All Victoria Prentis contributions to the Rivers Authorities and Land Drainage Bill 2017-19

Fri 15th March 2019
5 interactions (1,317 words)
Fri 8th February 2019
5 interactions (1,039 words)

Rivers Authorities and Land Drainage Bill

(3rd reading: House of Commons)
Victoria Prentis Excerpts
Mike Wood Portrait Mike Wood (Dudley South) (Con)
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15 Mar 2019, 12:59 p.m.

I shall speak extremely briefly in support of this sensible Bill. There can be few Members of this House who represent constituencies that have not been impacted by flooding in recent years. In some cases, such as the flooding in Somerset, it has been on a devastating and life-threatening scale, and has featured in headline news around the country and sometimes around the world. In other cases, the flooding will have been much more localised, but still with an enormous impact on those whom we represent. In my own constituency, localised flooding caused the closure of a local primary school for a while, with everything that results from that. It sometimes causes significant damage to property and possessions, sometimes large financial costs and at other times very large damage to items of sentimental if not necessarily financial value.

If the measures set out in the Bill and the new rivers authorities can ensure that preventive work can be done to reduce the risk to people’s lives, properties and possessions, this legislation will make an enormous contribution to many families up and down the country. In some parts of the country, it is obviously appropriate that the work is done by new rivers authorities, covering either a single or multiple local authority areas. In others, the work can be done at least as, if not more, effectively by existing bodies, whether the lead is taken by the larger local authorities, particularly unitary authorities, or by a city region or combined authority.

As the effects of climate change become more apparent, with adverse and unusual weather patterns occurring on a much more regular basis than they did even a few decades ago, and as building and development patterns mean that, in the last generation or two, more and more properties have been built in areas that we now see being particularly prone to flooding, it is even more important that we do everything we can reasonably do to safeguard areas from the effects of flooding. This Bill is an important step towards achieving that.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis (Banbury) (Con)
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15 Mar 2019, 1:01 p.m.

Madam Deputy Speaker, you may remember the last speech that I gave on this Bill.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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15 Mar 2019, 1:01 p.m.

It certainly was not too short, but it did rehearse my lifelong passion for drains and my concerns about flooding. I relived one of my worst ever court experiences, when I feared I would have to say cryptosporidium in Welsh when prosecuting Welsh Water. Luckily, that never came about.

I pay tribute to all the hard work that my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton) has put into this private Member’s Bill, which has cross-party and Government support. He has spoken on the subject with extensive knowledge and authority, if perhaps without my passion as a wet Tory. This is a worthwhile Bill and one that is long overdue.

On Second Reading, apart from talking about my grandfather’s drains, I also spoke about the quality of the raw water in my constituency, caused by discharges from sewage treatment works and diffuse agricultural products. This has caused increased nutrients in the water, which has led to quite poor water quality in many of our local rivers. I was having a discussion with my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) as we prepared for today’s sitting, and he made the point that in his constituency—a former coalmining area—there are very real difficulties with water quality because the water courses have been messed around with as we have messed around with the environment.

This Bill will have importance for Members right across the House. Obviously we recognise that Somerset has had a particular problem with flooding, but I hope that the Bill will give peace of mind to homeowners and businesses across the country that are at risk of flooding, although most particularly to the people of Somerset. I am aware that Somerset has suffered from flooding for the past 400 years, with chroniclers describing floods as “faster than a greyhound”, as my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome told us in Committee.

The Bill is important because it addresses some key issues. It would allow the Secretary of State the power to establish rivers authorities. Clause 1(2) amends the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 to include rivers authorities in the definition of risk management authorities. This will allow rivers authorities to co-operate with other risk management authorities when tackling flooding, and will help to ensure that there is central co-ordination when dealing with these issues. That co-ordinated approach is crucial for effective planning and strategy in these types of situation. The measure also means that rivers authorities will have the power to issue a precept to billing authorities, which would then be in a position to collect the money from local taxpayers.

This is something we have studied in depth in Banbury. We were severely flooded in 1998 and then again, slightly less so, in 2007. The original floods caused extensive damage to 125 residential properties, and 35 commercial properties were also flooded, with about £12.5 million of damage. After the 2007 floods, we came together as a community to work out how to deal with it. We came up with a new scheme, which I think it is relevant to mention.

We were able to collect the money for our flood defence scheme in Banbury not only indirectly from local taxpayers via the local council—not by a precept, because that was not available then—but from significant private investment. That is a model, and it should be used by other areas that are dealing with this problem as an example of a public-private partnership that can really benefit an area.

We had bad flooding in 2007. We started the construction of our new scheme in 2011. It now protects 441 houses and 71 commercial properties. It is a huge earth embankment of almost 3,000 metres long and up to 4.5 metres high in places. As part of the development, we were also able to construct a new park, with a circular walk, and to work locally to create habitats for wildlife, which we also need to consider whenever we play with water systems. We need to think about what good we can do when we change the way that water flows.

The scheme cost just over £18.5 million, and it was tested soon after it was constructed in the floods of November 2012. I am pleased to say that it has worked beautifully ever since. It has also had a significant effect on the environment in the village where I live. I live further down the Cherwell valley from Banbury, in a beautiful area right in the middle of my constituency. Previously, when Banbury or Oxford flooded, because of opening gates and managing the water, our area of the Cherwell valley could be very badly affected by flooding, but our new works in Banbury have alleviated the problem for not only the immediate area but those of us further downstream. It is a good example, and I urge Members with an interest in this to consider the way that we got private and public money to pay for it.

Areas that do not have rivers authorities will be able to set them up if they are needed, to ensure that there is local support. Another important element of the Bill is how it will help the 112 internal drainage boards across England that are involved in water management and flood risk management. They play an important role in their local area by maintaining water levels for agricultural and environmental needs, as well as through the upkeep of waterways and flood management.

IDBs are responsible for approximately 1.2 million hectares in England, covering close to 1 million properties. Each IDB is funded by the area it covers, and drainage rates are paid for by agricultural landowners and special levies that are paid for by local councils or authorities. Those land valuations depend on an assessment by each IDB of the relative value of agricultural land, buildings and “other land”. However, the valuation of other land is based on data collected in the 1990s as part of the Land Drainage Act 1991, which is older, if I may say so, than most of my members of staff. The Bill will mean that new data is collected, to be used by IDBs to calculate the value of “other land” and bring us into the modern world. It will also allow IDBs to extend their boundaries and make it possible for new IDBs to be created using modern-day data.

The other pressing issue in my constituency at the moment is the enormous amount of house building we are doing. We are finishing three houses a day in Banbury and Bicester on average. We normally top the leader board nationally most weeks for the number of houses finished. This has obviously had an enormous effect on the environment locally. It is really important that we use the structures in Bills such as this to ensure that we plan the way the water flows around these new developments.

It is also very important that we do just as much to plan habitat building around new developments. Bicester is a garden town, one of the schemes developed in the last Parliament, and we take this very seriously. I feel that the way in which we manage our water is important both for stopping flooding and, in a positive way, ensuring that it can help habitats and allow us all to enjoy it. Nothing is more beautiful than walking by a stream or, as my grandfather said—I think I mentioned this in my last speech—listening to a running drain.

It is important that we really embrace the concept of water management, so I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome not only for his hard work in getting the Bill to this stage for his constituents, but for everything he has done for people across England who have been affected by devastating flooding.

Matt Warman Portrait Matt Warman (Boston and Skegness) (Con)
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15 Mar 2019, 1:11 p.m.

I rise to briefly support this excellent Bill, as I did in the Bill Committee and on several occasions as it has progressed through the slightly tortuous private Member’s Bill system. It is excellent that we are finally here today with something that will deliver real and meaningful benefits for Somerset in particular.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton) knows, this is the point where I turn into a bit of a gloom bucket. While the Bill is brilliant for Somerset, I hope the Minister and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be able to look favourably on the other parts of the country that seek to benefit from the good things it will enable for Somerset and, in theory, for other parts of the country as well. I say that for two reasons, and some of this is already in process through the consultations that the Department is running via the Environment Agency at the moment.

The first is the extension of rateable areas for existing IDBs. In my constituency, we are blessed with five IDBs. As I have mentioned before, according to the Association of British Insurers, it is the constituency in the country most likely to flood in relation to both internal drainage and coastal flooding. To be sustainable, drainage boards need to rate areas that benefit from the work they do but that do not currently pay for it. It seems to me that that is only fair, because the work the drainage boards do provides a huge benefit for the wider local economy. In Lincolnshire, they work remarkably effectively and produce work at a fraction of the cost of the Environment Agency—by the Environment Agency’s own admission—and, indeed, they have often worked as contractors for the Environment Agency to produce the maximum value for the taxpayer. They will be able to do even better work if they are properly and sensibly funded by all those who benefit from their work. That is what the Bill will permit—in practice, in some areas of the country, and in theory, in others. Once my IDBs, which are independent-minded and well run, come to a collective view on what they would like, I hope the Minister and his colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will look favourably on it.

My second point is on the rivers authorities aspect of the Bill, which could be—I do not say it will be, but that it could be—an excellent solution for Lincolnshire as well. I would like that very much to come from my own drainage boards, councils and those who know best what is good for them, rather than suggesting for a moment that the Department should impose any of this on Lincolnshire, although I do not think it is currently minded to do so.

Ultimately, and to use Boston Borough Council as an example, the responsible thing for drainage boards to do is clearly to make sure that they have the resources to do their necessary work and keep everyone’s feet dry—literally. As they put up their rates, however, because we have rightly capped the amount by which council tax can rise, any rises in council tax are entirely taken up by those necessary rises in drainage rates, and drainage boards are effectively able severely to curtail, if not cut, the resources available to a borough council. Being able to make that funding a separate council tax line, so that it is a precept rather than a levy, will be a huge step forward in Somerset and allow people to be properly resourced at both council and drainage board level. That is a good thing, but it is not the only way through by any means—as the Minister said in Committee, I suspect my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome will say that other options are available to my councils, and I imagine he will be right.

In remains the case, however, that today it is difficult for drainage boards to get the resources they need without butting up against that cap on council tax rates, which means that small authorities such as Boston Borough Council and East Lindsey District Council find themselves in a difficult position. The situation will be solved in Somerset through the National Rivers Authority—that is good and we welcome it—but I hope the Minister will work with his colleagues, my drainage boards and the Environment Agency to try to alleviate the problem that this excellent Bill will solve in an admirable way for Somerset, so that we can also find a way through for areas such as Lincolnshire. I do not want to be too gloomy because this Bill opens a number of doors through which I hope counties such as mine, and councils such as those in my constituency, will be able to walk if they wish. This Bill is excellent for Somerset, and it is excellent that the Government and the Opposition are supporting it, as will I.

Rivers Authorities and Land Drainage Bill

(2nd reading: House of Commons)
Victoria Prentis Excerpts
Friday 8th February 2019

(2 years, 3 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
David Warburton Portrait David Warburton
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8 Feb 2019, 1:41 p.m.

My hon. Friend reads my mind. I was about to come to that point. The Somerset Rivers Authority brings together the county council, the five district councils, the Environment Agency, the Wessex Regional Flood and Coastal Committee, Natural England and the three internal drainage boards. In other words, it does not usurp the position of any of those partners but, rather, complements them. It brings everyone together to provide this very special part of the west country with additional and vital flood protection and resilience.

The Somerset Rivers Authority is currently funded through a shadow precept on local council tax payers. This funds projects such as additional maintenance for rivers, watercourses and many locally significant structures. It also contributes towards other projects, such as upgrading and securing the River Sowy and King’s Sedgemoor drain; much-needed dredging and monitoring of silt build-up; unblocking, clearing and repairing culverts and gullies; clearing away 1,000 extra tonnes of debris from 60 miles of road edgeways; maintaining a new flood alert system for two major roads; natural flood management in both rural and urban areas; and better land management and the uptake of sustainable drainage systems.

The Somerset Rivers Authority will also continue to work with and help communities, households, businesses and landowners to become more resilient to flooding and its impacts. As ever, this includes encouraging greater participation in groups and networks, and identifying and supporting our most vulnerable people. All this work has kept our waterways functioning and—so far—our feet dry, but now we need the final piece to secure the future of the rivers authority.

Alongside rivers authorities, there are other important bodies that tackle flood risk management, such as our internal drainage boards. In Somerset, we are, as ever, fortunate, because we have three—Axe Brue, North Somerset Levels and Parrett—and I am aware of others across the country and of hon. Members who support their work. These bodies maintain watercourses, reduce flood risk to people and property, and manage water levels for agricultural and environmental needs within their internal drainage district.

Some parts of England, however, do not have the benefit of an internal drainage board. Enabling the creation of new internal drainage boards, or the expansion of existing ones, requires a change to the Land Drainage Act 1991, and that is what the second measure in my Bill would do. In essence, the problem is down to incomplete ratings data. The Act requires an amendment to accept a newer ratings dataset that could be used to create new charging methodologies. It is important to stress that these new methodologies would use existing tax data and would not be a new form of taxation.

Internal drainage boards are mainly funded via charges levied on the communities they serve. The first—drainage rates—is paid by agricultural landowners, while the second, which is a special levy, is paid by households and businesses. The new charging methodologies would enable these charges to be apportioned using up-to-date council tax and business rates data. To ensure that the apportionment calculation is up to date, and to reduce the risk of imbalance on either side, this measure would update both charging methodologies.

As I said at the start of my speech, we are all aware of the potential wide impact and terrible aftermath of flooding. The Bill helps to deliver greater protection through two different but equally important public bodies. Hon. Members owe it to our constituencies, communities and anyone who has been flooded or is at risk of flooding to take all possible steps to mitigate that risk. The measures in this Bill are enabling; nothing will be forced, and only where there is local support will the Government be able to act. However, without the Bill, the Government cannot act, so I very much hope it strikes a chord with Members in the Chamber and that it will have unanimous support.

I would like to put on record my sincere thanks to both the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey)—unfortunately she is unable to be present for the debate as she is opening the new Ipswich barrier—and the Government for their support in this process. I think I speak for Somerset and indeed other parts of our country when I say that we all hope that the Bill will enable local action to be taken so that we will see dry feet and nothing leaking over the tops of our wellies for some years to come.

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis (Banbury) (Con)
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8 Feb 2019, 1:46 p.m.

I did not think we would get on to this Bill today, but I am thrilled that we have, because I have always felt strongly about flooding. That is partly because of my paternal grandfather, who always used to say that there was no better sound than that of a well-running drain. Also, I hesitate to say this but my mother is Welsh and Wales does suffer from a certain amount of wet weather. So this runs, as it were, in my veins, and I grew up to become a barrister who prosecuted water companies, and I was always very interested in the way in which we could regulate both clean raw water and the clean water in our taps. As we all know, many in this House have tried very hard to reduce the amount of plastic waste that we produce, and one way to do that is to drink tap water instead of drinking water out of plastic bottles. I was glad to see from my prosecution days that the water that runs out of our taps is of very superior quality.

I now have the honour to represent Banbury and Bicester. They are wonderful places in many ways, but it has to be said that we are quite damp locally: not as damp possibly as the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton), but we do suffer from a very high water table. I met the Environment Agency last week and was very pleased to be shown the map of my constituency. I say I was very pleased, but in fact I was completely horrified because it showed the quality of raw water described in colours, with the darker the colour meaning the more worried we should be. Part of me was proud to see that the only green on the map represents a very small area very near where my family farms; part of me was pleased about that and I keep meaning to mention it to my father—perhaps I am doing to so in the Chamber this afternoon—who I know would be proud. The rest of the map was very troubling, however. Most of it was dark orange and some areas were red. The Environment Agency explained that there are reasons for that: apparently if a drainage course is altered, that in itself can lead to an area being in the red, as it were, and it does not necessarily mean the quality of the raw water is of concern. In looking at this matter, we might therefore need to consider whether the mechanisms we use to measure water quality are a little clunky; the Minister might want to address that later.

It is worrying, however, that an area that is damp—traditionally, geographically—and where the water quality really matters to us should have this problem. As Members know, we are very keen on our house building programme locally; we are keen to promote growth, but we are also keen that this should not be at the expense of the natural environment. I have asked the Environment Agency to follow up what it told me last week and I will be continuing to monitor this matter very closely.

The other reason I am particularly proud to speak this afternoon is that, following severe flooding in my area over the winter of 2015-16—some years after the floods mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome—over £200 million was made available to help communities and businesses across the UK recover and a further £130 million was given to be spent on repairing damaged transport infrastructure. We were very interested in that scheme and responded to it.

Many of my constituents will recall the Easter of 1998 not as a time of celebration but as a time of severe devastation. Heavy rain caused a flood that closed our railway station and many roads. Approximately 125 residential and 35 commercial properties were affected, resulting in more than £12.5 million of damage. Another flood in the summer of 2007 reinforced the need for a comprehensive flood alleviation scheme in Banbury.

The geography of the valley alongside the river that runs through Banbury makes the town susceptible to flooding following heavy rain. The alleviation scheme consists of five elements: a large flood storage reservoir upstream of Banbury; a key elevated highway into the community; new earth embankments, flood walls and pile walls in strategic locations; a new pumping station; and a bio-habitat, complete with ponds, trees and hedgerows. The scheme has worked enormously well, transforming both the town and the area downstream of Banbury, where I live, which used to suffer from being flooded on purpose when Banbury was at risk.

The other thing that makes me particularly proud of the scheme is that it was funded by a combination of means, both private and public, and the model should be considered and taken up nationwide. The project was funded by the regional flood defence committee, Cherwell District Council, Thames Water and Network Rail and was brilliantly spearheaded by the Environment Agency. Prodrive, a private motorsport company, also constructed part of the defences to protect its bases on Chalker Way. The scheme is a good example of how to deal with flooding, and this Bill is a good and sensible step forward.

Michael Tomlinson Portrait Michael Tomlinson (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (Con)
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8 Feb 2019, 1:53 p.m.

I can tell that my hon. Friend is about to close her speech, but she mentioned at the beginning her expertise in prosecuting in this area in her previous career as a barrister. We do not want to anticipate that things will definitely go wrong, but things inevitably do, so what does she envision for the regulatory supervision of the new rivers authorities? What advice can she give about supervision, specifically for this Bill, given her previous expertise?

Victoria Prentis Portrait Victoria Prentis
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8 Feb 2019, 1:54 p.m.

I would not want to step on the toes of my successors in the Government Legal Service, but I am sure that they will be studying the Bill’s provisions carefully. In my view, anything that further highlights this important area is of use to those who prosecute to ensure that our water, both drinking water, in which I used to specialise, and raw water, is clean, and it is really important that we concentrate on both types. This country has some fantastic legislative provisions to protect our very good drinking water, but raw water is also important. People walk by it, play in it, swim in it and, of course, it often becomes the water that we drink. The Bill is a good and sensible step forward, and I look forward to seeing how rivers authorities will carry out their work. I am proud to support my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome today.

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge (South Suffolk) (Con)
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8 Feb 2019, 1:54 p.m.

It is a pleasure to be called to speak on this important Bill. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton) on putting his case eloquently.

The Bill goes to a fundamental part of daily life that we can take for granted until we receive the terrible news that we have been flooded. East Anglia is probably most famous for coastal flooding, but I will address two specific issues, one technical and the other more general.

First, I have had feedback from constituents about the position of riparian mill owners. I have had a lot of correspondence and surgery attendances from constituents who happen to have purchased properties that include an old mill with floodgates. This might sound obscure, but there are quite a few of them in my constituency. The issue is that the Environment Agency has been writing to riparian mill owners to say that it will no longer have responsibility for floodgates in such cases and that those responsibilities now lie with the riparian owner.

A constituent in Hadleigh came to see me. He is not a riparian owner, but he lives next to the floodgates and has to operate them because the owner is recently deceased. He has expressed concern: if the Environment Agency is pulling out of responsibility in such areas, who will co-ordinate? His argument, and it is a fair argument, is that if there is a flood, the use of the gates has to be co-ordinated. One set cannot be operated without taking account of the gates further down the river. I therefore intervened on my hon. Friend earlier to try to clarify the relationship between a rivers authority and the Environment Agency. Now that the EA is pulling out of responsibility, what can be done to co-ordinate those who now hold that responsibility? That is an important and germane question, technical and specific as it may seem.

I am not sure whether the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), has had correspondence on this, although I have spoken to and corresponded with my constituency neighbour, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who is the Minister responsible. The latest correspondence I have received from the Environment Agency about mill owners says that, in its view, the gates do not make enough difference to flooding. That is the Environment Agency’s subjective opinion, with which many mill owners disagree.

At the moment, although it may not be widespread, there are people in my constituency who would like to see the sort of action my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome is talking about, including the greater co-ordination of efforts to deal with flooding. If the community thinks the Environment Agency is not doing enough, what else can be done? If a rivers authority is the sort of body that could take up some of those responsibilities, I would certainly welcome it.