Next month the Government is due to respond to progress its Draft Flood and Water Management Bill. The Bill has been out for consultation since April. When implemented the legislation could affect a very wide range of people. 18 impact assessments of specific changes for particular groups have been shared on Defra’s website to aid input into the consultation period (which ended in July).

Given that a similar Flood Risk Management Bill already received Royal Assent in Scotland back in June of this year we might expect little controversy for the England and Wales version. The response of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, along with evidence we’ve heard in recent months, suggests otherwise.

In September this Committee published a critical report about the Bill. The report’s opening summary paragraph is intriguing enough to quote here in full:

  • ‘DEFRA still has a long way to go if it is to introduce into Parliament a comprehensive Flood and Water Management Bill of which it can be proud. The current draft is a confusing mix of measures, many of them poorly drafted; a patchwork that seeks to address individual identified problems, rather than deriving from a coherent and comprehensive strategy to implement the vision set out in Future Water. That lack of a comprehensive approach makes scrutiny more difficult. That difficulty is compounded by omission of the secondary legislation required to implement the full provisions of the Bill. It is also not helped by the fact that many policies are still under development, which could lead to significant additions or alterations to the Bill.’

Leaving aside the incoherency of the Defra’s 2008 Future Water strategy itself for a moment, the depth of this criticism raises concerns about whether the Bill can go ahead during the current Parliament, something that doubtless will affect its planned April 2011 implementation date. The Committee raises this issue and stresses that current ‘uncertainty about the fate of the Bill affects the ability of stakeholders to plan and allocate resources.’

One of the Committee’s main criticisms of the Bill is its excessive centralisation of powers to the Environment Agency thus downgrading the current Regional Flood Defence Committees and Internal Drainage Boards:

  • ‘Power will be taken from democratically accountable bodies and shifted to the Environment Agency, with local decision making over priorities substantially reduced. … This overly centralising approach creates the real danger that local communities will see the only scope for involvement in the decisions as being through court action and that they will regard the Agency as an adversary.’

The Committee goes on to recommend that counterbalancing safeguards should go hand in hand with increased powers for the Environment Agency.

The Committee also criticises the Bill’s piecemeal approach to sustainability and water efficiency (which the Committee has also highlighted as a failure of Ofwat’s regulatory approach) before concluding that the Bill’s impact assessments ‘underpinning the changes in responsibilities, particularly for local authorities, are not robust.’

In spite of these strong criticisms the Committee does see that the time needed to correct these extensive problems offers the Government an ‘opportunity to consolidate its thinking and consultation so as to present a comprehensive sustainable water management Bill in the next Parliament.’

Evidence that we’ve heard from our research suggests other problems on the horizon for the Bill however. Local authorities may be reluctant to take responsibility for the flood resilience of poorly designed properties transferred into their remit. Billion pound asset and operational investments are par for the course for the water companies but local authorities are unused to dealing with such levels of investment. The public may not be willing to pay for improved flood resilience when the price and tax increase implications are fully understood. Indeed many people already see this resourcing gap between the public and private sectors in the Bill. Private water companies may also lack to the time to develop strategies and plans with all the various local authorities within their catchment boundaries. Various parties also don’t believe the Bill sufficiently takes account of climate change adaptation pressures.

People we’ve spoken to have also decried the lack of both public and expert engagement with the whole process. Whilst the Bill introduces a ‘duty’ for key bodies to cooperate and share information little has been said to date about how this will work in practice or whether key people will actually have the capacity, time and resources to contribute effectively.

Nevertheless most of the people we’ve heard from welcome the fact that the Bill is being attempted at all. In particular there seems to be a feeling that greater clarity about the differing responsibilities of land owners, private water companies and local authorities for flood resilience and water management is long overdue.

Here’s hoping that the current Bill can be salvaged and effectively implemented rather than falling off the radar in favour other political pressures and priorities during the run up to the next general election.

Update (16/11/2016): Featured image added from this source.

Duncan Thomas

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