I echo the words of my hon. Friend Luke Pollard on Second Reading and in Committee, and I welcome the cross-party consensus that has, if not sped the Bill along its way, allowed it to ooze into its present position. I add my thanks and appreciation for the efforts of David Warburton, whose hard work and persistence has got us to this point. Of course, the Bill also has the support of the Government, even though they did not take it forward in Government time, and of the National Farmers Union, the Environment Agency and the Association of Drainage Authorities.
I find myself partially disadvantaged in discoursing on this Bill because I am not from the west country, and the majority of the running has naturally come from west country Members, who have a long-standing commitment to helping the people of the Somerset levels, whence this Bill gained its original impetus, whether or not their constituencies cover any of the affected areas. The fact that fellow MPs are willing to work together to help one another’s constituencies is hugely encouraging and is in some ways a mirror to what the Bill seeks to achieve. It is by sharing the load that the new rivers authorities are going to be able to command the resources and implement the strategies that our vulnerable valleys and river catchments have been crying out for. Very often, the measures that will have the most effect on one community need to be carried out upstream in a separate community. These new rivers authorities will enable the best outcomes for all. However, while many parts of the south-west have been affected by flooding over many years and it is the area in which the first rivers authority—the Somerset Rivers Authority—will achieve its full expression through the Bill, once it has passed the Bill will enable improved drainage and flood prevention strategies in various parts of our country.
The Bill is long overdue. It would have been sensible if the Government had introduced it. There is still a very real threat that some of the planning and flood-prevention measures that could be facilitated by the creation of rivers authorities will not be put in place before the next major flooding incident, like the floods in Cumbria in 2015. I hope that those river areas where setting up a rivers authority will make a positive difference do not wait until the next major incident to do so. We would welcome proactive encouragement from central Government or the Environment Agency in that regard.
The Bill aims to provide local communities with new powers to organise and protect themselves from flooding, and that is wholly commendable. However, we also need to ask ourselves why there has been an increase in the prevalence and ferocity of flooding incidents in recent years. Alongside the powers to control and mitigate the flooding, I believe that we will need to take far more effective measures to deal with climate change in the near future and be more coherent and sensible about the development that is allowed on our floodplains.
We welcome the local accountability of the new precepting authorities through their public sector elected members, although we would welcome a more transparent and consistent approach to the selection of those members. It is essential for there to be a process for removing members if they are not careful with local taxpayers’ money, although I assume that that will take place through the normal democratic process for locally elected members. We wish to warn that any new money collected locally must be spent on additional measures, and not used by central Government as an excuse to cut the current funding of, for instance, the Environment Agency.
It would also be beneficial for local community ownership of a rivers authority to be given some genuine expression in the ability to follow and challenge the strategies and programmes of the authorities. I remind the Minister of the suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport of an annual flood risk management plan as a tool for engaging with the public. I hope that the Somerset rivers authority and other forthcoming authorities will institute such plans.
Rainfall on the scale of the 2015 storm Desmond is becoming a more frequent threat as a result of climate change. We need to ensure that our regulatory system and our flood defences are fit to meet that challenge, but we must also do what we can to prevent the increasing occurrence of such storms through reductions in carbon emissions. According to the Committee on Climate Change, 200 km of English coastal defences are likely to be at risk of failure during storm conditions. The Bill will set up bodies to mitigate riparian flooding, but I hope that the Minister will suggest to his colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Dr Coffey that there might be some merit in seeking a similar solution to coastal flooding too, and that perhaps, once the bonanza of Brexit statutory instruments is finally over, she might want to turn her attention to doing something about that in Government time.
We face an unprecedented challenge in defending lowland areas from flooding. The Bill is welcome and timely, and has our full support. We are delighted to see it becoming law. The Government now need to think about how they can enable as many relevant communities as possible to make full use of the powers and opportunities that it gives. Ideally, there will be a comprehensive plan for every community at risk of flooding. If this Bill can help us to achieve that, it will have made a major contribution to the safety and happiness of the nation.