Kessingland and is largely open countryside. The other is to the north of Lowestoft at the village of Corton, which is the main subject of my speech.

In general national terms, one cannot disagree with the assertion that it is simply not possible to build a wall around the entire coast that would withstand the power of the sea. The cost would be phenomenal—unaffordably so—and no party could responsibly commit itself to such a project. Moreover, as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds points out, it would be environmentally undesirable. Previously in this Chamber I have made the RSPB's case for the need to take steps to manage our coasts so as to ensure the continuation of sufficient wetland habitats, of which we have many in East Anglia. Today, however, I want to concentrate on people in communities by the coast and their homes and livelihoods. Although the macro arguments appear simple and support the national criteria against which plans for coast protection schemes are judged, when one looks at particular pieces of coast the situation becomes real in human terms and those national policies are truly put to the test.

The principle that operates is that the cost benefit—the value of what is saved—must exceed the cost of the works that are carried out. That is not a problem in relation to settlements of the size of Lowestoft, which always meets the criteria and is well protected so that people feel safe. In respect of large stretches of open countryside, I can understand why farmers say that they do not want to lose land to the sea. When I was leader of Waveney district council, a farmer came to the town hall with a bill for £1 million, claiming that we had let some of his fields slip into the sea. However, it is unrealistic to think that we can build walls to protect such areas.

The anxiety comes with villages on the coast the inhabitants of which tend to feel that they are particularly exposed. The village of Corton has a sea wall along its whole length, but in recent years some parts of it have suffered collapse and damage. Villagers' worries are manifested in overflowing meetings at the village hall, which I have attended. People have been told that the wall is collapsing partly because the level of the beach has become lower, but they cannot

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understand why the groynes that were put there to help the sand to accumulate have been allowed to deteriorate over the past few decades.

Waveney district council has carried out two sets of work to contain the damage, on which, for two years running, it has spent two thirds of its annual £300,000 coast protection budget. Particular strain is often placed on small coastal district authorities in that respect, which is a problem that I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will discuss with his colleagues in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. Such situations are urgent and the coast protection element of the standard spending assessment is not very large.

With a population of some 1,100, Corton village is not small. Nor is it a scattered settlement. It is densely populated, within a tightly drawn village envelope. It has a school, a post office, a shop, two churches, two pubs, a social housing estate, social housing for the elderly and private estates of bungalows. On its doorstep is a new, £60 million Anglian Water waste water treatment centre that has almost been completed.

A shoreline management plan was drawn up in the mid-1990s. The policy for Corton was to hold the line, and we should remember that those who live there, or who have businesses there, mapped out their futures on the basis of that plan. To me, it is unthinkable that a managed retreat policy will be adopted and that the village of Corton will be abandoned to the sea. Indeed, I am sure that it will not. No politician from whatever political party, whether local or national, would accept leaving such an important and sizeable village undefended to the mercy of the sea. As a former leader of Waveney district council, I appreciate that such decisions are difficult. I had to take a very tough decision on a hamlet, consisting of four or five houses further along the Suffolk coast, in a heritage coast area of outstanding natural beauty. Reluctantly, we decided to leave the houses to the sea, and I believe that a couple have indeed gone over the cliff. In fact, my hon. Friend the Minister once visited them. For many years, a picture of him standing on the cliffs hung on the walls of the local Labour party offices.

Corton also has a tourist industry. The three holiday camps and caravan sites that are situated between the main street and the cliffs are not shacks or beach huts, but substantial, good-quality buildings, many of which are built of brick and have been winterised. Such all-year-round holiday camps are popular with older visitors, and represent a substantial investment. They are a major part of the local economy and support hundreds of jobs. Further up the coast, just beyond the boundary of my constituency, a similar camp recently hosted the world indoor bowls championship.

Concern has been expressed that the coastal strip on which the holiday camps are situated might not meet DEFRA criteria in respect of a proposed local authority scheme. I am happy to say, however, that Waveney district council is now confident that it does meet the criteria for a 20-year scheme that would protect not only the holiday accommodation but the two or three private houses situated among it, near the cliff. The scheme, costing some £2.8 million, has been developed in consultation with DEFRA, and will be submitted to my hon. Friend the Minister in March or April. I ask him to

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be ready to consider that scheme, and I hope that he will look favourably on it and take a positive decision quickly, because the cloud of anxiety that has hung over the village of Corton for too long needs to be removed. I also ask that he remember that behind the holiday camp area lies the substantial village that I have described. It would be madness to allow the holiday camp to fall over the cliff over a period of two or three decades—what a spectacle that would present!—only for the cliff to recede to such a point that the village needed defending anyway. Given its size and importance, I cannot believe that Corton would fail to meet any criterion that was put in place.

Some concern has been expressed that a 20-year scheme is not long enough. In one sense, the proposed scheme is flexible, in that it involves boulders and additions can be made to it. Will my hon. Friend the Minister confirm that DEFRA does require local authorities to review such schemes every five years, and that they can be extended? Will he confirm that the matter will be considered again during, and towards the end of, the 20-year period, and that the holiday camp area of Corton will not automatically be abandoned after that time?

The proposed scheme is an appropriate level of spend to hold the line for a considerable period and will allow further assessments. We do not know what will be happening to the coast in 10 or 20 years, but if we can hold the line for that period, a calculation can be carried out in future.

In conclusion, I seek a favourable and quick response to the bid that will soon arrive in the Minister's Department so that work can begin this summer. I seek a recognition that villages of the size and importance of Corton with a holiday industry cannot simply be abandoned. People and businesses need all the confidence that they can reasonably be given. The Government must recognise that there are resource implications for local authorities, not only for their annual budgets but for individual schemes. For such an important policy, I hope that DEFRA is bidding, as the hon. Member for Daventry suggested that it should, for more resources in the comprehensive spending review.

We cannot predict the future configuration of our coasts. Where I live in Pakefield, south of Lowestoft, whole streets fell off the cliff in the 1950s. Today, the coastline and beach at Pakefield is another area of accretion. We cannot predict the future, but we must try to plan and gear ourselves up as much as possible to ensure that guidelines or criteria that exist at national level connect with the lives of ordinary people and the communities in which they live.

11.36 am

Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) on securing this important debate. Unlike him, I have every conceivable constituency interest in ensuring that the coastal flood defences and internal drainage boards work together and co-operate. Large areas of my constituency would be under the sea were it not for the excellent work of the myriad of agencies involved in coastal flood defence. I shall return to that theme. Much of the high-quality agricultural land was reclaimed during the past 400 or

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500 years, and much of it by some extremely talented Dutch individuals. In the past, excellent work has also been done by my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell).

Many people, particularly those living in coastal areas that are directly affected by the sea, have no idea of the severity of damage that can occur. As my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry suggested, the last time that a flood occurred on the east coast was in 1953. Several hundred people were killed in my constituency. It is important to realise that up to 10 km inland from the coast much of the land is at or below sea level. In an area such as east Lincolnshire, it is vital that we understand that river flood and sea flood defences are inextricably linked and that solutions to those problems need to be considered together.

Defences provide flood protection to an extensive area of low-lying coastal plane. It is both high-quality agricultural land and land for recreation and tourism. The hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) said that Corton in his constituency had a tourist industry. He should see Skegness. Along the coast of east Lincolnshire, between Skegness and Mablethorpe, there are about 26,000 mobile homes, the vast majority of which would be affected were the sea to breach the defences. That would have a severe impact on the local economy and employment.

I want to deal with four problems which, I am sure, exist around the United Kingdom, but which are exacerbated in areas such as Boston and Skegness. First, there is a disparity between the standard spending assessment and the internal drainage board levies. Historically, particularly taking into account the gross domestic product inflator within the standard spending assessment, those figures have approximately matched each other. For the first time, during this financial year, the money transferred from the local authority for the internal drainage board levy has been more than the SSA moneys from the Government. That does not fit comfortably with the consultation document released by the Minister, which emphasises the importance of local consultation and of flood defences.

The problem will worsen over time. The internal drainage boards have said that their levies may well have to increase by up to 10 per cent. in the next financial year. The local authority—I am using East Lindsey district council as an example—can deal with the disparity in one of two ways. It can cut other local services or increase the council tax. I should have thought that the responsibility lay with central Government, and was not something to be funded by local government.

Internal drainage boards are, to my mind, closely linked to coastal defences, and it is vital that they should retain local control. I realise that some time ago the idea of the Environment Agency taking over control of the boards was discussed. I should welcome a reassurance that that is completely off the agenda.

The second subject that I want to raise relates to shoreline management plans. They are five-year rolling management plans that take into account longer-term coastal erosion, integrating the implications of climate change and the need to establish confidence in the planning process, including environmental protection, tourism and biodiversity. I do not think that a long

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enough view has been taken. I understand that Holland has a 1,000-year plan, in which it is made clear which parts of the coastline will have hard defences, which will have managed retreats and which will benefit from mudflats and salt marshes.

The Government need to consider embracing a much bigger strategic purpose, perhaps bringing together all the agencies that are currently involved under a broader remit. I learned quickly, in trying to marshal information for the debate, that no one agency has overall knowledge, even in one geographical area. The knowledge is split between district, county and town councils, environmental agencies, the internal drainage boards and a range of other institutions. That state of affairs needs to be examined, because it results in a fragmented, not holistic, approach.

The third matter that I want to mention is environment. My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry has alluded to some key issues. However, it is not always appropriate to build higher and higher defences against rising sea levels. Also, gradual land tilting is occurring. Some options, although not always appropriate, deserve sympathetic consideration. There are circumstances in which managed realignment of defences would have a significant environmental impact, creating important wildlife habitats such as salt marshes.

A good example can be found in my constituency at Frieston Shore, where a recent and continuing partnership between Boston borough council, Lincolnshire county council and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has secured objective 5b funding from Europe for a flood defence scheme, as match funding. That should be considered in the rest of the country. However, it must happen on a voluntary basis. Some valuable agricultural land abuts sea defences and, historically, many farmers have themselves provided those defences. There are now too many obstacles to stop them providing or improving sea defences.

The fourth and final matter that I want to raise is economic regeneration. There has been great concern, in my constituency and elsewhere, about the availability of long-term flood insurance. I understand from the Insurance Institute that it is prepared to provide insurance up to the end of December of this year. Nobody seems to know what will happen after that. That is directly related to the Government's commitment to providing sufficient funding and an adequate strategy for coastal flood defence. The Government need to ensure that insurers know the difference between coastal flood defence and river flood defence. There is a marked difference between development and building on river flood plains and on areas of land behind adequate coastal flood defences.

In an area such as Boston and Skegness—which has an ever-increasing population of people who retire from the midlands, and where local authorities and others have an ever-increasing ambition to diversify the economy away from its traditional agricultural base—there are great worries about achieving sufficient planning permissions for development to bring businesses in from outside. While the Environment Agency has played a constructive role, it has in the past

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year or so hindered exciting developments that might bring economic growth and regeneration to a depressed agricultural area.

I have to inform the Minister that, in the view of the IDBs in my constituency, the drainage system is so efficient—because it has been there for so long and the individuals and systems are so expertly positioned—that it is difficult to envisage any circumstances in which flooding would occur as a result of precipitation alone. The danger in an area such as east Lincolnshire is from the sea.

In conclusion, too many bodies deal with both coastal flooding and internal drainage—it is a fragmented responsibility. That was highlighted by the Select Committee on Agriculture in 1998. Nothing seems to have been done about it. There is growing concern about offshore dredging and dredging for aggregates. Dredging alters wave patterns and creates faster and greater erosion than has been the case historically. A breach occurred in my constituency last year at a nature reserve called Gibraltar point, which is an unprotected area. I should like the Minister to take the thought away—I do not expect him to respond today, but hope that he will do so later. We need a national strategy and we should take a leaf out of the book of the authorities in Holland. We should have a longer-term view—perhaps a 1,000-year programme, or at least a 500-year one—across the United Kingdom. Uncertainty inhibits economic regeneration, so it would be helpful to have greater clarity about responsibility and about funding.

11.47 am

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) for his graphic demonstration of altruism in raising the issue. He has a landlocked constituency, unless things are getting very much worse and more of the Arctic circle is melting than we had believed. He also introduced the debate with his usual entertaining literary allusions.

Fortunately, my constituency does not have cliffs with houses crumbling into the sea, although it is on the coast of West Sussex. A great many of my constituents live along the shoreline. The Minister and I have debated flooding on many occasions, although we have previously concentrated on river and inland flooding, and today's debate is about coastal flooding. I have a plea to make. In the past year, there has been much debate in Parliament, and much media focus, on inland flooding and river flooding. For some of us, river flooding is not such a big problem—although we have a little of it—but coastal flooding is an ever-present threat. May I remind the Minister, therefore, that the danger of coastal flooding has not gone away, but has merely been overshadowed by what has happened with our rivers? The vast majority of resources were rightly targeted at the great devastation that occurred in many inland parts of Sussex, particularly at Chichester, Lewes and Uckfield. That was much reported in the media, but it did not help us.

Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): My constituency is historically affected by both inland and coastal flooding. I am pleased to say that the Minister has taken a specific interest in Robertsbridge, which has

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been among the worst affected inland areas in the south-east in recent years. I am cautiously optimistic that a long-term solution will emerge, but less optimistic about the coastal problem, particularly at Pevensey bay. I pay tribute to my county councillors, particularly Councillor Roger Thomas, who has been a doughty fighter for flood defences. The residents of Pevensey bay are concerned about the lack of an overall flood defence strategy, particularly because the Institution of Civil Engineers has pointed out that the flood defence programme is a second-class operation.

Tim Loughton : I think that I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention; Sussex Members constantly try to outdo each other about the severity of their flood problems. My hon. Friend's constituency lies further along the coast, but Shoreham beach in my constituency—a densely populated spit of land with many thousands of residents—is very low lying. The Shoreham and Lancing coastlines are all low lying but densely populated. We are not talking about pleasure beaches, holiday homes or caravan sites, but about the thousands of people whose homes are located within several yards of the sea, and they are exceedingly vulnerable. The Sussex coastline, from Brighton to Bognor Regis, is a built-up, urban strip, where the vast majority of people in south Sussex live.

The Minister knows that my constituency and the constituencies of many of my hon. Friends in that area are bordered to the north by the downs and to the south by the sea, where it is impossible to build. We are squeezed between those two natural features. If sea waters rose significantly, large parts of my constituency would be engulfed. We would require not what is called a managed retreat, but a retreat for many thousands of people.

I acknowledge that much has been done, particularly by the Environment Agency. For instance, some extra boulder protection has been put down along Shoreham and Lancing beaches over the past few years. However, that work is often delayed or subject to stoppage. Typically, if storms further up the coast at Selsey flooded a caravan park, the local authority would take emergency action, which would drain its flood defence coffers. Whenever that sort of thing happens, long-term defence work, which affects many more homes, is put on hold, and work that is desperately needed remains undone.

I echo the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry on the grey area between flood defence and coastal protection, which causes a great deal of buck passing between the various agencies involved, including local water authorities, the district or county councils and the Environment Agency. Much of that is a legacy from when the Environment Agency took over from the National Rivers Authority. We have debated before with the Minister the problems caused by the fact that many responsibilities still lie with dozens of residual bodies. I am afraid that that anomaly is still being exploited by many authorities who do not want, simply because they do not have the resources, to pick up the tab for defence work or repairing damage.

A classic example is Shoreham harbour, which skirts Shoreham beach, which is, as I said, very low lying. At the end of one road, several people's gardens are literally falling into the harbour and have been doing so for some

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years. It will not be long before they have no gardens left and the houses start to come under attack. The harbour authorities, the Environment Agency and the district council all say that that is not their responsibility, so who is responsible? Residents cannot get proper insurance cover for the damage, so they are stuck between a rock and a hard place— or, in this case, a rock and the very wet place that their homes are rapidly becoming. There should be greater guidance—we have discussed that before, but seem to have made no progress—in determining and defining who has responsibility for certain areas of our coastline, particularly in areas such as my constituency on the Sussex coast.

We need to ensure that local authorities receive a proper share of funding for flood defence work. Some years ago, Adur district council received less from central Government for its flood prevention work and coastal defence work than did Crawley borough council, which is some 20 miles north and well inland. In 1998, the Home Office cut the emergency planning grant to West Sussex county council by 31 per cent. The budget was already under enormous pressure because of the extra costs of social services caused by the ageing population of a county such as West Sussex, but the county council had to find more money to pay for flood protection and emergency flood work, and the extra costs incurred by the floods in Chichester and Selsey.

I wish to air a specific point about Worthing. I am advised by the chief executive of Worthing borough council that the council can obtain grant aid only for the prevention of erosion. Worthing has a long, exposed shingle beach, but cannot obtain grant aid for the provision of splash walls to prevent flooding from overtopping waves. Whether flooding occurs because something has been eroded or because there is low-lying land just beyond the beach with vulnerable houses does not really matter. Because of a funding anomaly, however, Worthing borough council cannot perform essential flood defence work on the promenade. That affects our tourist industry, which has suffered greatly anyway. Worthing's name comes from the Anglo-Saxon for seaweed, so the town has a long tradition of looking to the sea.

Pair trawling also has an impact on Worthing's coastline. The natural defences just off the shore have been smashed up—the boulders and the kelp beds have gone—by that very rough form of fishing. That leaves even lower our natural defence against water coming over on to houses just beyond the shore.

We have heard much about shoreline management plans. There should be much more action on those and results should be forthcoming. In July 2001, the Government issued planning policy guidance note 25, which deals with deterring the building of housing in areas at risk of flooding. It is absolutely right to attempt to do that, but our problem in West Sussex is that 46,000 houses are being imposed on us. We have the sea and the downs and very little land in between on which to build those houses. The land most vulnerable to those building proposals comprises the strategic gaps of which few are left and which are the only things that split up the vast coastal urban strip. Those areas are the most environmentally vulnerable to coastal flooding. It is nonsense that we are being forced to build houses and simultaneously being told that we cannot build them

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where they are most likely to be built. That is a real problem in my constituency and in neighbouring ones in Sussex.

In conclusion, some progress has been made, largely through the efforts of the Environment Agency. I pay tribute to Peter Midgley MBE and the agency's Worthing office. They have done a lot to help in difficult circumstances. The Government get flood defence on the cheap. They expect local authorities to do much without properly funding them. Given that 5 million people and 2 million homes are vulnerable to flooding, the Government must take the issue much more seriously, particularly in areas where the coastline is densely populated. In my area, where there is precious little land for alternative development, a small rise in water level combined with the lack of sustained proper defence work will bring untold misery to many thousands of people who will be displaced. I ask the Minister to take that on board and to tackle the problem that I raised in regard to Worthing, which does not get the funding that it needs, because of an anomaly in the nature of its coastline.

12 noon

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): It is an unexpected pleasure to be able to participate in the debate. Although I am very interested in the subject, I had intended to be merely a passive observer because my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) was due to participate. Unfortunately, he is involved in Committee proceedings.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) for raising this subject, which is dear to my heart. I say that not least because I represent North Cornwall, which has the most famous and most attractive coastline in the United Kingdom. However, it regularly reminds us not only of the beauty of the sea but of its ferocity, and we heard again this weekend about a tragic loss of life in my constituency. An unexpected huge wave can cause devastation. At the time of this weekend's incident, I was a bit further down the Cornish coast and witnessed some of the biggest waves that I have ever seen—and I have spent most of my life living close to the sea in Devon and Cornwall. It is important for us to remind those who go to the coast only during the traditional summer holiday period that the sea is extremely frightening for those who live by it or have their living upon the waters.

In that context, I am reminded of the headline comment in the 1998 report of the then Select Committee on Agriculture, which stated:

The Minister will agree that that view is overly simple and that we must be more sophisticated. The sea is still an enemy in some parts of the country. As several hon. Members have said, the Dutch would never take such an open-ended approach; they would be much more resilient and more selective in their attitude.

The hon. Member for Daventry referred to fact that the south of England—I say England advisedly—is going down and that, in relative terms, the north of England is going up. My hon. Friend the Member for

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St. Ives (Andrew George) advised me that Cornwall is the only part of the south that is going up, which may have something to do with our Celtic history. The problem, however, is that we are not going up as fast as the sea level is likely to rise, and relativity is important. All the contributions so far have been made by hon. Members representing constituencies on the eastern and southern coasts, but people in the south-west and many other parts of western Britain are just as concerned about the effects of global warming.

The hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) mentioned a village in his constituency that was threatened by the encroachment of the sea. In my youth, I went to see the south Devon village of Hallsands, which had succumbed to coastal erosion not long before and had mostly disappeared. One can still see some of the houses; indeed, in my childhood, one woman still lived at the top end of the village. Interestingly, the causes of coastal erosion in that case were not merely natural. In the 1930s, speculative developers who were building new docks in Devonport in preparation for rearmament got consent to extract a lot of gravel from the seabed immediately off the coast from Hallsands. It is interesting that the trigger for natural disasters is often man-made. That is why I welcome the new generation of thinking, which has moved us on dramatically.

In recent years we have recognised the connection between the hierarchy of decision making on international global warming—the hon. Member for Daventry mentioned that subject—and joined-up government at a national level. I pay tribute to the Minister, who has been at the forefront on the subject for many years. I say that in relative terms, although it may seem like many years to him. As hon. Members from both sides have said, joined-up government is critical. We have suffered too much from diffusion of responsibility and buck passing.

We also need local consent not only from farmers and landowners but from residents. My constituency contains communities where the residents do not feel that they have adequate influence on the decision-making process. That is partly because it is to some extent outwith normal local or central Government responsibility, with agencies and quangos involved, and there is difficulty in identifying precisely where decisions are taken. Anyone who thinks about the three levels of decision making will see the obvious links. It is frustrating for members of the general public to find that the links are not always as overt and effective as they would hope.

During the first Parliament after I came back to the House in 1992, I chaired the all-party coastal group, which has been sadly eroded although it has been connected with another maritime group. During that period when I worked with hon. Members from all parties, I was struck by the extent to which we had simply failed to pinpoint where the initiatives would be taken, where the priorities would be set and where the funding would go. There has been some improvement, to which the Minister will no doubt refer, but we have not reached a satisfactory conclusion. Some parts of the country need managed retreat in terms of coastal defence, and the administration of that rapidly needs managed advance if we are to gain the consent of the people most closely involved.

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In 1998, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives was involved in discussions on the Flood Warnings (Vulnerable Properties) Bill. The debate revealed the inadequacy of risk assessment and its publication to communities and individuals. The subject requires careful consideration. I took seriously the point made by the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds) that insurance companies are often inadequately informed about the differences between threats from coastal erosion and flooding and from river flooding.

The Minister will take on board the point made by the hon. Member for Daventry about the close connection between inadequate management of flood plains for rivers and consequent frequent conjunction with high tides and bad weather. That is what often causes the most trouble in our coastal communities, and it means that we cannot pretend that the issues are separate.

I want to give the Minister the maximum time to respond, but I shall make one final point. Shoreline management plans have been the "in" concept of recent years, and we acknowledge them as a step forward. They have brought together many otherwise diffuse responsibilities, and have enabled people to see more clearly what is involved. However, they still lack a vital ingredient. The new approach or mindset has brought responsible bodies together to find solutions, but it has not yet gained the full-hearted consent of the people most involved. It is on that that we must concentrate in the next few years. We must ensure the mechanisms for gaining that consent through consultation, direct involvement and a proper role for elected representatives at all levels. If we do not achieve ownership of the plans by the people most affected, those plans may be a waste of paper and time.

12.9 pm

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) on securing the debate and on the clarity of his comments. However, I am sure that he will understand if I ask him to pass on my congratulations, and those of the rest of the House, to his indefatigable 94-year-old mother. She has been the undefeated ladies champion of Mersea Island golf club for 43 years, which I am sure has nothing to do with its inundation by the sea.

My hon. Friends the Members for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds) and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) mentioned two crucial points about the Government's action. First, they referred to the incoherent management of flood defences, and secondly to the lack of funding. Both my hon. Friends' constituencies—although I know one better than the other—are in considerable danger from flooding. As a member of Sussex Royal Naval Reserve, I once drove a minesweeper out of Shoreham, from whose bridge I could see over the tops of many houses, so it is clearly an area under serious threat of coastal flooding.

The threat of coastal flooding is likely to become more menacing in time. The recent planning policy guidance on development flood risk from the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions states that

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Of course, it is not the Government's fault that the south-east of England is gradually sinking, and it is impossible for them, single-handedly, to halt the pernicious process of global warming. We must accept that a rise in sea levels, especially off the coast of south-east England, is tragically inevitable, at least in the short term. Even a new Labour Government cannot play Canute. However, it is reasonable to criticise the Government for failing to provide adequate resources to deal with the problem at hand. I shall focus my remarks on that lack of provision.

Operational responsibility for flood alleviation lies with local operating authorities, including the local authorities, the Environment Agency and the internal drainage boards. Local authorities are ultimately responsible for coastal defence under the Coast Protection Act 1949. When their jurisdiction covers a coastal area, the Act grants local authorities powers to take measures against coastal erosion and sea encroachment. Private or corporate owners of coastal land are also entitled to take protective measures against erosion and sea flooding, but are not eligible for Government grant in aid.

The United Kingdom coastline is managed under the shoreline management plan—or SMP. Plans are devised for each coastal region and take into account a variety of coastal management issues, including the adequacy of current flood defences. However, local authorities are ultimately dependent on grants from central Government. Hon. Members have made that point repeatedly today. Authorities are dependent on grants for resources to tackle coastal flooding, which have been woefully inadequate in recent years.

New Labour's complacency in that respect is made clear by consideration of the figures that were supplied by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in July last year. Money allocated to local sea defence projects by MAFF stood at £46.8 million in 1997-98. The following year the figure dropped to £36.5 million. In 2000-01 a mere £25.7 million was earmarked for spending on coastal flood defences.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley) : It might be helpful if I explain to the hon. Gentleman that the issue is a little more complex than that. It is not that money that has been allocated has dropped, but that some schemes approved by local authorities have slipped. The money has not been lost; in many cases it has been reallocated elsewhere in the flood and coastal budget. The hon. Gentleman should look at the situation a little more carefully instead of having a routine, political whinge.

Mr. Sayeed : The Minister will recognise that I have been endeavouring to obtain greater clarity from his Department, which has deliberately hidden many of the figures, but these we have managed to wheedle out. It is clear: whatever obfuscation the Department chooses to deploy, over three years central funding for sea defences dropped by almost 50 per cent. To say that some schemes may have been delayed would be using the same argument that the Deputy Prime Minister used in relation to many road projects.

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We are interested in money that gets spent and things that get done. Although the floods of autumn 2000 were principally inland, they should nevertheless have served as a vivid reminder of the enormous financial implications of large-scale water damage. It is bizarre that, in the same year as United Kingdom insurers faced an unprecedented claim of around £1.3 billion for flood and associated storm damage, MAFF should have made cuts in coastal defence funding.

Lack of funding is not our only criticism. There is also a divide between the Government's rhetoric and the reality. The Labour party's 2001 election manifesto clearly stated:

Quite how that admirable commitment squares with a £21.1 million reduction in grants for sea defences over three years is unclear.

In the aftermath of the catastrophic events of autumn 2000 the Association of British Insurers called for the Government to increase spending on all flood defence measures in England and Wales by at least £145 million. When increased Government funding finally arrived, it was too little and too late. The money allocated for flood warning and flood defence programmes by the Ministry was increased from £66 million in 2000-01 to £114 million in 2003-04—a £48 million increase—when insurers had asked for a minimum of £145 million, and much of that £48 million went on increased administration rather than on physical measures against flooding. The majority of that funding is provided by Government in the form of a DEFRA grant for approved capital and other works and by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions via revenue support grant, which is used by local authorities to fund levies to the Environment Agency.

Mr. Blizzard : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Sayeed : I am sorry, but my time is very limited. I shall carry on.

All say that that is too little money and too late, and many complain that all that they can do is repair what they have rather than improve the protection.

In conclusion, what can be said for the Government? They are not responsible for the weather, for the tilting of the UK or for the long-term effects of global warming, but they have dragged their heels over coastal flood defence and continue to do so. Prospects for an adequate coastal flooding strategy in the near future look remote. On 31 October 2001, in an answer to the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), the Minister expressed optimism that the current review for flood defences would provide long-term solutions and promised that a review would

Three months on, with no sign of the promised report, the Government will perhaps forgive us if we do not share their apparently boundless optimism.

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Despite increasing pressure on the UK coastline from erosion, rising sea levels and the gradual sinking of the south-eastern corner of England, sea defences remain hopelessly underfunded. The effect of that parsimony will be more misery, unnecessary cost, and more of the south of England lost at sea.

12.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) on securing the debate. He put his case in a thoughtful and constructive way. As a former Minister with responsibility for flood and coastal defence, he is very knowledgeable on the subject. He made his arguments in a thoughtful and logical way when he was a Minister, commanding much respect. I shall return to the main thrust of his arguments in a moment. I hope to answer a few points that have been made during the 10 minutes that I have available.

I start with the comments made by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed). It is a little disappointing that his contribution was a purely political moan about how much more money we should be spending, and I am sure that he appreciates that that approach encourages cynicism among the public. I am not aware that his party has made commitments to large increases in public expenditure. If research is done, it can be discovered that the only cut in real terms in overall spending on flood and coastal defence happened under a Conservative Administration.

Under this Government, the overall spend on flood and coastal defence has increased consistently since 1997. From last year to 2003 there will be, in total, a 70 per cent. increase in expenditure from grants. Overall expenditure from all sources including levies, contributions from local authorities, internal drainage boards and the Environment Agency—the hon. Gentleman must take those into account, because DEFRA grants are not the only source of flood and coastal defence expenditure—will exceed £400 million this year. That is a record sum of money. We take the matter seriously.

There will always be an argument about what the appropriate figure should be. We have commissioned reports on appropriate spend and the need for long-term investment. That is an openness that has not existed before, although the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire accused the Government of hiding figures. We have commissioned such reports so that people can see them, and to guide our future priorities. Projects such as engineered coastal defence schemes are a long-term business. Design, build, public consultation and getting plants on site can take between three and five years.

It is not unusual to have big variations in annual spend. In 1997, the Lincshore project, of which the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds) will be aware because it related to Skegness, involved very high capital spend on beach recharge, or nourishment, as the hon. Gentleman said. This year, the progress made on various coastal defence schemes is disappointing. Some £15.5 million was reallocated to the Environment Agency to provide, for example, £9 million for emergency repair costs following the

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floods of winter 2000, £3 million for a range of database schemes to improve flood warning and £3 million for special funding—this will be of interest in Sussex—for such things as whole catchment river schemes. Where communities have technical difficulties with flood defences, we are funding studies of the whole catchment to help understand how it works and find ways of defending such communities in various catchment plans.

Mr. Barker : I accept a great deal of what the Minister is saying, although we can quibble over individual projects. Does he accept that it remains a worry for people up and down the country, especially my constituents in Pevensey bay, that, whatever the statistics, the Institution of Civil Engineers has said that the amount of investment needed across the board for sea defence must be doubled to be effective? Indeed, the Government have not responded to that report.

Mr. Morley : We have only just had the report, and the hon. Gentleman must give us a chance to respond to it, because we commissioned it from the Institution of Civil Engineers, and we therefore take it seriously. I am surprised to hear that the residents of Pevensey bay are concerned, because we have recently spent a large sum on a big scheme in that area to protect them. I know that the scheme is appreciated by the hon. Gentleman's constituents because I went down there for its opening and talked to them.

I understand the persuasive case that my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) made for Corton. I shall consider sympathetically the bid from the local council, which knows the procedure to follow.

The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness made several reasonable and thoughtful points, although I unfortunately do not have time to respond to them in detail today.

I understand that the constituents of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) will be concerned by the points that he raised, although I was puzzled by his remarks about grants not being available for shingle beaches. I must discuss that with him in greater detail because I suspect that that relates to an argument about what is an environmental improvement to a promenade and what is a flood defence scheme. The issue is more complex than he seems to think.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) made a point about taking a joined-up approach, which is something that we have been trying. We shall shortly produce the funding review report, which makes several interesting recommendations. It is an independent

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report, not a Government position, and we shall put it out for consultation and respond to people's views on it. The suggestions that it contains on institutional changes and other ways of raising funds are interesting.

The responsibility for flood and coastal defence is shared between central Government and local government because the benefits of such schemes often apply locally. However, we also recognise the need for a strategic approach, which is why the bulk of funding comes from central Government. There are issues about the way in which the standard spending assessment works and the appropriate level of funding, and those matters are, of course, under constant review.

The hon. Member for Daventry made several serious points about managed retreats. I make no secret of my enthusiasm for them, but I should like to reassure him that the Government know that they are not appropriate in all circumstances. When we consider a managed retreat we examine the circumstances in which it would be of benefit. It is certainly better if one can conduct a managed retreat by persuasion, and in some of the schemes that I have recently seen, the agency has purchased the land. Such schemes involve deliberately allowing the land to flood, and if one does that, there is a case for purchasing it or entering into a management agreement.

There is a difference between a managed retreat and land that is flooded as part of a natural process, which is sometimes inevitable. Much of my constituency is below sea level, and it is close to the Holderness coast, which has been eroding for centuries, during which time many communities and villages have been lost. That is part of this country's natural process and the dynamic nature of our coastlines. We must recognise that if we interfere with our coastlines, there may be consequences for other parts of the coast and other communities.

I shall ensure that we think carefully about managed retreats, which we approach in the context of the shoreline management plans that I freely acknowledge were a good idea introduced by the previous Government. We have built on those plans, and we review them regularly, which addresses the point made by the hon. Member for Daventry that 20-year schemes can be periodically reviewed in the context of shoreline management plans.

Time does not allow me to continue to deal with the range of sensible questions that were asked, other than to say that the Dutch support managed retreat. We are in close touch with them and they share many of our attitudes to the problem. This is an important issue that demands a large commitment in terms of funds and requires us to consider sustainability and the balance between hard and soft defence.

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