Mr John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con): May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on securing the debate? She is a formidable ally on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and she is also a strong champion for her constituency. A lot of the issues that she has raised directly affect my constituents, but that is unsurprising since we share the same shoreline management plan.
I represent a rural area of Essex with a long coastline. It will come as a surprise to many people to hear that my area of Essex has one of the longest coastlines in the country. However, that will not come as a surprise to the Minister, who is an extremely distinguished former chairman of the Essex National Farmers Union, so I am pleased that he is responding to the debate. Many of my concerns relate to the protection of agricultural land, and he will understand why coastline management is such an important issue, particularly in my part of the world.
We in Essex are conscious of the fact that shoreline management is extremely important. Many people still remember 1953, when more than 100 people died in Essex as a result of the last major tidal surge and the collapse of sea defences. A map on the Environment Agency website, which is available to anyone who wishes to consult it, shows the extent of the floodplain in my area. It shows that 2,000 houses in Heybridge, in my constituency, would be under water following a one-in-200-year event. It also shows a large amount of agricultural land on the Dengie peninsula, which I represent, being lost to the sea, which is a real concern.
The Environment Agency rightly concentrates on protecting residential dwellings and human life, and that must be the priority. However, there is concern that agricultural land may not get the attention that it deserves. We realise, of course, that the country is under pressure. We have steadily rising sea levels on the east coast, a tilting land mass and the erosion of salt marshes, which constantly increases the pressure on our defences. We are also very much aware of economic considerations.
I do not therefore in any way dispute the necessity of drawing up a shoreline management plan to determine where we should concentrate resources and to work out a sensible strategy for each part of the coastline. Indeed, I was at the meeting at which the plan was first unveiled, and it came as a relief to some extent that it was less drastic-certainly in the first epoch-than we had feared. Nevertheless, in areas where there are proposals to realign the coastline and to give up agricultural land, farmers find it difficult to come to terms with what is happening, particularly at a time when we are increasingly worried about our food security and the need to maintain and increase agricultural production.
What has caused greater concern, however-my hon. Friend rightly touched on this-is the feeling that the plans were drawn up without any proper consultation of affected landowners. There have been public meetings and opportunities for people to come along and look at the proposals, but there has been a lack of moves directly to involve the people who will be affected to give them an opportunity to make representations, to question some of the criteria that have been used or to appeal.
Indeed, there is still a debate about how the plans have been drawn up. There is no agreement, for instance, on matters such as the economic value of the land that would potentially be abandoned or the cost of repairing sea walls. The whole cost-benefit analysis is slightly shrouded in mystery. There have been questions, for instance, over whether sufficient regard has been given to mobile homes and caravan parks, which are obviously not permanent residential dwellings. Those are all issues on which more needs to be done.
I and other Members in Essex have been contacted by the Managing Coastal Change group in Essex and by Andrew St Joseph, who is a former constituent, although he is none the less still a good adviser on these issues, and I suspect that his name will be familiar to the Minister as well. They have raised concerns both about the fact that landowners have not really had a chance to discuss these issues and about the Environment Agency's assurances in the plan. For instance, the Environment Agency said that it had spoken to everyone who owns land in the areas where managed realignment is proposed, but Mr St Joseph points out that a number of landowners had told him that they had had no meaningful contact with the Environment Agency at all about that. When I went to the unveiling of the shoreline management plan, which was attended by landowners from my constituency and the rest of Essex, one of the farmers came up to me and said that on the wall he had seen for the first time that a large part of his farm had been designated for future realignment and loss to the sea. Clearly, that is a matter of concern. There needs to be greater dialogue between landowners and the Environment Agency.
There is an even greater concern about the lack of dialogue with Natural England, which my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal also touched on. There is concern that it has a very powerful influence over the decisions being taken. My hon. Friend referred to some of the frustrations about the extent of protection for wildlife as opposed to human beings. There certainly appears to be greater protection for the habitat of a water vole than there does for that of a human being, which is difficult for people to understand. I am not one to say that the habitat of water voles is not important-it plainly is-but these things need to be kept in perspective. There is a general feeling that the habitats directive is driving this policy too much and that some decisions are being taken in large part to meet the requirements of the directive rather than as a result of proper consideration of the costs and benefits of maintaining sea defences.
Although I get some reassurance about the large amount of sea wall designated as "hold the line", the truth is that if the Environment Agency decides that money is not available to maintain defences, it can come back and say, "Even though it is 'hold the line' that does not necessarily mean that we're going to have the money to maintain it." There is a willingness on the part of landowners to take on that responsibility. In previous debates, I raised the difficulties facing landowners in obtaining the necessary consents to carry out minor maintenance work. Something has been done; the Environment Agency has produced a useful pack to give a simple guide to landowners about how to go about maintaining their defences, but it makes it clear there will be a need to get permission from Natural England in areas with sites of special scientific interest.
Mr St Joseph pointed out to me that a long time ago farmers were approached and asked whether they would accept SSSI designation on their sea walls, and they accepted it, thinking that it would have little impact or make little difference to the practicality of maintenance. Obviously, they were happy to do it. It was only later that they discovered that it made a huge difference and, as a result, it became much more difficult for them to obtain the necessary permissions to carry out repair work on their sea walls. The willingness is there but more still needs to be done to make it easier for landowners to take on the responsibility and carry out the work if the Environment Agency is unable or unwilling to do it.
I shall end by stressing a point that came out particularly in the opening speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal, which is the feeling that there has been a lack of dialogue. A group of farmers in my constituency approached me and said that they had repeatedly asked to discuss with Natural England how it could be made easier to reach agreement on what was acceptable and welcome work to maintain defences, and on how to obtain the necessary consents. As far as I am aware, that group has not yet had a response from Natural England. I have written to Natural England and I have not yet had a response. Much more needs to be done in that area to increase co-operation and understanding, because the absence of those things leads to resentment, making it much more difficult to achieve what we all want, which is protection wherever possible of land and human habitation within the necessary economic constraints that exist today.