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.