Rivers Authorities and Land Drainage Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:22 pm on 16th May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell Conservative 5:22 pm, 16th May 2019

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.