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Drainage (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 2005

– in the House of Lords at 4:17 pm on 26th May 2005.

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Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

My Lords, I beg to move the final order standing in my name on the Order Paper. The notes accompanying it are a little more lengthy, but they are worth putting on the record. The order amends the Drainage (Northern Ireland) Order 1973 to give the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development the power to make orders to dissolve drainage trusts and make regulations to charge for the functions it undertakes.

The agency administers over 20 drainage trust funds. The funds held in the trusts are relatively small in comparison with current drainage maintenance costs. I think that the grand total held in the trusts is £74,000, varying between the most valuable at £26,000 and one worth only a few pounds. Consequently, they have become obsolete and no longer serve the purpose for which they were established.

In some cases, drains covered by the trusts have been designated by the Drainage Council for Northern Ireland and are now maintained by the Rivers Agency at public expense. Specific power needs to be taken to enable these trusts to be dissolved and to provide for the disposal of the funds remaining in them. The proposed order provides permissive powers to dissolve the drainage trusts.

It is intended that the individual trust funds will be dissolved as considered appropriate by means of subordinate legislation, of course following consultation. The consultation will enable stakeholders to make representations about any detriment to their interests in the proposed dissolution and to make claims in relation to the disposal of the funds remaining in the trusts.

Consideration has been ongoing for a number of years into finding a mechanism through which developers could contribute to off-site drainage or other infrastructure improvement costs associated with development. The costs for providing drainage infrastructure improvement schemes to facilitate development are currently borne entirely by the Rivers Agency, with developers benefiting from the schemes without contributing to the costs. I was a little surprised to learn that, as indeed I have been surprised by a few other things about funding and other arrangements in Northern Ireland over the past couple of weeks.

The Northern Ireland Audit Office report specifically dealt with the issue of developers benefiting from infrastructure works undertaken by the Rivers Agency at public expense. This amendment to the drainage order will enable the department to address this matter by introducing charging by means of subordinate legislation. It will also enable the department to make regulations to charge for other functions under the Drainage (Northern Ireland) Order 1973.

It is envisaged that the subordinate legislation, which will be subject to public consultation, will provide the detail of charging levels, sanctions, recovery procedure and administrative financial procedures required for the associated collection and accounting of any moneys arising from the charges. Having spelt that out, I shall make sure that we collect more than the cost of collection and red tape. The idea is to gain some money for the public after taking into consideration the sanctions, the procedures and the administrative costs. We have got to end up winning on behalf of the taxpayer.

The subordinate legislation on obtaining contributions from developers will be formulated in the light of an ongoing study of methodologies for such charging. We expect that the regulations setting out the arrangements for charging for infrastructure work will be brought forward in 2007. It will not happen tomorrow.

I have referred to some of the benefits that will be brought about by the order. The proposals have found widespread support and acceptance during public consultation. The Construction Employers Federation objected to charging, but it was the only objector so far as I am aware. I see no reason why developers in Northern Ireland should not contribute towards the cost of dealing with increased discharges from developments when the onus is on developers elsewhere in the country to make such provision. That is the normal process and there is no reason why the taxpayer should fully fund such developments. The consent of the majority of stakeholders is such that no amendments have been necessary to the draft order published for public consultation.

These enabling powers will have no direct financial impact but they do make provision for the department to dispose of any property, including funds, forming part of a trust through subordinate legislation. As I said, the total value of the trusts is currently in the order of £74,000.

The general power to charge will allow the department to charge for any function under the Drainage (Northern Ireland) Order 1973. We are only considering charges for drainage infrastructure work at this point. There will be full consultation on any further matters.

The department and the public in Northern Ireland will benefit from the proposed amendment to the drainage order. I am confident therefore that your Lordships will support it. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 26 January be approved.—(Lord Rooker.)

Photo of Lord Glentoran Lord Glentoran Spokespersons In the Lords, Northern Ireland

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that detailed explanation of what is an almost historical situation. Most of the drains to which he referred were installed in 1925 for draining the countryside and so on.

I am not certain whether or not I should declare an interest. I am involved partly in the countryside and partly in construction. I am still a director of the National House-Building Council, which is involved with developers and so on. To my knowledge, I do not have an interest to declare.

I hope that the Minister is right and that he will be able to pay for this scheme, but I am not sure that I support him in his desire to win all the way for the taxpayer in this situation. I do not necessarily agree with that. I wonder whether this will impact in any way on the debate about the increase in water rates, which is due to take place in your Lordships' House later, and influence what the charges for water rates will be. I sincerely hope the noble Lord can assure me that it will not. Otherwise, I support the order.

Photo of Baroness Harris of Richmond Baroness Harris of Richmond Other Whip, Spokesperson in the Lords, Northern Ireland Affairs

My Lords, we on these Benches also welcome the order. Perhaps I may ask the Minister a couple of questions. Can he give an indication of the kinds of functions for which the department has it in mind to charge? He mentioned infrastructure works; can he give me a little more detail about that? To whom would such charges be made? Otherwise, we support the order.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

My Lords, the Rivers Agency—the public—is paying for the drainage work being done as a consequence of, or preparatory to, development. We all know that in most cases development—I have to be careful about this—increases the value of land and property. It is a bit like planning permission. One normally requires the developers to fund part, if not all, of the infrastructure costs associated with development. We are considering charges only for drainage infrastructure works at present. Charges for other functions, which I mentioned as an aside, may be considered later. I say to the noble Baroness that there are no plans on my desk with a list.

On the noble Lord's slightly teasing question, there is no connection with the water reform proposals. However, I fully accept that they will certainly be debated at some time in this House.

The charges will be levied on those who undertake the development. I fully accept that later they may say that the costs have to be passed on. It is a bit like VAT or Section 106. This is quite normal in the rest of the country—we are not inventing the wheel here. The developers are expected to pay for some of the infrastructure costs arising from their development. I hope that answers the question, but other noble Lords may wish to participate in the debate.

Photo of Lord Molyneaux of Killead Lord Molyneaux of Killead Crossbench

My Lords, I am a little concerned about Article 4 of the order on the power of the department to charge for the exercise of functions. Living, as I do, in a rural area, I urge caution in any acceptance or extension of such powers. Perhaps the Minister will heed his own instincts and go for caution in any extension of such powers. We already have some examples of threats to farmers who are somewhat nervous about various extensions which were never in the mind of anyone legislating on the matter. Some of them I understand, and some of what we are debating today may have originated in Europe. Perhaps on Sunday next our French colleagues may do something to protect us from such excesses.

Photo of Lord Naseby Lord Naseby Conservative

My Lords, the Minister's antecedents are in local government, as are mine. While we understand the situation in England extremely clearly, I am not sure that the Section 106 agreements that we are familiar with necessarily apply in Northern Ireland. I say that as a former PPS in Northern Ireland.

My question is in relation to the objection from the developers. As someone who was formerly a non-executive director of a major contractor in England, I wonder where the boundary of charge is. I do not know where it is in Northern Ireland but there is an awful lot of difference between a drainage charge in relation to the perimeter of the site that is being developed and a drainage charge for the main sewer.

It is a very bold Minister who suggests that it is all carte blanche and straightforward and easy, based on the English precedent. I suspect that it is not quite as simple as the noble Lord suggests.

Photo of Lord Lyell Lord Lyell Conservative

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, to the happy area of agriculture in Northern Ireland. He may have heard, even now, that I was purported to be in charge of agriculture for five and a half years. During the course of my career there, the Drainage Division in the old Department of Agriculture, became the Watercourse Management Division, which trebled the length of any contribution to your Lordships' House and gave great pleasure. But I am pleased to see that watercourse management is mentioned in new paragraph 29A(2)(a), with regard to maintenance of watercourses or other works. I had always assumed, until the Minister gave his excellent explanation, which has engendered further debate, that much of what we are discussing today was very much as laid out by my noble friend Lord Glentoran, on the subject of trusts and dealing with drainage in connection with agricultural works in the rural areas. But I understand that the situation is much more complicated now, once we have developers.

As the Minister put it so succinctly, people are getting free drainage—which in Northern Ireland amounts to a pretty substantial sum, and is pretty crucial. I was grateful to him for spelling out the amount of money involved, because as soon as he mentioned the word "methodology", I knew precisely whence the briefing was coming. Indeed, that term used to cross my desk often and provided a very valuable smokescreen in your Lordships' House, though not this afternoon. The Minister has been so clear—but he might confirm for me that the sum is in the region of £74,000, and that he will take the greatest care to see that the farmers and those in rural communities originally affected by the 1925 Act and the 1973 order are not gravely disadvantaged. I suspect that if they are a path will be beaten to his door.

I welcome the Minister's appointment to the Northern Ireland post, and I am sure that he will enjoy it. I am very grateful for the clear way in which he set out the order for us this afternoon.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

My Lords, as the person who at the moment purports to be in charge of agriculture in Northern Ireland, as the noble Lord said, I shall do my best to answer that. I shall knock two things on the head for a start. I was not, in referring to Section 106, making a direct analogy; I was referring only to the fact that at the moment the taxpayer, through the Rivers Agency, funds it all. The sum of money of course runs into millions of pounds, but the Rivers Agency spends in doing this, and that of course comes out of taxpayers' contributions. So there is no question on that score.

In response to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, there are issues relating to farmers, which started off in Brussels and which are not really related to what we are discussing. One of those is the nitrates directive. I assure the noble Lord that when I visited the Balmoral show, every other person raised the question of the nitrates directive with me. That is a matter that will be actively considered—but it is not part and parcel of what we are discussing. I am not aware that what we are debating started off in Europe.

I should also knock on the head the notion that I have antecedence in local government. I have never been a local authority councillor.

The other point is that all the powers that will flow from this order—that is, the power to charge, how it is done, the area that is covered, how that area is delineated and where the boundaries are—will all be subject to consultation. Nothing will flow from this order automatically. There is a power to dissolve the trusts; as I say, there is only £74,000 and a few more pounds in those trusts, and each one will be done separately, so we shall see if anybody is owed money from the trusts. But there will be plenty of opportunity for people who would be adversely affected by the dissolution of a trust or the methodology of the way in which the charges are formed to have their fivepenny-worth. There will be a full and proper consultation. Nothing will automatically flow by way of a charging system; the coverage and amount of the charges flowing from the order will all come in other subordinate legislation.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at twenty-seven minutes before five o'clock.