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Clause 33—(Review Of Boundaries Of Internal Drainage District)

Volume 640: debated on Tuesday 9 May 1961

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I beg to move, in page 21, line 6, at the end to insert:

(4) Where the river board do not propose, as a result of the review, to submit to the Minister a scheme under the said section four but it appears to them that an order under subsection (6) of section twenty-four of the Act of 1930 (which provides for differential rating), or an order varying or revoking such an order, should be made by the drainage board of the internal drainage district, they may direct the drainage board to make such an order in such terms as may be specified in the direction; but if the drainage board object to the direction it shall have no effect unless it is confirmed (with or without modifications) by the Minister.
This Amendment arises out of suggestions made in Committee. The purpose of the Clause is to enable inland drainage ratepayers to petition for a review of boundaries of an internal drainage district. As the Clause stands, without the Amendment, a river board receiving a petition will review the boundaries and will then decide whether or not to submit a scheme for alteration of boundaries. It is "Yes" or "No".

The Amendment arises out of a very helpful suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Bullard). It will allow a river board to go some way towards meeting the wishes of the petitioners even though the board does not consider that an alteration of boundaries would be justified. It is proposed to allow a river board, if it feels that it would not be justified in taking action in a petition to go so far as to have a boundary review, to direct the internal drainage board to make a differential rate order. In other words, the board will be able to do what it otherwise could have done only in response to a petition under Clause 23 for differential rating.

This new provision will apply only where a boundary petition is unsuccessful. Where a petition is entirely successful, it does not begin to bite. On the other hand, if a petition is unsuccessful, this new power can be used by the board. It will not affect the arrangements in the Clause for altering the boundaries of internal drainage districts where it is felt that that is appropriate. I hope that my hon. Friend will feel that this meets the point he raised in Committee.

I thank my right hon. Friend for having met the point I raised in Committee, which was originally put to me by the Association of Drainage Authorities.

I am not quite as happy about the Amendment as my hon. Friend the Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Bullard) is. I want the Minister to go into rather more detail. This, I think, is probably the most contentious part of this Part of the Bill. If a river board interprets the petition strictly, it will, apparently, have to make a scheme in every case where the petitioners come within the terms of What is called the Medway letter, that is to say, where the land is built-up area and is above flood level or where it is agricultural land and is 5 feet above flood level.

Since 1930, a great deal of land which was agricultural land has become built-up land. Good as the Minister's intentions in the Amendment are, as I understood his explanation it would seem that the river board must make a scheme in every case where the petitioner explains that he is within the terms of what we call the Medway letter.

11.45 p.m.

I apologise for using that phrase, but it is an odd case in English law that a letter written by a Mr. Dobson to a Mr. Baker has become drainage law. In earlier cases, the attempt has been made to get the Minister to make the epistle of the Medway letter law. All that my right hon. Friend has done so far is to give this concession to my hon. Friend the Member for King's Lynn. It is a matter of grave importance to my constituents and to many others.

Take the case of three drainage boards in Yorkshire, one of which is the Market. Weighton Drainage Board. If a petition is made under the Bill as drafted, the river board would have to except from the drainage area one-third of the rateable value. In the case of the Foss Drainage Board in my constituency, I find that a rateable value of £41,000 would be reduced to £28,000 if a petition were made under the terms of the Bill. I am all in favour of so many of my constituents being released from drainage rates, but the effect will be to throw an unequal burden upon the remainder of my constituents who are ratepayers.

My final example shows the ridiculous position caused by the Clause. The Marston Moor Drainage Board—not in my constituency, but in the West Riding of Yorkshire—today has a rateable value of £61,000. By the Clause, that will be reduced to £26,000. The result will be that either one, two or three of these boards will disappear as a result of the Clause unless it is amended with better provision than the Amendment.

My suggestion to my right hon. Friend the Minister is that more detailed examination is required. All of us, on both sides of the House, are anxious for these drainage boards to operate. Since the passing of the 1930 Act, they have done a great deal of valuable work. It would be a tragedy that a mere effect of putting houses on agricultural land meant that these drainage boards could no longer operate.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is right in tackling the matter as he is trying to do in the Amendment by using the method of differential rating. He must, however, grasp this nettle and say that the river board need not apply the Medway letter rule as it has been applied ever since that letter was introduced. He should declare that river boards can use their judgment in cases where it is important in the interests of drainage that an internal drainage board should carry on, and, instead of making a scheme, apply a differential rating order. In other words, unless in these cases the river board has a wider discretion, internal drainage boards in certain parts of the country will cease to operate.

I assure my right hon. Friend that the Association of Drainage Authorities—at least, in my part of the world, the North-Eastern area—it deeply concerned about the present position. The Association appreciates the Minister's good will in producing the Amendment but asks him to take the matter further into consideration and, before the Bill receives the Royal Assent, look into the position again, because these people who have spent the whole of their lives in administering drainage boards are satisfied that the Amendment does not fully meet the case.

I rise only because I happened to be indisposed when this point was raised in Committee and I should have liked to have said a few words about it then. I have considerable sympathy with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) has just said but I cannot go the whole way with him if I have understood him aright. I think that he was asking that it should be left to the discretion ultimately of the river board whether or not the Medway letter should be applied, and that it should be left largely to the local board as to what degree of variation from the Medway letter there should be.

I was suggesting that when there is this alternative of a differential rate, the river board should be allowed either to apply differential rating provisions, instead of applying the Medway letter strictly, or, if it liked, it should apply the letter strictly.

That the degree of differentiation should be for the board to decide.

I thought that was what my right hon. Friend meant. I am not certain that I would be happy about that. It would have been desirable if we could possibly have done it to have written into the Bill something which was virtually set out in the Medway letter, with possible modifications to bring it more up to date. That would have had my considerable sympathy and I am sorry that it has not been possible. Although it has worked extremely well in most cases, I do not like so much imposition on the public being based on a letter that passed between a civil servant and a river board official.

It would have been desirable to put that right, but I cannot go with my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton in leaving the measure of differentiation entirely to the river board, having taken away the whole Medway principle. It is the most distressing thing to me abouts Parts I and II of the Bill that we have not been able to ensure as near as possible a guarantee of equity for the individual ratepayer. This is what distresses me most about Part II which otherwise I should welcome.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will bear in mind what my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton has said. If before the Bill goes to another place my right hon. Friend can see a way of contriving an Amendment which would embody into legislation the Medway principle, without being tied exactly to the level of the Medway letter, it would be doing a good service and would be an improvement of the present law. This is my belief. I see the difficulties, but we are getting into an extremely complicated sphere with cross-references to Section 24 (6) of the Act dealing with differential rating and again, in the Amendment to Clause 33, with a reference to Section 24 of the Land Drainage Act, 1930. It is very difficult for the ordinary person who has to pay rates or has to seek a variation to understand exactly what all this is about. It would simplify matters considerably if we had the Medway letter or its equivalent written into the law. I regret that it has not been possible to do that. It would have been a major improvement. I hope that the time has not passed when the Minister could do it, possibly in another place.

I shall be very brief, but I might describe myself, if I were not the Member for Maidstone, as the Member for the Medway. The letter which passed between Mr. Dobson and Mr. Baker has become an extraordinary feature, and I am grateful to the Minister for giving this satisfaction. I am also grateful to two of my Kentish colleagues—the hon. Members for Gravesend (Mr. Kirk) and the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) who are here with me in support.

As Member for Maidstone, I want to say only that I wish this could have been incorporated into the law on a proper basis instead of having dragged on in this extraordinary way though land drainage legislation for half-a-century. Those who want the law to be on a proper basis would like to be rid of the matter in that way.

We talked about the Medway letter at some length in the Standing Committee. I certainly understand the desires and aspirations of my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) and of my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke). They also, I believe, understand our difficulties in as much as the last thing we want to create is something more rigid and inflexible than the present arrangement, unsatisfactory as that arrangement might be. I am treading a tight-rope here. If we could find a way out, without, at the same time, imposing the rigidity we do not wish to impose, I should be only too pleased to walk that tight-rope instead of this one.

Clause 33, as opposed to Clause 23, is not concerned with differential rating. All this Amendment does is to cover the case where, when a petition is put forward for a review of boundaries of an internal drainage district, the river board may feel that, if it cannot go the whole way with the petitioners, it would be right to go half way, so to speak, and bring about differential rating. It would not necessarily be based on the Medway letter, as would a petition under Clause 23.

This is an important point. If we pass this Amendment, will it be clear that the river board will have complete discretion either to make an order for differential rating or to make a scheme? Is it not the case that the fact that the petitioners, on the terms of the Medway letter, are relieved from being a part of the area, will not be a bar to the river board's making a differential rating order? I am not arguing about the Medway letter, for that would not be in order, but I want to know whether the discretion in the Amendment is sufficient. If my right hon. Friend cannot give the answer tonight, will he do so later?

In this Amendment it is left entirely to the discretion of the river board whether it accepts the petition or rejects it, or whether, on the other hand, it chooses to put in a differential rating area instead.

Amendment agreed to.