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.