At the end of Parliament yesterday there was a brief debate involving two MPs. I spotted that the debate which was being arranged by Nusrat Ghani was being planned and even referred to it here on Saturday. Nusrat Ghani, is the MP for Wealden and the debate was on the subject of Michelham Priory which is a historic building within her constituency. I have been to Michelham Priory on several occasions and it is a lovely location. At the weekend I had no idea what the debate was going to be focused on but it seemed worth checking and so I read it here from the “They Work for You” website which offers Parliamentary Hansard material in an easy to read basis. The debate however was not as positive as I had appreciated it might be. Because I had mentioned it, I felt it was important to follow this up despite the challenge, partly to try to resolve the issues that lie behind it. The debate involved Nusrat Ghani and one of her colleagues, Rebecca Pow who is The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and also the Conservative MP for Taunton Deane. The starting statement included the following aspects:
NG: This urgent debate is about the viability and future of Michelham Priory…. two superb women who manage and run Michelham Priory with their hands tied behind their backs by the Environment Agency, whose failure to maintain water flows means that the priory’s moat is now on the brink of being completely lost. The Environment Agency—yet another unaccountable, bureaucratic and faceless body that is both exploiting Michelham Priory and, as I will argue, breaching its obligations—must be held responsible not only for the environmental damage, but the financial damage to the priory, as its lack of action has the priory in absolutely dire straits…….The site is currently run by the Sussex Archaeological Society, which has spent eight long, painful years trying to work with the Environment Agency to address the issues of sluice gates and desilting. Sadly, the Environment Agency has put hurdles in front of the society at every opportunity for eight years…..The Environment Agency is failing in its duty to operate and maintain two water-controlled structures that should let water from the River Cuckmere in and out of the priory moat. It shut the gate on the moat some 20 years ago, and has not been providing silt and water management of the River Cuckmere…… I urge the Minister to outline what steps she can take—I appreciate that it is an arm’s length agency—to hold the Environment Agency to account and to ensure that Michelham Priory receives the attention and support it deserves from the Environment Agency. I know that it can be incredibly difficult for a departmental Minister to bring an agency in hand, but this is a critical case for us in Wealden……. I hope that she can respond in a positive way to my constituents at the priory.
So then we get an initial response from Rebecca Pow to Nusrat Ghani which is very positive about both Nusrat and the Priory and then states
RP: As she mentions, the Environment Agency over many years has held many meetings with the Sussex Archaeological Society, the owners of the priory, to discuss matters of water management relating to the priory. Those conversations started long before my hon. Friend came to this place….. To prevent the moat from drying up, in the past, the Environment Agency operated the upstream controls to divert the Cuckmere river into the moat, but that approach created an impassable barrier to fish, so it had to cease. My hon. Friend has not mentioned that then there appeared in the moat a plant called floating pennywort, a non-native invasive species that grows incredibly rapidly and is responsible for swamping waterways, blocking water flow, clogging up water channels, crowding out native plants and taking oxygen from fish and insects. It is not found anywhere else on the Cuckmere river. The landowner, the Sussex Archaeological Society, has a duty to prevent the spread of the infestation, and diverting the river through the moat in the summer months would have increased the chances of the plant’s escaping into the wider river environment. To intentionally do so would be classed as a criminal act. That is one of the big dilemmas of the situation.
NG: This is a medieval moat. I do not think the Environment Agency can come up with excuses of potential flooding when the moat has been in place longer than any person of expertise within the Environment Agency. The archaeological society, including the staff I mentioned within the priory, has procedures in place to make sure that no crime is committed. It just needs an understanding from the Environment Agency that it will open the sluice and let the water flow.
RP: I thank my hon. Friend for that point, but I think she is slightly missing the point that if one let the water flow, the pennywort would flow out. The pennywort is a real obstacle in the chain of sorting this out, and that is what needs to be addressed. I have talked very closely with the Environment Agency about this and I do get this point, which needs to be addressed. I would say—and will reiterate as I go through— that I think more conversations need to be held about this, because it is one of the keys to unlocking what I believe my hon. Friend is aiming to achieve….. I want to be clear that the Environment Agency has duties in respect of the river, but they are very much in terms of protecting the wider environment; that is the agency’s role. If my hon. Friend would like to discuss these matters further, I have asked the Environment Agency to meet her in order to further that.
NG: I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene again. The frustration is that there have been meetings over eight years—eight whole years during which the priory has been and is absolutely committed to working with the Environment Agency, taking on board any of the financial implications of desilting, and managing the plants; but the Environment Agency has not come up with a plan. How many more meetings can I expect them to have, after eight years have delivered nothing from the agency?
RP: I am not surprised—this is the case that my hon. Friend has been making since the beginning. As she says, for the moat to be reinstated to a healthier and more resilient condition, the pennywort needs sorting out and the silt needs removing. Environment Agency staff have offered advice to the Sussex Archaeological Society about methods of silt removal and suggested efficient ways of dealing with the silt that could reduce the cost of the operation. They also offered to help with obtaining the permit to do the work, which obviously has to be achieved….The Environment Agency has suggested that the Sussex Archaeological Society can abstract 20,000 litres of water a day from the adjacent Cuckmere river channel without a permit, which would provide a source of water other than the rainfall that is naturally filling up the moat. That is another offer that the Environment Agency made……I appreciate my hon. Friend’s concerns that any plan the Sussex Archaeological Society makes depends on the Environment Agency’s own plans for managing river flows and the environment, so I have asked the Environment Agency to keep working constructively with the society. I gather that many of the faces in the society have changed recently, so that might offer a chink of hope for future progress. I should note that the Environment Agency has its own duties that have to be considered when developing these plans, but I am confident that an acceptable solution can eventually be found. Finally, I encourage the Sussex Archaeological Society to continue to work constructively. I understand my hon. Friend’s frustration, but she is clearly doing a good job in getting on the case, and I urge her to continue that. She spoke eloquently and, in fact, fairly starkly, but I expect nothing less. I have asked the Environment Agency to keep up these talks. They have been ongoing for eight years, but it is important that we highlight the issue of the floating pennywort, which clearly has to be addressed before anything else can be sorted out….. I also encourage the society to work with other local interest groups and potential partners to find some imaginative solutions to the challenging issue of managing this moat in what is clearly a wonderful grade I listed historic property.
My own view is that this public debate is hiding a number of issues that need to be resolved and perhaps require some independent support to make it happen. However it would be essential that the independent support could influence both parts of the relationship and perhaps avoid too many politicians. I have certainly worked with the Environmental Agency when I was part of SEERA and I know that in the past they have been very constructive. I suspect that there are ways of resolving this issue. Indeed there may even be technological ways of helping resolve this.