Downpours, then delays?

The devastating flooding in Cumbria was a reminder of the desperate need for new legislation. But has the Flood and Water Management Bill any chance of getting through Parliament? Many water industry figures fear not. Dean Stiles reports.

The flooding in Cumbria last month coincided almost to the day with the Queen’s Speech announcing bills – including the Flood and Water Management Bill – that the Government proposes to squeeze through Parliament before its expected dissolution around next Easter.

This is one of the shortest fifth parliamentary sessions for any government with less time for legislation and encouragement for Opposition delays. It will be more like an extended election campaign: not an environment to debate an important bill such as the Flood and Water Management Bill.

One of the key recommendations of Sir Michael Pitt’s report after the 2007 floods was to produce a unifying piece of legislation that addressed all the issues relating to flooding and water management facing England and Wales.

Contractors, local authorities, water companies and suppliers working in the flood management and water industry need this improvement to put in place necessary measures to protect population, and infrastructure.

Pitt’s main point was the need to take a holistic approach to flood management, a better spread of information in the event of flooding, and clearer guidelines on which local and central government agencies would take responsibility.

The bill proposes giving local councils responsibility for surface water flooding for the first time, but with overall responsibility for flooding going to the Environment Agency (EA).

It will also require house builders and developers to incorporate drainage that minimises flood damage and improves water quality at new building developments.

The bill also puts in place the mechanism that will see almost half of the privately owned network of sewers and drains transfer to water company ownership, a welcome move dubbed “the nationalisation of the drains” by a Labour MP.

But many senior figures in the water industry and local government fear the bill will not be passed before Parliament dissolves. With less than six months to the next general election, the window of opportunity to push through the changes is rapidly closing despite the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) insistence that it is the Government’s “firm intention” to ensure the legislation is passed before the country goes to the polls, probably in May and by June at the latest.

Martin Horwood, Liberal Democrat MP for Cheltenham, one of the flood-affected areas in 2007, welcomes the bill but says: “It’s been put alongside more than a dozen other bills, many of which are electioneering and political posturing.”

Horwood continues: “In a session that’s bound to be cut in half by the election, the worry is now the Government will not find the time to actually complete the flood bill.

“The steps in the draft bill need to be implemented, and it needs to go much further. For instance, in areas like planning, to protect local communities from the risk of flooding.”

Laurence Robertson, Tewkesbury’s Conservative MP, wants to see the bill introduced quickly but criticises existing provisions: “It’s too weak at the moment. Areas that needed addressing included house-building on sites at risk of flooding.”

A spokesman for Defra says: “We do not want to delay changes that will improve protection to people’s lives and property. Our firm intention is to work with Parliament to ensure the bill will reach the statute book before the next general election.”

The bill has the advantage of having already gone through a round of parliamentary scrutiny in draft form but the EA and local authorities express caution over some aspects, most especially provision of local authority funding to implement the bill’s measures.

Anne McIntosh, shadow minister for Environment Foods and Rural Affairs, welcomes publication of the bill with reservations. “I would like to have seen more reference to the role of water companies, the contribution regular maintenance can make to flood prevention and encouragement for householders to take more willingly flood resilience measures to reduce the risk of flooding to their property,”she says.

“We remain concerned that a National Emergency Framework, despite being promised for autumn 2008, is not due until June 2010; that the Natural Hazards Team was only established in May 2009 and has yet to compete its audit of critical infrastructure at risk of flooding; and the fact that the National Resilience Forum had still not met by June 2009.

“I shall closely scrutinise the contents of the Flood and Water Management Bill, with a particular emphasis on the role of local authorities, the Environment Agency and water companies and the resources available to them to promote sustainable development, the end to automatic connection for major new developments and an end to the institutional chaos that we witnessed in 2007.

“This bill gives a unique opportunity before the general election to bring all the parties together, work out who does which role best and to maximise the limited resources available. I look forward to securing its passage through Parliament prior to the election with scope for close scrutiny and positive amendments to improve its present draft.”

Speaking at the Environment Agency’s annual conference last month, McIntosh said a Conservative government would support an emergency floods bill if the Floods and Water Management Bill does not reach Parliament by the general election. The emergency bill “would be a small bill, not without controversy”, and would address 15 key recommendations of the Pitt report.

Although the Flood and Water Management Bill currently before Parliament has been well received there is concern about some aspects, especially adequate funding for local authorities. Councils could be exposed to spending hundreds of millions of pounds to reduce the risk of flooding if crucial financing details are left out of a bill.

Matt Thomson, acting director of Policy and Partnerships at the Royal Town Planning Institute, says: “We welcome the Flood Bill which proposes a clear division of executive roles and responsibilities for flood and coastal risk management between the Environment Agency and local councils.

“It is essential that these new arrangements are backed up with secure funding and local authority leaders and officials are appropriately skilled and aware of the need to take action to respond to flood risks.”

Andy Johnston, head of the Local Government Information Unit centre for local sustainability, expects the final document to be either “a very short bill or a bit that goes into another bill”.

He said: “The real financial risk is that because the bill is going to be so short, it won’t be able to deal with big fundraising and financial issues, just the governance.”

Some commentators fear the bill might be truncated, giving local authorities new responsibilities for flood prevention but with even less detail about how these will be paid for than had been originally planned.

Councils and MPs have warned that estimates of financial savings, through better-managed surface water drainage and giving up responsibility for private sewers, were inaccurate when the draft bill was published earlier this year.

“My biggest concern is that we’re going to get responsibility and accountability [in the bill] and there will be legislation later on that will sort out the money. In that [intervening] period, local government will be open to some significant risks,” Johnston says.

Vanessa Goodchild-Bradley, Local Government Association policy consultant, expects the bill to pass but with questions remaining over funding. Government officials appear to be committed to the idea of reforming flooding systems, a move that the LGA supports, but the association would lobby hard if safeguards for councils were not in place, she says.

However, Councillor Gary Porter, chair of the Local Government Association’s environment board, expresses a view widespread among water industry contractors: “I wouldn’t bet my own money on [the bill] appearing.”

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