Rivers Authorities

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:35 pm on 8th March 2018.

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Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:35 pm, 8th March 2018

It is a pleasure to respond to this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend David Warburton on securing it. He spoke powerfully about, and eloquently described, the devastation caused by flooding.

As all hon. Members are aware, flooding can have a devastating effect on people’s lives, not only due to the immediate pressures they face at the time, but because of some of the mental health problems caused, particularly when heavy rain pours down again and they worry about possible future flooding. Indeed, I have supported my own constituents in Suffolk Coastal following flooding in recent years, so I have experienced this at first hand. The Government continue to invest in better protecting communities from flooding, and I know that you are very keen for us to invest in Lancashire, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is also important, however, that we empower those communities to take further action. I am very pleased to say that my hon. Friend is correct that the Government support his private Member’s Bill on rivers authorities and land drainage. That modest Bill could, if successful, deliver real change.

As my hon. Friend will be all too aware, the Somerset levels and moors are a complex environment of highly managed lowlands that are often susceptible to flooding. The flooding in 2013 and 2014 was some of the worst experienced in living memory, especially for the people of the Somerset levels and moors. Many homes, businesses and farmlands were affected, with whole communities cut off as the main roads and railways became impassable. Alongside that, there was significant flooding over the Curry and Hay moors, a site of special scientific interest. This unique area is susceptible to flooding from rivers, because of the artificial raised banks they flow along, and from the coast and the Bristol channel’s tidal range, which is the second highest in the world. Not only does that cause tidal flooding, but it holds back floodwater and makes river flooding worse. Added to that, the low lying land acts as a reservoir holding back the floodwater.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, following those floods, there was a strong political desire for co-ordination across the county to devise a bespoke new initiative. That was why, in January 2014, my right hon. Friend Mr Paterson, the then Secretary of State, asked Somerset County Council and the Environment Agency to work with the local community to come up with a flood action plan considering the various options for how flood risk could be managed on the Somerset levels and moors over the next 20 years.

That flood action plan led to the concept of a new body—a rivers authority—and recommended the creation of such a body in Somerset. This was done with the aim of creating a way for the different bodies that have a responsibility or interest in flood risk management to work together better. The Somerset Rivers Authority was formally established in January 2015. It is a partnership between 11 of Somerset’s existing flood risk management authorities: Somerset County Council, the five district councils, the Axe Brue and Parrett Internal Drainage Boards, the Environment Agency, Natural England, and the Wessex Regional Flood and Coastal Committee.

I understand how important this issue is to the people of Somerset. Like my hon. Friend, I support the work of the Somerset Rivers Authority, which I had the opportunity to see for myself when I visited Somerset last year. The SRA’s role is to co-ordinate the local flood risk management authorities, utilising the expertise of individual partners. It also supports additional flood risk management works that may not otherwise have been possible, such as enhanced river maintenance, including on ordinary watercourses. It does not seek to replace existing flood risk management authorities or their funding mechanisms.

As my hon. Friend said, the Government supported the Somerset Rivers Authority in the beginning with £1.9 million of start-up funding, and a review into the long-term funding options was commissioned. The review recommended giving the Somerset Rivers Authority precepting powers to raise funds for additional flood risk management. To secure the SRA’s future, we would need new legislation to give the Secretary of State power to create rivers authorities and add them to the category of major precepting authorities under the Local Government Finance Act 1992. I am pleased that that is provided for in clause 1 of my hon. Friend’s Bill.

Not only do the Government want to bring forward these measures, but they are what the local community in Somerset has been calling for. I therefore hope that the Bill will make progress through Parliament. However, such a decision is not made lightly. The Government recognise that any precept will be funded by taxpayers, but that is already the case under the interim arrangements. The existing funding arrangements for the SRA are far from ideal and a permanent solution is required. Making the SRA an autonomous precepting authority would make it more transparent and ensure that money is ring-fenced solely for its important work. Adding the SRA to the category of major precepting authorities will also mean it is covered by the safeguards set out in the 1992 Act, including the requirement for a referendum if the precept exceeds a set amount.

The Bill also sets out how, through regulations that Parliament will have the opportunity to scrutinise further, the governance of a rivers authority should be established. Although my hon. Friend is right to say that a new category of major precepting authorities will be created, the situation in Somerset is unique, because the complex interplay of water means that such matters are self-contained within the county. Were the Bill to be enacted, the Government would implement the necessary regulations promptly.

My hon. Friend mentioned internal drainage boards. As he pointed out, three of those are included in the Somerset Rivers Authority: Axe Brue, North Somerset Levels, and Parrett. He will recognise how effective they have been in their ongoing work with the authority. IDBs are among the oldest forms of democratic decision-making structures in the UK, with their history going back to the 13th century. Their main focus then was the drainage of agricultural land in low lying areas, but they have since evolved to play a much wider role, and they remain to this day a key partner in local flood risk management. That includes playing a major role in the identification and delivery of capital projects in local communities.

That model has worked well around the country, including in Suffolk Coastal with the East Suffolk IDB. However, as my hon. Friend said, not everywhere has such a body, and many of those that already exist would like to expand their boundaries. One place without an IDB that has suffered devastating flooding in recent years is Cumbria. It has requested new IDBs, in particular for Lyth Valley and Waver Wampool. As with the SRA, those requests have arisen from a flood action plan that was devised after significant flooding. However, a combination of issues is stopping the creation of those bodies. There are missing or incomplete valuation lists from 1990, and existing legislation does not allow for any other valuation lists to be used. That prevents IDBs from being able to value the land and determine the special levy they charge. That applies to the creation of new IDBs and the expansion of existing ones, so a change in legislation is required.

My hon. Friend has been generous in the Bill that he presented to the House for First Reading on Monday. He has ensured that such a change will be achievable through three additional clauses that will help to create new internal drainage boards where there is local consensus. The measures will also enable existing boards to expand, again where there is local consensus. In short, the Bill will enable the Secretary of State to establish an alternative methodology for calculating the value of other land in an IDB, and it will enable the Valuation Office Agency to share the most up-to-date information. Finally, it will enable the Secretary of State to establish an alternative methodology for the calculation of the value of chargeable property, agricultural land and buildings in an internal drainage district. All three clauses include regulation-making powers that will be subject to the affirmative procedure, thus providing Parliament with the opportunity to scrutinise them further. I restate that such changes will go ahead only if local communities want them.

The Government support my hon. Friend’s Bill and what it is trying to achieve, and I am aware, Mr Deputy Speaker, that there is appetite for the creation of an internal drainage board in Lancashire. The SRA and IDBs play an important role across the country, and in particular they play a crucial role in local flood risk management. I hope that the debate has demonstrated that to the House.

The unique challenges of the Somerset levels and moors make it necessary and appropriate to create the Somerset Rivers Authority, and to put it on a secure footing to allow it to co-ordinate and manage flood risk into the future. This important body could do even more with secure funding each year. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for using this debate as a way to discuss his Bill. I am confident that this good debate will continue and that hon. Members will want to debate the Bill further in Committee once it receives, as we hope, its Second Reading a week on Friday.

On International Women’s Day, I want to place on record my thanks to the permanent secretary in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Clare Moriarty. She still in a minority across the civil service as a permanent secretary, but she shows great leadership in our Department. I also want to point out not that I have not found time to buy a card for Mother’s day, but that for many people in this House, their woman of the year will always be their mum. I want to wish my mother the best for this Sunday. I promise, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I shall go out and buy a card straight away after this important debate.