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Flood and Water Management Bill

Flood and Water Management Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Christopher Chope, Mr. Eric Martlew
Blackman-Woods, Dr. Roberta (City of Durham) (Lab)
Drew, Mr. David (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op)
Griffith, Nia (Llanelli) (Lab)
Grogan, Mr. John (Selby) (Lab)
Horwood, Martin (Cheltenham) (LD)
Irranca-Davies, Huw (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)
Kumar, Dr. Ashok (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab)
McIntosh, Miss Anne (Vale of York) (Con)
Morden, Jessica (Newport, East) (Lab)
Reed, Mr. Jamie (Copeland) (Lab)
Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Smith, Chloe (Norwich, North) (Con)
Turner, Mr. Andrew (Isle of Wight) (Con)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Williams, Mr. Roger (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD)
Wright, David (Telford) (Lab)
Mick Hillyard, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 14 January 2010


[Mr. Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Flood and Water Management Bill

Written evidence to be reported to the House
FW 13 Mark Liebman

Clause 9

Local flood risk management strategies: England
9 am
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I beg to move amendment 95, in clause 9, page 6, line 23, at end insert—
‘(1A) A lead local flood authority must gain the approval of the local flood risk management strategy by its regional flood and coastal committee as established in section 22.’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 97, in clause 10, page 7, line 20, at end insert—
‘(1A) A lead local flood authority must gain the approval of the local flood risk management strategy by its regional flood and coastal committee as established in section 22.’.
New clause 23—Approval of local flood risk management strategies (England)—
‘The regional flood and coastal committee shall approve local flood risk management strategies developed by lead local flood authorities for areas in England as defined in section 9.’.
New clause 24—Approval of local flood risk management strategies (Wales)—
‘The regional flood and coastal committee shall approve local flood risk management strategies developed by lead local flood authorities for areas in Wales as defined in section 10.’.
Martin Horwood: These proposals go to the heart of the effectiveness and appropriateness of local flood risk management strategies and whether they will receive effective overview or scrutiny. There is provision for overview and scrutiny committees as part of the local authority scrutiny system. Such committees are well established in looking at local NHS decisions and the system is effective. It would be useful for the local authority to scrutinise risk management authorities, such as water companies, internal drainage boards and even the Environment Agency, if the scope of local flood strategies is comprehensive enough. The problem is that the lead local authority for flood risk management is the local authority itself. So there is some rather circular self-scrutiny. It seems that no one has the role of checking the effectiveness, appropriateness or thoroughness of local flood risk management strategies.
A broader issue raised by the National Flood Forum and others is whether the national oversight role of the Environment Agency has enough teeth. It is certainly not clear from the outline national strategy presented to the Committee whether there will be a role of checking the effectiveness and appropriateness of local flood risk management strategies or whether attention will be paid to that. Perhaps the Environment Agency could have a role of checking them. However, the danger of over-centralisation in the Bill has also been highlighted by many hon. Members, the Local Government Association and others.
The solution that we suggest in the amendment and consequent proposals is that the role could fall to the newly established regional flood and coastal committees. They will have a local representative element and will not be as unelected and unaccountable as the Environment Agency. The Bill suggests that those committees will have a bit more local knowledge and more specific knowledge of the flood issues in an area. It therefore seems appropriate for those committees to approve local flood risk management strategies. That would provide a check and balance on the quality of such strategies.
This is a crucial issue for our constituents; the practical application of the strategies locally is something that people are most concerned about. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury might agree that the single biggest issue mentioned to us in the aftermath of the floods was the application of local strategies, whether for clearing culverts, maintaining watercourses, sorting out who was responsible for preventing the collapse of a river bank or the obstruction of a channel. Those are the critical issues for local people. It would seem appropriate to have some kind of proper scrutiny of how good local strategies are.
If the proposal outlined in the amendment was not used, I would welcome the Minister’s suggestions for an appropriate system of scrutiny. I would have thought that the regional flood and coastal committees could each look at a reasonable number of local strategies. It would not be out of the realms of managerial possibility to do that. They should have the right degree of expertise and local knowledge. I have given our suggestion. I would welcome a debate on the issue of scrutiny and will listen to the Minister’s response with interest.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): Good morning, Mr. Chope. It is good to be serving under your stewardship again. I understand the spirit in which the amendments have been made. Good scrutiny and overview are important. The amendments, which are tabled by the hon. Members for Cheltenham and for Brecon and Radnorshire, would require local flood-risk strategies effectively to be approved by regional flood and coastal committees. We recognise the vital role that such committees will need to play, not least to ensure that there is a joined-up approach on the ground. Nevertheless, it is not appropriate to give them the role of approving the strategies, because that would go against two key principles in the Bill. The first principle is that there is a clear allocation of responsibility to a particular authority—in effect, where the buck stops. The second principle is that democratically elected local authorities should be clearly leading at the local level.
I understand what the hon. Member for Cheltenham is saying, but we see the measure as local democracy in action: put the accountability there and hand over the scrutiny function. Within the local authority itself, the overview and scrutiny committee will have a role to play, but the RFCCs and the Environment Agency will provide peer support and advice.
We note that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee made some recommendations as well. It suggested that the Bill should
“require decision making bodies to explain how they have taken into account any advice from regional advisory bodies, or their reasons for rejecting it.”
We see the Bill as being consistent with that, not least because we fully intend to clarify the situation through guidance. Therefore, the point that the hon. Gentleman makes is right. We need to ensure that the committees are fully inputting into the policy, but we want to see the buck stopping firmly with locally elected members on those authorities.
Therefore, we expect the regional flood and coastal committees to have a role with the Environment Agency in scrutinising local authority outputs under the flood risk regulations that will implement the EU flood directive. The outputs are preliminary flood risk assessments to identify significant risk areas, risk and hazard maps showing the impact of flooding in an area, and management plans. Those outputs will underlie local authority strategies, but the role does not need to be reflected in the Bill.
In addition, the Environment Agency will help to put in place a joined-up regional approach by addressing partnership working, which has been a theme of much of our deliberations. Its national strategy and guidance will put the matter clearly, showing how partnership working on the ground will work. It will include disseminating information on best practice at a local level for agencies and authorities working together, and also for cross-border working. Therefore, the accountability is there. We do not believe that the RFCCs should be given the role of approving local flood-risk strategies; none the less, they have a pivotal role to play.
Martin Horwood: I am warming to the Minister’s comments. It is quite uncomfortable for me to be accused of being too centralist by the Labour Government; I may well withdraw my amendments judiciously. The Minister talks about peer support and advice from the regional flood and coastal committees to local flood risk management authorities, yet there is no mention of that function in the local flood risk management section of the Bill or in clause 22 onwards, where the regional flood risk committees are established. As far as I can tell, nothing in the Bill puts such a situation in place, but the Minister may correct me.
Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman is right—there is nothing in the Bill in that regard, but we want to clarify the matter through the guidance. We must get the balance right between what we put in the Bill and what we bring through. We can make it clear that we intend the matter to be brought forward in the guidance to the Environment Agency, and in the guidance that accompanies the national strategy.
Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend clarify that the amendments we are discussing are about the role that the RFCC should have in either advising on or approving the flood risk strategies of individual local authorities, whereas later in our proceedings we will discuss whether those committees should continue to have the function of approving the strategy of the Environment Agency in a region? Is that distinction right?
Huw Irranca-Davies: Yes, my hon. Friend makes the right distinction. These amendments are about local flood risk strategies for which, as I think I made clear, we see RFCCs having a pivotal role, but not in approving the strategies.
To take up the point made by the hon. Member for Cheltenham, we can clarify some of this through guidance but we want responsibility to be clearly given to local elected members. They should take the decisions and be scrutinised in doing so, get input from other authorities and take other advice, including from the RFCCs. That is how we envisage they will work. Rather than having over-complicated layers of additional sign-off for strategies, we will put the buck clearly with those individuals—who are elected, as we are—and say, “Get the decisions right, listen to the RFCCs and the Environment Agency, put plans forward, make decisions and be accountable.”
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): The Minister’s explanation is much to be preferred to that of the hon. Member for Cheltenham. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] On this occasion.
I am concerned about one thing. Some unitary authorities are quite small geographically. For example, the city of Southampton unitary authority is entirely encircled by Hampshire county council. I accept that it should have authority, but will it be expected to co-operate? In many cases, it happens to be those people who are nearest to the boundaries who are also nearest to the floods.
Huw Irranca-Davies: That is a good point and I suspect we will return to it in considering subsequent amendments, but it is worth making it clear right now, in response to the hon. Gentleman’s question, that we would expect authorities to co-operate of necessity. Yes, there are localised flood sources such as surface water drainage within a particular area, but co-ordination of flood risk management across a water catchment area, from the top of the hills down to the ingress of tidal flooding, needs to be done through co-operation. He is absolutely right, and we shall come to duties to co-operate in subsequent amendments.
I can clarify that we want accountability at a local level with local authorities, and with the Environment Agency playing its strategic role. That very much follows the Pitt recommendations, but it does not mean that people should cut themselves off in silos. Of necessity, there will have to be co-operation across boundaries because water knows no boundaries.
Martin Horwood: I am persuaded that I may be putting Liberal Democrat localist credentials at some risk with the amendment, so I am happy to withdraw it, but there is still a legitimate concern from the National Flood Forum and others that there may be a quality and scrutiny deficit. I look forward to holding Conservative Gloucestershire council to account in local Liberal Democrat “Focus” leaflets. If Conservative leaflets in the area are to be believed, the world could come to an end if Gloucestershire were ever to fall into Liberal Democrat hands.
I hope the local accountability function will be sufficient for whichever political party happens to be in control of Gloucestershire—or, indeed, other authorities—with this flood risk management responsibility to hold itself to account, in effect, and that we will not need some greater oversight role. I am reassured by what the Minister said about the advice and support that could be given by RFCCs, and I believe that that will happen in practice even though it is not provided for in the Bill. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
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