I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am delighted to speak to a Bill on a topic that, unfortunately, can be close to us all, and sadly can have a devastating and dramatic effect on our constituents and many of us—flooding. The sad reality is that many of our constituencies have at some point experienced flooding, and some, such as mine, face the risk regularly. Flooding is a natural disaster that we have little means of preventing, and of course it occurs all over the world, as we have seen recently in Australia and America. However, we have the power to help our communities to better manage the risk of their homes and businesses being affected by flooding by taking precautionary action to be better prepared so that when the weather does turn out to be against us, there is less risk to life, livelihoods and property, and recovery is quicker.
I am sure that many of us have heard shocking accounts from our constituents, and many hon. Members will, like me, have seen such devastation themselves. The Bill will specifically help us to manage better the risk of flooding and to improve our water management and, vitally, our environment. Hon. Members will remember the devastating flooding that hit the country during the winters of 2013 and 2014. The widespread flooding covered all four corners of the country, as we experienced the wettest winter for 250 years. Some 11,000 properties were flooded, and the total economic damage for England and Wales is estimated at £1.3 billion.
In Somerset, water entirely covered the levels and moors and devastated the land; 150 sq km of land was submerged for many weeks. According to the Environment Agency, 100 million cubic metres of water covered Somerset’s otherwise green and pleasant land. By my reckoning, we were up to our necks in 40,000 Olympic swimming pools-worth of water. Lives, homes, businesses and infrastructure were all affected, and I will never forget making visits to the village of Muchelney in 2014 not by road, but by boat. I stood in people’s houses that not only were waist deep in water, but had been flooded only 12 months before. Livelihoods really were driven to the brink, and people were understandably driven to despair. The cost to Somerset was estimated at £147 million.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing this important Bill, which will help his constituents and many of ours. He said that flooding affects all four corners of this country. Perhaps the Minister may be able to pick this up, but the explanatory notes and the Bill’s territorial extent and application clause refer only to England. A subsequent subsection refers to the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament and so on, but will my hon. Friend or perhaps the Minister explain what will happen to the whole United Kingdom? My hon. Friend is bringing forward such important matters that the Bill should touch our whole United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend is right that the Bill refers to England alone. It does not cover the separate competency that the Scottish Parliament will have. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will explain more about that.
After the devastation of the 2014 floods came grief and blame, and finally—thankfully—a desire to take action. I am sure that these thoughts are replicated after every disaster. One action that was taken was the creation of a 20-year flood action plan for the area. This was done at the sensible request of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), the then Environment Secretary. A key innovation that came from that plan was the creation in 2015 of a new body, the Somerset Rivers Authority. Since then it has overseen more than 120 projects.
The first measure in my Bill will allow for the creation of rivers authorities. They will be locally accountable flood risk management authorities with the power to issue a council tax precept. A rivers authority will bring together other local flood risk management authorities and use the precept to fund additional local flood risk management work. Such a body could be created anywhere in England where there is local support, and if proposed by a flood risk management authority.
We are fortunate in Somerset that we already have such a body, but we need the Bill to incorporate it fully. In doing so, the Somerset Rivers Authority would be able to secure its future. A flood risk management authority would have duties and would, for the first time, be able to put its finances on a stable footing as a precepting body. The Bill includes additional safeguards for local tax payers, of course, and would allow the rivers authority to plan its water and flood management schemes into the future and thereby create a safer, more secure environment for us all.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing forward this important Bill, but is there not an issue with the Environment Agency’s role? In Suffolk, it has pulled back from some of its responsibilities—in many ways, quite understandably. Would this new authority not, in effect, be performing roles that many of my constituents would argue the Environment Agency should be performing?
My hon. Friend reads my mind. I was about to come to that point. The Somerset Rivers Authority brings together the county council, the five district councils, the Environment Agency, the Wessex Regional Flood and Coastal Committee, Natural England and the three internal drainage boards. In other words, it does not usurp the position of any of those partners but, rather, complements them. It brings everyone together to provide this very special part of the west country with additional and vital flood protection and resilience.
The Somerset Rivers Authority is currently funded through a shadow precept on local council tax payers. This funds projects such as additional maintenance for rivers, watercourses and many locally significant structures. It also contributes towards other projects, such as upgrading and securing the River Sowy and King’s Sedgemoor drain; much-needed dredging and monitoring of silt build-up; unblocking, clearing and repairing culverts and gullies; clearing away 1,000 extra tonnes of debris from 60 miles of road edgeways; maintaining a new flood alert system for two major roads; natural flood management in both rural and urban areas; and better land management and the uptake of sustainable drainage systems.
The Somerset Rivers Authority will also continue to work with and help communities, households, businesses and landowners to become more resilient to flooding and its impacts. As ever, this includes encouraging greater participation in groups and networks, and identifying and supporting our most vulnerable people. All this work has kept our waterways functioning and—so far—our feet dry, but now we need the final piece to secure the future of the rivers authority.
Alongside rivers authorities, there are other important bodies that tackle flood risk management, such as our internal drainage boards. In Somerset, we are, as ever, fortunate, because we have three—Axe Brue, North Somerset Levels and Parrett—and I am aware of others across the country and of hon. Members who support their work. These bodies maintain watercourses, reduce flood risk to people and property, and manage water levels for agricultural and environmental needs within their internal drainage district.
Some parts of England, however, do not have the benefit of an internal drainage board. Enabling the creation of new internal drainage boards, or the expansion of existing ones, requires a change to the Land Drainage Act 1991, and that is what the second measure in my Bill would do. In essence, the problem is down to incomplete ratings data. The Act requires an amendment to accept a newer ratings dataset that could be used to create new charging methodologies. It is important to stress that these new methodologies would use existing tax data and would not be a new form of taxation.
Internal drainage boards are mainly funded via charges levied on the communities they serve. The first—drainage rates—is paid by agricultural landowners, while the second, which is a special levy, is paid by households and businesses. The new charging methodologies would enable these charges to be apportioned using up-to-date council tax and business rates data. To ensure that the apportionment calculation is up to date and to reduce the risk of imbalance on either side, this measure would update both charging methodologies.
As I said at the start of my speech, we are all aware of the potential wide impact and terrible aftermath of flooding. The Bill helps to deliver greater protection through two different but equally important public bodies. Hon. Members owe it to our constituencies, communities and anyone who has been flooded or is at risk of flooding to take all possible steps to mitigate that risk. The measures in this Bill are enabling; nothing will be forced, and only where there is local support will the Government be able to act. However, without the Bill, the Government cannot act, so I very much hope it strikes a chord with Members in the Chamber and that it will have unanimous support.
I would like to put on record my sincere thanks to both the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey)—unfortunately she is unable to be present for the debate as she is opening the new Ipswich barrier—and the Government for their support in this process. I think I speak for Somerset and indeed other parts of our country when I say that we all hope that the Bill will enable local action to be taken so that we will see dry feet and nothing leaking over the tops of our wellies for some years to come.
I did not think we would get on to this Bill today, but I am thrilled that we have, because I have always felt strongly about flooding. That is partly because of my paternal grandfather, who always used to say that there was no better sound than that of a well-running drain. Also, I hesitate to say this but my mother is Welsh and Wales does suffer from a certain amount of wet weather. So this runs in my veins, and I grew up to become a barrister who prosecuted water companies, and I was always very interested in the way in which we could regulate both clean raw water and the clean water in our taps. As we all know, many in this House have tried very hard to reduce the amount of plastic waste that we produce, and one way to do that is to drink tap water instead of drinking water out of plastic bottles. I was glad to see from my prosecution days that the water that runs out of our taps is of very superior quality.
I now have the honour to represent Banbury and Bicester. They are wonderful places in many ways, but it has to be said that we are quite damp locally: not as damp possibly as the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton), but we do suffer from a very high water table. I met the Environment Agency last week and was very pleased to be shown the map of my constituency. I say I was very pleased, but in fact I was completely horrified because it showed the quality of raw water described in colours, with the darker the colour meaning the more worried we should be. Part of me was proud to see that the only green on the map represents a very small area very near where my family farms; part of me was pleased about that and I keep meaning to mention it to my father—perhaps I am doing to so in the Chamber this afternoon—who I know would be proud. The rest of the map was very troubling, however. Most of it was dark orange and some areas were red. The Environment Agency explained that there are reasons for that: apparently if a drainage course is altered, that in itself can lead to an area being in the red, and it does not necessarily mean the quality of the raw water is of concern. In looking at this matter, we might therefore need to consider whether the mechanisms we use to measure water quality are a little clunky; the Minister might want to address that later.
It is worrying, however, that an area that is damp—traditionally, geographically—and where the water quality really matters to us should have this problem. As Members know, we are very keen on our house building programme locally; we are keen to promote growth, but we are also keen that this should not be at the expense of the natural environment. I have asked the Environment Agency to follow up what it told me last week and I will be continuing to monitor this matter very closely.
The other reason I am particularly proud to speak this afternoon is that, following severe flooding in my area over the winter of 2015-16—some years after the floods mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome—over £200 million was made available to help communities and businesses across the UK recover and a further £130 million was given to be spent on repairing damaged transport infrastructure. We were very interested in that scheme and responded to it.
Many of my constituents will recall the Easter of 1998 not as a time of celebration but as a time of severe devastation. Heavy rain caused a flood that closed our railway station and many roads. Approximately 125 residential and 35 commercial properties were affected, resulting in more than £12.5 million of damage. Another flood in the summer of 2007 reinforced the need for a comprehensive flood alleviation scheme in Banbury.
The geography of the valley alongside the river that runs through Banbury makes the town susceptible to flooding following heavy rain. The alleviation scheme consists of five elements: a large flood storage reservoir upstream of Banbury; a key elevated highway into the community; new earth embankments, flood walls and pile walls in strategic locations; a new pumping station; and a bio-habitat, complete with ponds, trees and hedgerows. The scheme has worked enormously well, transforming both the town and the area downstream of Banbury, where I live, which used to suffer from being flooded on purpose when Banbury was at risk.
The other thing that makes me particularly proud of the scheme is that it was funded by a combination of means, both private and public, and the model should be considered and taken up nationwide. The project was funded by the regional flood defence committee, Cherwell District Council, Thames Water and Network Rail and was brilliantly spearheaded by the Environment Agency. Prodrive, a private motorsport company, also constructed part of the defences to protect its bases on Chalker Way. The scheme is a good example of how to deal with flooding, and this Bill is a good and sensible step forward.
I can tell that my hon. Friend is about to close her speech, but she mentioned at the beginning her expertise in prosecuting in this area in her previous career as a barrister. We do not want to anticipate that things will definitely go wrong, but things inevitably do, so what does she envision for the regulatory supervision of the new rivers authorities? What advice can she give about supervision, specifically for this Bill, given her previous expertise?
I would not want to step on the toes of my successors in the Government Legal Service, but I am sure that they will be studying the Bill’s provisions carefully. In my view, anything that further highlights this important area is of use to those who prosecute to ensure that our water, both drinking water, in which I used to specialise, and raw water, is clean, and it is really important that we concentrate on both types. This country has some fantastic legislative provisions to protect our very good drinking water, but raw water is also important. People walk by it, play in it, swim in it and, of course, it often becomes the water that we drink. The Bill is a good and sensible step forward, and I look forward to seeing how rivers authorities will carry out their work. I am proud to support my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome today.
It is a pleasure to speak on this important Bill. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton) on putting his case eloquently.
The Bill goes to a fundamental part of daily life that we can take for granted until we receive the terrible news that we have been flooded. East Anglia is probably most famous for coastal flooding, but I will address two specific issues, one technical and the other more general.
First, I have had feedback from constituents about the position of riparian mill owners. I have had a lot of correspondence and surgery attendances from constituents who happen to have purchased properties that include an old mill with floodgates. This might sound obscure, but there are quite a few of them in my constituency. The issue is that the Environment Agency has been writing to riparian mill owners to say that it will no longer have responsibility for floodgates in such cases and that those responsibilities now lie with the riparian owner.
A constituent in Hadleigh came to see me. He is not a riparian owner, but he lives next to the floodgates and has to operate them because the owner is recently deceased. He has expressed concern: if the Environment Agency is pulling out of responsibility in such areas, who will co-ordinate? His argument, and it is a fair argument, is that if there is a flood, the use of the gates has to be co-ordinated. One set cannot be operated without taking account of the gates further down the river. I therefore intervened on my hon. Friend earlier to try to clarify the relationship between a rivers authority and the Environment Agency. Now that the EA is pulling out of responsibility, what can be done to co-ordinate those who now hold that responsibility? That is an important and germane question, technical and specific as it may seem.
I am not sure whether my hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, has had correspondence on this, although I have spoken to and corresponded with my constituency neighbour, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who is the Minister responsible. The latest correspondence I have received from the Environment Agency about mill owners says that, in its view, the gates do not make enough difference to flooding. That is the Environment Agency’s subjective opinion, with which many mill owners disagree.
At the moment, although it may not be widespread, there are people in my constituency who would like to see the sort of action my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome is talking about, including the greater co-ordination of efforts to deal with flooding. If the community thinks the Environment Agency is not doing enough, what else can be done? If a rivers authority is the sort of body that could take up some of those responsibilities, I would certainly welcome it.
My hon. Friend picks up an interesting point. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton) said that the initiative to establish a new rivers authority must come from local flood risk management and that it must have local support. My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) has just been making that point about co-ordination and support. Does he share my concern about what happens when there is a dispute and when the local community does not speak with one voice on whether this is the right way forward? What happens then? Perhaps the Minister could address that point in his closing remarks. Is there a gap in the Bill that needs to be considered?
That is an excellent point. Let us be honest; most of my constituents are not mill owners and do not have trouble at t’ mill, and are not overly concerned about the duty of others to operate these gates, which is a heck of an operation.
Secondly, how do we indicate that there is support? How do we bring forward such an authority in an effective way? There will be those who are not particularly bothered about it but who will notice the new charge on their council tax. I strongly support the use of precept funding for specific services, and not just in connection with the Bill. I have always defended the current Government policy of using precepts to fund increases in police expenditure, establishing the principle that the council tax payer knows where that increase is going. Many of my constituents might say, “Look, central Government fund the police. If we want more police officers, it should come from central Government funds.” I argue that, under the precept, all the money will be spent on the Suffolk constabulary, which provides better accountability.
On the principles of this Bill, I very much like the idea of using the precept model, as it is clear what people are getting. For that to be supported, it would have to be obvious to the public at large that this area needed a greater level of co-ordination for flood risk. I guess that is, ultimately, the whole point of the Bill. I know it contains measures on drainage boards as well, because we do not have to go the whole hog of setting up a rivers authority. I just make the point that this kind of local empowerment, saying to an area, “You have this choice should you wish to. Don’t just rely on the centre,” is a good way to go in terms of public policy.
Other than that, I just want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome on the Bill. I look forward to seeing whether the Minister is able to give any clarification on the position of mill owners and the co-ordination of gate operation in the event of flood risk, as that is an important issue for some of my constituents. I wish the Bill well.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) and to speak on this Bill, which is promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton). I am about to say something that I rarely say in this Chamber, which is that I look upon Somerset with envious eyes. As one knows, Somerset is merely the county one passes through to get to Devon. I will not finish that idiom by saying that Devon is there to avoid having to go to Cornwall, on the basis that the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) will be replying shortly—and a fine Minister he is, too.
The reason I look upon Somerset with envious eyes is that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome has rightly pointed out, his area has the Somerset Rivers Authority. This Bill seeks to put such authorities on a statutory footing as far as their funding is concerned. The SRA has done extraordinarily valuable work for his constituents, and householders and residents in the other constituencies across Somerset. We do not have such a thing in Devon—we do not have a Devon rivers authority—but a little history and research proves that there was once such a thing. Perhaps we could bring those days back. So here is a little history, for those who are interested—and indeed for those who are not, as they are going to get it anyway. The Water Resources Act 1963 came into force on 31 July 1963, two days before I was born. I am pleased to say that unlike that Act, I am still around. It was repealed on 1 April 1974. That Act created 27 rivers authorities, one of which was the Devon River Authority, but all of them went by the wayside, abolished when that Act was superseded from 1974 onwards.
I particularly welcome my hon. Friend’s Bill and his contribution today, because it seeks to hark back to a time when we rightly had rivers authorities, which were doing work that is best done by local experts, local people—those who know the environment. The importance of this has been brought home to me in my constituency in much the same way as it has for my hon. Friend in Somerton and Frome by the flooding that we have experienced.
I am jealous, as Dorset was not mentioned in my hon. Friend’s great journey throughout the south-west. I want to make a serious point, which I think he has touched on and I raised with my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge). It relates to whether there is consensus in a local area. My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) talks about the historical position in Devon, but of course this Bill would require local support for its proposals. What would happen if that local support was not there? What measures would there then be in Devon to help prevent such flooding and provide support?
As always, my hon. Friend makes an extraordinarily good point. A number of other arrangements and organisations are in place in North Devon and the wider county that seek to do that work. I was going to mention some of them, and my hon. Friend’s helpful contribution provides me with the perfect opportunity to move on—to the House’s relief—and to do that.
Another measure in the Bill that is relevant and significant for me in North Devon is the one that addresses the obstacles for the raising of expenses for certain internal drainage boards. If I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome correctly, he has three IDBs in Somerset; I have one, the Braunton Marsh internal drainage board. I have had a lot to do with this organisation because historically Braunton, a large village in my constituency, has suffered serious flooding because of its location near the coast, on the fringes of the estuary. The main period of flooding, which some Members may remember, happened over Christmas in 2012. The village was the victim of flash flooding and many people were forced out of their homes over the entire Christmas period. Many businesses suffered, and some sadly closed because they never recovered from having to be closed during the floods.
I have spoken to the Minister and other Ministers about how we can deal with the victims of flooding. In particular, I have been involved in a lot of discussions about the Flood Re scheme and about the benefits or otherwise of some of the commercial insurers that provide support for businesses that might be the victims of flooding. There is more work to be done, but the Bill starts, if I may use this phrase, to build the foundations on which we can ensure provision for some of the bodies that provide valuable support and flood maintenance and flood prevention schemes, such as the IDBs, the Environment Agency, and in my constituency the Braunton Marsh inspectors, a fine body set up by a piece of legislation dating back to Victorian times. They all do sterling work. The Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome would add to that. It is welcome and I look forward to hearing the Minister—although a Cornish Member—voice his support for it shortly.
I will keep my remarks fairly brief; I have no intention of taking the debate towards 2.30 pm, because the Bill is very welcome and will make a difference to many communities.
It is ironic that since I was elected to this House I have ended up spending quite a lot of time talking drainage. It has mostly been about the joys of the Middle Level Act 2018—yes, it is now an Act, and I see some fellow travellers on that journey present in the Chamber today, including my hon. Friends the Members for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) and for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), both of whom heard my various reflections on how to modernise the regulation of that system.
This Bill also makes sense. Having a proper rivers authority and proper authorities maintaining waterways is about not only the obvious benefits for drainage, but leisure facilities and making sure a river is accessible. The middle level itself is a massive drainage ditch that has become a leisure resource that many people want to use.
Does my hon. Friend agree that although drainage is incredibly important, it is also important that we see more stocks, particularly of salmon and sea trout, in our rivers? I am sad to say that, because I am in the Chamber, I will have to miss a meeting this evening about that urgent subject.
My hon. Friend may be missing that meeting, but her constituents will see her in the Chamber yet again standing up on the issues that make a difference to Cumbria and her area in particular. I agree with her comments: it is vital that rivers are living bodies of water. We can also use drainage solutions and land drainage boards to improve environmental outcomes. Before I stood to speak, I was reflecting with my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) about her time dealing with drainage issues. I think she ended up dealing with endangered eels, of all things, and providing a habitat. It is not just about providing ways to drain water off the land, but sometimes about providing a habitat to allow other species to thrive. Normally, I would have gone through this Bill in some detail, especially on the composition of the authorities. I would be interested to hear the Minister briefly outline the selection process.
I will not give way, because we are tight for time. I do not want to rob the Minister or the shadow Minister of their chance to speak.
I would also be interested to hear from the Minister how he will identify where there is local support for such measures. I am conscious of the time and of those on the Front Bench awaiting to speak. I look forward to this Bill getting its Second Reading very shortly.
It is good that there is cross-party consensus for this Bill, because my fearful band of Opposition MPs and I have been waiting in the Chamber to deal with these measures.
It is good that this debate has had so many contributions from the west country. As a fellow Devon MP, I will not go quite as far as the hon. Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) did in praising the south-west. None the less, it is important to say that the south-west has been affected by flooding over many years and it is an area for which the regulatory environment has not always worked in the best way. That is why the Opposition welcome this Bill and thank the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton) for bringing it forward.
The Bill is long overdue. It is important to state here that many of its measures should have been introduced long before they were proposed in this private Member’s Bill. We have had plenty of parliamentary time recently to have discussed a Bill of this technical nature. Government time should have been used much earlier on this Bill, because my fear is that regulation in relation to flooding tends to be a kneejerk reaction to a large flooding event. We need to invest time and energy in the consideration of proposals to make sure that they work for all our communities. We need measures to deal with climate change, the increased risk of flooding, and the amount of house building on our floodplains to make sure that we have a regulatory system that is fit for purpose.
This Bill aims to provide local communities with new powers to organise and protect themselves from flooding. That is hardly controversial given the increased likelihood of extreme weather events due to climate change in the next few years ahead. This Bill receives strong backing from the Environment Agency, the National Farmers Union and the Association of Drainage Authorities to name but a few.
The rivers authorities that would be established under the Bill would be a good thing. They would be locally accountable with powers to issue a precept to billing authorities, which would then collect the money from council tax payers for additional local flood risk management work. I understand from the ADA that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is not expecting a flurry of requests for the establishment of new river authorities. Local councils and authorities will not be compelled to create them; they are there for those who want to be proactive. Does the Minister think that that is the correct approach? Given the amount of pressure on our local authorities at this moment, with cuts and increased demand on services, is it right that the work is not done at a national level to help identify and encourage those local authorities, many of which might not have the capacity or the in-house expertise to realise the benefits that could be derived from the implementation of this Bill?
I note that the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) did not go into the composition of the new authorities, but I would like to ask the Minister whether there has been any thought about the personnel on these new drainage authorities. Can he tell us how they will be drawn and selected from the local community and what effort has been made to make sure that those authorities will be gender-balanced in the future?
We must ask ourselves why these reforms have taken so long to appear and whether they should have been brought forward in Government time, rather than have this Bill sitting at the back of a line for a sitting Friday for almost a year. This Bill is being introduced to rectify well known long-standing issues. In many cases, the data that would be used to create some of the new river authorities and internal drainage boards is quite historic in itself.
The ADA first raised the potential need for legislative change with DEFRA during proceedings on the Water Bill in 2014. I think the Government are adopting a twin-track process. A Government consultation entitled “Improving our management of water in the environment” was launched in January, alongside the efforts in this private Member’s Bill. If the Bill fails to progress via the usual channels, Ministers will have the opportunity to pick up its content in the consultation, but I ask the Minister not to rest on his laurels in that respect because it is important that we have clarity.
The debate about flooding has historically occurred at certain times of the year, and we are in one of the times of year when flooding is particularly significant. I represent a constituency that is at the end of a fragile and precarious train line, which passes not only through Dawlish—that beautiful stretch of track is in desperate need of Government funding to make it more resilient—but through the Somerset Levels, an area that is also prone to flooding. We must recognise that flooding not only affects the communities in which it occurs—where there is far too much water—but can cause disruption to large parts of the country that may not experience it in their locality.
I want to ask the Minister who should pay for some of these costs. It is noticeable that the proposals will be funded either by local authority taxpayers or by landowners, but not necessarily by those who use land for business purposes. I would be grateful if the Minister looked at whether they might be an alternative source of revenue to help to drive this activity, rather than relying on the local tax base. Has he assessed whether the “polluter pays” principle could also be used to fund some of the schemes from industries that exacerbate climate change, which causes extreme weather events?
Looking back to storm Desmond, rainfall on that scale used to be described as a one-in-100-year, one-in-200-year or one-in-1,000-year event, but more extreme weather events are now occurring every single year as a result of man-made climate change. We need to make sure that our regulatory system and our flood defences are fit to meet that challenge. George Monbiot said:
“Exceptional events are…no longer exceptional.”
The Committee on Climate Change recently warned that rises in sea level of more than one metre could occur this century, and 200 km of coastal defences in England are projected to become vulnerable to failure during storm conditions. That does not include defences on river systems further inland.
We face unprecedented challenges in defending our lowland areas and coastal communities from flooding. The Bill is welcome, and it will help communities if local authorities use the powers. We need to look at how we can incentivise communities to get there, and we need a comprehensive plan for every community at risk of flooding. If we cannot get this private Member’s Bill through Parliament, I encourage the Minister to ensure that the Government swiftly adopt the measures to make sure that communities that could benefit are not hindered by the fact that the Bill was not introduced in Government time.
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton) on bringing this important Bill to Parliament. He spoke eloquently about the devastation that flooding can cause. Sadly, like many hon. Members in this House, he has first-hand experience of dealing with the matter in his own constituency; indeed, his constituency was at the centre of controversy during the floods in the winter of 2013-14. Five years ago, in January 2014—shortly after I became a DEFRA Minister in 2013, and shortly before he was elected to this House—he invited me to meet a group of his constituents at Long Sutton golf club, which had suffered repeated flooding as a result of the problems on the rivers. I recall that I was stopping off on my way back from Cornwall but I was late, because one of the bridges—I think it was the Long Load bridge—had been cut off by the flooding, and I had to go on quite a long diversion to get to the venue.
At the heart of the problems experienced in Somerset were issues about how best to manage river systems in flood plains. In my hon. Friend’s case, the river in question was the River Parrett, if I remember correctly. Many hon. Members will have had to help constituents deal with the consequences of floods. In my own constituency, there have been issues not only with coastal surge flooding but fluvial floods caused by heavy rainfall, which we are prone to get in Cornwall. To tackle this natural hazard, the Government continue to invest record amounts in protecting communities across England with new flood defence schemes and the maintenance of existing ones.
Alongside this, the Government are keen to empower communities to take further action at a local level. In our 25-year environment plan, we have committed to bringing the public, private and third sectors together to work with communities and individuals to reduce the risk of harm from all environmental hazards. Later in 2019, the Government will publish a policy statement on flooding and coastal erosion in England, and the Environment Agency will publish an updated national flooding and coastal erosion strategy.
As my hon. Friend pointed out, following the devastating floods in 2013 and 2014, there was a strong political desire for co-ordination across Somerset to devise a bespoke new local initiative. 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. As my hon. Friend is aware, this plan led to the concept of a new body—a rivers authority. The plan recommended the creation of a such a body in Somerset. The aim was to establish a new way of bringing together the different bodies that have a responsibility for, or interest in, flood risk management. By raising additional local funding, and through co-ordinating and utilising the expertise of individual partners, the Somerset Rivers Authority is able to provide a better level of protection than may otherwise have been possible, but it does not seek to replace existing flood risk management authorities or their funding mechanisms.
The Government fully understand how important this issue is for the people of Somerset and fully support the work of the Somerset Rivers Authority. The Government showed their support for the Somerset Rivers Authority with a £1.9 million funding package to help with its start-up costs. A review of the long-term funding options was commissioned that recommended precepting powers. Incorporating river authorities and securing the Somerset Rivers Authority’s future requires new legislation. I am pleased that this is provided for in clause 1 of my hon. Friend’s Bill.
While there is widespread support for the decision on the Somerset Rivers Authority, that decision is not taken lightly. The Government are aware that any precept will be funded by local taxpayers, as is already the case under the existing shadow precept used in Somerset. Putting this legislation into statute will make the Somerset Rivers Authority an autonomous precepting authority, making it more transparent, ensuring that safeguards are in place to protect local council tax payers and ensuring that its funding is ring-fenced solely for this important work. It will also secure its future and enable it to deliver more. The Bill also sets out how, through regulations, Parliament will have the opportunity to scrutinise further the creation and governance arrangements of a rivers authority.
My hon. Friend also mentioned internal drainage boards, which are dealt with in the second part of the Bill. As he pointed out, three of those are based in Somerset, and there are a further 109 across England. Internal drainage boards have been in existence for many years. Their main focus originally was on the drainage of agricultural land in low-lying areas, but they have since moved on and now play a much wider role as a key partner in local flood risk management. This model has worked well, but, as he said, not everywhere has such a body. There is interest in other parts of England and Wales in creating new internal drainage boards, and many of those that already exist would like to expand. However, a combination of issues has stopped the creation of new, or the expansion of existing, internal drainage boards. As he said, there have been issues with the ratings tables, which date right back to 1991 and, in many areas, no longer exist. A change in legislation is therefore required. I am pleased that this is provided for in clauses 2, 3 and 4 of his Bill, establishing a power to introduce new regulations relating to charging methodologies. We can therefore have both the creation of new internal drainage boards and expansion of existing ones.
I want to turn to some of the points made by hon. Members. In an intervention, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) raised an important point about Wales. I should point out to hon. Members that these matters are devolved. We asked the Welsh Government which elements they would like to be involved with. While they do not at this point want to see the introduction of rivers authorities in Wales, they did want the ability to expand internal drainage boards in Wales and the power to establish different charging mechanisms through regulations. I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to clauses 2(7) and (8), which create powers for the Welsh Government to do just that through regulations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) gave a passionate speech, and it was interesting to hear the comments of her grandfather—I think everybody who has experienced flooding can agree that nothing beats the sound of a good, functioning drain. She also made an important point about the impact of this problem on some of our farmland.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) gave a very supportive, important speech about how certain businesses can be affected. He alluded to the question of how we will know whether local council tax payers do indeed support such precepts. I draw his attention to proposed new schedule A1, on page 20. Paragraph 2 sets out specific requirements and a duty to consult, so the Government would not even consider bringing forward regulations unless and until a local authority had carried out a consultation. An authority must consult other relevant risk management authorities and Natural England, but also
“persons liable to pay council tax”,
so those people would be fully involved in any consultation process.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones), while showing a distinct lack of west country solidarity, nevertheless made some important points. In particular, he raised the local issues he faces on Braunton Marsh. He also made an important point about the role and value of local knowledge in delivering solutions to some of these problems.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who has finally got through a Bill that addresses similar issues. I am pleased to hear that the Bill, which I have seen on the annunciator many times, has now completed its passage.
Finally, I want to touch briefly on some of the issues raised by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard). He raised a specific issue about the composition of the authority and who would be on it. It is open to us, through regulations under proposed new section 21C, to stipulate what provision should be put in place for that, so the issue can be dealt with through regulations by the Government of the day.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the “polluter pays” principle. I can reassure him that, while the focus of these measures is very much on flood risk management, the “polluter pays” principle is at the heart of much of what we do, and it is an approach taken by Natural England and the Environment Agency in all their work.
In conclusion, this is an important Bill. We have made good progress today, and we have had some interesting contributions. The Government fully support the Bill going to the next stage.
I thank the Minister for his support and indeed for remembering his wet visit to Somerset four years ago. I also thank the Government and the shadow Minister for their support.
It was lovely to hear from so many hon. Members. It was interesting to hear the reflections of my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) about the winter of 2015-16. We also heard about trouble at t’mill from my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge). My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) was quite rightly envious of Somerset. It was also nice to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) forgo his customary forensic analysis in the case of this Bill.
I am grateful to everybody for their support, and I look forward to this level of consensus continuing as the Bill moves forward to its Committee stage.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).