I beg to move,
Although that long title has very wide scope in relation to land drainage, the proposed Bill has one very simple and narrow purpose, which is concerned with the amount of money which water authorities can raise each year to spend on land drainage. The importance of land drainage is well known to all hon. Members who have constituencies in low-lying areas which receive water flowing down from upland districts. Heavy precipitation in recent winters has brought flooding to several parts of England and Wales, with rivers bursting their banks and much farmland remaining waterlogged. Any expenditure incurred by a water authority for land drainage purposes is raised by precept on the county councils for the area in question in accordance with arrangements laid down in section 46 of the Land Drainage Act 1976. Perhaps I should point out that these arrangements are entirely separate from the charges which a water authority makes for water supply, sewerage and sewage disposal, for which in many areas general ratepayers are now receiving separate bills direct from water authorities, and nothing in this Bill will affect the level of those charges. However, under section 46(5) of the 1976 Act, the amount which a water authority can precept on a county council for land drainage purposes is limited to 1·7 times the penny rate product for the area concerned. This limit can be exceeded only with the special consent of the local authority members of the relevant local land drainage committee. It is not surprising that in the present financial climate in local government such special consent is increasingly unlikely to be given. Consequently, the 1·7 factor written into the legislation now in force is beginning to impose an absolute cash limit on the land drainage expenditure of water authorities. I understand, for example, that the 1·7 ceiling is already restraining expenditure on land drainage in Somerset and that without some legislative action that ceiling will be reached in many other counties in these times of high inflation. So the real value of land drainage expenditure will be reduced in inverse proportion to the rate of inflation. Of course, the whole position would be changed if there were a general revaluation of hereditaments throughout the country, because experience suggests that such revaluations approximately double the product of a penny rate in any area. However, there is, at present, no prospect of such a revaluation while the Government are looking at the future of the general rating system as a whole. Consequently, the 1·7 factor written into the 1976 Act is, in effect, a rigid cash limit imposed by law, and inflation makes a nonsense of such a limit. I have raised the problem with the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, whom I am glad to see on the Government Front Bench, and I was pleased to note what he said to me in a letter on 28 March:That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Land Drainage Act 1976; and for connected purposes.
My Bill is designed to provide just such an opportunity and I am hopeful that the Government will give it their blessing. The detailed content of the Bill will give the Minister power to vary the 1.7 factor by order, subject to annulment by either House of Parliament. While I am not always in favour of extending ministerial powers, I think that the provision for such varying orders is the only sensible way of dealing with the problem that I have described. I hope, therefore, that the Bill will be supported by the Government and by hon. Members on both sides of the House." I accept that this is a real problem, but the difficulty is that it cannot be solved without legislation. I can only promise that we shall bear very much in mind the possibility of amending the present statute at the first suitable opportunity."
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Dr. Edmund Marshall, Mr. Joseph Ashton, Sir Paul Bryan, Mr. loan Evans, Mr. Clement Freud, Mr. Colin Shepherd, Mr. John Spence, Mr. Patrick Wall, Mr. Michael Welsh, and Mr. Alec Woodall.
Land Drainage (Amendment)
Dr. Edmund Marshall accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Land Drainage Act 1976; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 9 May and to be printed [Bill 201.]