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Session 2009 - 10
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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

Tuesday 19 January 2010


[Mr. Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Flood and Water Management Bill

Written evidence to be reported to the House
FW 14 Reigate and Banstead Borough Council
FW 15 Mr. Barri Hitchin
FW 17 Mr. Ewan Larcombe
FW 18 English Golf Union and Golf Union of Wales

Clause 17

10.30 am
Question (14 January) again proposed,
That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): Mr. Chope, it is very good to be back under your chairmanship here in the second week of the Committee’s deliberations. Welcome back, as well, to the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire. It is good to see him back, although his colleague did well in his stead.
May I respond to the comments made during the clause 17 stand part debate? Before we adjourned, the hon. Members for Cheltenham and for Vale of York asked questions about the scope of local levies and who will pay for them. Particular concern was expressed about their being used in place of funding from central Government. I will answer those questions in full, but let me first clarify the funding levels for flood and coastal erosion risk management, as hon. Members appear to be under the impression that funding has decreased.
The Government now expect to spend more than £2.15 billion on flood and coastal erosion risk management over the current three-year period. In 2007-08 total expenditure by central and local government was £580 million; in 2008-09 it was £660 million; this year spending will be £715 million. Next year, spending by central and local government is expected to be £780 million. As part of the fiscal stimulus package, £20 million was brought forward from 2010-11 budgets to 2009-10. The hon. Member for Cheltenham referred to the £660 million fund next year; that figure relates only to spending by the Environment Agency, not to the combined spending by central and local government.
The hon. Lady is also right that the same people always seem to fund flood defence work in this country. However, she is mistaken in her assertion that landowners and local authorities are shouldering the costs. Landowners do not pay the RFDC levy; they pay drainage rates totalling about £15 million per year to internal drainage boards. In return, they directly benefit from the water level management services that internal drainage boards provide. About £3 million is paid by farmers to the Environment Agency, which, again, pays for additional maintenance work that benefits their land. Local authorities pay the RFDC levy as well as a special levy to internal drainage boards. To clarify, the special levy is separate from the RFDC local levy and is not affected by the Bill. Both those levies are compensated by formula grant from central Government, so, in the main, neither the local authority nor the council tax payer ultimately funds that important work.
Along with the block grant in aid paid to the Environment Agency, taxpayers across the country are funding almost all activity by the operating authorities, even though five out of six properties are not at risk of being flooded. If anything, there is a case for greater cost sharing with those that benefit from flood risk management activity, especially as overall investment needs to rise.
It is also useful to set the RFDC levy in the context of the overall funding picture for local authorities. The need for local authorities to spend more—perhaps as much as 20 per cent. more—on flood and coastal erosion risk management was foreseen at the last spending review in 2007. That led to more funding being provided within formula grant, including to pay for levies to internal drainage boards and RFDCs as well as to fund local authorities’ own work in maintaining coastal defences and managing local flood risk. Under current assumptions, and taken together with the funding we are providing for the Bill, overall local authority spending on flood and coastal erosion risk management would have to increase from £90 million to more than £160 million a year in the early years after commencement, before it is clear that such involvement is more than anticipated and provided for.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 17 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 18

Environment Agency: reports
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I beg to move amendment 17, in clause 18, page 12, line 25, at end insert—
‘(5) The Agency must also publish on a quarterly basis its programme of regular maintenance work carried out on main water courses.’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 10—Regular maintenance of water courses
‘The Environment Agency must undertake a programme of regular maintenance work of major water courses on an annual basis with quarterly reports to both Houses of Parliament.’.
Miss McIntosh: Good morning, Mr. Chope. May I welcome you back to the Chair? I would like to have a short debate on clause 18 stand part, so I will speak only to the amendment and new clause, which are not insignificant. The Committee will be aware that one of the key recommendations of the Pitt review was that maintenance should be not just done but seen to be done. I had one point of difference with the Pitt conclusions overall in relation to many of the flood visits that I made—those of 2000, 2005, 2007 especially, and last year’s floods in Cumbria. Although it is difficult to prove, anecdotally we were told that there is not now the level of maintenance that has been undertaken in the past. The amendment and new clause would rectify that.
My understanding is that the agency places annually on its website a maintenance programme. Obviously, that is a bit of a moveable feast, but if we are to address the issue and public concerns, the main thrust of the Bill should be to ensure that there is less opportunity to flood main watercourses in future. The Minister referred to the role of IDBs and how they are funded substantially by local farmers and landowners, many of whom hold positions of responsibility on them. We are told that it is very much the case that IDBs undertake a significant programme of maintenance that is public and there for all to see—as a vice-president of the Association of Drainage Authorities, I take that on good account. From the levies that they raise, they also make substantial funds available annually to the Environment Agency for the specific purpose of carrying out maintenance.
It is incontrovertible that the Government have increased capital spending on floods, although the insurance industry and flood victims would argue that the annual capital programme is simply not enough and does not go far enough. As a result of skilful parliamentary questioning, however, the Government have admitted that the maintenance programme has slipped in comparison with the capital programme. We want to rectify that. We want to hold the agency to account; it is a body that we hold in high regard and we believe that the amendment would help them and their reputation enormously. It will put to rest a fear, which has been expressed to us, so we are very much aware of it, that maintenance is not being undertaken at certain times of the year because of biodiversity, birds nesting and so on. That is also the case with the internal drainage board, but one can work around that.
Amendment 17 would insist that, instead of having an annual rolling programme, the agency publish on a quarterly basis its programme of regular maintenance work carried out on main watercourses. Obviously, since 2004-05 the number of enmained watercourses has increased. Another purpose of amendment 17 is to ascertain whether the agency’s maintenance programme is less vigorous than it was previously, and whether main watercourses are being dredged and maintained. I have seen physical evidence of that. For instance, self-planted willow trees that had not been removed contributed very much to the floods of 2007 in particular, and to other floods. If the main watercourses are not being dredged and maintained, water will back up into the minor watercourses, which are the responsibility of the internal drainage boards. That is what is making them so angry. They have a full programme, to which they adhere. Their work is being undermined by a lack of maintenance and dredging on the scale that we would like. If we are to implement Pitt, he was clear that maintenance should be not just done but seen to be done. New clause 10 is a helpful technical amendment to a different part of the Bill.
Clearly, our fervent wish is that the Minister will look favourably on the amendment and new clause and make them part of the Bill. I hope that he will address the issues that I have raised: not least, that the maintenance programme is not as vigorous as it was prior to 1997. As a Back Bencher, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made political history by securing, for the first time, an Adjournment debate on that issue. He called for a better balance between spending on big capital projects in urban areas and spending on maintenance, from which rural areas benefit more. The issue touches the heart of all local communities, which are central to the internal drainage board. Given the Government’s catchment management systems and some other programmes, flooding of farmland will increase as existing rural flood defences on minor watercourses are allowed to fail, because the Government will argue that there is no money to maintain them. The amendment and new clause address serious issues, and I hope that the Minister will be minded to adopt them.
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): Briefly, I want to support the amendment and new clause. Although a number of Opposition Members have welcomed the Bill, we have said frequently that it needs strengthening if it is to have the desired effect and impact, which the amendment and new clause attempt to provide. My hon. Friend would probably also want to tie them in with new clause 11—on which I hope to catch your eye, Mr. Chope—which relates to schedule 3, on smaller watercourses, private drains and sewers.
Last night, I had a meeting with Lord Smith, the chairman of the Environment Agency. We discussed this very issue, among others. Prior to the new regime at the Environment Agency, it was universally the view that dredging of rivers was not necessarily beneficial. The new chairman said that that was not necessarily his view; each river had to be assessed differently, and although it might not be beneficial on some rivers, it might be on others. Will the Minister let the Committee know what his approach and attitude would be towards the maintenance and dredging of main watercourses? Each and every main watercourse needs assessing properly.
As I hope to address new clause 11 later this morning, let me say that repairs and trying to catch up when a flood has happened are essential, but are not the best method of flood prevention. It is too late then. Maintenance, which so often gets neglected, is important. As with servicing one’s car, it is easy to put it off for several months; nobody notices until things start to go wrong. In requiring reports to be given on maintenance, my hon. Friend’s proposals would prevent such delay. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
10.45 am
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