Rivers Authorities and Land Drainage Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:03 pm on 16th May 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 6:03 pm, 16th May 2019

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, for his introduction to the Bill this afternoon and for volunteering to guide it through the potentially choppy waters of Lords scrutiny after its relatively safe passage through the other place.

I say at the outset that in principle we welcome the Bill, which, as noble Lords have said, could provide local communities with new powers to organise and protect themselves from flooding if used appropriately by councils and other flood risk management bodies. Of course, this will work only if the Government provide sufficient support to help these bodies develop their own business cases and engage with local communities to produce a comprehensive plan. However, as the Bill progresses we shall seek more clarity regarding the provision of delegated powers, combined with the appropriate level of transparency and support. Those are issues that noble Lords have raised this afternoon, so I hope we will find common cause on them as it progresses.

Although it is a Private Member’s Bill, it is quite a complicated Bill so, although formally I shall be addressing my concerns to the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, there are issues that I realise can realistically be answered only by the Minister, so I guess they will have to do a bit of a double act.

The imperative for the Bill becomes more acute as extreme weather events become a common feature of our seasons, as a direct result of man-made climate change. The Committee on Climate Change recently warned that rises in sea level of more than one metre could occur this century, with 200 kilometres of coastal defences in England projected to become vulnerable to failure during storm conditions. That does not include defences on river systems further inland. That is why we have called on the Government to declare a climate change emergency and rise to the challenge of flooding and drought, supported by a robust regulatory system.

The Bill takes the first step to address some of those issues. Turning to its detail, we of course welcome the establishment of river authorities. This will make it easier for locally accountable bodies with powers to issue a precept to billing authorities to collect the money from council tax payers for additional local flood and consulting on risk management work. This would help flood risk management authorities for the first time to put their finances on a stable footing as a precepting body. We also welcome the additional safeguards for local taxpayers, which would allow the river authorities to plan their water and flood management schemes and thereby create a safer and more secure environment for us all.

However, under the Bill, the onus will be on local flood risk management authorities to develop proposed river authorities and, so far, Somerset is the only river authority envisaged under the Bill. The Explanatory Memorandum advises that the Government are,

“not currently considering establishing authorities in other parts of England”.

Can the Minister confirm that that is because, to date, only Somerset has asked the Government for precepting powers? Is he aware of other areas that may apply for similar powers in future?

Does the Minister share my concern that many authorities might not have the capacity, resources or in-house expertise to develop those proposals? Has he discussed what support could be available to them to do that preparatory work? Perhaps he could address whether the Government are committed to helping the flood risk authorities with the cost of developing and consulting on their proposals for statutory river authorities.

In addition, there must be local democratic agreement from the council and local ratepayers to establish a rivers authority with precepting powers. Can the Minister advise the House on whether the current council tax precept regime and the legal referendum limits on increases to the precept will apply to river authorities in the same way?

There is a need for much greater clarity on the function and purpose of the river authorities. This is a view echoed around the Chamber this afternoon. Does the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, accept that as well as the duties to manage flood and coastal erosion risk, the river authorities should also have a duty to protect and enhance the natural environment and biodiversity, as well as to adapt to climate change and build resilience? Does he accept, as has been argued by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, that these duties should be on a par with those already spelled out in the Bill? We need to have those equal duties accepted, with the balance that that implies.

The Bill also gives river authorities a power to,

“acquire and dispose of property (including land)”.

Can the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, clarify the circumstances in which he envisages that a river authority may acquire or dispose of property, including land, and to and from which bodies or persons? Does he agree that, as publicly funded bodies, river authorities should be required to set out longer-term strategies and business plans, including on climate change mitigation—with reports on outcomes and deliveries—in line with the principles of the 25-year environment plan? Does he accept that, without a clearly defined strategy, there could be a negative impact on climate change mitigation? For example, as we know, overdrainage of land has in the past led to drained peatlands and an increase in peatland-based emissions, as well as the loss of important wetland habitats.

I turn to the composition of river authorities; stakeholder engagement will clearly be key to their success. There is also a clear need for transparency and collaboration. For example, will there be a duty to consult all those impacted by the proposed activities, taking into account that, as we have heard, farmers often plan months or years ahead? Will they be given sufficient notice of the proposed plans? Will there will be any requirement in the Bill to have local communities, NGOs and other interest groups represented on the boards? What measures will be put in place to ensure that participants do not have a conflict of interest? The noble Lord may already know that this has been raised as an issue with the current internal drainage boards, as highlighted recently by the NAO report. It is important that there are robust measures in place to prevent that happening.

Turning to the proposals in the Bill to reform the funding of internal drainage boards, we accept that the current arrangements—with an out-of-date methodology—are in need of reform. We understand the need to amend the current legislation so that a newer ratings dataset can be used to create new charging methodologies and combat the problem of incomplete ratings data. These new methodologies could then be used to update existing council tax and business rates data to update both charging methodologies.

However, the NAO report highlighted that there are no statutory governance standards for IDBs and that the Government have no legislative power to ensure that IDBs, as public bodies, meet expectations for good internal governance and sound financial management. These are similar issues to those raised by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh. Does the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, share my concern that there is currently limited oversight of IDBs’ operation? Does he agree that the Bill represents an opportunity to address these failings?

On the wider issue of funding, clearly flooding affects not only the communities in which it occurs but can cause disruption to large parts of the country that may not experience it in their immediate locality. These proposals will be funded either by local authority taxpayers or by landowners, but not necessarily by those who use the land for business purposes. What discussion has the noble Lord had with the Minister about alternative sources of revenue to help drive this activity rather than relying on the local tax base, as proposed in the Bill? For example, has he considered whether the “polluter pays” principle could also be used to fund some of the schemes, targeting industries that exacerbate climate change, leading to extreme weather events?

I realise I have raised a number of issues with the noble Lord today. I do not necessarily expect him to answer them all today, but they are issues that we will return to as we take the Bill forward. In the meantime, I look forward to the response from the noble Lord, Lord Bethell—as well as the Minister’s—and to working with him on the future stages of the Bill.