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.