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Lord Bridges: Perhaps I may add a comment on what the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, said, as one who lives in a part of EnglandEast Angliawhere water resources are scarce. The kind of catastrophic situation that he described must be addressed in the context of planning. In our part of the world, we feel that there is a pressure for housing that existing water supplies could not meet.
Not long ago, I attended a public meeting at which the water company was asked that question, to which its answer was, "Well, we are not short of water in this country; we have just to transport it from where it is to where we need it"which is, of course, a very large question. To avoid catastrophic droughts, if we had more consideration of water needs in the planning system, that would help to fend off that moment.
Earl Peel: The noble Lord, Lord Livsey, has raised a terribly important point. If, as has happened in the past, water companies are abstracting water where the flows in the rivers are perilously low, that can have quite an impact on the sustainable management of the whole water system, and certainly has a major impact on the environment.
I am sure that my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith is right when he says that the amendment is inappropriate to deal with that point, but the issue is hugely important. As the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, said, it comes down to the need to have plans to deal with problems when they arise. The amendment may be inappropriate, but the noble Lord has raised a most important point.
Lord Whitty: We have strayed somewhat wide of the amendment into the whole planning system and ablution arrangements. Although I do not dissent that some of those wider issues are important, they are not appropriate to the amendment. The point of the amendment and of this part of the Bill is to set out the nature of the drought plans.
As we discussed under the previous amendment, drought plans are currently produced and presented by the water companies and include information on their environmental impacts, because of their obligations and duties with respect to water supply in times of drought. So there is already a requirement for water companies' drought plans to cover environmental issues.
Plans currently produced under the guidance address possible environmental impacts such as the effect of drought orders on river flows, river quality or aquatic life, and they contain monitoring plans. We expect this to continue when plans are produced on a statutory basis, so we will use direction powers to ensure that that happens. In addition, Section 3 of the Water Industry Act 1991 already ensures that nature conservation obligations are taken into account by the undertakers in the discharge of their functions.
There is already substantial coverage of the environmental impact. The Environment Agency monitors the effect of any drought action taken by water companies, which includes the wider environmental impacts. So the amendment would not enhance anything that is not already in the existing system, which we are now placing on the statute book.
I thank all the Members of the Committee who have contributed to this debate. Particular points were made about planning in relation to water resources. Indeed, many things will be coming before us soon in the Palace of Westminster about creating new towns in places where there is already an acute water shortage. These are all issues which need much fuller
The noble Lord said: In proposing Amendment No. 173, I am concerned that, as I read the BillI am sure the Minister will put me right if I am wrongunder Clause 63 local flood defence committees will apparently not exist in their current form. I shall refer to that when we debate Amendment No. 175.
Page 11 of the Water Resources Act 1991 lays out the functions of regional as well as local flood defence committees. The 1991 Act seems to me pretty soundly based in terms of ensuring that local issues are properly consulted before decisions are made. I will not make other points nowI will make them when I address Amendment No. 175, which is to be debated separately. However, I am concerned that consultation will no longer be as specific as it is under the Water Resources Act 1991.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: I would be very grateful for some clarification from the Lord Chairman. We understand that there is a grouping, and that the amendment referred to but not spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, is within the group.
When organisations and bodies are reorganised these days, staff are often made redundant or redeployed. In that process, the corporate memory of a business or a government department is often fractured. Decisions are then made which should not be madethe knowledge was there before, but it is not there now. Local knowledge is crucial in this respect.
There may be a problem for flood defence where sufficient capital investment is not available to smaller local flood defence committee areas. I see no reason why an aspect of strategy propounded by a reasonable flood defence committee cannot be fed into by the local flood defence committees and which would appropriate the correct sums of capital investment to address flood problems in certain places. Obviously that must be equitable; drainage and matters of that kind are extremely important. In addition, investment priorities are acute at times.
The present system is not over-bureaucraticin fact, it is very practical. It works, and it makes informed decisions, but grass-roots knowledge is essential in order for good decisions to be made. Indeed, it should be possible to ensure that that continues rather than losing a vital section of knowledge. Members of local flood defence committees are often members of county councils; they often have personal knowledge of problems in communities where houses and flood plains have been flooded. They can cite what has happened and show people. I have seen that happen, when people said that a flood went to such and such a point 20 years ago. Nobody else knows that except perhaps a few people who were directly affected.
Amendment No. 176 is also in my name. I shall try to go through it fairly quickly, but it is a vexed question. I speak here from personal experience rather than in theory. In my experience, the Environment Agency does not have responsibility for non-main river streams, while local authorities do. The amendment asks that the Environment Agency take over those responsibilities. From my experience as a constituency MP, I know that in reality, a huge amount of buck-passing goes on, and nothing gets
The town of Talgarth, after which I took my title, was acutely flooded about eight years agoa lot of citizens were flooded out of their homes. The reason was that the local authority would not take responsibility for the river that runs through the place and the riparian owners could not do so either. The local authority did not have the resources to do the job and the riparian owners did not have the labour. The river became blocked with branches and trees, there was huge rainfall of about six inches, a lake was created, and the dam burst and flooded the whole town. That was the result of neglecting a serious matter; it caused great hardship and still has not been properly resolved. The county is still in discussion with the Environment Agency and is still telling the riparian owners to do something about it. We need something much better than this system, otherwise global warming will mean that we see many more such instances. I beg to move.
Lord Dixon-Smith: I have two amendments in this group, and I shall speak to those first. Amendment No. 174 would go a long way towards relieving the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, about his concern if the change to regional flood defence committees takes place. The change would require the Minister to have regard to the need to involve all those who have local knowledge in the new set-up. If the change is to take place, we need an assurance from the Minister, which I am sure he would be happy to give, that as far as possible he will seek to involve people of knowledge and experience in the flood defence set-up that is to be established. I find it inconceivable that the Government would not already have that in the back of their mind.
The other amendment in this groupAmendment No. 176Ais somewhat different. It would remove a small subsection from Clause 65. We tabled the amendment because there is slight concern as to exactly what the new situation will be. Clause 65(1) states:
Because I cannot interpret the new financial arrangements, we tabled this amendment in the hope that the Minister's exposition on it would be sufficiently plain so that we could understand the matter and could then decide what we wished to do about it. That deals with Amendment No. 176A.
I return to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Livsey. He is right to want to keep a great deal of local experience involved. I sympathise with him very much on the question of flood defences being tightly located in catchment areas, if that can be done. I suppose that ultimately it will come down to the working procedures of the new flood defence committees, when they are established. I find it inconceivable that someone in a remote township in the centre of a region would try to work in detail without the assistance of people who were involved fairly closely on the ground.
However, I also accept that because, as the noble Lord said in his introduction, there have been divided responsibilities with regard to some waterways and a lack of clarity, it may be desirable to put all the responsibility in one place. At least people would then know who to kick if there was a problem.
There are two distinct issues here. One is where the responsibility lies. That must be absolutely plain. Preferably, it should lie in one place. The question then is how those who hold that responsibility choose to do their job. If they have any sensitivity and sense, they will do it in a far more intimate way than would be the case if they sat in their ivory tower in their remote town and thought they knew what was going on in Little Tolpuddle-on-the-Marsh 70, 80 or even 100 miles away. That could well be the case.
I therefore sympathise with what the noble Lord seeks to achieve through his amendment. When he spoke about the fracturing of responsibilities in reorganisation, I said to my noble friend Lady Byford that it was beginning to sound awfully like local government. That is not really a helpful comment but I am sure the Minister will recognise the sentiment. I believe that this group of amendments has some serious substance behind it, and I look forward to the Minister's reply.
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