My Lords, it is a great pleasure to have been asked to sponsor this Bill, which was introduced by the honourable Member for Somerton and Frome in the other place. I pay tribute to him for his dedication to such an important Bill, which resonates loudly with his constituents in the south-west, and for efficiently guiding it through its various stages. I note that it received unqualified support from all sides in the other place, and I trust it will receive similar support from your Lordships in this House.
As a child living in London, I was aware of the risk of flooding in my childhood before the £500 million Thames Barrier was built and opened in 1982. It seems now a completely remote idea to me that my house, and my favourite pub, might be underwater, local amenities damaged and, in the worst instances, lives put at risk. But for many people in this country that is no longer true. Parts of the country face the risk of flooding and our coastal towns in particular face coastal erosion. The threat from climate change is increasing the dangers of wet winters and hot summers. For instance, at the time of its construction, the Thames Barrier was expected to be used just two or three times a year. It is now being used an astonishing six or seven times a year.
While we accept that these natural events will happen, we can help affected communities to better manage the risk to their homes and businesses, so that when the weather is against us, there is less risk to life and recovery is quicker. The measures included within this Bill will help us to better manage the risk of flooding that we face, and help us to improve our water management and our environment.
I am sure that your Lordships will agree that there are few places nicer on a summer’s day in the English countryside than next to a beautiful watercourse. I think in particular of the River Kennet in Wiltshire, which is at the end of my garden, and which I love very much indeed. However, I have also seen at first hand the consequences of too much water. I remember travelling through Cumbria, shortly after Storm Desmond in 2015 led to 2.5 million victims of flooding, seeing the heart-breaking damage to property and finding out for myself what happens when the local economy and local transport cease to work. Following an incident like that, there is often grief, blame and then, finally, a desire to take action. I am sure these thoughts are replicated everywhere in the country where there is a disaster, but it was particularly true and relevant, for the first part of the Bill, for the flooding in Somerset.
The devastating flooding in 2013 and 2014 was widespread in all four corners of England—11,000 properties were flooded, and the total economic damage was an astonishing £1.3 billion. In Somerset, it was particularly bad. Flood waters covered the levels and the moors, 150 square kilometres of land were completely submerged for weeks, and, as your Lordships may recall, livelihoods were driven to the brink and people driven to despair. The cost to Somerset alone was £147 million.
One way action was taken in Somerset was the creation of a 20-year flood action plan. This was at the request of the then Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right honourable Member for North Shropshire. A key and innovative action to come from this plan was the creation in 2015 of a new body, the Somerset Rivers Authority. Since then, it has overseen more than 120 projects. However, while the people of Somerset are fortunate already to have a rivers authority, and have benefited from it, this Bill is the next and very important step in order that it may be fully incorporated.
The first measure in this Bill will allow for the creation of rivers authorities, which will be locally accountable risk management authorities with the power to issue a precept funded by local taxpayers. A rivers authority will bring together other local flood risk management authorities, as well as other local bodies, and use the precept to fund additional local flood management work. These flood risk management authorities could include a number of key local players: the lead local flood authority; the district councils; the Environment Agency; the regional flood and coastal committees; internal drainage boards, where they overlap with river authorities; water companies; and highway authorities. They could also include relevant national organisations, such as Natural England, or more locally or specifically focused organisations.
I want to reassure the House that the aim of these river authorities is not to usurp their partners but to complement them, and to bring everyone together to provide additional flood protection and resilience to the local community. The precept will be used to fund additional local flood risk management work. Some examples are: the additional maintenance for rivers, watercourses and locally significant structures; dredging and monitoring of silt build-up; unblocking, clearing and repairing culverts and gullies; developing and maintaining new flood alert systems; natural flood management in both rural and urban settings; and, finally, encouraging better land management and the uptake of sustainable drainage systems. Alongside this, river authorities will also work with and help communities, households, businesses and landowners to become more resilient to flooding, and will encourage greater participation in groups and networks, and in identifying and supporting vulnerable people.
Another important body that tackles water management and flood risk is the internal drainage boards. These bodies maintain the watercourses, reduce flood risk to people and property and manage water levels for agricultural and environmental needs within their drainage districts. There are currently 112 internal drainage boards across England, covering 10% of our land. Not everyone will need an internal drainage board for their area, but where establishing a new board or expanding an existing board is needed, there are requirements to amend the existing Land Drainage Act 1991. This is the purpose of the second and very important measure in the Bill.
In essence, there is a barrier to the expansion of existing drainage boards and the creation of new ones due to incomplete ratings data. The Land Drainage Act requires amending to accept the use of newer ratings data to set and calculate the value of land for internal drainage boards’ charging methodologies. It is important to stress that these methodologies will use tax data already produced by the Valuation Office Agency so there is no additional cost, nor are there new forms of taxation.
Internal drainage boards are mainly funded by charges levied on the communities that they serve. The first, drainage rates, are paid by agricultural landowners; the second, a special levy, is paid by households and businesses. The alternative valuations methodologies will enable the apportionment of charges to be calculated fairly, using up-to-date council tax and business rate data. While it is only the data needed to calculate the special levy that is missing or incomplete, it is prudent to update the valuations methodologies relating to both charges at the same time. This will ensure that the apportionment calculation between the drainage rate and the special levy is up to date and will reduce the risk of imbalance on either side.
The measures within this Bill are enabling powers and the Government will not force them on to communities but act where there is local support. However, without this legislation no one can act to put forward proposals. I hope very much that it strikes a chord with your Lordships and that you are able to give the Bill your unanimous support. I beg to move.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Bethell on introducing this Second Reading for what I think is his first hands-on Bill. I add my congratulations to our honourable friend in the other place for having the foresight to bring this legislation forward and prevent the rather lengthy process of what would have been a hybrid Bill. I can see traces in my noble friend of his father’s campaigning zeal, and we look forward to having many more occasions of hearing from him in this regard.
I declare my interests on the register, in particular that I co-chair the APPG on water and am an honorary vice-president of the Association of Drainage Authorities. I also work with WICS, the water regulator for Scotland. I was a shadow Minister on two occasions in the 2000s; I also remember well taking through what became the Flood and Water Management Act, as chairman of the EFRA Committee. Given the history of flooding in the 2000s and more recently—both surface water flooding and, as my noble friend said, coastal and fluvial flooding—I am very proud of my involvement in Pickering’s Slowing the Flow project. That project looks at having more natural flood defences with the involvement of drainage boards and a number of partners, including the Forestry Commission, which has had trees planted and felled there. There was also the building of bunds creating dams, so we have been working more with nature than we did in what I might say were the over-engineered projects of the past.
Drainage boards have a key role in maintaining watercourses in low-lying areas, particularly below eight feet in England. They have experience and success in managing water levels and flood risk in areas of special drainage need. They often have equipment which is not available to others and, as I mentioned, the expertise to use it. They are statutory bodies created under the Land Drainage Act 1991, funded from two separate sources. I particularly welcome in this Bill not just that the Somerset Rivers Authority will be put on an autonomous precepting basis but that there will be an opportunity, where there is desire locally, both to expand and create new drainage authorities.
That begs a number of questions I would like to put to the Minister, who is not normally responsible for Defra issues, but I welcome him to his place today. Will there be consultation on the methodology and criteria to be used before the regulations under the Bill are placed using the affirmative procedure? Further to questions that were raised at Second Reading in the other place, I would also seek assurance on what the role of the Environment Agency on flood prevention going forward will be. I believe it has and will continue to have a crucial role. That also begs a further question on what the role of the new body, the office for environmental protection, will be on flood prevention, water management and drainage boards generally.
I will also put a number of issues that were raised to me in briefings to prepare for today, first from the Association of Drainage Authorities. The first is how the chair of a new rivers authority is created, if there are any created. It is important, as ADA has mentioned, that these chairs are seen to be independent. Key to that is how they are appointed. Will the Minister assure the House today that they will follow the normal rules of public appointments for the chairs of rivers authorities? Secondly, I ask that, when establishing a rivers authority, in each case its functions are properly defined and agreed with existing RMAs.
The NFU has raised a number of issues, and it would benefit the House for the Minister to clarify them. First, under new Section 21F(2)(b), the power to acquire and dispose of property needs to be carefully defined. I know that Defra has said this will be included as a cover-all, just in case, but we do not want to spook either landowners or occupiers of agricultural land, which is a valuable resource on which they rely. Secondly, under new Section 21G(2)(c) and (d), as a rivers authority will be using public funds to carry out its work, there should be an obligation for it to report on whether the objectives set out in its strategy have been received. Will that report be published and the information in it made more widely available? Under new Section 21I(2)(a), could we be clear that it will not be a specified person but a specified body that is required? The NFU has pointed out that it would be a tall order indeed for a single person to take on these responsibilities. Finally from the NFU, there is a request on new Section 21J(5)(e) for a specific reference to landowners or occupiers of agricultural land, within the area of the rivers authority, to ensure that members of the NFU and other occupiers and landowners are protected. This is a plea for consultation and notification of landowners or occupiers of agricultural land of planned activities by a rivers authority.
I am sure there will be many other opportunities to discuss these issues. My noble friend eloquently set the scene as to why there are challenges. We face increasing challenges from climate change, population growth and increased housebuilding. As co-author with the honourable Angela Smith in the other place, and under the auspices of the Westminster Sustainable Business Forum, we looked at some of these issues in our report Bricks & Water. We came up with proposals that I hope will appeal to the House—in particular to my noble friend who has brought this Second Reading to us today—to improve resilience, given the housebuilding that all sides of the House are committed to, increasing population challenges and global warming. I would like see an end to the automatic right to connect, with water companies and IDBs made statutory consultees so that major housing developments would not go ahead without their say-so. IDBs have had an increasing role in preventing flooding not just in rural areas but increasingly in urban areas. That is welcome, but they obviously need the funds in place to secure that. I am passionate not just about the drainage boards but about a greater use of sustainable urban drainage. I would like there to be better use of Building Regulations and we should build only in appropriate places to ensure sustainable economic development. We need to work more with nature rather than have a constant focus on manmade, over-engineered flood defences.
Looking ahead to the Agriculture Bill and the environment Bill, there will be further opportunities to discuss the role of drainage boards, potentially new rivers authorities and the existing Somerset Rivers Authority in terms of public good, natural capital and environmental and land management schemes. For the purposes of today, I welcome the Bill and give it a fair wind. I congratulate my noble friend, but I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to respond to some of the concerns that I have raised.
My Lords, I must first declare an interest as a farmer in Somerset, where we pay drainage rates. I very much support the principles behind the Bill.
In the 1980s, I went occasionally to conferences on the continent which dealt with aspects of water management. The one thing that was always stressed to me by our continental neighbours, whose rivers sometimes run from one country to another, was how lucky we were in the UK to have our river catchments run by a single organisation. Those were the days of the water authorities and then the National Rivers Authority. It was stressed to me again and again that if a river catchment is managed as a whole, you can properly integrate the needs of the various conflicting interests: the abstractors, including the water companies and farmer irrigators; the land drainage and flood defence interests, and the hugely important environmental balance that has to be maintained for the non-human species: flora and fauna, both aquatic and riparian.
This situation with the NRA and then the Environment Agency lasted until the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, when, in spite of my clearly ineffective protests in this House, it was decided to split up the land drainage and flood defence aspects of catchment management, and local authorities were given various roles in drainage and flood defence.
In my home county of Somerset, the weaknesses of this policy were soon exposed. The different levels of local government did not really understand or were slow in getting to grips with their specific roles in the hugely complex matrix of river catchment management. Even in Somerset, that should be quite easy because all our rivers rise in Somerset and fall to the sea in Somerset, which in theory gives us the means of control along their whole length. It is a huge advantage.
As a result of this split in responsibilities, the disastrous floods of 2014—already mentioned—occurred, when tens of thousands of acres of agricultural land and hundreds of private homes were put out of action by the muddle and lack of unified management of our rivers. Everyone assumed that others were running the show. There was also the small matter of the absence of any dredging on the main rivers over many years—but we shall put that to one side. As a result, in the aftermath of the floods the Somerset Rivers Authority was born to reunify the management and ensure that such a disaster could never happen again—and so far, so good. It is only right and proper that we should now establish such a model in statute so that others can copy this integrated river basin management.
The purposes of the Bill are excellent, but I am not sure that we yet have very much detail to get a handle on. In this seemingly Tudor age—that is a mild reference to the ubiquitous Henry VIII powers that seem to infiltrate every piece of legislation these days—many powers are granted to the Secretary of State, but I am still not sure exactly how it will actually work or whether the rivers authorities will have the right mandate or the right checks and balances. It probably depends on the Secretary of State of the day. There are a lot of “mays” and not too many “musts”. I am not sure that that is the right way to enact legislation.
For instance, I assume that there has to be complete unanimity between all the various local bodies, including the Environment Agency, before a river authority can be set up; otherwise, how would the precepting work with the electorate of a council which had decided to not be involved? Why not state that a river authority cannot be set up without complete unanimity at a local level? Which bodies are needed to support that decision? It would also be helpful if there had to be an independent chair, as the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, mentioned. In Somerset, the relationship between the districts and the county has not always been good and it might have been helpful for them to have had an independent chair.
What sort of check is there going to be on these authorities’ money-raising powers, or can an authority precept for however much it decides? To what extent should authorities have to consult on their long-term strategy as well as their annual plans? If they are going to consult, do they do so with householders, riparian owners, parish councils and others? To my way of thinking, long-term strategies are more important than the annual plans mentioned in the Bill. Apart from flood-water management, what sort of wider mandate will they be given? Will they have a duty to carry out their responsibilities in a way that positively enhances the environment, both aquatic and land-based? Who will they report to annually on what they have done in this field? In my experience, without a reporting system such priorities always get forgotten. Will natural flood management solutions and sustainable drainage systems be a priority? Will these bodies have wider social purposes, or should they? After all, rivers are an important source of recreation, ranging from fishing, canoeing and swimming through to biking and walking on the riverbank and providing facilities to enjoy wildlife. I am not saying that all these various responsibilities are not possible under the Bill, but they should be on the face of it.
Finally, I turn to the section in the Bill on internal drainage boards. Over the decades and centuries, IDBs and their predecessors have served their localities well. They use local knowledge, local expertise and experience, built up over centuries, to ensure that upstream and downstream farmers and communities both pay for and have a say in the optimum management of our rainfall. Inevitably, their methods and priorities need reviewing from time to time; for instance, the 2016 NAO report gave them food for thought, to which they seem to have responded well. But IDBs have stood the test of time, and remain the best and cheapest way to implement effective local water management. It is only right to support the clauses in the Bill which bring the basis of their financial model up to date and give them greater flexibility to run their affairs and, if necessary, expand and even start new IDBs where the locals wish it. I repeat that I strongly support the principles embedded in the Bill.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, for sponsoring this important Bill, following the Private Member’s Bill introduced in the other place by David Warburton MP, and for the opportunity to take part in this Second Reading. The Bill will provide the Secretary of State with powers to create new bodies called river authorities. I understand that, as was mentioned earlier, there has so far been only one expression of interest, from Somerset. However, as leader of a local authority and a member of the local drainage board in Lincolnshire, I have unfortunately witnessed at first hand the devastation of flooding for homes and businesses. People, families and businesses have not only to deal with the consequences of the initial impact but also to endure the uncertainties of possible further flooding and constant coastal erosion, resulting in massive economic damage.
As the House has heard we have 112 internal drainage boards, which have been in existence for many years, and I acknowledge the members of those boards who have an incredible insight and knowledge of the areas they represent. We and they see it as imperative that the Bill will make sure that our flood defences are fit to meet future challenges as a result of manmade climate change, not just working with hard structures but working with nature—and yes, we need more trees.
For communities to be able to better protect themselves from flooding we need to give IDBs the flexibility, if required, to either expand or merge, primarily in low-lying eastern parts of the country and in some catchments in the north-west, where there seems to be strong local support. For the creation of new IDBs, or for pre-existing IDBs to be able to extend their boundaries, they need to be able to criss-cross local authority areas. We need to address concerns about the fact that land valuation data from the 1990s has not been retained in a lot of cases. The lack of up-to-date data will hinder the ability to extend IDBs or establish new ones.
In short, the Bill will provide the much-needed power to use modern data to value land and to modernise the rating system. The Bill confirms the function and purpose of the proposed rivers authorities, but with no primary duty for the rivers authorities to maintain and enhance the natural environment alongside the flood risk management role. Also, there appears to be no requirement for rivers authorities to publish or consult on their medium to long-term strategies and business plans, including action on climate change adaptation and mitigation, to enable proper scrutiny of their work programme and general approach. There needs to be a requirement for transparency over governance and over the composition and membership of boards, which should appropriately represent all relevant stakeholders.
The concerns I am raising could have a negative impact on climate change adaptation, mitigation of risk, natural flood risk management and the charges attributed to these. As I alluded to earlier, having witnessed terrible flooding and having had direct experience of the effects and power of flooding on people’s lives, as well as the contamination of land, I believe that we must do everything possible to mitigate the impact of future flooding. We need better water management and good drainage systems. It is important also to mention the impact on wildlife—birds feeding and living on riverbanks, as well as fish and mammals in rivers and streams—including contamination by run-off from agricultural land and pollution. All this impacts on their habitats and the environment as a whole.
Let me say something in support of the farming fraternity. Farmers need to plan their agricultural businesses some years in advance, so steps must be taken to make them aware of any planned activities which may impact on their future planning. I would welcome within the Bill the requirement that my noble friend Lady McIntosh mentioned for a robust consultation period to be held before a new rivers authority is established, with the instigation coming from local authorities and internal drainage boards where there is strong local support for their establishment. Sharing of information would enable the methodology through which IDBs calculate and collect drainage rates and special levies to be on a sound legal basis, which can be periodically updated to reflect contemporary values, better reflecting current land and property valuations.
It is important that the Bill makes the rivers authorities democratically accountable through local authorities. Local democratic agreement from the local authorities involved and from local ratepayers will be essential to their success. Finally, people and businesses are all anxious to see safeguards within the Bill to help create a safer and more secure environment that is fit for the future.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, for his comprehensive introduction to his Private Member’s Bill, which was sponsored by David Warburton, the MP for Somerton and Frome in the other place. I understand that the Bill has government backing. I declare my interest as a vice-president of the LGA, although I am no longer an elected councillor in South Somerset, having retired on
As most people remember, and as the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, said, during the winter of 2013-14 the weather in the country was appalling, with continual rain, day after day. There was flooding in many areas. In Somerset, we are particularly susceptible to flooding due to the famous Somerset levels and moors. While this attracts numerous interesting birds, it is not so good for the people who live there. During that winter, large areas of the countryside were extensively flooded for months. While the waters receded in some areas, this did not happen in Somerset. Some villages and communities were cut off for months, and schoolchildren and workers were ferried backwards and forwards via boats. Despite the best efforts of the fire service and the Environment Agency, the flood-waters remained—there was simply nowhere for them to go.
The plight of Somerset was on the national television news weekly and on the local television stations every night. We had visits from the head of the Environment Agency, government Ministers, shadow Ministers and even Prince Charles. We also had a visit from the Prime Minister, who stated at the time, “We must never let this happen again”. Eventually, with the help of the Army, the flood-waters receded and the drying out process began. There followed a conference, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, which brought together all the various agencies involved, the aim of which was to provide a strategy to prevent this tragedy and misery from happening again. I am grateful to the noble Lord for his history in the progress of water management in that county.
The outcome was the six local authorities working together and creating an informal rivers authority. The Secretary of State was helpful in assisting this process. The county council and the then five district councils—Mendip, Sedgemoor, South Somerset, Taunton Deane and West Somerset—nominated members to sit on this rivers authority. This took place in consultation with the internal drainage boards, which, as we have heard, play a key role in preventing flooding and managing water levels for agricultural and environmental purposes on the levels and moors. Other signatories to the initial agreement were the Parrett and Axe Brue IDBs, the Environment Agency, Natural England and the Wessex Regional Flood and Coastal Committee—a lot of experts all working together towards a common goal. This informal authority was given permission to raise a shadow precept along with the council tax, but it was on a very ad hoc basis and not a permanent feature.
This Bill regularises the position of the Somerset Rivers Authority and sets out very clearly the powers of the Secretary of State in relation to it, alongside the powers of the rivers authority, how it should set about preparing a strategy for its area to prevent and deal with flooding, and how to operate its precepting powers. While no one particularly wants to introduce a new tax-raising body in communities, for those who have suffered the devastation that regular flooding brings, a tax to mitigate this is welcome. Like Flood Re, it would provide comfort and spread the risk and expense among the whole population of the area, as it is targeted at local priorities.
On the setting up of rivers authorities, I note that the initial period ends on
I am also concerned that Clause 21B(1) indicates a somewhat open-ended arrangement for the Secretary of State to set the precept levels rather than the duly elected body. The Parrett barrier is likely to cost well over £30 million, and it may be that a higher precept for perhaps five years is the best way to proceed unless government capital funding is injected. This prospect seems highly unlikely. If the Somerset Rivers Authority budget is fixed at a percentage linked to a maintenance-plus programme, this essential capital item will never happen.
There is also a possibility that the Environment Agency, needing to make “savings” from central funds, could leave critical tasks to the rivers authority, which will be using local taxation. Once the precepting body is on a formal footing, it could be easy for the Environment Agency to reduce its funding, leaving those costs to be met locally, instead of the EA contribution being for enhancements to effective water management. The rivers authority must be clear that funding will go to extra works, thus ensuring public confidence.
I note that rivers authorities will have the power to set up committees in addition to a finance committee under the Local Government Act 1972. I suggest that one of these might be a strategic planning committee. For rivers authorities to be effective, a longer-term strategy will be needed, beyond a year.
Under Clause 21D, which lists the proceedings of rivers authorities, there is no mention of adhering to the code of conduct in public life. The Bill would benefit from that addition.
In Clause 21E(1), on the main functions of rivers authorities, there is mention of the preparation and publishing of a plan for that financial year. Any such strategic plan will need to cover at least a five-year period. As we all know, Rome was not built in a day. Certainly, the informal Somerset Rivers Authority has a longer-term plan. In paragraph 2 of proposed new Schedule A1, there is a welcome condition to consult on the draft scheme, including the activities which will be funded in the first year, and explain how the precept has been calculated—other Members were concerned about how that would happen. I would also expect equal weighting to be given to those responding in the list of consultees listed in paragraph 6 of proposed new Schedule A1.
Clause 21H(1), which deals with changes to a rivers authority’s area, appears to give the Secretary of State powers to create new rivers authorities and to add a local government area to an existing rivers authority. Given that no rivers authority boundaries can overlap, could the Minister say whether it is envisaged that a local authority might be moved from one rivers authority into a new one at the behest of the Secretary of State?
I would be interested to know the view of the Minister on how best to support the drainage boards and their funding, as they are also precepting bodies, similar to parish councils. They are very much the local delivery agents, but must work to a single strategic plan. The EA has responsibility for the main critical watercourses—similar to motorways maintained by Highways England. The IDBs do essential clearing of side channels and upper catchment areas. The SRA controls the added value through a strategic plan that all authorities have bought into and which have a seat on the board. While referring to the IDBs, I note that not all rating lists are available from the 1990s. Can the Minister say why this is?
Finally, paragraph 9 of Schedule 2 mentions the London fire commissioner but does not mention local fire authorities. This seems like an oversight, given that firefighters are the first responders to any flooding incident. Can the Minister comment on that?
This is an essential piece of legislation to legitimise the Somerset Rivers Authority and I am extremely grateful to David Warburton from the other place and the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, for taking the time and trouble to bring forward the Bill. I have no hesitation in supporting this Bill, which is primarily for the benefit of the people of Somerset but could well have wider implications for areas of countryside which often suffer the misery of flooding. I look forward to the Minister’s comments.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, for his introduction to the Bill this afternoon and for volunteering to guide it through the potentially choppy waters of Lords scrutiny after its relatively safe passage through the other place.
I say at the outset that in principle we welcome the Bill, which, as noble Lords have said, could provide local communities with new powers to organise and protect themselves from flooding if used appropriately by councils and other flood risk management bodies. Of course, this will work only if the Government provide sufficient support to help these bodies develop their own business cases and engage with local communities to produce a comprehensive plan. However, as the Bill progresses we shall seek more clarity regarding the provision of delegated powers, combined with the appropriate level of transparency and support. Those are issues that noble Lords have raised this afternoon, so I hope we will find common cause on them as it progresses.
Although it is a Private Member’s Bill, it is quite a complicated Bill so, although formally I shall be addressing my concerns to the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, there are issues that I realise can realistically be answered only by the Minister, so I guess they will have to do a bit of a double act.
The imperative for the Bill becomes more acute as extreme weather events become a common feature of our seasons, as a direct result of man-made climate change. The Committee on Climate Change recently warned that rises in sea level of more than one metre could occur this century, with 200 kilometres of coastal defences in England projected to become vulnerable to failure during storm conditions. That does not include defences on river systems further inland. That is why we have called on the Government to declare a climate change emergency and rise to the challenge of flooding and drought, supported by a robust regulatory system.
The Bill takes the first step to address some of those issues. Turning to its detail, we of course welcome the establishment of river authorities. This will make it easier for locally accountable bodies with powers to issue a precept to billing authorities to collect the money from council tax payers for additional local flood and consulting on risk management work. This would help flood risk management authorities for the first time to put their finances on a stable footing as a precepting body. We also welcome the additional safeguards for local taxpayers, which would allow the river authorities to plan their water and flood management schemes and thereby create a safer and more secure environment for us all.
However, under the Bill, the onus will be on local flood risk management authorities to develop proposed river authorities and, so far, Somerset is the only river authority envisaged under the Bill. The Explanatory Memorandum advises that the Government are,
“not currently considering establishing authorities in other parts of England”.
Can the Minister confirm that that is because, to date, only Somerset has asked the Government for precepting powers? Is he aware of other areas that may apply for similar powers in future?
Does the Minister share my concern that many authorities might not have the capacity, resources or in-house expertise to develop those proposals? Has he discussed what support could be available to them to do that preparatory work? Perhaps he could address whether the Government are committed to helping the flood risk authorities with the cost of developing and consulting on their proposals for statutory river authorities.
In addition, there must be local democratic agreement from the council and local ratepayers to establish a rivers authority with precepting powers. Can the Minister advise the House on whether the current council tax precept regime and the legal referendum limits on increases to the precept will apply to river authorities in the same way?
There is a need for much greater clarity on the function and purpose of the river authorities. This is a view echoed around the Chamber this afternoon. Does the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, accept that as well as the duties to manage flood and coastal erosion risk, the river authorities should also have a duty to protect and enhance the natural environment and biodiversity, as well as to adapt to climate change and build resilience? Does he accept, as has been argued by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, that these duties should be on a par with those already spelled out in the Bill? We need to have those equal duties accepted, with the balance that that implies.
The Bill also gives river authorities a power to,
“acquire and dispose of property (including land)”.
Can the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, clarify the circumstances in which he envisages that a river authority may acquire or dispose of property, including land, and to and from which bodies or persons? Does he agree that, as publicly funded bodies, river authorities should be required to set out longer-term strategies and business plans, including on climate change mitigation—with reports on outcomes and deliveries—in line with the principles of the 25-year environment plan? Does he accept that, without a clearly defined strategy, there could be a negative impact on climate change mitigation? For example, as we know, overdrainage of land has in the past led to drained peatlands and an increase in peatland-based emissions, as well as the loss of important wetland habitats.
I turn to the composition of river authorities; stakeholder engagement will clearly be key to their success. There is also a clear need for transparency and collaboration. For example, will there be a duty to consult all those impacted by the proposed activities, taking into account that, as we have heard, farmers often plan months or years ahead? Will they be given sufficient notice of the proposed plans? Will there will be any requirement in the Bill to have local communities, NGOs and other interest groups represented on the boards? What measures will be put in place to ensure that participants do not have a conflict of interest? The noble Lord may already know that this has been raised as an issue with the current internal drainage boards, as highlighted recently by the NAO report. It is important that there are robust measures in place to prevent that happening.
Turning to the proposals in the Bill to reform the funding of internal drainage boards, we accept that the current arrangements—with an out-of-date methodology—are in need of reform. We understand the need to amend the current legislation so that a newer ratings dataset can be used to create new charging methodologies and combat the problem of incomplete ratings data. These new methodologies could then be used to update existing council tax and business rates data to update both charging methodologies.
However, the NAO report highlighted that there are no statutory governance standards for IDBs and that the Government have no legislative power to ensure that IDBs, as public bodies, meet expectations for good internal governance and sound financial management. These are similar issues to those raised by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh. Does the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, share my concern that there is currently limited oversight of IDBs’ operation? Does he agree that the Bill represents an opportunity to address these failings?
On the wider issue of funding, clearly flooding affects not only the communities in which it occurs but can cause disruption to large parts of the country that may not experience it in their immediate locality. These proposals will be funded either by local authority taxpayers or by landowners, but not necessarily by those who use the land for business purposes. What discussion has the noble Lord had with the Minister about alternative sources of revenue to help drive this activity rather than relying on the local tax base, as proposed in the Bill? For example, has he considered whether the “polluter pays” principle could also be used to fund some of the schemes, targeting industries that exacerbate climate change, leading to extreme weather events?
I realise I have raised a number of issues with the noble Lord today. I do not necessarily expect him to answer them all today, but they are issues that we will return to as we take the Bill forward. In the meantime, I look forward to the response from the noble Lord, Lord Bethell—as well as the Minister’s—and to working with him on the future stages of the Bill.
My Lords, the Government are pleased to support this important Bill. I pay tribute to the honourable Member for Somerton and Frome in the other place for bringing it to Parliament. I also pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Bethell, who is sponsoring this Bill in your Lordships’ House. I and the Government wish my noble friend every success with this Bill, the first he has owned, if may put it that way, in this House. I endorse the points he made. This is an important, albeit small, Bill which will make a real difference.
I have listened with care to many eloquent speeches covering the devastation that flooding and coastal erosion causes. As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, reminded us, although this is a Private Member’s Bill there are questions which fall to me to answer and I will do my best to provide answers and detail later on. I note there have been a large number of questions in relation to the small number of speakers in this debate but that is the way it goes. That is fine.
The devastating effect of flooding and coastal erosion goes beyond the immediate aftermath: the emotional impact can last a lifetime and be harder to handle. For some, this can be particularly hard when heavy rain pours down again and they worry about future flooding. Sadly, I can recall the images of previous flooding and the devastating impact it has on communities. I live near Oxford, for example, and who can forget the image of Tewkesbury and its abbey surrounded by flood water? I am very fond of the south Devon coast near Start Point and the tale springs to mind of the coastal village of Hallsands, which largely disappeared early in the 20th century because of coastal erosion.
Flooding is a national concern that requires continued action. Successive communities, local authorities and Governments have taken action to reduce the risk of harm from these events and continue to do so. I will dwell briefly on what has happened in the past before focusing on the present.
Thanks to the then Labour Government, we had the Pitt review in 2007 and, following this, the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, which set out how bodies with responsibility for flood management would work better together. I note the views of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, on the legislation. The 2010 Act requires a national strategy for managing all sources of flooding and coastal erosion throughout England in a co-ordinated way. The Environment Agency is currently consulting on its new strategy, which I hope will provide some comfort to his comments.
More recently, flood action plans, supported by additional targeted funding from government, have been drawn up and are being delivered in Cumbria, Calderdale and Somerset. We have also published the National Flood Resilience Review and the property level resilience action plan. We continue to work with industry on both of these to further strengthen the resilience, protection and preparedness of our infrastructure and communities. The Government included taking action against natural hazards in their 25-year environment plan. In particular 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.
On current action, the Government continue to invest record amounts in better protecting communities across England. They are investing £2.6 billion in building 1,500 new flood defence schemes to better protect more than 300,000 homes. Of this, £1.2 billion is being invested in coastal defences to better protect 170,000 properties. Since 2015, some 500 new flood defences have already been put in place. The Government are also investing £1 billion in maintaining existing flood management structures and investing in natural measures to slow the flow of water. We heard about that from my noble friend Lady McIntosh.
However, we cannot always prevent these hazards and so we have increased the use of mobile flood defences, invested in advance warning systems and trained staff ready to respond. These include our emergency services, local authorities, the Environment Agency and, if necessary, the Army. Therefore, we will be ready when, rather than if, the next flood comes.
My noble friend’s Bill fits well with the Government’s agenda. This modest Bill could deliver real change for our communities. As every community and threat is complex—and the challenges will increase in the future because of population growth and climate change—the Government and local authorities will continue to take action. But we also need to enable communities with opportunities to help themselves. The Bill provides mechanisms for them to make that choice.
The Environment Agency estimates that there are currently 5.1 million residential properties in England at flood risk and that over the next 50 years 2,000 properties and 1,800 kilometres of open coast could become vulnerable to coastal erosion.
While we continue to tackle these challenges now, we must also prepare for the future. Last week, the Environment Agency opened a consultation on its draft updated floods and coastal erosion risk management strategy and the Government announced that we will be issuing a call for evidence that will inform our policy statement on flooding and coastal erosion management in England, to be published later this year.
As my noble friend Lord Bethell pointed out, following the devastating floods in 2013 and 2014 there was a strong local and national political desire for co-ordination and a joint effort across Somerset to act, which culminated in the Somerset flood action plan and the creation of the Somerset Rivers Authority in 2015. This rivers authority is able to undertake additional flood risk works by raising funds locally, via a precept, and bringing together different bodies with responsibility for or an interest in flooding and coastal erosion. It does not seek to replace existing flood risk management authorities or their funding mechanisms. The Government fully understand how important this is for the people of Somerset and support the work of the Somerset Rivers Authority. Following Royal Assent and the necessary due process, including demonstration of local support, as set out in the Bill, the Somerset Rivers Authority can become a legal entity.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, asked to whom rivers authorities are accountable. Ultimately a rivers authority will be held accountable by the communities that it serves and the councillors who are members of its board. As public bodies, rivers authorities come under the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, as set out in the Local Government Act 1974.
Making the Somerset Rivers Authority a legal entity will provide greater security, transparency and safeguards, enabling it to deliver more. Funding safeguards will also protect local taxpayers and ensure that funding is ring-fenced.
I shall go into a little more detail and focus particularly on the questions that were asked on the detail in the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, asked about the current council tax and precept safeguards. I hope I can reassure them that they will apply to rivers authorities as major precepting authorities. That is covered by the Local Government Finance Act 1992. In particular, precepts are subject to the council tax referendum regime set out in the Act. Alongside this, each rivers authority will also have a precept sub-committee with a majority of representatives from the local authorities.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering asked whether the usual rules will be followed for appointing chairs of rivers authorities. The Government will set out in the national framework for rivers authorities how the body should be composed, including members and the appointment of a chair. There are powers in new Section 21C for the Secretary of State to make provision for the appointment of a member of the authority as its chair, which I think answers the questions that were raised.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and my noble friend Lady McIntosh asked about rivers authorities acquiring land. This is a permissive power. If a need to own a property to support a rivers authority in performing its statutory duties is identified, it will enable it to do so. For example, it may be to store machinery and vehicles or to ensure that ongoing flood risk management activities are delivered for the future. It is important to note that while a rivers authority would be able to acquire property, this power is limited to the scope of its statutory duties and does not include compulsory purchase powers. This means that all parties would have to agree to the transaction.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh asked whether rivers authorities would be obliged to report their achievements. As a legal entity and a public body, there will be certain legislative expectations placed upon a rivers authority in regard to how it administers itself, including by the Local Government Finance Act 1988 and the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014, which will ensure the proper administration of its financial affairs. The Government also have the flexibility to make other requirements of rivers authorities through either the national framework, which the Government will publish for consultation, or the individual regulations creating a rivers authority, which will be subject to the affirmative procedure.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, my noble friend Lady Redfern and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, asked about the need for rivers authorities to publish and consult on long-term plans—in essence, it is a strategy question. Rivers authorities are required by the Bill to publish an annual work plan or statement if there is to be no work in a particular year. This provides transparency for local taxpayers and shows where the precept funding is being spent. The Government expect that any proposal to establish a rivers authority will include a vision for such an authority. We will consider how this expectation can be made clear in the national framework that will apply to all rivers authorities, while of course maintaining the flexibility for rivers authorities to deliver and fund what is wanted locally.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, asked about the rivers authorities’ duties. The Bill would constitute a rivers authority as a risk-management authority. As such, I reassure noble Lords that rivers authorities will be covered by existing legislation, including, as I mentioned earlier, the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 and the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. The latter places a duty on all public authorities to have regard to the conservation of biodiversity in the exercise of their functions. Alongside this Act, additional environmental duties are included in other Acts and secondary legislation that would apply to rivers authorities. When undertaking work on behalf of another risk management authority through a public sector co-operation agreement, a rivers authority would need to have the resources, skills and capacity to meet the conservation duties and environmental standards of the authorising party.
My noble friends Lady Redfern and Lady McIntosh asked about a duty to consult. To give a little more detail, it is not possible, or perhaps prudent, to list all potential consultees within primary legislation. Instead, the legislation specifies key affected groups—that is, statutory bodies—and includes a requirement to consult all relevant parties. This provides the Government with both a duty and a flexibility to consult according to circumstance, especially as any consultation might vary depending on the location. As a further reassurance, there are additional provisions in the Bill about the minimum consultation period and what must be included in the draft scheme that is consulted on.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, asked further questions about the rivers authorities. She asked what support is available and whether we are committed as a Government to providing help. I am pleased to say that any risk management authority, or more than one, can put forward a proposal and seek local support for it. There is no requirement for a local authority to lead this process but we anticipate that it would have a key role. The Government will provide advice and clarity on the national framework but it is for risk management authorities to produce and consult on a proposal. I hope that that is clear.
The noble Baroness also asked whether the Government were considering—or perhaps not considering—more rivers authorities. The Government are aware of the potential financial impact on local taxpayers, and therefore it is not their intention to proactively create rivers authorities anywhere; nor are we aware of any substantial proposals for further rivers authorities at present.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, asked about governance and transparency in relation to a rivers authority. As a legal entity and a public body, certain expectations are placed on a rivers authority in regard to how it administers itself. To support this, the Bill allows for the Secretary of State, via regulations, to set out the composition of each rivers authority.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, asked whether there was sufficient time to deal with flooding and to implement the proposals. I hope I can reassure her that the legislation is set out so that, when a risk management authority submits to the Secretary of State its scheme for the establishment of a rivers authority, it must contain an estimate of the proposed precept for its first full financial year and how that has been calculated, including the activities that it will fund. This must therefore be done in advance of its formal establishment and in time for the financial year. This can inform the costs and plans for the authority during that initial period.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, asked about the Secretary of State’s powers, which I think I covered earlier on. I shall say a bit more about that: at the request of the risk management authority, the Secretary of State can amend its area of operation but must continue to cover the whole area of a local authority or local authorities. I think this was to do with the crossover with other local authorities. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, asked about more rivers authorities, but I believe that I have largely covered that.
My noble friend Lord Bethell mentioned internal drainage boards, a subject that was covered by many Peers. They have been in existence for many years and are now a key part of local flood risk management. The model has worked well but, as my noble friend said, not everywhere has such a board. There is interest in parts of England in creating new internal drainage boards, and some of those that already exist would like to expand. However, the current legislation now constitutes an unintended barrier to the creation of new, or the expansion of existing, internal drainage boards by referencing a specific data source that is no longer available. This prevents the valuation of land to determine the correct apportionment of the charges. A change is therefore required, and I am pleased that that is provided for in my noble friend’s Bill.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh asked about the IDBs and whether there would be a consultation on the methodology and the criteria to be used. The answer is yes. The Government will consult on the new regulations for IDBs before they are introduced to the House under the affirmative procedure. The Bill also sets out how Parliament will have the opportunity to scrutinise the regulations through the affirmative procedure.
My noble friend asked if there would be a role for the Environment Agency and what that role would be. As a risk management authority, the EA will play a key role with rivers authorities. The EA issues a national strategy that all risk management authorities must have regard to, including rivers authorities. The EA is also a board member of the Somerset Rivers Authority, which I think many Peers will be aware of.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Jones and Lady Bakewell, asked about the IDBs’ funding. Local businesses within an IDB district benefit from the work of the IDBs in the same way that households and landowners do. Where these businesses are agricultural landowners, they will contribute via the drainage rates. For other local businesses, it is for the local authority to decide how to apportion the special levy contribution between council tax receipts and the proportion of business rates that they retain or indeed any other income that they have access to. The Government have recently undertaken a consultation, and as part of that we have started a conversation on raising alternative local funding to tackle flood and coastal erosion risk management.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh asked a slightly different question about the role of the Office for Environmental Protection. This body will provide independent scrutiny and advice and hold the Government to account on the development and implementation of environment law and policy. The Government believe that the independent body should have a clear remit, acting as a strong and objective voice for environmental protection.
My noble friend, along with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, talked about the IDBs and the NAO review. I do not want to say too much here but I will say that IDBs are independent public bodies that are locally funded and locally accountable to the communities that they serve. There is more that I could say about that, and it might be that I write to noble Lords to give some further detail.
I realise that time is running slightly short. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, asked why the 1990 ratings list is no longer available. I have an answer but, if she does not mind, I would rather write to her with that detail. I have it here; all I have to do is make sure that she gets it.
I conclude by saying once again that the Government support my noble friend’s Bill and what it is aiming to achieve. It supports the great and important work undertaken by our flood risk management authorities, particularly the vital work that they do at a local level. However, it is important to confirm that these measures are funded at local level so neither will be forced on any community, a point that I made earlier. They will go ahead only if local communities want them.
I hope your Lordships will support this Bill and enable its swift passage through the House to Royal Assent.
My Lords, I want to say a very big thank you to all noble Lords who contributed to this remarkably well-informed and highly technical debate. I greatly appreciate this support and the very kind personal comments people have made.
I am confident that the debate will continue to be as good natured as it has been today as the Bill passes through your Lordships’ House. I noted, as did my noble friend Lord Younger, the incredibly large number of detailed and thoughtful questions that came out of this debate. I thank him for handling them so well on behalf of the Bill’s sponsors. I also thank the Government for their support. Your Lordships’ contributions have emboldened me to push ahead with my Bill and I ask the House to confirm its support.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
House adjourned at 6.36 pm.