Rivers authorities

Part of Rivers Authorities and Land Drainage Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 11th March 2019.

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Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Fisheries, Flooding and Water) 3:45 pm, 11th March 2019

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.