Shoreline Management

Today we had a debate in Westminster Hall about Shoreline Management Plans. I took the opportunity to outline some of the issues that are raised with me regularly on this issue in Great Yarmouth. Colleagues from other constituencies also raised their concerns for other areas including much of the Eastern Coastline that we share.

I outlined my thoughts regarding the system in a wider sense having also highlighted the specific concerns that some of our villages along the Great Yarmouth coastline. The full debate can be read here and I will post a video of the debate later this week.

Brandon Lewis (Great Yarmouth) (Con): Hemsby in Great Yarmouth has £80 million of tourism economy at risk from shoreline management issues. Tourism in Great Yarmouth is worth about £500 million a year, so a deteriorating coastline is a huge issue. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on securing this debate and being a fantastic advocate for her constituency and coastal erosion issues in general.

When the Minister visited our coastline—I congratulate him on coming so quickly—it was clear that he needed many advisers with him. There were advisers from Natural England, the Environment Agency and a range of other quangos for which I cannot begin to remember the acronyms. It highlighted residents’ problem in understanding what they can and cannot do. Every part of the coastline is under a different agency or ownership and involves going to a different body—from the local authority to central Government to various quangos.

In Hemsby, tourism is a great concern. A lot of the properties there, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) said, are mobile homes, which are classed as temporary and therefore not counted in the cost-benefit analysis. Their value runs to tens of millions of pounds, but they are simply not counted when weighed against water voles, for instance, or in our case the lifespan of terns. Terns are phenomenally interesting birds, but I struggle to see how they match up to a tourism industry of about £80 million.

We have an area of special scientific interest in Winterton that has eroded dramatically over the past 10 years and continues to erode to the point where commercial properties as well as a coast watchtower are at risk. In Hopton, residents have watched the coastline move dramatically in the past few years. The shoreline management plan’s weakness in round 2 was highlighted when properties bought there under “hold the line” were reassessed as requiring no active intervention.

My experience with the SMP has been good. In Great Yarmouth, at least, the authorities have listened and reacted by changing the final recommendation back to managed retreat. That might allow private individuals and commercial companies in Hopton, such as Potters and Haven, to consider making investments. However, to do so, they must be able to present a full business plan. I will come back to that issue, but I want to touch on a couple of local issues before I discuss the bigger picture.

In Scratby, we have a pathfinder scheme of which many residents and I were wary and suspicious, because it felt as if the Government of the time were trying to buy people off for a year without doing anything. The money put into the pathfinder, at least in Scratby, would have gone a long way toward finishing some of the flood defences for which residents have been working so hard for so long. What the people in Scratby have said to me—I met some of them recently when they came to the meeting of our all-party group on coastal and marine issues—is that they want the freedom to do something for themselves.

Indeed, the example of Scratby provides a perfect transition to discussion of the bigger issue. As has already been touched on, when we look at the shoreline management plans we look at issues over the next 50 or 100 years. The previous MP for Suffolk Coastal made the point—it has stuck with me because it is very relevant—that the companies and commercial bodies and some of the private individuals affected, particularly regarding tourism, need to see that they can protect the coastline and make an investment that gives them a business plan of 20 to 30 years.

However, we do not really need anything too much beyond that time scale. If we think about what is possible now—compared with what was possible and what we knew 20 years ago; and in some cases, five or 10 years ago—we realise that, once we get beyond the next 20 to 30 years, we are putting our fingers in the wind and guessing how technology and our understanding will change. Therefore, to be honest, the 100-year plans become somewhat redundant. We should focus on what we can do in the next five to 30 years, with a clear understanding that this process is about allowing private individuals and businesses to have a business case to protect their shoreline.

Education is an issue, as has already been mentioned by one of my hon. Friends. We have had a similar issue in Great Yarmouth. Residents in Scratby who are directly affected by coastal erosion obviously care passionately about it, are working hard on dealing with it and have put a lot of resources and their own time into that. However, there are residents who live just one or two roads back from the coastline, let alone a mile inshore, who knew nothing about that work until a major consultation was carried out. Residents in Great Yarmouth who do not live on the coastline do not really understand the big impact that erosion could have on them going down the line.

So education is an issue, because erosion will have an impact. If we do not do something soon to protect the coastline, it will retreat anyway. Erosion will impact on farming. I know that the NFU in Norfolk has been frustrated at its lack of involvement and its inability to understand how it can feed into the process, because of the complexity of the different organisations involved. My hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) is concerned about farming-related problems and the impact of salt water on the land. In Great Yarmouth we produce many potatoes, to which reference has been made, and some of us enjoy them regularly.

Tourism is also important for areas such as the Norfolk Broads. The authorities there are already finding that salt water levels are rising because of coastal erosion. So coastal erosion has a huge impact and we probably need to do a better job of educating our residents about it. There is huge value in doing something about this issue, in terms not only of protecting property but promoting future peace of mind. However, we must be clear about the time scale.

We also have to be honest and realistic about what the Government can afford to do. I fully understand that they are not in a position to do what I assume and hope they would like to do: to protect every inch of coastline around our country. Residents, certainly those in Great Yarmouth, also understand that. We had a meeting with the Minister near the Suffolk Coastal constituency, at which the people of Waveney, Great Yarmouth and North Norfolk were also represented. Those who attended understood that there is a financial constraint, and that some tough decisions therefore have to be made.

Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): First, I should declare an interest, in that I have an Environment Agency “blue blob” in my back garden and I live about 20 feet above sea level. Part of Redcar is actually below sea level.

I agree with everything that has been said so far, and I understand the financial constraints. However, I hope we do not allow the current debate and uncertainty to interfere with any schemes that are about to take place—in particular, the new sea wall in the town where I live. I hope the new Government do not decide to pull the funding on everything, and therefore take another number of years to decide what to do.

Brandon Lewis: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention; he made his point very well.

One of the problems with the structure of SMPs is that many people have come to the view that they have become nothing more than a tick-box process for planning departments. We need to move beyond that. Finance is important in this regard. For some authorities, SMPs must be affordable and they must be responsible for them, because they feel a responsibility to their residents. However, in fact, we should be looking at a plan that gives residents, communities and commercial organisations as much ability to protect the shoreline as the Government have. That is where the big change could occur. My hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb)—my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal and I have worked closely with him on the matter—has been talking for some time about a community solidarity fund. I recommend that the Minister consider it, as it could allow local authorities to raise their own funds under the Decentralisation and Localism Bill.

The residents of Scratby have already talked to me about their ideas for a scheme. If they had the freedom to do so, they could raise the funds that would allow them to move forward and finance some of the work that they want to do. They believe that the work needs to be done, and the pathfinder schemes show that it would still be best for Scratby. However, it will have an impact on the coastline. That is why we need some form of community fund, based on the pathfinder work done in North Norfolk on the sale and lease-back scheme. It would be a community-based fund and would have no impact on the Government. Local people could take a view on whether they wanted to do that by holding a referendum, and they could then play their part. Local businesses and organisations could take part, and local authorities could get involved with land deals, for example, which could start making some of these opportunities possible.

The main message on coastal erosion that I want to get across to the Department —the Minister was positive when he came to Great Yarmouth—is that although we would like the Government to protect everything, most important to the residents affected would be the freedom to get through the overwhelming bureaucracy. It would allow them to become more responsible for their own future; they want to have some control over their destiny and be able to run with it. If it were not for the fact that our forebears were able to deal with coastal erosion, many of those representing coastal areas would not be representing the constituencies they do. We therefore have a huge duty to free up the system, so that in the years to come we can represent our constituencies as they are