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The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss clause stand part.
Mr. Grogan: I listened to every word that all three Front-Bench spokesmen have said, and the words “local democracy” and “localism” came up a lot. The amendment is infused with the spirit of localism, local democracy and the ancient liberties of our land. When I talk about local democracy, I do not talk about it in the way that some have talked about it in recent years, perhaps most notably my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Hazel Blears). They speak about focus groups and consultative panels that keep going until they provide the right answer to whichever arm of Whitehall is consulting. I mean elected local bodies making decisions on local issues.
The regional flood defence committees are one of the little-known marvels of our system of Government. They have brought local and central Government into partnership over the years. There are 11 of them at present. The chairman is appointed by the Secretary of State, and more than half the members are local government members. We will consider the composition of the committees in future amendments.
At present, the committees have the role of approving Environment Agency expenditure in a particular region. It is a historic role. The clause changes it to an advisory role: the committee will become an advisory body like other bodies that advise the Environment Agency. I think they should continue to have the role of approving the regional flood plan of the Environment Agency. It is a good check.
The Minister says that the funding system has changed. It is true that it changed marginally in about 2004. The central grant previously went to local councils, which then passed it on in a levy to the regional flood defence committees. It was always central Government money, but it was routed through the councils. I do not think that it is game, set and match to diminish the role of the committees.
One of the great joys of my life is being a vice-president of the Association of Drainage Authorities—a title I hold as dear as my membership of Yorkshire county cricket club or my chairmanship of the all-party group on beer. The association’s members are experts, and they often sit on these committees. They said that if the powers of the regional flood and coastal committees, as they will become, are diminished and the committees are made consultative bodies only, they will not have councillors of the same calibre wanting to give up their time.
My neighbour, the hon. Member for Vale of York, will know Councillor Peter Sowray, who gives up a great deal of his time to work on the Yorkshire regional flood defence committee. He does that because it is a job with meaning and purpose. He and his colleagues, whether they are councillors or not, can scrutinise the Environment Agency. I believe that the flood plan for Yorkshire is better for the fact that it is scrutinised by the committee that ultimately has to sanction it.
There is no evidence anywhere up and down the land that regional flood defence committees behave irresponsibly, turn down Environment Agency plans carte blanche or cause trouble for the sake of it. There is no evidence at all. The system works, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It would be much better to leave the committees with an executive role, not just over the levy, which is raised locally, but also over the regional flood programme of the Environment Agency.
It comes down to this: when the day comes that I am no longer a Member of Parliament—[Interruption.] That day will come, sooner or later. I might be looking for a job, and perhaps a Minister of whatever colour might decide to make me the chairman of the Yorkshire regional flood and coastal committee, which would be the true honour of my life. [Interruption.] Yes, it would be a true honour. I am too old to open the batting for Yorkshire, so I have to put my aspirations elsewhere.
If I were meeting the regional official of the Environment Agency, I would be treated differently depending on whether my committee and I had to approve the agency’s budget, or just had to be consulted. If it was a question of my being consulted, they would give me tea and biscuits but they would not treat the committee in the same way. It is only human nature. If one has to get approval from a body, one treats it with more respect. That is one of the great hidden gems of our democracy. We sometimes wonder how we can make the health service more responsive at a local level. It could learn a little from the success of the regional flood defence committees.
I urge the Committee to keep the executive role of the flood and coastal defence committees, give councillors and the other people who serve on them a proper job of work, and keep the Environment Agency responsible to a locally accountable body. When it comes to deciding on flood management and expenditure in Yorkshire, I would prefer that the final word went to the men and women of the white rose county who sat on the committee rather than the men and women from Whitehall.
The Chairman: I remind hon. Members that I am taking clause stand part as well.
Miss McIntosh: I congratulate my hon. neighbour on his eloquence; I could not have expressed it better myself. The white rose league is exemplified by the co-operation on the Committee. We may be few in number on the Committee, but I hope that those who bat for the white rose county will punch above our weight. Before we take on that battle, I do not know whether there any Lancashire representatives here. I support the hon. Gentleman in his quest to have amendment 156 adopted. I have more difficulties with amendment 157, but I think I know where he is coming from. Perhaps the Minister will expand on that when he makes his remarks.
I should like to join the hon. Gentleman in paying a huge tribute to County Councillor Peter Sowray, who I have the honour to represent in this place, and to compliment him on the sterling work that he and others do on the regional flood defence committees.
I do not understand what the Minister and the Department hope to achieve with clause 23. In addressing some remarks on the content of the clause in the stand part debate, should the hon. Member for Selby fail in moving his amendment, I should like to associate myself with the Association of Drainage Authorities, which strongly disagrees with the move to alter the status of the regional flood and coastal committees from an executive to an advisory role. I do not condone what the Government did in 2004-05. I spent five years of my life campaigning to get the Cod beck, which floods frequently, enmained. I did not do that because it would become the responsibility of the Environment Agency but because I thought that it would follow the money, which was then with the Environment Agency and would have been disbursed by the regional flood defence committee and the Environment Agency together. No sooner had I succeeded in my campaign in 2005 to have Cod beck enmained, than the Government changed the system and moved the decision to a central body. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to apologise and go back to the system as was, which is what the hon. Gentleman is trying to do with his amendments.
The Minister’s own Department draft and floodwater management consultation stated that the rural flood and coastal defence committees
“ensure local democratic input into the decision making process”.
Therefore, altering their role to an advisory one would diminish their influence on the process. It goes on to say that the committees have already undergone major amalgamation from the previous local flood defence committees, and that the firm view of the Association of Drainage Authorities is that a further reduction in status is likely to undermine the committees’ ability to act on their current key strengths: their ability to raise money and to represent the local communities they serve. The Government’s proposed changes are also likely to deter local authority councillors and others from joining the committees if they are merely advisory. The likes of County Councillor Peter Sowray and his colleagues throughout the country will not see any purpose in or be attracted to serving on those committees.
I want to link my comments to the levying powers, and to echo the comments by the Association of Drainage Authorities that the regional flood and coastal committees must retain their executive powers and the opportunity to decide where the levy funding and the internal drainage board precept funding to the Environment Agency should be spent under the clause. Only thereby can we meet local democratic accountability in prioritising funds and giving local communities the confidence of knowing that the money they raise is being spent and accounted for under local scrutiny. The funding should reflect local priorities, not be part of a national pot that the Government can requisition as they go along. That has been the tendency since 2005, and the fact that Cod beck has not received any funding, to my personal chagrin, shows that that is the case.
I associate myself with the comments of my distinguished neighbour, the hon. Member for Selby. I am sure that there will always be a place for him here or as a chairman of the new committees that he so desires. I draw the Minister’s attention to my comments about the levy-making powers, and I hope that he will exercise his powers under clause 23, particularly subsections (2) and (3), with great circumspection. I also hope that he will be minded to accept his hon. Friend’s amendment to subsection (1)(a) and (b). I associate myself with the hon. Gentleman’s comments and particularly with amendment 156, but we would like further clarification of amendment 157.
4.30 pm
Martin Horwood: I will not take much of the Committee’s time on this, but it might be worth reflecting on why acts of God seem to have affected great cricketing counties such as Yorkshire and Gloucestershire so much. Perhaps the explanation is that God is from Lancashire.
The amendment is welcome, and similar in intent to our earlier amendment 95 and new clause 23. Liberal Democrats could trace the thinking behind it back to John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty”, and the basic idea that even public services and the exercise of authority are not only better theoretically for a bit of scrutiny, democracy and openness, but produce a better result. That has been a theme in many of our proposals for decentralisation and democratic scrutiny in the exercise of all sorts of authority.
The Government have a slight habit of substituting the mantra of consultation for proper democratic involvement. Anyone who has been involved in regional spatial strategies, and has been through the grinding five years of consultation, which produced almost no impact whatever on the final document as I see it, would be wary of that substitution of consultation for proper involvement. It would be a regrettable end to the noble history of regional flood defence committees if their role were diminished in that way. The amendment would, effectively, give them a right of veto over the implementation of EA flood risk management in their particular regions. That would concentrate minds considerably and lead to the improvement of the works planned. The Minister’s remarks, which tried to clarify the new role of the regional flood committees as defined in the Bill, did not really satisfy. They seem to be left with a purely consultative role with some residual powers of levy. That would be a diminished role; we want to see a role that would be fit for the hon. Member for Selby to chair at regional level in Yorkshire—that would be a fine end.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I am pleased to respond to that. However, before I turn to the amendment, the hon. Member for Vale of York asked me to apologise. I simply will not apologise for a system that, with grant in aid and local levies, has now delivered double the spending; has given a real strategic national evidence-based overview to flood and coastal erosion management; and, by March 2011, will have allowed us to deliver additional better protection to 160,000 homes. I cannot apologise for that. It is important to make centrally funded decisions based on the best available evidence, but tying that into local input is equally critical; that has been a theme of this.
To refer back to why we are making these changes, hon. Members may not recall that prior to 2004 there was great criticism by several independent reviews throughout the late 1990s. Those identified a lack of strategic planning, poor value for money and a system that was dogged by bureaucracy. So we have not arrived here by accident. I do recognise the role of these committees and I will clarify that in a moment. That strategic overview is also important. Let us not pretend, however, that prior to 2004 everything was hunky-dory, because independent review after independent review showed that it was not. We do not want to return there.
The clause would require the Environment Agency to consult each and every regional flood and coastal committee about how it, as the EA, proposes to exercise its flood and coastal erosion risk management functions within that region. The EA has to go out there and consult on every proposal. It will be required to take into account any representation that the committee makes whether or not it is in response to a consultation. If the committee that my hon. Friend the Member for Selby heads decides, “We have picked up on something that they are not consulting on. We want to tell them that it is wrong or it is right,” the EA will have to take account of that regardless of whether it is in the consultation. The clause provides for the committees’ new largely consultative role covering both flood and—of course, the change within this—coastal erosion risk management.
The clause also requires the EA to obtain the consent of the relevant committee before it may issue local levies. Local levy raising and local input to add value to the whole process are key. We have repeatedly said that as a Government. The provision, therefore, leaves the decision-making power regarding the local levy in the hands of people such as my hon. Friend chairing the regional flood and coastal committee, reflecting the present arrangements with the regional flood defence committees. It also requires the EA to obtain the consent of the committee before spending revenue under section 118 of the Water Resources Act 1991, which includes not just the local levy, but other local funds—general and special drainage charges and contribution from IDBs. IDBs are critical in this matter, with their enhanced role. We want to ensure that regional flood and coastal committees have the decision-making power over how locally raised funds are used.
It is entirely plausible that there will be local influence over the Environment Agency’s regional programmes through the local levy and the contributions to EA costs, through scrutiny and through challenge. I expect that to happen. I rebuff the idea that the committees are toothless. They will, and should, hold to account and challenge as part of an open and transparent system. They should also be able to work co-operatively and add value to what is being done. We have to have the national and strategic elements, but we will also have the added value that only local input can bring.
We cannot allow, and I am not willing to allow, RFCCs to overrule the EA’s direct accountability to Ministers. The RFCCs will not sit at the desk opposite me and account for their actions or mis-actions. That will be done by the EA, which is accountable not only to Ministers, but to Parliament.
The hon. Member for Vale of York raised the issue of RFCCs having powers over local levies. The powers for RFCCs to approve levies and the spending of levy money are set out in clause 23(2) and (3).
I understand the spirit behind the amendment. It would introduce a requirement for the EA to seek the consent of regional flood and coastal committees before it implemented its regional programmes. We discussed a similar point last week in relation to local strategies. As hon. Members know, the Government could not have made it clearer that we recognise the important role that RFCCs will play at the regional level. In line with that, clause 23 places a duty on the EA to consult the committees about how it proposes to carry out its flood and coastal erosion management activities in their areas. The agency must take account of any representations made by the committees. That means that it will have to follow the recommendations of the committees, unless it has reasonable grounds to do otherwise. It will have to justify those grounds.
My hon. Friend the Member for Selby is right to ask for examples of that being a problem in the past. I would be hard pressed to find examples because of the co-operative relationship. Both the EA and the committees try to do the right thing on the ground. To extend the logic, if a committee challenges something good and early, the EA will have to work with it. If the EA will not do what the committee says, it will have to say transparently why it will not do so. Ultimately, the EA will be sitting in my office if my hon. Friend, in his future life as the chair of a committee, says to me, “What on earth is the EA doing in my region? It is doing brilliantly in 98 per cent. of the country, but in my patch it is not even listening to us. It has given reasons that are completely mad.” That would be an issue that I would be concerned with.
Clause 23 requires consent to be obtained for any local levy. The ultimate responsibility for allocating funding on a national basis must rest with the Environment Agency in England and with Welsh Ministers in Wales, if it is to be allocated systematically and equitably. I know my hon. Friend will understand that. There is a real issue of equitable distribution of funding and social justice. It is not just a matter of looking at the evidence and deciding what sort of defence is appropriate in each place and what strategies will be adopted from region to region. We must ensure that all the funding is not allocated to areas that have greater powers of persuasion or more money to prime the process and assist it. There is a real issue of social justice. That is why the national approach is so important.
The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, of which the hon. Lady is a member, was clear on that. It agreed with the proposed approach and stated in recommendation 17:
“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.”
That has been enshrined in the Bill. However, let me acknowledge that I can see where my hon. Friend is coming from and that there is real tension between—this is at the heart of the matter—enabling local views to influence the Environment Agency works programme, delivering the strategic national aims that I am talking about and achieving best value for money.
In the past, when RFDCs controlled regional spending, as I have said, there were many parts—not every part—where there were underspends, and there were many examples of poor value for money. It is not me saying that; it was in report after report. Under the EA’s current national programme, which was criticised by the hon. Lady and from which I simply will not walk away, we achieved far greater value for money for the taxpayer from the funding. Although I recognise the passion with which she has spoken and with which my hon. Friend has moved the amendment, I do not have a solution to hand to what he is proposing. I cannot simply walk away from the national strategic overview. However, if we can, I am keen to try to find a way forward that effectively reflects local priorities without putting the improvements I have referred to at risk. I am happy to explore the possibilities of that with both the Environment Agency and my hon. Friend.
Finally, on a minor technical issue, my hon. Friend’s amendment does not accurately reflect the situation of the Welsh Assembly Government within Wales. I am happy to explore the matter further as long as he is willing to consider the context of the debate that we have had. I do not want to sacrifice the gains that we have made from having that balance between the national strategic and the local.
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