The opportunity to introduce a well thought out, truly comprehensive Floods and Water Management Bill is a once in a Parliament opportunity. With so much of the current Bill and its consultation document still "work in progress" Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) must resist the temptation to try and rush through the House a stripped down piece of legislation simply to be seen to be doing something rather nothing.
In addition, the Government is in danger of rushing through legislation that will leave local communities with little influence over decisions about flood and water management issues.
These are the key conclusions of the EFRA Select Committee in a report published today, which follows its scrutiny of the draft Floods and Water Management Bill.
The MPs warn the proposals would result in an overly centralised approach with local knowledge and democratic accountability being downgraded in favour of sweeping powers for the Environment Agency.
This will create the real danger that articulate local communities will see the Agency as their adversary, with the only scope for their involvement in the decision making process through court action.
MPs would rather time was taken to introduce a truly comprehensive water management bill which could be presented to the next Parliament.
EFRA committee chairman the Rt Hon Michael Jack said:
"The draft Bill’s reliance on a top-down approach will hamper the development of locally tailored solutions. We urge the Government to allow a more collaborative and consultative approach."
"Individuals and communities affected by flooding and coastal erosion will fight to save their homes and livelihoods. It’s crucial that their concerns and interests be properly taken into account when devising a response to a flooding incident. Of course, local flood defence strategies must be consistent with a national strategy. However the committee firmly believes that the best safeguard for local priorities is to ensure that future strategies are set by elected bodies."
"Finally, if the Government wants a truly 21st Century Water Bill then it must incorporate into it a response to both the Walker Review on water pricing and the Cave Report on competition in the water supply industry".
Among the other conclusions MPs find:
- There must safeguards in the final legislation to ensure appropriate appeals procedures to challenge Environment Agency decisions so lengthy court battles do not ensue.
- Much greater care should be taken to preserve the considerable experience of Internal Drainage Boards in preserving high quality agriculture land.
- Catchment area flood management boards, similar to Regional Flood Defence Committees, to be a possible way forward.
- The National Flood Forum as a good example of what ordinary people can and will do. Those at risk of flooding must be provided with information about how best to protect their property.
- The MPs are also concerned that the Bill will do little to bring about the vision of a sustainable water sector set out in the Government’s Future Water white paper. They also restate their call for water efficiency obligations to be placed on the industry, as made in their report,
Ofwat Price Review 2009.
- MPs also suggest that the proposed changes to reservoir safety provisions are more complex than they need to be, particularly for the owners of small reservoirs.
The Impact Assessments underpinning the proposed changes in responsibilities, particularly for local authorities, were not robust.
The Committee warns that continuing with this piecemeal and incomplete draft with so little time left in this Parliament creates uncertainty that only serves to hamper the ability those working in this sector to plan and allocate resources.