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Rivers Authorities

Volume 637: debated on Thursday 8 March 2018

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Andrew Stephenson.)

We have very long memories in the west country, so I want to take Members back in time. It was said that some 400 years ago, in 1607,

“huge and mighty hills of water”

poured across the county, moving at a speed

“faster than a greyhound can run”.

Water covered the Somerset levels and moors, and it devastated the land—but not, I am afraid, for the last time. Members will remember that the winter of 2013-14 was the wettest in Somerset for 250 years, and 150 sq km of land was completely submerged for weeks. The Environment Agency said that 100 million cubic metres of water covered Somerset’s fertile soil. By my reckoning, that means that we were up to our necks in 40,000 Olympic swimming pools-worth of water. One hundred and sixty-five homes were flooded, 7,000 businesses were affected, and 81 roads were closed. I will never forget making visits to the village of Muchelney not by road, but by boat. I stood in people’s homes that were not only destroyed by waist-deep water but had been flooded only 12 months before. Livelihoods were driven to the brink, and people were understandably driven to despair. The cost to Somerset was estimated at £147 million.

As those waters receded, more than just the bare earth revealed itself. We saw also that perhaps one or two things had been neglected. Local people rightly argued, fairly strongly, that not enough contingency planning had taken place. “By definition”, they cried, “we’ve been living with insufficient flood management schemes, catchment planning and so on.” We felt like Deucalion, the son of Prometheus, who, as we all know, saw after the great mythical Greek flood the extent of the destruction and felt grief so great that tears kept pouring from his eyes. His wish was to create a new form of humanity. Our wish was to create the Somerset Rivers Authority.

The people of Somerset are no strangers to local action, so local people tipped out their wellies, gathered themselves up and summoned various flood risk authorities: Somerset County Council, our five noble district councils, the Environment Agency, Natural England, the Wessex Regional Flood and Coastal Committee, and our inland drainage boards. Then, with £1.9 million stumped up by the Government, they coagulated all these into a new body—the Somerset Rivers Authority. This body sprang from the 20-year flood action plan that had been put together following the floods at the very sensible request of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), who was then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I well remember wading through water to meet him to discuss the need to keep a lid on the severity, duration, frequency and impact of flooding. I have also talked to him about that more recently.

I must point out that the SRA was not, and is not, a usurper. It does not diminish the roles of the other flood management partners or, indeed, of landowners; it acts to improve the joint working of all those bodies. In essence, it gives us an extra level of flood protection and resilience. It raises extra money, does extra work, and provides extra information and co-ordination. Without wanting to go into the minutiae of its daily grind, it oversees the flood action plan across five areas: dredging, river management, land management, infrastructure, and building local resilience.

The SRA has overseen some 90 projects, with 22 more planned for 2018-19. Some of them have dozens of different elements, so hundreds of areas have benefited. This year the SRA is maintenance dredging 4 km of the River Parrett; it is monitoring silt in the Parrett and Tone rivers for a future dredging programme; it is designing and implementing a variety of flood management capital works to hold water in the upper catchment and reduce peak flows; it is rolling up its sleeves and undertaking pumping station repairs and improvements; and it is carrying out a highway flood risk reduction scheme, with desilting of structures and gully jetting.

Fiendishly clever schemes have been developed, such as injection drilling, which is now used on the Parrett and Tone rivers and can achieve in one week what used to take four months, and at a small fraction of the cost. Such things are qualitatively better for farmers, residents and our splendid Somerset environment. I could go on all day about soil management, cropping techniques, channel clearances, housing planning analysis, drain enhancements, the tidal barrier—that is a big one—and the endless flood management schemes, but I am sure that people get the picture. For the SRA, its cup runneth over, essentially so that our cup does not run over. Such river authorities are obviously essential to the continued enjoyment of life in low-lying areas, but they face a problem. As is so often the case, it comes down to money, although this time it is more of a structural issue.

The SRA has ploughed on, silently and deftly managing our waterways to keep our feet dry. So far, we have paid for that by coughing up a small shadow precept on our council tax bills, plus a bit of money from drainage boards and spot of growth deal funding. I should explain that the term “shadow precept” refers to the extra flexibility that was granted to Somerset councils in 2016 as part of the local government finance settlement. Many in Somerset, myself included, would like to see the shadow precept put on a permanent statutory footing. Understandably, the SRA itself has also been calling for legislation to put its finances on the same stable long-term footing as a precepting body.

At the moment, because the SRA receives annual funding on a voluntary basis from local authorities, it has a hand-to-mouth existence. It is unable to coherently plan ahead, which means it is not in a position to enter into longer-term contracts or undertake longer-term financial planning. A stable funding arrangement, in the form of a local precept, would allow such river authorities to plan more effectively and efficiently, locking in improved protection for the good people of Somerset in the future.

The original 20-year flood action plan included the aspiration to allow Somerset’s rivers authority to become a statutory body, but we always knew that that would involve legislation. We knew that we would need to create a power for the Secretary of State to create statutory rivers authorities and to add them to the precepting authorities listed in the Local Government Finance Act 1992.

I hope we can achieve that, but before I come on to that, I must talk briefly about internal drainage boards. That may not be a phrase you want to hear every day, Mr Deputy Speaker, but internal drainage boards are a vital part of the landscape of flood risk management. In Somerset, our three IDBs beaver away for us, almost literally, maintaining the watercourses, draining the land and reducing flood risk. I am very much aware that one or two areas of England are not fortunate enough to be in Somerset. Many of those less favoured parts of the country do not have the benefit of an IDB, and technical problems with the legislation on these bodies prevent them from being established. In essence, that is down to an anomaly in the valuation of land under legislation that is getting a bit long in the tooth.

That is very much the case in Cumbria, for example, where the local flood action plan drawn up by the community after the 2015 floods calls for the establishment of a new IDB, but they are stuck and cannot do it. We in this place should address that as soon as possible, so that all parts of England and Wales that desire an IDB can have one. Who would not want to reap the benefits that my constituency enjoys? Quite frankly, who would not want to be in my constituency?

It would be remiss of me at this point not to commend the Government for the action they continue to take to reduce flood risk and the significant new investment that has been provided. In fact, between 2016 and 2021, the Government are putting £2.6 billion into flood defences and building 1,500 new flood schemes that will better protect almost a third of a million homes. Those kinds of initiatives continue to improve the protection of people right across the country. There is also a need for local action to reduce flood risk. As I have set out, in Somerset we have the rivers authority and three internal drainage boards, but we need to understand their future.

In January 2017, the Government’s response to the report by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on future flood prevention made clear the intention to introduce precepting legislation as soon as parliamentary time became available. I would like to draw the House’s attention to the Rivers Authorities and Land Drainage Bill, which I introduced this week and which would enable the Government to deliver on that commitment. I am delighted to say that the Government are fully supporting the Bill, as are many Members of the House, including the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish).

I very much look forward to the thoughts and remarks of my hon. Friend the Minister. As she is aware, not only would my Bill allow the Secretary of State to establish the Somerset Rivers Authority as a statutory and precepting body, thus placing its feet—and ours—on safe, dry land, but it would remove the hurdle faced by other parts of the country in setting up or expanding inland drainage boards. Lastly, I put on the record my sincere thanks to my hon. Friend for her and the Government’s support in this process. I think I speak for much of Somerset when I say that we all hope this will soon mean that nothing can leak over the tops of our wellies for some years to come.

It is a pleasure to respond to this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton) on securing it. He spoke powerfully about, and eloquently described, the devastation caused by flooding.

As all hon. Members are aware, flooding can have a devastating effect on people’s lives, not only due to the immediate pressures they face at the time, but because of some of the mental health problems caused, particularly when heavy rain pours down again and they worry about possible future flooding. Indeed, I have supported my own constituents in Suffolk Coastal following flooding in recent years, so I have experienced this at first hand. The Government continue to invest in better protecting communities from flooding, and I know that you are very keen for us to invest in Lancashire, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is also important, however, that we empower those communities to take further action. I am very pleased to say that my hon. Friend is correct that the Government support his private Member’s Bill on rivers authorities and land drainage. That modest Bill could, if successful, deliver real change.

As my hon. Friend will be all too aware, the Somerset levels and moors are a complex environment of highly managed lowlands that are often susceptible to flooding. The flooding in 2013 and 2014 was some of the worst experienced in living memory, especially for the people of the Somerset levels and moors. Many homes, businesses and farmlands were affected, with whole communities cut off as the main roads and railways became impassable. Alongside that, there was significant flooding over the Curry and Hay moors, a site of special scientific interest. This unique area is susceptible to flooding from rivers, because of the artificial raised banks they flow along, and from the coast and the Bristol channel’s tidal range, which is the second highest in the world. Not only does that cause tidal flooding, but it holds back floodwater and makes river flooding worse. Added to that, the low lying land acts as a reservoir holding back the floodwater.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, following those floods, there was a strong political desire for co-ordination across the county to devise a bespoke new initiative. That was why, in January 2014, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), the then Secretary of State, asked Somerset County Council and the Environment Agency to work with the local community to come up with a flood action plan considering the various options for how flood risk could be managed on the Somerset levels and moors over the next 20 years.

That flood action plan led to the concept of a new body—a rivers authority—and recommended the creation of such a body in Somerset. This was done with the aim of creating a way for the different bodies that have a responsibility or interest in flood risk management to work together better. The Somerset Rivers Authority was formally established in January 2015. It is a partnership between 11 of Somerset’s existing flood risk management authorities: Somerset County Council, the five district councils, the Axe Brue and Parrett Internal Drainage Boards, the Environment Agency, Natural England, and the Wessex Regional Flood and Coastal Committee.

I understand how important this issue is to the people of Somerset. Like my hon. Friend, I support the work of the Somerset Rivers Authority, which I had the opportunity to see for myself when I visited Somerset last year. The SRA’s role is to co-ordinate the local flood risk management authorities, utilising the expertise of individual partners. It also supports additional flood risk management works that may not otherwise have been possible, such as enhanced river maintenance, including on ordinary watercourses. It does not seek to replace existing flood risk management authorities or their funding mechanisms.

As my hon. Friend said, the Government supported the Somerset Rivers Authority in the beginning with £1.9 million of start-up funding, and a review into the long-term funding options was commissioned. The review recommended giving the Somerset Rivers Authority precepting powers to raise funds for additional flood risk management. To secure the SRA’s future, we would need new legislation to give the Secretary of State power to create rivers authorities and add them to the category of major precepting authorities under the Local Government Finance Act 1992. I am pleased that that is provided for in clause 1 of my hon. Friend’s Bill.

Not only do the Government want to bring forward these measures, but they are what the local community in Somerset has been calling for. I therefore hope that the Bill will make progress through Parliament. However, such a decision is not made lightly. The Government recognise that any precept will be funded by taxpayers, but that is already the case under the interim arrangements. The existing funding arrangements for the SRA are far from ideal and a permanent solution is required. Making the SRA an autonomous precepting authority would make it more transparent and ensure that money is ring-fenced solely for its important work. Adding the SRA to the category of major precepting authorities will also mean it is covered by the safeguards set out in the 1992 Act, including the requirement for a referendum if the precept exceeds a set amount.

The Bill also sets out how, through regulations that Parliament will have the opportunity to scrutinise further, the governance of a rivers authority should be established. Although my hon. Friend is right to say that a new category of major precepting authorities will be created, the situation in Somerset is unique, because the complex interplay of water means that such matters are self-contained within the county. Were the Bill to be enacted, the Government would implement the necessary regulations promptly.

My hon. Friend mentioned internal drainage boards. As he pointed out, three of those are included in the Somerset Rivers Authority: Axe Brue, North Somerset Levels, and Parrett. He will recognise how effective they have been in their ongoing work with the authority. IDBs are among the oldest forms of democratic decision-making structures in the UK, with their history going back to the 13th century. Their main focus then was the drainage of agricultural land in low lying areas, but they have since evolved to play a much wider role, and they remain to this day a key partner in local flood risk management. That includes playing a major role in the identification and delivery of capital projects in local communities.

That model has worked well around the country, including in Suffolk Coastal with the East Suffolk IDB. However, as my hon. Friend said, not everywhere has such a body, and many of those that already exist would like to expand their boundaries. One place without an IDB that has suffered devastating flooding in recent years is Cumbria. It has requested new IDBs, in particular for Lyth Valley and Waver Wampool. As with the SRA, those requests have arisen from a flood action plan that was devised after significant flooding. However, a combination of issues is stopping the creation of those bodies. There are missing or incomplete valuation lists from 1990, and existing legislation does not allow for any other valuation lists to be used. That prevents IDBs from being able to value the land and determine the special levy they charge. That applies to the creation of new IDBs and the expansion of existing ones, so a change in legislation is required.

My hon. Friend has been generous in the Bill that he presented to the House for First Reading on Monday. He has ensured that such a change will be achievable through three additional clauses that will help to create new internal drainage boards where there is local consensus. The measures will also enable existing boards to expand, again where there is local consensus. In short, the Bill will enable the Secretary of State to establish an alternative methodology for calculating the value of other land in an IDB, and it will enable the Valuation Office Agency to share the most up-to-date information. Finally, it will enable the Secretary of State to establish an alternative methodology for the calculation of the value of chargeable property, agricultural land and buildings in an internal drainage district. All three clauses include regulation-making powers that will be subject to the affirmative procedure, thus providing Parliament with the opportunity to scrutinise them further. I restate that such changes will go ahead only if local communities want them.

The Government support my hon. Friend’s Bill and what it is trying to achieve, and I am aware, Mr Deputy Speaker, that there is appetite for the creation of an internal drainage board in Lancashire. The SRA and IDBs play an important role across the country, and in particular they play a crucial role in local flood risk management. I hope that the debate has demonstrated that to the House.

The unique challenges of the Somerset levels and moors make it necessary and appropriate to create the Somerset Rivers Authority, and to put it on a secure footing to allow it to co-ordinate and manage flood risk into the future. This important body could do even more with secure funding each year. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for using this debate as a way to discuss his Bill. I am confident that this good debate will continue and that hon. Members will want to debate the Bill further in Committee once it receives, as we hope, its Second Reading a week on Friday.

On International Women’s Day, I want to place on record my thanks to the permanent secretary in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Clare Moriarty. She still in a minority across the civil service as a permanent secretary, but she shows great leadership in our Department. I also want to point out not that I have not found time to buy a card for Mother’s day, but that for many people in this House, their woman of the year will always be their mum. I want to wish my mother the best for this Sunday. I promise, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I shall go out and buy a card straight away after this important debate.

House adjourned.