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.