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Baroness Byford: I am happy with the Minister's explanation, although I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, that the use of "et cetera" is not good. Can I just establish the fact that, before the Bill becomes law, the decision on the emergency would be made by the Secretary of State? When the Bill becomes law, that responsibility will pass from the Secretary of State to the Environment Agency, so that is a new circumstance. If the responsibility still lay with the Secretary of State, we could bring the matter before Parliament. Once the responsibility passes to the Environment Agency, we will be at arm's length. Normally, we can question the Secretary of State on the Floor of the House, but we cannot call in the Environment Agency in the same way.
Lord Whitty: The Environment Agency is already responsible for managing this. It is a new exemption and does not relate to anybody in those terms at the moment. In future, it will relate to the Environment Agency, not the Secretary of State. That is not changing the situation. In practice, that is the situation already, but the amendment will make it the responsibility of the Environment Agency in legislation.
The noble Baroness said: I rise with some trepidation about whether I have understood what it is intended that the Bill should do about warping. On the basis that I have got it right, I will continue.
The Bill includes warping in the definition of land drainage. Other Bills did not include it. Warping falls into two categories. I discovered that the word first appeared in the dictionary in 1799. There is "fortuitous warping", which happens when, after extensive floods, silt and nutrient-laden flood waters spill over the riverbank on to farmland. I know that the Chairman will be particularly familiar with that in Somerset, but there has been a tradition of fortuitous warping in many lowland parts of the country. The second sort is "managed warping" which means that, historically, sluices have been in place to allow the flood water to overflow the bank. It has two benefits: first, there is the advantage that silt and nutrients pass on to the farmland and, over time, raise the level of the land slightly, which is important in lowland areas; and,
The Bill should not include warping. It is a useful and sustainable way of fertilising land. Amendment No. 30, tabled by the Conservatives, is sensible and, to some extent, addresses the issue. I believe that DEFRA and the Environment Agency have already had correspondence from the Association of Drainage Authorities, which does not agree that warping should be in the Bill. My amendment covers that point. I beg to move.
Lord Dixon-Smith: I support the amendment, although I have not seen warping done in our part of the world for a long time. It used to be a regular practice, and one can still see river meadows laid out with the channels all present and waiting for somebody with the energy to divert the river into them. Unfortunately, we do not have water-mills anymore, and, because of that, rivers are generally maintained at a lower level than was the case when we did. The water-mills kept water back for reasons other than flooding land. Because the rivers were maintained at a higher level to power the mills, they could also be diverted more easily into the channels.
Now that water-mills have passed into the history books, the gates are generally left open, with the result that the system is not used. Environmentally, warping is a beneficial process, but I would be interested to know whether it is practised anywhere in the country nowadays. I suspect that we may be discussing something that has been consigned to history.
Earl Peel: If, as the noble Baroness suggested, warping is a natural phenomenon that brings advantages, should we not keep it in the Bill? I can see no point in taking something out if there is scope for any environmental advantage.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: I shall address the issue of whether warping is now a matter of history. It may have fallen into disuse throughout the country, but, as the Water Framework Directive comes into effect and there is more river basin management planning, more issues will arise about the sort of fertiliser that ends up in river water. There may be a wish to return to more natural forms of fertilising the land.
The structure to allow warping to happen is still in place in many areas where it did not just happen due to overflowing of the riverbank. Although it may have fallen into disuse in the past 30 years, it might well come into wider use over the next century. We should try, with the Water Framework Directive particularly in mind, to consider the use of water as a whole. That is why I tabled the amendment.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: I bow to the noble Lord's knowledge, but I imagine that, if warping were to revive as a form of land management, people would have to develop the skills again, as has happened with hedge laying and so on.
Baroness Young of Old Scone: I might be able to help the noble Lord, Lord Carter, by pointing him in the direction of a drowner. I am not sure that they are still called that, but there are some people in places such as south Wessex and Yorkshire who still have that ancient skill.
As the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, said, water meadows are a good thing environmentally, so it is strange for me to be counselling caution in the use of warping. However, although warping can be an environmental benefit to a particular meadow, abstracting water to run through several meadows can deprive the donor river of a significant volume of water, while the meadow or subsequent chains of meadows are being filled. That would make the blanket exemption for warping suggested by the amendment rather risky.
We must also look to the future. As has been said, water meadows will, one hopes, become more prevalent under some of the provisions in the Water Framework Directive that will be of benefit to conservation, so we could be talking about substantial volumes of water. I urge the Minister to exercise considerable caution with the amendment. Specific "meadow-explicit" agreements, if I can coin the term, might be a more effective approach than simply removing the reference from the Bill.
Lord Livsey of Talgarth: The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, was specific about some circumstances. Does she agree that the situation in chalkland areas, where there is a lot of natural spring water that sustains most of the rivers and where there are quite a number of water meadows, might differ from the situation in, for example, East Anglia?
Baroness Young of Old Scone: The noble Lord is right to say that there are big differences throughout the country. However, there are also big differences across the seasons and from year to year, depending on the state of the ground waters. Although there are high levels of ground water and large spring-fed wetlands in some counties, they have a distressing habit of drying up in drought periods. It is only because we have a regulatory framework that covers everything that balanced decisions can be made.
Lord Whitty: There is hugely greater knowledge about warping among Members of the Committee than I can bring to bear. There are two sorts of warping, and I suspect that, even when the mills were in operation and more water was held back, most warping was done in flood conditions. Effectively, it is controlled inundation of the land, when there is excess water, and, in that sense, it is natural. However, in those circumstances, there are no controls, and no controls are proposed in the Bill because that would be for flood control. It is in that situation, in the past, present and future, that warping takes place.
If we are talking about the artificial provision of warping, there is no reason why the use of water in that way should be treated any differently from the use of water in other ways. It would have to involve a significant amount of water before it came under the licensing regime. As the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, said, we must consider the total environmental impact, not simply the environmental and nutritional benefit to the meadows immediately affected. Most warping is already exempt, and I am not convinced that we should exempt specific abstraction above the normal threshold outside a flood situation for that purpose rather than any other.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: I understand what the Minister is saying. I think that he said that warping that happened because a river overflowed its banksfortuitous warpingwould be exempt anyway, as no one could prevent that. Fortuitous warping will not be included in the Bill. Historically, however, if it has been clear upstream that a river will overflow its banks and create problems downstream, structures have been built to encourage warping. Those practices will fall within the ambit of the Bill, but that does not seem to make sense.
Lord Whitty: The noble Baroness refers to fortuitous warping. Warping can happen as a result of a river spilling over. When it is used for flood-control purposes, whether in the immediate vicinity or downstream, it is already exempt. But where water is deliberately held back and abstracted primarily for irrigation purposes, there is no reason why warping should not be subject to licensing above the threshold when all other uses are subject to such licensing. It is not a question of whether the warping is fortuitous but of whether the water is used for flood control or for the explicit purpose of irrigation.
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