Rivers Authorities and Land Drainage Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:13 pm on 16th May 2019.

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Photo of Viscount Younger of Leckie Viscount Younger of Leckie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 6:13 pm, 16th May 2019

My Lords, the Government are pleased to support this important Bill. I pay tribute to the honourable Member for Somerton and Frome in the other place for bringing it to Parliament. I also pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Bethell, who is sponsoring this Bill in your Lordships’ House. I and the Government wish my noble friend every success with this Bill, the first he has owned, if may put it that way, in this House. I endorse the points he made. This is an important, albeit small, Bill which will make a real difference.

I have listened with care to many eloquent speeches covering the devastation that flooding and coastal erosion causes. As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, reminded us, although this is a Private Member’s Bill there are questions which fall to me to answer and I will do my best to provide answers and detail later on. I note there have been a large number of questions in relation to the small number of speakers in this debate but that is the way it goes. That is fine.

The devastating effect of flooding and coastal erosion goes beyond the immediate aftermath: the emotional impact can last a lifetime and be harder to handle. For some, this can be particularly hard when heavy rain pours down again and they worry about future flooding. Sadly, I can recall the images of previous flooding and the devastating impact it has on communities. I live near Oxford, for example, and who can forget the image of Tewkesbury and its abbey surrounded by flood water? I am very fond of the south Devon coast near Start Point and the tale springs to mind of the coastal village of Hallsands, which largely disappeared early in the 20th century because of coastal erosion.

Flooding is a national concern that requires continued action. Successive communities, local authorities and Governments have taken action to reduce the risk of harm from these events and continue to do so. I will dwell briefly on what has happened in the past before focusing on the present.

Thanks to the then Labour Government, we had the Pitt review in 2007 and, following this, the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, which set out how bodies with responsibility for flood management would work better together. I note the views of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, on the legislation. The 2010 Act requires a national strategy for managing all sources of flooding and coastal erosion throughout England in a co-ordinated way. The Environment Agency is currently consulting on its new strategy, which I hope will provide some comfort to his comments.

More recently, flood action plans, supported by additional targeted funding from government, have been drawn up and are being delivered in Cumbria, Calderdale and Somerset. We have also published the National Flood Resilience Review and the property level resilience action plan. We continue to work with industry on both of these to further strengthen the resilience, protection and preparedness of our infrastructure and communities. The Government included taking action against natural hazards in their 25-year environment plan. In particular we have committed to bringing the public, private and third sectors together to work with communities and individuals to reduce the risk of harm from all environmental hazards.

On current action, the Government continue to invest record amounts in better protecting communities across England. They are investing £2.6 billion in building 1,500 new flood defence schemes to better protect more than 300,000 homes. Of this, £1.2 billion is being invested in coastal defences to better protect 170,000 properties. Since 2015, some 500 new flood defences have already been put in place. The Government are also investing £1 billion in maintaining existing flood management structures and investing in natural measures to slow the flow of water. We heard about that from my noble friend Lady McIntosh.

However, we cannot always prevent these hazards and so we have increased the use of mobile flood defences, invested in advance warning systems and trained staff ready to respond. These include our emergency services, local authorities, the Environment Agency and, if necessary, the Army. Therefore, we will be ready when, rather than if, the next flood comes.

My noble friend’s Bill fits well with the Government’s agenda. This modest Bill could deliver real change for our communities. As every community and threat is complex—and the challenges will increase in the future because of population growth and climate change—the Government and local authorities will continue to take action. But we also need to enable communities with opportunities to help themselves. The Bill provides mechanisms for them to make that choice.

The Environment Agency estimates that there are currently 5.1 million residential properties in England at flood risk and that over the next 50 years 2,000 properties and 1,800 kilometres of open coast could become vulnerable to coastal erosion.

While we continue to tackle these challenges now, we must also prepare for the future. Last week, the Environment Agency opened a consultation on its draft updated floods and coastal erosion risk management strategy and the Government announced that we will be issuing a call for evidence that will inform our policy statement on flooding and coastal erosion management in England, to be published later this year.

As my noble friend Lord Bethell pointed out, following the devastating floods in 2013 and 2014 there was a strong local and national political desire for co-ordination and a joint effort across Somerset to act, which culminated in the Somerset flood action plan and the creation of the Somerset Rivers Authority in 2015. This rivers authority is able to undertake additional flood risk works by raising funds locally, via a precept, and bringing together different bodies with responsibility for or an interest in flooding and coastal erosion. It does not seek to replace existing flood risk management authorities or their funding mechanisms. The Government fully understand how important this is for the people of Somerset and support the work of the Somerset Rivers Authority. Following Royal Assent and the necessary due process, including demonstration of local support, as set out in the Bill, the Somerset Rivers Authority can become a legal entity.

My noble friend Lady McIntosh and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, asked to whom rivers authorities are accountable. Ultimately a rivers authority will be held accountable by the communities that it serves and the councillors who are members of its board. As public bodies, rivers authorities come under the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, as set out in the Local Government Act 1974.

Making the Somerset Rivers Authority a legal entity will provide greater security, transparency and safeguards, enabling it to deliver more. Funding safeguards will also protect local taxpayers and ensure that funding is ring-fenced.

I shall go into a little more detail and focus particularly on the questions that were asked on the detail in the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, asked about the current council tax and precept safeguards. I hope I can reassure them that they will apply to rivers authorities as major precepting authorities. That is covered by the Local Government Finance Act 1992. In particular, precepts are subject to the council tax referendum regime set out in the Act. Alongside this, each rivers authority will also have a precept sub-committee with a majority of representatives from the local authorities.

My noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering asked whether the usual rules will be followed for appointing chairs of rivers authorities. The Government will set out in the national framework for rivers authorities how the body should be composed, including members and the appointment of a chair. There are powers in new Section 21C for the Secretary of State to make provision for the appointment of a member of the authority as its chair, which I think answers the questions that were raised.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and my noble friend Lady McIntosh asked about rivers authorities acquiring land. This is a permissive power. If a need to own a property to support a rivers authority in performing its statutory duties is identified, it will enable it to do so. For example, it may be to store machinery and vehicles or to ensure that ongoing flood risk management activities are delivered for the future. It is important to note that while a rivers authority would be able to acquire property, this power is limited to the scope of its statutory duties and does not include compulsory purchase powers. This means that all parties would have to agree to the transaction.

My noble friend Lady McIntosh asked whether rivers authorities would be obliged to report their achievements. As a legal entity and a public body, there will be certain legislative expectations placed upon a rivers authority in regard to how it administers itself, including by the Local Government Finance Act 1988 and the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014, which will ensure the proper administration of its financial affairs. The Government also have the flexibility to make other requirements of rivers authorities through either the national framework, which the Government will publish for consultation, or the individual regulations creating a rivers authority, which will be subject to the affirmative procedure.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, my noble friend Lady Redfern and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, asked about the need for rivers authorities to publish and consult on long-term plans—in essence, it is a strategy question. Rivers authorities are required by the Bill to publish an annual work plan or statement if there is to be no work in a particular year. This provides transparency for local taxpayers and shows where the precept funding is being spent. The Government expect that any proposal to establish a rivers authority will include a vision for such an authority. We will consider how this expectation can be made clear in the national framework that will apply to all rivers authorities, while of course maintaining the flexibility for rivers authorities to deliver and fund what is wanted locally.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, asked about the rivers authorities’ duties. The Bill would constitute a rivers authority as a risk-management authority. As such, I reassure noble Lords that rivers authorities will be covered by existing legislation, including, as I mentioned earlier, the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 and the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. The latter places a duty on all public authorities to have regard to the conservation of biodiversity in the exercise of their functions. Alongside this Act, additional environmental duties are included in other Acts and secondary legislation that would apply to rivers authorities. When undertaking work on behalf of another risk management authority through a public sector co-operation agreement, a rivers authority would need to have the resources, skills and capacity to meet the conservation duties and environmental standards of the authorising party.

My noble friends Lady Redfern and Lady McIntosh asked about a duty to consult. To give a little more detail, it is not possible, or perhaps prudent, to list all potential consultees within primary legislation. Instead, the legislation specifies key affected groups—that is, statutory bodies—and includes a requirement to consult all relevant parties. This provides the Government with both a duty and a flexibility to consult according to circumstance, especially as any consultation might vary depending on the location. As a further reassurance, there are additional provisions in the Bill about the minimum consultation period and what must be included in the draft scheme that is consulted on.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, asked further questions about the rivers authorities. She asked what support is available and whether we are committed as a Government to providing help. I am pleased to say that any risk management authority, or more than one, can put forward a proposal and seek local support for it. There is no requirement for a local authority to lead this process but we anticipate that it would have a key role. The Government will provide advice and clarity on the national framework but it is for risk management authorities to produce and consult on a proposal. I hope that that is clear.

The noble Baroness also asked whether the Government were considering—or perhaps not considering—more rivers authorities. The Government are aware of the potential financial impact on local taxpayers, and therefore it is not their intention to proactively create rivers authorities anywhere; nor are we aware of any substantial proposals for further rivers authorities at present.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, asked about governance and transparency in relation to a rivers authority. As a legal entity and a public body, certain expectations are placed on a rivers authority in regard to how it administers itself. To support this, the Bill allows for the Secretary of State, via regulations, to set out the composition of each rivers authority.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, asked whether there was sufficient time to deal with flooding and to implement the proposals. I hope I can reassure her that the legislation is set out so that, when a risk management authority submits to the Secretary of State its scheme for the establishment of a rivers authority, it must contain an estimate of the proposed precept for its first full financial year and how that has been calculated, including the activities that it will fund. This must therefore be done in advance of its formal establishment and in time for the financial year. This can inform the costs and plans for the authority during that initial period.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, asked about the Secretary of State’s powers, which I think I covered earlier on. I shall say a bit more about that: at the request of the risk management authority, the Secretary of State can amend its area of operation but must continue to cover the whole area of a local authority or local authorities. I think this was to do with the crossover with other local authorities. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, asked about more rivers authorities, but I believe that I have largely covered that.

My noble friend Lord Bethell mentioned internal drainage boards, a subject that was covered by many Peers. They have been in existence for many years and are now a key part of local flood risk management. The model has worked well but, as my noble friend said, not everywhere has such a board. There is interest in parts of England in creating new internal drainage boards, and some of those that already exist would like to expand. However, the current legislation now constitutes an unintended barrier to the creation of new, or the expansion of existing, internal drainage boards by referencing a specific data source that is no longer available. This prevents the valuation of land to determine the correct apportionment of the charges. A change is therefore required, and I am pleased that that is provided for in my noble friend’s Bill.

My noble friend Lady McIntosh asked about the IDBs and whether there would be a consultation on the methodology and the criteria to be used. The answer is yes. The Government will consult on the new regulations for IDBs before they are introduced to the House under the affirmative procedure. The Bill also sets out how Parliament will have the opportunity to scrutinise the regulations through the affirmative procedure.

My noble friend asked if there would be a role for the Environment Agency and what that role would be. As a risk management authority, the EA will play a key role with rivers authorities. The EA issues a national strategy that all risk management authorities must have regard to, including rivers authorities. The EA is also a board member of the Somerset Rivers Authority, which I think many Peers will be aware of.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Jones and Lady Bakewell, asked about the IDBs’ funding. Local businesses within an IDB district benefit from the work of the IDBs in the same way that households and landowners do. Where these businesses are agricultural landowners, they will contribute via the drainage rates. For other local businesses, it is for the local authority to decide how to apportion the special levy contribution between council tax receipts and the proportion of business rates that they retain or indeed any other income that they have access to. The Government have recently undertaken a consultation, and as part of that we have started a conversation on raising alternative local funding to tackle flood and coastal erosion risk management.

My noble friend Lady McIntosh asked a slightly different question about the role of the Office for Environmental Protection. This body will provide independent scrutiny and advice and hold the Government to account on the development and implementation of environment law and policy. The Government believe that the independent body should have a clear remit, acting as a strong and objective voice for environmental protection.

My noble friend, along with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, talked about the IDBs and the NAO review. I do not want to say too much here but I will say that IDBs are independent public bodies that are locally funded and locally accountable to the communities that they serve. There is more that I could say about that, and it might be that I write to noble Lords to give some further detail.

I realise that time is running slightly short. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, asked why the 1990 ratings list is no longer available. I have an answer but, if she does not mind, I would rather write to her with that detail. I have it here; all I have to do is make sure that she gets it.

I conclude by saying once again that the Government support my noble friend’s Bill and what it is aiming to achieve. It supports the great and important work undertaken by our flood risk management authorities, particularly the vital work that they do at a local level. However, it is important to confirm that these measures are funded at local level so neither will be forced on any community, a point that I made earlier. They will go ahead only if local communities want them.

I hope your Lordships will support this Bill and enable its swift passage through the House to Royal Assent.