Rivers Authorities and Land Drainage Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:11 pm on 15th March 2019.

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Photo of Matt Warman Matt Warman Conservative, Boston and Skegness 1:11 pm, 15th March 2019

I rise to briefly support this excellent Bill, as I did in the Bill Committee and on several occasions as it has progressed through the slightly tortuous private Member’s Bill system. It is excellent that we are finally here today with something that will deliver real and meaningful benefits for Somerset in particular.

As my hon. Friend David Warburton knows, this is the point where I turn into a bit of a gloom bucket. While the Bill is brilliant for Somerset, I hope the Minister and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be able to look favourably on the other parts of the country that seek to benefit from the good things it will enable for Somerset and, in theory, for other parts of the country as well. I say that for two reasons, and some of this is already in process through the consultations that the Department is running via the Environment Agency at the moment.

The first is the extension of rateable areas for existing IDBs. In my constituency, we are blessed with five IDBs. As I have mentioned before, according to the Association of British Insurers, it is the constituency in the country most likely to flood in relation to both internal drainage and coastal flooding. To be sustainable, drainage boards need to rate areas that benefit from the work they do but that do not currently pay for it. It seems to me that that is only fair, because the work the drainage boards do provides a huge benefit for the wider local economy. In Lincolnshire, they work remarkably effectively and produce work at a fraction of the cost of the Environment Agency—by the Environment Agency’s own admission—and, indeed, they have often worked as contractors for the Environment Agency to produce the maximum value for the taxpayer. They will be able to do even better work if they are properly and sensibly funded by all those who benefit from their work. That is what the Bill will permit—in practice, in some areas of the country, and in theory, in others. Once my IDBs, which are independent-minded and well run, come to a collective view on what they would like, I hope the Minister and his colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will look favourably on it.

My second point is on the rivers authorities aspect of the Bill, which could be—I do not say it will be, but that it could be—an excellent solution for Lincolnshire as well. I would like that very much to come from my own drainage boards, councils and those who know best what is good for them, rather than suggesting for a moment that the Department should impose any of this on Lincolnshire, although I do not think it is currently minded to do so.

Ultimately, and to use Boston Borough Council as an example, the responsible thing for drainage boards to do is clearly to make sure that they have the resources to do their necessary work and keep everyone’s feet dry—literally. As they put up their rates, however, because we have rightly capped the amount by which council tax can rise, any rises in council tax are entirely taken up by those necessary rises in drainage rates, and drainage boards are effectively able severely to curtail, if not cut, the resources available to a borough council. Being able to make that funding a separate council tax line, so that it is a precept rather than a levy, will be a huge step forward in Somerset and allow people to be properly resourced at both council and drainage board level. That is a good thing, but it is not the only way through by any means—as the Minister said in Committee, I suspect my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome will say that other options are available to my councils, and I imagine he will be right.

In remains the case, however, that today it is difficult for drainage boards to get the resources they need without butting up against that cap on council tax rates, which means that small authorities such as Boston Borough Council and East Lindsey District Council find themselves in a difficult position. The situation will be solved in Somerset through the National Rivers Authority—that is good and we welcome it—but I hope the Minister will work with his colleagues, my drainage boards and the Environment Agency to try to alleviate the problem that this excellent Bill will solve in an admirable way for Somerset, so that we can also find a way through for areas such as Lincolnshire. I do not want to be too gloomy because this Bill opens a number of doors through which I hope counties such as mine, and councils such as those in my constituency, will be able to walk if they wish. This Bill is excellent for Somerset, and it is excellent that the Government and the Opposition are supporting it, as will I.