Rivers Authorities and Land Drainage Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:33 pm on 8th February 2019.

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Photo of David Warburton David Warburton Conservative, Somerton and Frome 1:33 pm, 8th February 2019

My hon. Friend reads my mind. I was about to come to that point. The Somerset Rivers Authority brings together the county council, the five district councils, the Environment Agency, the Wessex Regional Flood and Coastal Committee, Natural England and the three internal drainage boards. In other words, it does not usurp the position of any of those partners but, rather, complements them. It brings everyone together to provide this very special part of the west country with additional and vital flood protection and resilience.

The Somerset Rivers Authority is currently funded through a shadow precept on local council tax payers. This funds projects such as additional maintenance for rivers, watercourses and many locally significant structures. It also contributes towards other projects, such as upgrading and securing the River Sowy and King’s Sedgemoor drain; much-needed dredging and monitoring of silt build-up; unblocking, clearing and repairing culverts and gullies; clearing away 1,000 extra tonnes of debris from 60 miles of road edgeways; maintaining a new flood alert system for two major roads; natural flood management in both rural and urban areas; and better land management and the uptake of sustainable drainage systems.

The Somerset Rivers Authority will also continue to work with and help communities, households, businesses and landowners to become more resilient to flooding and its impacts. As ever, this includes encouraging greater participation in groups and networks, and identifying and supporting our most vulnerable people. All this work has kept our waterways functioning and—so far—our feet dry, but now we need the final piece to secure the future of the rivers authority.

Alongside rivers authorities, there are other important bodies that tackle flood risk management, such as our internal drainage boards. In Somerset, we are, as ever, fortunate, because we have three—Axe Brue, North Somerset Levels and Parrett—and I am aware of others across the country and of hon. Members who support their work. These bodies maintain watercourses, reduce flood risk to people and property, and manage water levels for agricultural and environmental needs within their internal drainage district.

Some parts of England, however, do not have the benefit of an internal drainage board. Enabling the creation of new internal drainage boards, or the expansion of existing ones, requires a change to the Land Drainage Act 1991, and that is what the second measure in my Bill would do. In essence, the problem is down to incomplete ratings data. The Act requires an amendment to accept a newer ratings dataset that could be used to create new charging methodologies. It is important to stress that these new methodologies would use existing tax data and would not be a new form of taxation.

Internal drainage boards are mainly funded via charges levied on the communities they serve. The first—drainage rates—is paid by agricultural landowners, while the second, which is a special levy, is paid by households and businesses. The new charging methodologies would enable these charges to be apportioned using up-to-date council tax and business rates data. To ensure that the apportionment calculation is up to date, and to reduce the risk of imbalance on either side, this measure would update both charging methodologies.

As I said at the start of my speech, we are all aware of the potential wide impact and terrible aftermath of flooding. The Bill helps to deliver greater protection through two different but equally important public bodies. Hon. Members owe it to our constituencies, communities and anyone who has been flooded or is at risk of flooding to take all possible steps to mitigate that risk. The measures in this Bill are enabling; nothing will be forced, and only where there is local support will the Government be able to act. However, without the Bill, the Government cannot act, so I very much hope it strikes a chord with Members in the Chamber and that it will have unanimous support.

I would like to put on record my sincere thanks to both the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Dr Coffey—unfortunately she is unable to be present for the debate as she is opening the new Ipswich barrier—and the Government for their support in this process. I think I speak for Somerset and indeed other parts of our country when I say that we all hope that the Bill will enable local action to be taken so that we will see dry feet and nothing leaking over the tops of our wellies for some years to come.