Rivers Authorities and Land Drainage Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:32 pm on 16th May 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative 5:32 pm, 16th May 2019

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.