It is good that there is cross-party consensus for this Bill, because my fearful band of Opposition MPs and I have been waiting in the Chamber to deal with these measures.
It is good that this debate has had so many contributions from the west country. As a fellow Devon MP, I will not go quite as far as Peter Heaton-Jones did in praising the south-west. None the less, it is important to say that the south-west has been affected by flooding over many years and it is an area for which the regulatory environment has not always worked in the best way. That is why the Opposition welcome this Bill and thank David Warburton for bringing it forward.
The Bill is long overdue. It is important to state here that many of its measures should have been introduced long before they were proposed in this private Member’s Bill. We have had plenty of parliamentary time recently to have discussed a Bill of this technical nature. Government time should have been used much earlier on this Bill, because my fear is that regulation in relation to flooding tends to be a kneejerk reaction to a large flooding event. We need to invest time and energy in the consideration of proposals to make sure that they work for all our communities. We need measures to deal with climate change, the increased risk of flooding, and the amount of house building on our floodplains to make sure that we have a regulatory system that is fit for purpose.
This Bill aims to provide local communities with new powers to organise and protect themselves from flooding. That is hardly controversial given the increased likelihood of extreme weather events due to climate change in the next few years ahead. This Bill receives strong backing from the Environment Agency, the National Farmers’ Union and the Association of Drainage Authorities to name but a few.
The rivers authorities that would be established under the Bill would be a good thing. They would be locally accountable with powers to issue a precept to billing authorities, which would then collect the money from council tax payers for additional local flood risk management work. I understand from the ADA that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is not expecting a flurry of requests for the establishment of new river authorities. Local councils and authorities will not be compelled to create them; they are there for those who want to be proactive. Does the Minister think that that is the correct approach? Given the amount of pressure on our local authorities at this moment, with cuts and increased demand on services, is it right that the work is not done at a national level to help identify and encourage those local authorities, many of which might not have the capacity or the in-house expertise to realise the benefits that could be derived from the implementation of this Bill?
I note that Kevin Foster did not go into the composition of the new authorities, but I would like to ask the Minister whether there has been any thought about the personnel on these new drainage authorities. Can he tell us how they will be drawn and selected from the local community and what effort has been made to make sure that those authorities will be gender-balanced in the future?
We must ask ourselves why these reforms have taken so long to appear and whether they should have been brought forward in Government time, rather than have this Bill sitting at the back of a line for a sitting Friday for almost a year. This Bill is being introduced to rectify well known long-standing issues. In many cases, the data that would be used to create some of the new river authorities and internal drainage boards is quite historic in itself.
The ADA first raised the potential need for legislative change with DEFRA during proceedings on the Water Bill in 2014. I think the Government are adopting a twin-track process. A Government consultation entitled “Improving our management of water in the environment” was launched in January, alongside the efforts in this private Member’s Bill. If the Bill fails to progress via the usual channels, Ministers will have the opportunity to pick up its content in the consultation, but I ask the Minister not to rest on his laurels in that respect because it is important that we have clarity.
The debate about flooding has historically occurred at certain times of the year, and we are in one of the times of year when flooding is particularly significant. I represent a constituency that is at the end of a fragile and precarious train line, which passes not only through Dawlish—that beautiful stretch of track is in desperate need of Government funding to make it more resilient—but through the Somerset Levels, an area that is also prone to flooding. We must recognise that flooding not only affects the communities in which it occurs—where there is far too much water—but can cause disruption to large parts of the country that may not experience it in their locality.
I want to ask the Minister who should pay for some of these costs. It is noticeable that the proposals will be funded either by local authority taxpayers or by landowners, but not necessarily by those who use land for business purposes. I would be grateful if the Minister looked at whether they might be an alternative source of revenue to help to drive this activity, rather than relying on the local tax base. Has he assessed whether the “polluter pays” principle could also be used to fund some of the schemes from industries that exacerbate climate change, which causes extreme weather events?
Looking back to storm Desmond, rainfall on that scale used to be described as a one-in-100-year, one-in-200-year or one-in-1,000-year event, but more extreme weather events are now occurring every single year as a result of man-made climate change. We need to make sure that our regulatory system and our flood defences are fit to meet that challenge. George Monbiot said:
“Exceptional events are…no longer exceptional.”
The Committee on Climate Change recently warned that rises in sea level of more than one metre could occur this century, and 200 km of coastal defences in England are projected to become vulnerable to failure during storm conditions. That does not include defences on river systems further inland.
We face unprecedented challenges in defending our lowland areas and coastal communities from flooding. The Bill is welcome, and it will help communities if local authorities use the powers. We need to look at how we can incentivise communities to get there, and we need a comprehensive plan for every community at risk of flooding. If we cannot get this private Member’s Bill through Parliament, I encourage the Minister to ensure that the Government swiftly adopt the measures to make sure that communities that could benefit are not hindered by the fact that the Bill was not introduced in Government time.