I am no expert on water tables or the flooding of cellars, but that is exactly the kind of work that our internal drainage boards and other risk management authorities manage daily. The purpose of the Bill is to bring the work of those bodies together and add to their weaponry, so that they can work to help us all. To help to deliver that, my Bill will specifically provide opportunities for local partners and communities to better manage the risk of flooding and to improve water management, which will also have other benefits. The Bill will achieve that through the two types of public body that it covers.
The devastating floods that hit my constituency and those of other Members during the winters of 2013 and 2014 will forever be ingrained in my mind. I apologise to Members present who attended previous debates on the Bill and have heard this before—I will not go into all the details—but the events really were shattering for Somerset. I recall travelling by boat on what ought to have been roads on the Somerset levels and moors, and standing in people’s houses that were not only waist-deep in water but had been flooded only 12 months before.
From adversity comes opportunity, though, and neighbours and communities in Somerset came together. Members of those communities wanted to take action to reduce the chances of such flooding happening again and properly to manage the risk. The people of Somerset were keen to take ownership and proposed the creation of a new locally funded public body known as the Somerset Rivers Authority. I thank the Government for their support for the idea, and the SRA itself for the benefits its hard work has already provided since its inception, even though it is currently non-statutory and unincorporated. Members will be pleased to know that the Bill does not purely contain powers formally to establish the Somerset Rivers Authority, but rather enables the creation of rivers authorities wherever there is local need and support and due process is followed.
The Bill’s first measure will enable the creation of rivers authorities, which will be risk management authorities and major precepting authorities. That means that they will be able to issue a council tax precept each year, to be used for local flood risk management activities in addition to those already undertaken by the Environment Agency, IDBs, local authorities and others.
Although a rivers authority would need to encompass an entire local authority area, if desired it could span any number of local authority areas, thus providing a level of joined-up strategic planning where appropriate. Rivers authorities will be locally accountable bodies that work with all risk management authorities, including water companies, to help reduce the local risk of flooding from all sources. They will use the funding provided by the precepts to undertake such work as will benefit their entire areas of operation. The rivers authorities model is very much one of collaboration and enabling the use of knowledge and expertise to deliver for communities. A rivers authority is not there to usurp any other organisation or the Government’s and the Environment Agency’s important work throughout the country.
Although, as I have said before, Somerset is fortunate, as in so much else, in already having its own rivers authority. The Bill is the final piece in incorporating that authority formally and ensuring that it has a secure future.