We have very long memories in the west country, so I want to take Members back in time. It was said that some 400 years ago, in 1607,
“huge and mighty hills of water” poured across the county, moving at a speed
“faster than a greyhound can run”.
Water covered the Somerset levels and moors, and it devastated the land—but not, I am afraid, for the last time. Members will remember that the winter of 2013-14 was the wettest in Somerset for 250 years, and 150 sq km of land was completely submerged for weeks. The Environment Agency said that 100 million cubic metres of water covered Somerset’s fertile soil. By my reckoning, that means that we were up to our necks in 40,000 Olympic swimming pools-worth of water. One hundred and sixty-five homes were flooded, 7,000 businesses were affected, and 81 roads were closed. I will never forget making visits to the village of Muchelney not by road, but by boat. I stood in people’s homes that were not only destroyed by waist-deep water but had been flooded only 12 months before. Livelihoods were driven to the brink, and people were understandably driven to despair. The cost to Somerset was estimated at £147 million.
As those waters receded, more than just the bare earth revealed itself. We saw also that perhaps one or two things had been neglected. Local people rightly argued, fairly strongly, that not enough contingency planning had taken place. “By definition”, they cried, “we’ve been living with insufficient flood management schemes, catchment planning and so on.” We felt like Deucalion, the son of Prometheus, who, as we all know, saw after the great mythical Greek flood the extent of the destruction and felt grief so great that tears kept pouring from his eyes. His wish was to create a new form of humanity. Our wish was to create the Somerset Rivers Authority.
The people of Somerset are no strangers to local action, so local people tipped out their wellies, gathered themselves up and summoned various flood risk authorities: Somerset County Council, our five noble district councils, the Environment Agency, Natural England, the Wessex Regional Flood and Coastal Committee, and our inland drainage boards. Then, with £1.9 million stumped up by the Government, they coagulated all these into a new body—the Somerset Rivers Authority. This body sprang from the 20-year flood action plan that had been put together following the floods at the very sensible request of my right hon. Friend Mr Paterson, who was then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I well remember wading through water to meet him to discuss the need to keep a lid on the severity, duration, frequency and impact of flooding. I have also talked to him about that more recently.
I must point out that the SRA was not, and is not, a usurper. It does not diminish the roles of the other flood management partners or, indeed, of landowners; it acts to improve the joint working of all those bodies. In essence, it gives us an extra level of flood protection and resilience. It raises extra money, does extra work, and provides extra information and co-ordination. Without wanting to go into the minutiae of its daily grind, it oversees the flood action plan across five areas: dredging, river management, land management, infrastructure, and building local resilience.
The SRA has overseen some 90 projects, with 22 more planned for 2018-19. Some of them have dozens of different elements, so hundreds of areas have benefited. This year the SRA is maintenance dredging 4 km of the River Parrett; it is monitoring silt in the Parrett and Tone rivers for a future dredging programme; it is designing and implementing a variety of flood management capital works to hold water in the upper catchment and reduce peak flows; it is rolling up its sleeves and undertaking pumping station repairs and improvements; and it is carrying out a highway flood risk reduction scheme, with desilting of structures and gully jetting.
Fiendishly clever schemes have been developed, such as injection drilling, which is now used on the Parrett and Tone rivers and can achieve in one week what used to take four months, and at a small fraction of the cost. Such things are qualitatively better for farmers, residents and our splendid Somerset environment. I could go on all day about soil management, cropping techniques, channel clearances, housing planning analysis, drain enhancements, the tidal barrier—that is a big one—and the endless flood management schemes, but I am sure that people get the picture. For the SRA, its cup runneth over, essentially so that our cup does not run over. Such river authorities are obviously essential to the continued enjoyment of life in low-lying areas, but they face a problem. As is so often the case, it comes down to money, although this time it is more of a structural issue.
The SRA has ploughed on, silently and deftly managing our waterways to keep our feet dry. So far, we have paid for that by coughing up a small shadow precept on our council tax bills, plus a bit of money from drainage boards and spot of growth deal funding. I should explain that the term “shadow precept” refers to the extra flexibility that was granted to Somerset councils in 2016 as part of the local government finance settlement. Many in Somerset, myself included, would like to see the shadow precept put on a permanent statutory footing. Understandably, the SRA itself has also been calling for legislation to put its finances on the same stable long-term footing as a precepting body.
At the moment, because the SRA receives annual funding on a voluntary basis from local authorities, it has a hand-to-mouth existence. It is unable to coherently plan ahead, which means it is not in a position to enter into longer-term contracts or undertake longer-term financial planning. A stable funding arrangement, in the form of a local precept, would allow such river authorities to plan more effectively and efficiently, locking in improved protection for the good people of Somerset in the future.
The original 20-year flood action plan included the aspiration to allow Somerset’s rivers authority to become a statutory body, but we always knew that that would involve legislation. We knew that we would need to create a power for the Secretary of State to create statutory rivers authorities and to add them to the precepting authorities listed in the Local Government Finance Act 1992.
I hope we can achieve that, but before I come on to that, I must talk briefly about internal drainage boards. That may not be a phrase you want to hear every day, Mr Deputy Speaker, but internal drainage boards are a vital part of the landscape of flood risk management. In Somerset, our three IDBs beaver away for us, almost literally, maintaining the watercourses, draining the land and reducing flood risk. I am very much aware that one or two areas of England are not fortunate enough to be in Somerset. Many of those less favoured parts of the country do not have the benefit of an IDB, and technical problems with the legislation on these bodies prevent them from being established. In essence, that is down to an anomaly in the valuation of land under legislation that is getting a bit long in the tooth.
That is very much the case in Cumbria, for example, where the local flood action plan drawn up by the community after the 2015 floods calls for the establishment of a new IDB, but they are stuck and cannot do it. We in this place should address that as soon as possible, so that all parts of England and Wales that desire an IDB can have one. Who would not want to reap the benefits that my constituency enjoys? Quite frankly, who would not want to be in my constituency?
It would be remiss of me at this point not to commend the Government for the action they continue to take to reduce flood risk and the significant new investment that has been provided. In fact, between 2016 and 2021, the Government are putting £2.6 billion into flood defences and building 1,500 new flood schemes that will better protect almost a third of a million homes. Those kinds of initiatives continue to improve the protection of people right across the country. There is also a need for local action to reduce flood risk. As I have set out, in Somerset we have the rivers authority and three internal drainage boards, but we need to understand their future.
In January 2017, the Government’s response to the report by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on future flood prevention made clear the intention to introduce precepting legislation as soon as parliamentary time became available. I would like to draw the House’s attention to the Rivers Authorities and Land Drainage Bill, which I introduced this week and which would enable the Government to deliver on that commitment. I am delighted to say that the Government are fully supporting the Bill, as are many Members of the House, including the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend Neil Parish.
I very much look forward to the thoughts and remarks of my hon. Friend the Minister. As she is aware, not only would my Bill allow the Secretary of State to establish the Somerset Rivers Authority as a statutory and precepting body, thus placing its feet—and ours—on safe, dry land, but it would remove the hurdle faced by other parts of the country in setting up or expanding inland drainage boards. Lastly, I put on the record my sincere thanks to my hon. Friend for her and the Government’s support in this process. I think I speak for much of Somerset when I say that we all hope this will soon mean that nothing can leak over the tops of our wellies for some years to come.