Slipped in under the Brexit radar a Bill to create Rivers Authorities with local tax-raising powers progresses through Parliament. The new Rivers Authorities and Land Drainage Bill which will enable the creation of regional Rivers Authorities with local tax-raising powers was debated at Committee stage in the House of Commons this week. Read the debates so far.

Water Briefing ‘The Bill, introduced to the House by David Warburton MP for Somerton and Frome in 2018, will provide the Secretary of State with powers, via regulations, to establish new bodies known as rivers authorities. The rivers authorities will be flood risk management authorities via a clause which amends the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. David Warburton explained to Committee Members that the rivers authorities would work with other risk management authorities and other local parties to provide local flood risk management work, in addition to anything the Government, the Environment Agency or other risk management authorities do. “Consequently, they will provide a higher level of flood risk management in their area of operation.”

To fund the work, rivers authorities will also become major precepting authorities via an amendment in the Bill to the Local Government Finance Act 1992. A rivers authority established under the Bill will be a locally accountable body with the powers to issue precepts to billing authorities that will collect money from local council tax payers for additional local flood management work.

Rivers authorities will also be subject to the council tax referendum regime set out in the Local Government Finance Act 1992. David Warburton told MPs that the funding would be ring-fenced to ensure it is spent on flood risk management.” Under the Bill, one of the main functions of a rivers authority is a requirement to prepare a plan of flood risk management work for the coming financial year by all the risk management authorities. The rivers authority will use this to identify opportunities for co-ordination, gaps and omissions. If there are gaps in the local plan, the rivers authority must publish a plan of proposed additional flood risk management work. 

Point of rivers authority is central co-ordination of risk management authorities

David Warburton said:

“The point of the rivers authority is the central co-ordination of risk management authorities, which will ensure that people are not operating in separate areas and attacking things in a dis-coordinated way. It is about co-ordination and bringing things together to plan strategically.” “Between 2016 and 2021, the Government are investing £2.6 billion in building 1,500 new flood defence schemes to protect more than 300,000 homes. This measure in no way constitutes the Government reneging on their responsibilities. It is about local people supporting local flood risk management in the way they already do, but putting that on a statutory footing so that they have security into the future.”

The Bill provides that a rivers authority has the power to do “anything that is calculated to facilitate, or is conducive or incidental to, the carrying out of its functions.” This includes the power to enter into contracts and other agreements and to acquire and dispose of property, including land.

The Bill also establishes that the Secretary of State “must prepare and publish a national framework for rivers authorities”, which the authorities must comply with. The national framework “must set out priorities and objectives for rivers authorities in connection with the exercise of their functions” and may contain guidance on transparency, accountability and scrutiny arrangements.

Committee Members heard that the versatility of the proposed new authorities demonstrated “one of the strengths of such a model: a rivers authority can identify and support small-scale projects that contribute localised benefits and support large-scale projects that could protect thousands of homes and businesses.“

Responding to David Warburton, Luke Pollard, MP for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, said he understood from the Association of Drainage Authorities that “the Department is not expecting a flurry of requests for the establishment of rivers authorities. The Bill does not impose rivers authorities on local councils, so it is for those that want them to be proactive.”

However, he questioned how the new arrangements would work for councils that had suffered huge cuts and might not have the in-house resource to do this.

Luke Pollard continued:

“I will be interested to see how the new bodies interact with water companies, particularly with the upstream thinking pioneered by many water companies that cover water catchment areas. A few of us in the Committee are covered by South West Water, which has pioneered upstream thinking for some time. We need to make sure that we are not setting up two bodies with slightly different agendas.”

Therese Coffey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs told the Committee that the Government supported the Bill and all the clauses and amendments under discussion by the Committee. Pointing out that the creation of the rivers authority came about because of the floods in Somerset, the Minister commented: “If communities wish to come forward and take advantage of these powers, we will consider them, but as it stands the only expression of interest so far is from Somerset, which is the reason the Bill has arisen. The Bill provides that opportunity, but it is not the Government’s intention to go around proactively creating rivers authorities…….in terms of the precept of a billing authority, we are not expecting a flurry of requests.”

The Bill is now due to have its report stage and third reading today – amendments can be made to the Bill at Report Stage.

Click here to watch the Bills progress

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