With this it will be convenient to consider the following:
That schedule 1 be the First schedule to the Bill.
That schedule 2 be the Second schedule to the Bill.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I thank all hon. Members for joining the Committee to discuss this important issue on this rather busy week. I introduced the Bill to the House a little over a year ago. I am grateful that it has progressed this far, and I very much hope that it makes it to the statute book. Hon. Members will recall that there is support for my Bill from across the House, and I hope that good spirit continues.
Clause 1 and schedules 1 and 2 provide the Secretary of State with powers, via regulations, to establish new bodies known as rivers authorities. On Second Reading, I and other hon. Members recalled the impact that flooding can have. It is truly devastating for all involved and, unfortunately, it can happen again and again. In fact, chroniclers described how, 400 years ago, Somerset was covered with
“huge and mighty hills of water” that moved “faster than a greyhound”. Unsurprisingly, that was not the last time that happened, as we saw in the winters of 2013 and 2014. Statistics show that the devastation on that occasion was staggering. As the water receded, the people of Somerset argued for something to be done to avoid a repeat of their suffering.
That is where the idea of rivers authorities was formed. Since 2015, Somerset has paid for and benefited from its own rivers authority. My Bill takes the steps necessary to formalise that arrangement and secure the Somerset Rivers Authority’s future. It also opens up the opportunity for other areas to introduce rivers authorities, as long as there is due process and local support.
Rivers authorities will be flood risk management authorities. That is achieved by subsection (2) of clause 1, which amends the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 to include rivers authorities in the definition of risk management authorities. That helps to ensure that rivers authorities co-operate with other risk management authorities, and enables them to share information for that purpose. It also ensures that they contribute to the achievement of sustainable development. That is a key part of the Bill. Rivers authorities will work with other risk management authorities and other local parties to provide local flood risk management work, in addition to anything the Government, the Environment Agency or other risk management authorities do. Consequently, they will provide a higher level of flood risk management in their area of operation.
To fund that important work, rivers authorities will also become major precepting authorities, via the amendment to the categorisation of major precepting authorities in section 39(1) of the Local Government Finance Act 1992 effected by schedule 2 to the Bill. That allows a rivers authority to issue a precept, which will be collected from local taxpayers by the relevant billing authority. That funding will be ring-fenced to ensure it is spent on flood risk management. The precept will be charged by the rivers authority across the whole of its area, in the same way that other precepting authorities charge. That is all under the premise of delivering additional flood risk management interventions, thereby helping to reduce the risk of flooding.
Clause 1 also amends the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 to insert new sections 21A to 21J. Hon. Members will have to forgive me for delving a little deeper into some of them. New section 21A provides the power to create a rivers authority and sets out the conditions that must be met. The first is that a rivers authority must consist of the whole of one or more local authority areas. The second ensures fairness for households in the area by requiring that it does not overlap with another rivers authority.
New section 21B provides the Secretary of State with the power to make regulations about an initial shadow period for a rivers authority before it is established on
New section 21C makes clear what can be provided for in regulations about the composition of a rivers authority, including matters relating to governance and remuneration. That includes the proper administration of its financial affairs—a key requirement, as rivers authorities manage public funds. Subsection (7) ensures that a rivers authority has a committee with sole responsibility for making the calculations in relation to the annual precept. The Government will ensure that such a committee will have a majority of members from local authorities’ elected members. That will ensure that those who are democratically elected are held accountable for the level of precept that a rivers authority raises.
New section 21D applies certain provisions of the Local Government Act 1972 on committees and local government procedure in relation to a rivers authority. Subsection (5) gives the Secretary of State the power to make further provision about the proceedings of a rivers authority or any of its committees or sub-committees.
New section 21E sets out the main functions of a rivers authority, one of which is that it will prepare a plan of flood risk management work for the coming financial year by all the risk management authorities. The rivers authority will use this to identify opportunities for co-ordination, gaps and omissions. If there are gaps in the local plan, the rivers authority must publish a plan of proposed additional flood risk management work. It must supplement the work that existing risk management authorities have already planned to carry out.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. The co-ordination role of a future rivers authority is key for me across the border in North Devon, where there are a number of organisations that do very good work, including internal drainage boards, a group call the Marsh Inspectors, which was set up by legislation in the Victorian era, the Environment Agency and the various local authorities. It is sometimes difficult to co-ordinate all that and ensure we have an overall plan. Does my hon. Friend agree that what is welcome about this idea is that it will provide that co-ordination?
I absolutely agree. The point of the rivers authority is the central co-ordination of risk management authorities, which will ensure that people are not operating in separate areas and attacking things in a disco-ordinated way. It is about co-ordination and bringing things together to plan strategically.
I applaud my hon. Friend for introducing this Bill. I am a fellow Somerset MP, and this is much needed after the devastating flooding that we all experienced and never want to see again. I praise him and the Environment Minister for their involvement with this. The key is that we now do not have to have a shadow precept. The Bill ensures money and financing so we can tackle flood risk reduction work properly and get an environmental gain from it. That will now be on a much firmer footing, and we can guarantee that it will not stop.
My hon. Friend is precisely right. It is about planning for the future, and sustainability in the Somerset Rivers Authority. At the moment, it lives from hand to mouth and the local authority pays it voluntarily. Although £2.5 million of taxpayers’ money goes into it, it has no certainty about whether that will continue in five years, three years and so on. The Bill provides that certainty and the safety that the residents of Somerset deserve.
As I said, if there are gaps in the local plan, the rivers authority must publish a plan of proposed additional flood risk management work, which must supplement the work that existing risk management authorities have already planned to carry out. That will help ensure that work is not left for a rivers authority to pick up on another body’s behalf. The rivers authority can then either fund a relevant risk management authority to do the additional work, or contract someone else to carry out the work on its behalf.
I think that we can all support the idea of having one agency that will do all this work. However, is there not a danger that in the areas where the work is needed the most, there will be far higher expense than there will be in other parts of the country, and that this will not in any way enable central Government to step in when there is an emergency or when a serious amount of capital work needs to be done?
The Government have increased investment in flood risk mitigation enormously. Between 2016 and 2021, the Government are investing £2.6 billion in building 1,500 new flood defence schemes to protect more than 300,000 homes. This measure in no way constitutes the Government reneging on their responsibilities. It is about local people supporting local flood risk management in the way they already do, but putting that on a statutory footing so that they have security into the future.
Proposed new section 21F provides that a rivers authority has the power to do “anything that is calculated to facilitate, or is conducive or incidental to, the carrying out of its functions.”
That includes the power to enter into contracts and other agreements and to acquire and dispose of property, including land.
Proposed new section 21G establishes that the Secretary of State
“must prepare and publish a national framework for rivers authorities”,
which these authorities must comply with. The national framework
“must set out priorities and objectives for rivers authorities in connection with the exercise of their functions” and may contain guidance on transparency, accountability and scrutiny arrangements.
Proposed new section 21H allows the Secretary of State to change the boundaries of a rivers authority area by regulations if a risk management authority within the area puts forward a proposal for that or if the Secretary of State thinks it necessary in consequence of local government reorganisation. The new rivers authority area must, of course, comply with the conditions set out in proposed new section 21A.
Proposed new section 21I enables the Secretary of State, by regulations, to wind up a rivers authority. Before making the regulations, the Secretary of State must consult certain parties, as set out in proposed new section 21J. That section makes further provision about regulations relating to rivers authorities. The main points are that all regulations will be made under the affirmative procedure and, before making certain regulations, the Secretary of State must consult certain parties, including the rivers authority itself, the relevant risk management authorities, Natural England, persons liable to pay council tax within the area of the rivers authority and such other persons as are considered appropriate.
Clause 1 also gives effect to the two schedules to the Bill. Schedule 1 makes consequential amendments to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. It also sets out the procedure for establishing a rivers authority. That includes the fact that a relevant risk management authority must submit to the Secretary of State a scheme proposing the establishment of a rivers authority. Prior to that, any draft scheme must be consulted on. The consultees include persons liable to pay the precept, and the consultation period must not be less than six weeks. The Secretary of State has the power, before making regulations, to cause an inquiry to be held and can consult on the regulations if they differ significantly from the original scheme. That builds on the requirement that the local community support the proposal.
Schedule 2 makes consequential amendments to local government legislation. In particular, it adds rivers authorities to the category of major precepting authorities, enabling one to issue a precept across its whole area. Rivers authorities will also be subject to the council tax referendum regime set out in the Local Government Finance Act 1992.
This versatility demonstrates one of the strengths of such a model: a rivers authority can identify and support small-scale projects that contribute localised benefits and support large-scale projects that could protect thousands of homes and businesses.
I thank the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome for introducing the Bill. He spoke with detail and authority about its contents. I am pleased that we nearly have a south-west majority in Committee—it is about time that the south-west got its fair share, and if we have to get it by taking control of Bill Committees, I support that. We also have several hon. Members from SERA—Labour’s Environment Campaign, which is good.
The Opposition welcome and support this good Bill, because changes to flood protections for communities are long overdue, but I hope that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome will not mind my asking a few questions to understand how the powers will be implemented. Some of my questions will be for him, but I suspect that the Minister and her officials will have some insight on the more technical ones.
The Bill is timely, because there have been flooding incidents not only in the south-west. In the Lake district and across the country, flooding has had huge and disproportionate effects on small communities that often do not have the resources to provide the protection they need on their own. It is important that we set out a regulatory framework that will help them to pool the risk and the effort.
The Bill is also long overdue. Many of its measures should have been introduced by the Government long before they were proposed in a private Member’s Bill and we would have liked Government time to have been used for debating its provisions. None the less, we welcome the effort that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has put into introducing the legislation. We need to invest time and energy in considering the proposals to make sure that they work for all our communities. We know that not every community will be affected by flooding and that not every community affected by flooding will be affected by the same type of flooding—coastal flooding and river flooding are very different.
Does my hon. Friend agree that although it is true that coastal flooding and river flooding are different and occur at different times for different reasons, the effects of climate change will tend to exacerbate both through increased and unpredictable rainfall and through rising sea levels?
My hon. Friend is right and pre-empts one of my questions for the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome about how the provisions will work in coastal communities. From my reading of the provisions, it seems that many of them work for inland communities and river flooding in particular. I would be grateful if he set out how he envisages the provisions working in an environment where there is the risk of both river and coastal flooding, especially with regard to the cost implications that he just spoke about. Clearly, the responsibility for coastal flooding is much more expensive and, with the risk of climate change, can have much bigger impacts.
As I said, the Opposition welcome the Bill. Although we have no problem with the clauses, I have a few questions that I hope will provide some clarity about how the provisions will be implemented. As is outlined in clause 1, a rivers authority established under the Bill will be a locally accountable body with the powers to issue precepts to billing authorities that will collect money from council tax payers for additional local flood management work.
I understand from the Association of Drainage Authorities that the Department is not expecting a flurry of requests for the establishment of rivers authorities. The Bill does not impose rivers authorities on local councils, so it is for those that want them to be proactive. How will that work for councils that have suffered huge cuts and might not have the in-house resource to do that? How does the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome envisage rivers authorities being rolled out? Will there be additional support for the pilot rivers authorities to effectively overcome the early administrative obstacles that will inevitably come with the formation of a new rivers authority, so that pioneer projects can share best practice with the ones that follow?
How will local communities challenge and hold accountable local river and drainage authorities for their actions? It is good to hear that the majority of members of those committees will be from local councils, and so will be elected; that flow through of democratic accountability is important. On Second Reading in the main Chamber, I asked whether the Department would publish guidance on the composition of those boards, particularly on their gender balance. Having observed several such committees, they can be quite bloke-heavy—and, indeed, retired bloke-heavy—which, as a general rule, we should try to avoid when creating new public bodies. I will be grateful if the Minister or the Member in charge sets out whether there will be any guidance to that effect.
Will there be guidance on whether the heads of those authorities should serve for a fixed period, or will that period run and run? In some communities, the people who will be in charge of such bodies have also been in charge of everything else that came before. I just want to understand whether there will be accountability and a rotation of those roles. I assume that there will be the usual registers of interest to avoid any conflicts of interest, especially because these authorities will be dealing with small communities, where expertise is essential. There is a risk of a conflict of interest, so will the Minister set out how we will engineer out any of those risks at an early stage?
It seems that many of the provisions regarding rivers authorities’ proceedings in proposed new section 21D apply to local government, such as access to agendas, inspection of papers and inspection of minutes. Will there be guidance that such meetings should be open to the public to ensure full accountability, and that any private proceedings should be limited and face proper scrutiny? What input will members of the public have into the exercise of the duties of a rivers authority, especially in how the provisions in new section 21D will be implemented?
We know that there is an awful lot of experience in how to deal with flooding in our local communities, especially among farmers who have farmed land affected by flooding for many generations. A yearly flood risk management plan seems like a good option. I will be interested to see how the new bodies interact with water companies, particularly with the upstream thinking pioneered by many water companies that cover water catchment areas. A few of us in the Committee are covered by South West Water, which has pioneered upstream thinking for some time. We need to make sure that we are not setting up two bodies with slightly different agendas. That interaction needs to be there.
I am a representative of Leeds, which has had significant flooding. Some of the solutions that local communities want involve upland management, which provides better long-term solutions in terms of the risks of climate change than large, built flood management schemes. However, those upland areas are in a different local authority. Rivers authorities only operate in one local authority, so I am interested in my hon. Friend’s and the Minister’s opinion on how it will work across authorities.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. It is worth saying that, even though the Committee has a south-west majority, those people with a south-west link, even if they represent a different part of the country, are very welcome as well.
That question relates to the patchwork quilt of responsibilities that is the underlying context for rivers authorities. How will these new authorities work with different local authorities? My hon. Friend is entirely right that we are moving to an era where we want fewer carbon-intensive end-of-pipe solutions, which are both expensive for those who pay for them and have a large carbon impact in their construction. Lower-carbon interventions, such as the re-wetting of peat bogs or the planting of more trees, are frequently required in an area other than where flooding takes place. I would be grateful if the Minister addressed that.
Proposed new section 21F provides powers to acquire and dispose of property. I am working on the assumption that those powers will be deployed in the same way as local councils deploy them at the moment, with authority and judgment. I would be grateful if the Minister set that out for the record. I am interested to know whether the Minister is confident that the Secretary of State’s framework under proposed new section 21G will not inhibit the autonomy of rivers authorities in relation to how those powers are implemented.
On proposed new sections 21H and 21A, we hope that rivers authorities will be a success and that there will be no need to abolish them, but it is useful to look ahead at all scenarios when creating them in the first place, so what criteria will there be for abolishing a rivers authority? Will there be any scrutiny or appeals in relation to that? A concern from time spent observing the coalition Government is that many bodies were swept away and some of the people who relied on those bodies did not have a say in the process, so I would like to understand how that might work.
It is important, when we talk about flooding, to recognise that with the advent of additional flood planning when new developments come through, those new developments are well protected, but bringing forward flood defences for new developments sometimes means that communities that were not previously affected by flooding now will be. It would be useful to get a sense of how rivers authorities, which will look at flooding in the wider sense, will have an eye on not only the area that they cover, but the impact of their work on other areas.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey, and I thank all hon. Members present for taking an interest. The Government support the Bill and all the clauses and amendments that will be discussed today.
It is fair to say that the creation of the rivers authority came about because of the situation in Somerset. To answer the question about pilot authorities, Somerset has effectively had a shadow rivers authority running, so I would expect any learnings to be taken from what has happened there to other councils. If communities wish to come forward and take advantage of these powers, we will consider them, but as it stands the only expression of interest so far is from Somerset, which is the reason the Bill has arisen.
It is worth pointing out to the Committee that one of the reasons for creating this wider opportunity for other people to come forward was to avoid the political difficulty of what is called a hybrid Bill to create a specific authority, which can take anywhere between five and 10 years to get through, if it ever does. The Bill provides that opportunity, but it is not the Government’s intention to go around proactively creating rivers authorities. However, the door will be open if there is local support to do that.
Quite a lot of the powers will be set out in regulations. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome talked about the majority of members being from the local authorities comprising the rivers authority. It could be the case that every single member is from those local authorities, but it might make sense to put the Environment Agency on as a member. That will vary from area to area. As things stand, that level of detail has yet to be discussed with the councils from Somerset, but it is something that the Government are open to and it is important that we have that consultation discussion up front.
On the coastal situation, obviously Somerset has a coast. The Bill is intended to address the issue that was identified of a special coming together of a series of rivers, particularly in the levels, which can create a particular situation. All of those rivers are in Somerset and do not go across authorities. However, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon, a rivers authority would be required to complement and work with neighbouring areas, as he would expect.
It is important to point out to the hon. Member for Leeds North West that these areas can cover more than one local authority area, so a rivers authority could go across borders if it was deemed appropriate by the councils that wanted to take it forward. The Bill is not prescriptive about there being only one local authority; as I say, there will be ongoing collaboration. I stress that this is not about trying to replace things, but about complementing what already exists by pulling together this new authority concept, which can have a separate precept on a council tax bill. In order to have that privilege, of course the rivers authority will be subject to the elements of local government legislation that were set out.
I do not think that public access to meetings is written into the Bill, but if it were necessary and it needed to be in legislation, I am sure it could be put into the statutory instrument that will be required to create the Somerset Rivers Authority. In effect, the authority would be subject to investigation by the local government ombudsman for England, so protections are in place to ensure there is accountability.
There are already powers that go back 70 years for coastal authorities to raise local levies to protect coastal defences, if that is required. I am not aware that they have ever been used in that regard, but there is no reason for there to be a conflict between fluvial flooding and coastal flooding. I represent a coastal constituency and the main difference between those types of flooding is that the impacts of fluvial flooding, while damaging, tend to be temporary, whereas coastal flooding impacts can be more serious, although the level of seriousness can vary.
In terms of the precept of a billing authority, we are not expecting a flurry of requests. I think I have covered the points about proposed new sections 21A and 21H made by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport. Turning to planning, planning authorities are already required to anticipate and stop any planning applications that would impact on the flood risk to other properties. I am not sure that rivers authorities will have a direct role in that element. We already have the Environment Agency, which can act as a statutory consultee and provide advice. I do not think that will be necessary on this occasion, because the majority of—if not all—the people on the rivers authorities will come from local authorities. I would anticipate that that concern would not be a barrier to the creation of any rivers authorities.
On the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon, there is no anticipation that any of the Devon authorities will be directly involved, but I have no doubt that, under the principles of transparency, any collaboration that is needed will be welcomed by the rivers authority. With that, I support the clause.