Rivers Authorities and Land Drainage Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:17 pm on 8th February 2019.

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Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 2:17 pm, 8th February 2019

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend David Warburton on bringing this important Bill to Parliament. He spoke eloquently about the devastation that flooding can cause. Sadly, like many hon. Members in this House, he has first-hand experience of dealing with the matter in his own constituency; indeed, his constituency was at the centre of controversy during the floods in the winter of 2013-14. Five years ago, in January 2014—shortly after I became a DEFRA Minister in 2013, and shortly before he was elected to this House—he invited me to meet a group of his constituents at Long Sutton golf club, which had suffered repeated flooding as a result of the problems on the rivers. I recall that I was stopping off on my way back from Cornwall but I was late, because one of the bridges—I think it was the Long Load bridge—had been cut off by the flooding, and I had to go on quite a long diversion to get to the venue.

At the heart of the problems experienced in Somerset were issues about how best to manage river systems in flood plains. In my hon. Friend’s case, the river in question was the River Parrett, if I remember correctly. Many hon. Members will have had to help constituents deal with the consequences of floods. In my own constituency, there have been issues not only with coastal surge flooding but fluvial floods caused by heavy rainfall, which we are prone to get in Cornwall. To tackle this natural hazard, the Government continue to invest record amounts in protecting communities across England with new flood defence schemes and the maintenance of existing ones.

Alongside this, the Government are keen to empower communities to take further action at a local level. In our 25-year environment plan, we have committed to bringing the public, private and third sectors together to work with communities and individuals to reduce the risk of harm from all environmental hazards. Later in 2019, the Government will publish a policy statement on flooding and coastal erosion in England, and the Environment Agency will publish an updated national flooding and coastal erosion strategy.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, following the devastating floods in 2013 and 2014, there was a strong political desire for co-ordination across Somerset to devise a bespoke new local initiative. 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. As my hon. Friend is aware, this plan led to the concept of a new body—a rivers authority. The plan recommended the creation of a such a body in Somerset. The aim was to establish a new way of bringing together the different bodies that have a responsibility for, or interest in, flood risk management. By raising additional local funding, and through co-ordinating and utilising the expertise of individual partners, the Somerset Rivers Authority is able to provide a better level of protection than may otherwise have been possible, but it does not seek to replace existing flood risk management authorities or their funding mechanisms.

The Government fully understand how important this issue is for the people of Somerset and fully support the work of the Somerset Rivers Authority. The Government showed their support for the Somerset Rivers Authority with a £1.9 million funding package to help with its start-up costs. A review of the long-term funding options was commissioned that recommended precepting powers. Incorporating river authorities and securing the Somerset Rivers Authority’s future requires new legislation. I am pleased that this is provided for in clause 1 of my hon. Friend’s Bill.

While there is widespread support for the decision on the Somerset Rivers Authority, that decision is not taken lightly. The Government are aware that any precept will be funded by local taxpayers, as is already the case under the existing shadow precept used in Somerset. Putting this legislation into statute will make the Somerset Rivers Authority an autonomous precepting authority, making it more transparent, ensuring that safeguards are in place to protect local council tax payers, and ensuring that its funding is ring-fenced solely for this important work. It will also secure its future and enable it to deliver more. The Bill also sets out how, through regulations, Parliament will have the opportunity to scrutinise further the creation and governance arrangements of a rivers authority.

My hon. Friend also mentioned internal drainage boards, which are dealt with in the second part of the Bill. As he pointed out, three of those are based in Somerset, and there are a further 109 across England. Internal drainage boards have been in existence for many years. Their main focus originally was on the drainage of agricultural land in low-lying areas, but they have since moved on and now play a much wider role as a key partner in local flood risk management. This model has worked well, but, as he said, not everywhere has such a body. There is interest in other parts of England and Wales in creating new internal drainage boards, and many of those that already exist would like to expand. However, a combination of issues has stopped the creation of new, or the expansion of existing, internal drainage boards. As he said, there have been issues with the ratings tables, which date right back to 1991 and, in many areas, no longer exist. A change in legislation is therefore required. I am pleased that this is provided for in clauses 2, 3 and 4 of his Bill, establishing a power to introduce new regulations relating to charging methodologies. That means that we can have both the creation of new internal drainage boards and expansion of existing ones.

I want to turn to some of the points made by hon. Members. In an intervention, my hon. Friend Michael Tomlinson raised an important point about Wales. I should point out to hon. Members that these matters are devolved. We asked the Welsh Government which elements they would like to be involved with. While they do not at this point want to see the introduction of rivers authorities in Wales, they did want the ability to expand internal drainage boards in Wales and the power to establish different charging mechanisms through regulations. I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to clauses 2(7) and (8), which create powers for the Welsh Government to do just that through regulations.

My hon. Friend Victoria Prentis gave a passionate speech, and it was interesting to hear the comments of her grandfather—I think everybody who has experienced flooding can agree that nothing beats the sound of a good, functioning drain. She also made an important point about the impact of this problem on some of our farmland.

My hon. Friend James Cartlidge gave a very supportive, important speech about how certain businesses can be affected. He alluded to the question of how we will know whether local council tax payers do indeed support such precepts. I draw his attention to new schedule A1, on page 20. Paragraph 2 sets out specific requirements and a duty to consult, so the Government would not even consider bringing forward regulations unless and until a local authority had carried out a consultation. An authority must consult other relevant risk management authorities and Natural England, but also

“persons liable to pay council tax”,

so those people would be fully involved in any consultation process.

My hon. Friend Peter Heaton-Jones, while showing a distinct lack of west country solidarity, nevertheless made some important points. In particular, he raised the local issues he faces on Braunton Marsh. He also made an important point about the role and value of local knowledge in delivering solutions to some of these problems.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Kevin Foster, who has finally got through a Bill that addresses similar issues. I am pleased to hear that the Bill, which I have seen on the annunciator many times, has now completed its passage.

Finally, I want to touch briefly on some of the issues raised by the shadow Minister, Luke Pollard. He raised a specific issue about the composition of the authority and who would be on it. It is open to us, through regulations under new section 21C, to stipulate what provision should be put in place for that, so the issue can be dealt with through regulations by the Government of the day.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the “polluter pays” principle. I can reassure him that, while the focus of these measures is very much on flood risk management, the “polluter pays” principle is at the heart of much of what we do, and it is an approach taken by Natural England and the Environment Agency in all their work.

In conclusion, this is an important Bill. We have made good progress today, and we have had some interesting contributions. The Government fully support the Bill going to the next stage.