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Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, my name is attached to this amendment. I wish also to mention Amendment No. 159, which is linked to Amendment No. 158. First, I fully support my noble friend Lady Miller in her amendment and wish to be
As Members of this House will know, in Committee I pressed particularly hard for non-main rivers to be taken within the purview of the Environment Agency so far as concerns management, flooding and matters of that kind. The Environment Agency responded, saying that the Government are already proposing to transfer responsibility for critical ordinary water courses by reclassifying them as main rivers. I welcome that very much. My only problem is that that apparently does not include all non-main rivers but those classified as critical ordinary water courses.
To inject a lighter note into this matter, the letter from the Environment Agency says that this subject has the unfortunate acronym of "COWS". I suppose that that is the first instance of cows grazing water! Indeed, main rivers are already designated, and ordinary water courses and all other water courses are the responsibility of local authorities or, where they exist, internal drainage boards. I believe that the Government have gone a long way to ensuring that non-main rivers which cause considerable flooding and problems and which at present are not maintained or managed by the Environment Agency will be so maintained and managed in future.
I am a little concerned about what will happen to ordinary water courses which are not critical. As I understand it, this matter will still come within the control of local authorities. Global warming is important these days and is becoming increasingly so. Sometimes communities receive a surprise when smaller rivers which they have not seen flood for a long time suddenly do so because of incidents which are not, and in the past have not been, typical but, sadly, sometimes now are, and they cause much damage to property and to land. Therefore, in proposing this amendment, I am taking note of correspondence that I have received from the Minister.
Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I believe that two issues relating to these amendments are worth mentioning. Having dealt with the previous amendment, which sets out particular conditions for Wales, it seems to me that, in a sense, the Government are conceding the principle behind the amendments so far as concerns England. The Minister may choose to deny that in due course, but that remains to be seen.
However, I believe it has been a consistent argument from our side that those who know most about the local conditions on local rivers and most about where the problems lie are those who have to deal with them. In the past, those organisations have always been the local river board or the local land drainage committee or whatever. In principle at any rate, we would be bound to support the sentiments behind the amendments even if we did not agree with every word in them.
A slightly different issue arose in correspondence that I saw a while ago from our local environment agency. It appeared to fall back on what I believe is still the technical English common law position; that is, ultimately, the responsibility for any particular water course lies with the riparian owner. A local authority may actit has the power to act if it feels that that is necessarybut it does not have to. I believe that I am right in saying that the same legal position applies to the Environment Agency: it may actit has powers to actbut the legal responsibility if things go wrong still lies with the riparian owner. I should be pleased to be reassured that the responsibility of local authorities, local drainage boards or the Environment Agency was more clearly drafted than was implied by that correspondence. Whatever answer I receive, I may have to have more interesting correspondence with my local environment agency.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, Amendment No. 158 would abolish regional flood defence committees and replace them with "river basin management committees". The intention appears to be that these new committees would deal not only with flood defence but also the river basin management plans under the water framework directive. It is not mandatory under that directive to create river basin management plans and it does not touch other responsibilities of the flood defence committees.
The Government yield to no one in this regard; certainly not with regard to the expressions, with which I totally agree, about the importance of local engagements and local representation on the management boards. We have a query with the structure and timescale proposed in the amendment. The Government have recently announced their own conclusions on the review of flood and coastal defence funding and administrative arrangements. That followed pretty widespread consultation. One of the key conclusions is that a single tier of flood defence committees should be established to improve accountability and reduce administration. At present, some parts of the country have two tiers and others have one tier; it is a total hotchpotch. Clause 64 as currently drafted would allow us to create the new structure and I hope that it would do so within a timescale that allowed us to put the new structure in
Flood defence committees would have a very distinct role to play in delivering the flood defence service. The Environment Agency is required to carry out nearly all of its flood defence responsibilities through those committees. They are, in that sense, executive committees. That is most effectively served by the discharge of their powers and functions through regional flood defence committees that are specifically designed for that purpose and not the wider purposes envisaged by the amendment. If we submerged them in a new committee with a much broader remit we could lose the focus on flood defence issues, which is vital to our flood defences.
The role of the Environment Agency was also raised. We have already consulted on the proposition that the Environment Agency will be the "competent authority" for the directive rather than local authorities, and that the agency's functions will include co-ordinating the production of river basin management plans. The agency is developing a strategy for ensuring effective engagement with stakeholders, including local authorities and others, but it will be for the agency to decide whether this might include more formal committee-style arrangements to carry forward the development of river basin plans. That is a separate issue from how we structure our flood defences.
The whole point of any rationalisation of the current flood defence committee structure is to make it more effective, more focused, and less of a hotchpotch across the country. The effect of this amendment would be to broaden the scope and create some large structures that would be incapable of carrying out that focused activity.
Regarding Amendment No. 159, to which the noble Lord, Lord Livsey spoke, it is true that some classification issues arise, but the distinction between "main rivers" and "non main rivers" needs to be maintained. The main rivers are those on which the Environment Agency's activity is focused, and which provide the highest risk from flood damage. The amendment would suggest that non-main rivers would come under the Environment Agency. I was not sure whether the noble Baroness was referring to the Secretary of State or to my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone as a Roman emperorshe is not in her
Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. Neither the funding nor the equipment is available to local authorities to manage the non-main rivers adequately. As I understand from correspondence, critical waters are now going to be managed by the Environment Agency. Am I correct?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, the Environment Agency allocates its priorities according to the highest risks, and those are on the main rivers. Therefore the funding priorities reflect that. I cannot comment on the exact funding situation of any group of local authorities that have been in correspondence with the noble Lord. But priority for flood defence relates to the main riversincluding one or two that may need to be reclassified.
The two amendments go against the outcome of the consultation, and the intention to set up flood defence committees that are capable of delivering the job of flood defence and relate to areas that can be truly reflective, both of local representation and of the flood defence threats presented. I therefore hope that the amendments are not pursued.
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