House of Commons
|Session 2009 - 10|
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Flood and Water Management Bill
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Irranca-Davies, Huw (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)
Mick Hillyard, Committee Clerk
attended the Committee
Public Bill Committee
Tuesday 19 January 2010
[Mr. Eric Martlew in the Chair]
Flood and Water Management Bill
Clause 21 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): May I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Martlew? It is a pleasure to serve again under your chairmanship.
The biggest change under clause 22 is the change of status of regional flood and coastal committees from advisory to consultative.
Will the Minister justify the impact that the change to the regional flood and coastal committees status would have in each region? Under the clause, what direction would potentially be given by the Environment Agency to local communities? Will the Minister assure us that, through subsection (2), the Government are not seeking to overrule either local communities or the role of the Environment Agency? We are putting down a marker to show that we are concerned by the change in status of the regional flood and coastal committees. Is the Minister minded to lay before the House the regulations that he proposes in subsection (2), so that we might be able to debate them in the usual way?
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. Martlew.
I want the Minister to address two issues in the clause. One is a general concern that what people agree is a valuable route to local democratic involvement in the flood risk management process may be diminished by the arrangements for regional flood and coastal committees. In the NHS, the parlance now is about expert patients. In many fields, it is recognised that the people who actually experience a problem may have insight that even the best academics and professionals sometimes cannot impart. It is valuable to have a route for local people to have a formal role in the flood risk management process. Until now, regional flood defence committees have been one such routeI have met local councillors who have expert knowledge, even though they may not have the professional qualifications of a hydrologist with a complex mapping system at their disposal. Computer models do not know everything and such committees have an important role.
I would like to hear from the Minister a clear expression of how the regional flood and coastal committees will fit between the national oversight role of the Environment Agency and the new lead local responsibility of the local authorities. Ultimately, I am asking what the Government see as the purpose of these new committees. In a sense that is not clearly defined on the face of the Bill; we are left to infer it.
The second specific concern is over the subsection of this clause that gives the Secretary of State power to establish the regions in which these committees are based. We are all familiar with Government regions, some of which are not appropriate at all, certainly not for something of this scale. The hon. Members for Tewkesbury and for Stroud and I labour within the south-west Government region, which places Tewkesbury in the same region as somewhere it is as close to as Scotlandthe Isles of Scilly. That is a crazy scale of region; I hope that is not what is envisaged for these regional flood and coastal committees.
Organisations involved with the Blueprint for Water campaign have suggested that the natural regions for regional flood and coastal committees should be based on water catchment areas. That seems to be a natural and very sensible thing to do and one which would reinforce the thrust of the remarks that I have been making since the beginning of the Committee stage.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I am interested in the hon. Gentlemans proposal. May I find out whether he is in favour of the Severn, including that part which is in Wales, being in one unit?
Martin Horwood: The hon. Gentleman may have got the better of me. I am not absolutely sure where I would draw the boundary based on water catchment, and I have not really sat down with a map and thought that through. The Severn vale seems a logical area, but I am not sure whether that would include the Wye. I would leave that up to people more expert than me. The thrust is, again, that we should wherever possible try to work with nature and look at natural landscapes. The obvious regional designation in this case would be water catchment areas and water basins. It would be very welcome if the Minister committed to that now. If he does not find that possible, will he at least say that he would treat that suggestion sympathetically?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): Some good issues have been raised. Let me deal with the issue of the boundaries and that of Wales.
The boundaries of the regional flood defence committees were fixed under the Environment Act 1995. They reflected the boundaries that had existed previously under the National Rivers Authority and, before that, the water authorities. On the matters under discussion and the hon. Gentlemans point about catchment areas, there is absolutely no benefit in continuing to fix the boundaries rigidly from the centre. Committee areas would need to take account of a range of factors, including the natural factors relating to river catchment areas and coastal erosion, the size and scale that is feasible and practical for committees to work on, and administrative boundaries. That approach would be in
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of whether there should be one single committee that is wholly and mainly for Wales. Currently, there is one flood defence committee on Wales, and the Environment Act 1995 provides that in relation to the other statutory committees. One of the committee regions consists wholly or mostly of Wales. However, we do not see a need to require that there is only a single committee for Wales. For example, it may be sensible to have two or more committees that cover the whole of Wales between them. We need to retain the flexibility for now and the future.
On the hon. Gentlemans question about the role of local people, we will continue to make sure that there is a local role through the RFCCs. They will continue to have local authority membership, which we can perhaps talk more about when we come to the various amendments and the subsequent clause. In schedule 2, an additional provision for local authorities scrutiny increases the scope for public participation.
The hon. Member for Vale of York raised the issue of the change in executive status of regional flood defence committeesI am sure that we will return to that too. The current requirement for the Environment Agency to carry out its flood defence functions through regional flood defence committees creates blurred responsibility between the agency and those committees. It is a fuzzy edge. It also creates potential conflict when it comes to the allocation of funding by the EA and the achievement of Government targets. That arrangement was appropriate when committees raised the majority of flood defence funding through the local levy. However, that has not been the case since 2004, when a system of direct grant from central Government to the agency was introduced. Therefore, the Bill aims to bring the law into line with the present and the intended funding arrangements. However, it also brings matters more into line with the Environment Agencys existing consultative committees, which are entirely advisory, although the regional flood and coastal committees will have decision-making powers relating to local funds.
I hope that that is a helpful explanation.
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I was not sure of the answer to a question asked by the hon. Member for Cheltenham, and I am not sure that the Minister has quite answered it. He said that we will return to the issue of the membership of regional flood and coastal committees, but I am unclear about the actual role of the committees, and how they sit between Environment Agency strategy and the lead local authority strategy. What exactly will they do?
Huw Irranca-Davies: The interface between the Environment Agency, the regional flood and coastal committees and local authorities is key. As is described in the Bill, the RFCC is an advisory committee, but it also provides peer support and advice. There is an interface between the organisations, but the RFCC will be on an advisory, rather than executive, footing.
Miss McIntosh: That is the key point, which the Minister did not address. Will he now tell the Committee why the Government have changed and possibly
Huw Irranca-Davies: I suspect that we might come back to it, but I have already stated why that is. The Bill brings the position into line with the changes in funding since 2004. At one time these regional committees raised the majority of funding themselves. They do not do that any longer. The Bill aims to bring the legislative vehicle into line with the funding vehicles that are there now and are anticipated in future. We may well return to this matter, but that is the clear rationale behind it.
I did not entirely understand the issue that was raised with regard to subsection (2). That provides the power for the Minister to make regulations to make transitional provision for the move from regional flood defence committees to regional flood and coastal committees. It also allows regulations for the process by which the EA divides countries into various regions. It is fairly straightforward. I suspect we might return to the matter, but the rationale behind the change in status is to reflect the current funding commitments, which have changed since the historic basis.
Miss McIntosh: To help the Minister, we are querying why he needs to make these regulations. He cannot have it both ways. Does the clause serve the purpose of putting into place the consequence of changes? Personally, I disapproved of those. The way in which the previous regional flood defence committees raised money was much better. They were locally accountable, and the fact it is being centralised is regrettable. I do not quite know what the Minister is hoping to achieve through these regulations. What is the purpose of the transitional provision? Is it there because we are replacing the previous committees with new committees? He will detect from Committee members line of questioning that we are not clear what purpose the clause serves.
Huw Irranca-Davies: The clause creates a new vehicle. Based on the historic precedent of the previous committees, it gives them a different remit. It puts them on a structure that reflects the current funding arrangements. I appreciate that the hon. Lady preferred not to have central funding, but there are national strategic aims that need to be delivered. We cannot do that on a purely local or regional basis. Based on the evidence, which has increased over the years, imperatives show where we need to make strategic decisions and where that also requires an interface with local areas. If we pull back and do not have such grant funding, we have the potential for one area to make a decision based on its allocated funding that may have a detrimental effect on an area downstream.
Pitt was absolutely clear on the issue in terms of risk management. We need the strategic overview and the local aspect as well. That is what we are trying to do. We need subsection (2) because the detail of how to proceed is not set out on the face of the Bill. With regard to the transition, we need practical rules to make clear how to move from where we are now. That is what subsection (2) is all about.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 22 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.
The Chairman: There is a small typographical error on the amendment paper relating to amendment 156. It should read clause 23, not clause 24.
Consultation and consent
Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): I beg to move amendment 156, in clause 23, page 14, line 18, at end insert
(2) The Agency may not implement the regional programme without the consent of the Regional Flood and Coastal Committee for the region concerned..
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