Lymington Marshes and Harbour

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): I am pleased to have this opportunity to raise the very important matter of the future of Lymington harbour. I share the Lymington river with my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis)— I share the Lymington river with my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East. It forms the dividing line between our two parliamentary divisions, and we have both received an enormous correspondence—and amount of lobbying—about the issues that I wish to raise this evening. My hon. Friend has apologised to me for not being able to be in his place this evening, but he had already entered into a commitment when I learned, at 12.30 pm on Thursday, that I had secured this debate. I believe that, even as we speak, he is at sea with the Royal Navy.

The port of Lymington makes a contribution to my local economy that is not far short of £100 million a year. The harbour exists only because it is protected from the waves of the western Solent by Lymington’s salt marsh and mud flats, but the problem is that they have been eroding since 1920. I understand that New Forest district council’s coastal protection team estimates that the current rate of erosion is between 2 yd and 6 yd a year at the periphery, and 1 yd a year on average in the harbour itself. At that rate, the salt marshes will cease to exist by some date between 2030 and 2040. That will mean that the vast majority of existing moorings in the harbour will become unviable, which will be an economic disaster for Lymington.

The Lymington harbour commission has been working on the problem since the early 1990s. Over the past two and a half years, in association with the consultants Black & Veatch, it has come up with a scheme that is both viable and affordable. I stress the word “affordable”, as we are not asking for Government money—indeed, to do so in an Adjournment debate would be out of order.

The plan is to build a series of overlapping breakwaters over the next 25 years, with work starting next year, if permission is obtained. The breakwaters will do exactly what the salt marshes do now. They will protect the harbour from the waves of the western Solent but, crucially, they will also protect the surviving salt marsh that they enclose. Let us be clear: if we do nothing, we will lose not only the harbour but the salt marsh.

The salt marshes fall within the Southampton Water special protection area and are a very important wildlife site, especially for overwintering and breeding birds. The area also falls within the Solent special area of conservation, which is protected by the habitats directive, and it is, indeed, a European Natura 2000 site.

Notwithstanding the permitted development rights of the Lymington harbour commissioners under the Pier and Harbour Order (Lymington) Confirmation Act 1951, the proposed breakwaters will require planning permission from the New Forest national park authority. To that end, an environmental assessment has been made and I understand that the statutory consultees will sit down and scrutinise the draft assessment on 5 December. However, I think I am correct in saying that, whoever the statutory consultees are, they will be led by Natural England, which has a national policy of not interfering to secure coastal protection where deterioration is the result of a natural process.

The breakwater’s footprints will be on the existing salt marsh, and I understand it is likely that Natural England will judge that an adverse effect. It will not take into account the fact that, although the salt marsh footprint will be given up to the breakwater, a larger amount of the salt marsh that will otherwise disappear will be saved by the breakwaters. The salt marsh land occupied by the breakwaters will cease to exist anyway as a consequence of the continuing erosion.

If the Lymington harbour commissioners cannot get Natural England to acquiesce to their proposition, and if Natural England persists in saying it will be an adverse development for the salt marsh, the commissioners’ only recourse will be to make a case to the Secretary of State on the basis of overwhelming public interest. If the Secretary of State accepts the case, the commissioners will have to enter into an arrangement with Natural England to compensate the organisation for loss of the salt marsh by paying for the creation and stewardship of an equal amount of salt marsh elsewhere in the kingdom.

It is into that Alice in Wonderland world that I want the Minister to intrude. It is absurd to ask the Lymington harbour commissioners to pay for the creation of 5 acres of salt marsh elsewhere because they are taking action to save 12 acres of salt marsh in Lymington. I accept that 5 acres occupied by the breakwaters will be given up, but that land would be lost anyway. If we do nothing we shall lose all the salt marsh and the harbour, too.

I hope that the Minister will be able to provide some reassurance to the large number of organisations and people in Lymington who are rightly concerned about these developments. Those supporting the Lymington harbour commission include the harbour advisory group, the sailing clubs, the marinas, the chamber of commerce, New Forest district council, Wightlink and the hundreds of constituents who have written to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East.

The second issue I ask the Minister to deal with is the plan by Wightlink significantly to increase the size of the ferries that operate between Lymington and Yarmouth, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner)—I am glad that he is in the Chamber tonight. A few weeks ago, I attended a public meeting about the plans in Lymington. The meeting was highly charged; it was packed—more than 300 people attended—and a number of questions were asked, which might have been answered by Natural England had it taken the trouble to send someone to the meeting. On 2 November, I wrote to Natural England asking why it had not taken that opportunity but I have not yet had a reply.

Had I been granted a whole parliamentary day to examine the issue, we should still not have covered it all, as I discovered at the meeting. If the Minister will forgive me, I shall briefly summarise the issues as I see them. There are three competing interests. The first is the environmental interest. There are those who insist that the significantly increased ferry size will generate a bow wave—a wash—such that it will accelerate the erosion of the salt marshes. Equally, there are those who argue, on the basis of tests carried out in tanks in Zurich, that new modern ferries will generate a reduced wash, although the counter-argument is that those tests were carried out in relatively deep water and the port of Lymington is relatively shallow. What is more, when countering a side wind, the directional thrust of the engine type that is unique to Wightlink’s operations will have a deleterious effect on the sides of the channel.

The second interest is the commercial one: the need of enterprise and jobs in Lymington for an efficient ferry service to the Isle of Wight. That has to be set against the commercial interests of the trade generated by the huge number of leisure craft that operate from the port of Lymington. It is the case, however, that the current ferry service is uneconomic; it will lose money unless investment is put into new ferries that are cost-effective, modern and meet contemporary regulations and standards.

The third interest is the interest of the other river users, principally the yachtsmen, the sailing clubs and the marinas. There is an argument that the new greatly increased size of ferry will inconvenience them or put them in significant danger. When I refer to the size of the new ferries, I do not just mean the relatively modest increase in capacity; I am also referring to the greatly increased displacement of water, the increased deadweight and the increased thrust. The argument is that all sorts of activities that now take place in the Lymington river will not be able to continue, particularly the free sailing training that is afforded by the sailing clubs to youngsters, many of whom are from less advantaged backgrounds.

All of this has resulted in an enormous row. I have no doubt that assessments, modelling and sea trials might provide some of the answers to the disputed questions, but I do not believe that that will solve the dispute itself, because the reality is that these ferries are already half-built and many people in Lymington feel that, whatever the outcome, they are being presented with a fait accompli.

Into this mêlée steps the Lymington harbour commission, of which I have spoken. It insists that because Lymington is designated as an open port it has no ability to deny the ferries access. Indeed, it cannot deny anyone access; I am told that even a supertanker can have access to the Lymington river and all the Lymington harbour commissioners can do is impose measures to mitigate the impact. Measures to mitigate the impact might well affect other river users as well. Even if such mitigation is imposed directly on Wightlink—in the form of a slower speed limit, for instance—that will affect other river users, because it will mean that ferries will occupy the river channel for longer in any hour, to their disadvantage.

The following is the essential point I wish to make to the Minister. If an undertaking of this size and sort had taken place on land there would have been a planning application and all the objections and interests would have properly been taken into account in the determination of it, but because this is happening at sea apparently no one needs any permission to apply for anything, notwithstanding all the designations—I have spoken of Natura 2000. I believe this is an enormous omission in our planning system, on which Ministers should reflect and act. A Planning Bill has been published today, and an appropriate amendment to it might prevent these situations from arising in future—but that would not, of course, be retrospective.

There will, however, be a planning application. Indeed, there is one because of the effects on land. In order to accommodate the new ferries, there has to be some shore works at Lymington, and a planning application has been put in. According to the Minister for the South East, in response to a written question of mine of 14 November—column 243—this planning application will be determined by the Marine and Fisheries Agency, and it will consider the opinion of Natural England that Wightlink’s proposals constitute a plan or project for the purposes of the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c) Regulations 1994, and therefore an appropriate assessment will be required.

Wightlink will argue that the proposals do not constitute a plan or a project. So the conservationists and the yachtsmen of Lymington are, in effect, looking for the Marine and Fisheries Agency to act as the seventh cavalry and come down on the side of Natural England and its assessment of what is a plan or a project. Equally, it might all end up being settled by a judge in court, at great expense to everyone. I want to know from the Minister whether there is any other statutory body that is in a position to demand an appropriate assessment before the matter is determined and the shore works take place.

I accept that this process of dealing with the issue is better than none, but it falls far short of a proper planning inquiry, because the appropriate assessment will take into account only the environmental interests. It will take no account of the commercial interests, or, most important, the leisure craft interests. The sailors of Lymington have the most to lose, but their voice is not going to be heard—and it ought to be.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Joan Ruddock): I congratulate the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) on obtaining this debate, which is obviously on an important subject. He has made his case enthusiastically. I regret that I may have to confirm a lot of the things that he has already said, but I need to do that for the record.

The hon. Gentleman asks how the salt marshes and Lymington harbour itself can be protected from the open seas. As he has stated, this is an important site. The salt marshes and mudflats at Lymington estuary are internationally designated as part of the Solent and Southampton water special protection area for birds. They constitute a Ramsar site, and are part of the
Solent maritime special area of conservation. They are also part of the national sites of special scientific interest series.

Natural England has confirmed that recent studies have estimated that the Solent will lose around 700 hectares of salt marsh over the next 100 years due to sea level rises and increased erosion, and that there will also be losses of inter-tidal mud and sand. The coast is able to adapt to sea level rises, as it has over the centuries, by rolling back. Much of the Solent is developed and not available for such dynamic change. However, there are sites where such adaptation can occur and this is the only way that salt marshes can be part of the Solent’s suite of habitats into the future. It is not—I repeat, not— sustainable to maintain salt marshes in situ in the long term.

Natural England is working through the shoreline management plan process to enable important habitats to roll back where appropriate. There is limited scope in Lymington for such a roll-back. A water level management plan led by the Environment Agency is exploring the possibility of allowing salt marsh to form up-river from the harbour, where it will naturally migrate under climate change.

However, I can see the logic of the hon. Gentleman’s argument that, if the salt marsh habitat in the Lymington river will ultimately disappear through the effects of sea level rises, a temporary artificial intervention to protect at least part of this asset in the short term should be welcomed. The merits of that approach, however, need to be very carefully assessed and weighed against the potential loss, in so doing, of some of that habitat. In particular, it is necessary to undertake sophisticated modelling to ensure that, as far as possible, any proposal would not have unforeseen effects that could exacerbate the loss of the salt marsh.

Regarding the proposed breakwater development in Lymington harbour, as the hon. Gentleman knows, this lies within the New Forest national park and consequently the New Forest national park authority is the appropriate local planning authority. However, I understand that Lymington harbour commissioners are relying on permitted development rights—a general development order under section 25 of the Pier and Harbour Order (Lymington) Confirmation Act 1951—to pursue the development. As such, the new breakwaters do not require planning permission from the New Forest national park authority. However, as the proposal affects an international site, the national park’s approval will still be required under regulation 62 of the Conservation (Natural Habitats, etc.) Regulations 1994.

The regulations say that where a developer relies on a general development order, the developer still has to make an application in writing to the local planning authority for its approval. The regulations state that

“the local planning authority shall, taking account of any representations made by the appropriate nature conservation body, make an appropriate assessment of the implications of the development for the European site in view of that site’s conservation objectives.”

As the hon. Gentleman said, the New Forest national park authority is awaiting the production by Black & Veatch—consultants working on behalf of the Lymington harbour commissioners—of a draft environmental statement to support an environmental impact assessment and an appropriate assessment. I understand that Natural England has provided some informal feedback on the drafting of the statement and impact assessment in meetings with the harbour commissioners, and Natural England intends to respond formally in writing to the commissioners next month. As yet, no application for consent to the breakwater proposal has been submitted to the Marine and Fisheries Agency. Assuming that an application is made in due course, it will need to be supported by an environmental statement incorporating a draft appropriate assessment. In considering any such application, the MFA will consult formally with Natural England. Despite what the hon. Gentleman said, Natural England has no pre-formed view on the issue.

As the hon. Gentleman said, a meeting for Black & Veatch, Natural England, the national park authority and the MFA is scheduled for 5 December, at which the results of that work will be heard. Until the regulators have seen the report, it would be inappropriate for them to take a formal position on the proposal. Clearly, they could not have gone to the meeting that has been described. As members of a statutory body, the Lymington harbour commissioners have a duty under section 62 of the Environment Act 1995 to take into account the impact of their decisions on the national park. The national park authority considers the coastal landscape outside Lymington harbour to be of very high importance because of its unspoilt natural beauty. The area is highly sensitive and could be irreversibly damaged by inappropriate or unsympathetic development, so there is a responsibility on the harbour commissioners to ensure that the highest possible standards of design, and the best materials, are applied in the construction of the breakwaters to protect the special qualities of the national park.

The national park authority recognises the significance of the national conservation interest and the level of legal protection it is afforded, but it is also aware of the socio-economic importance of Lymington harbour, and it is therefore keen to ensure a balanced, sustainable solution to the problems facing the port. The harbour needs a solution that takes into account nature conservation and landscape and environmental issues, while securing the future of the recreational and commercial activities that sustain the local economy and enrich the life of local communities and visitors. The national park authority is keen to support a sustainable solution that meets the range of legitimate demands made on the part of the New Forest concerned.

The hon. Gentleman pointed out that it is possible for the Secretary of State to consider an application for

“imperative reasons of overriding public interest”,

and he seeks an assurance on the issue. I am sorry to disappoint him, but it is obvious that until the results of the appropriate assessment are available I can comment no further on that point.

The hon. Gentleman is correct that the Wightlink application has been received by the Marine Fisheries Agency. Wightlink applied for a licence under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985, and for consent under the Coast Protection Act 1949 for works to improve the ferry berth and access ramps in Lymington. In considering such applications the MFA endeavours to satisfy legitimate development aspirations and to promote economic growth, commensurate with delivering sustainable development. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that all applications for marine works are subject to rigorous scientific evaluation to prevent or minimise any adverse environmental effects and prevent undue interference for other users of the sea.

In dealing with the application the MFA has consulted a range of marine stakeholders and other regulators, including Natural England, which has a statutory duty to advise on nature conservation issues. In considering whether to grant consent, NE has advised that the MFA should also have regard to the potential impact of Wightlink’s intention to replace the current ferries with larger and more powerful vessels. In its view a formal appropriate assessment should be carried out. Natural England also suggested that the scheme may be a relevant project under the Marine Works (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2007. Wightlink, as the hon. Gentleman said, has challenged NE’s stance with its own legal advice.

The MFA has not yet taken a view on these matters but will have full regard to the responses that it has received, together with the expert advice of the Department’s marine scientists. Although the proposed vessels are understood to have a significantly larger superstructure and correspondingly greater displacement, more information about their propulsion, operational speed and service frequency will be needed to assess better any risks. The Lymington harbour commissioners manage the Lymington river and harbour in accordance with the Lymington Harbour Orders of 1951 to 2002. Although they have indicated that the construction works will have no adverse effect, it is not clear to what extent they have assessed the potential effects of operating larger ferries.

I understand, as does the hon. Gentleman, that New Forest district council says that planning permission is required. No doubt the larger ferries may also have implications for road traffic and other planning-related matters. Accordingly, the agency intends shortly to meet Wightlink, the harbour commissioners, Natural England and New Forest district council to consider how each regulator will take forward the process of appropriate assessment. The matter needs to be sorted out between those regulators. They will need to address how the potential risks associated with the operation of larger vessels can be properly assessed and what measures may be available, if necessary, to mitigate their effect on the environment and other river users. The results of the appropriate assessments may, of course, have an impact on the time scale for the introduction of the ferries or the operating arrangements for them.

I have done my best to obtain all the relevant information in order to assist the hon. Member for New Forest, West and his constituents. We are dealing with very complex matters in trying to conserve our beautiful places and our biodiversity while satisfying human demand for economic opportunity, trade and leisure. It is important to explore the issues and this has been an important debate. I heard what the hon. Gentleman said, and I trust that he will understand why it is not possible for me to give him more definitive answers at this juncture.

Question put and agreed to.