HC Deb 22 December 1971 vol 828 cc1582-95

3.37 p.m.

Dr. Edmund Marshall (Goole)

In drawing the attention of the House to some of the problems arising from the operation of our present land drainage system, I would first refer to the statement by the Secretary of State for the Environment on 2nd December, when he enunciated his proposals for regional water authorities. He then specifically excluded from the terms of his sweeping reforms any reorganisation of land drainage authorities. When I questioned him about that, he replied that this exclusion was because land drainage reform was not considered necessary for the main strategy."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd December, 1971; Vol. 827, c. 684.] I submit that reform of the land drainage system is necessary in the interests of many sections of the community involved in some way or other with our present land drainage arrangements. Because those arrangements have been so closely concerned with the present river authorities, which are to be reconstituted under the Government's proposals as regional water authorities, we have a good opportunity of simultaneous reorganisation of land drainage authorities. Without it, we are in danger of having a modernised structure of local government and of water and sewerage authorities alongside an antiquated structure of drainage authorities.

I understand that our present land drainage arrangements exist to serve three purposes: firstly, the improvement of agricultural land for the purposes of cultivation; secondly, the prevention of flooding and danger; thirdly, the conservation of water in rivers and other watercourses. While to some extent those three purposes tend to overlap, a conflict of purpose has also tended to grow up within the system between those concerned solely with the improvement of farmland and those concerned in the system solely by reason of holding residential property within the area of the drainage authority. These people are concerned more with the avoidance of flooding and danger.

The present structure of our land drainage authorities seems designed chiefly to cater for the agricultural interest. I feel that there is a conflict here, not only of interest but also perhaps between Government Departments involved. I hope that I can say it without seeming ungracious or ungrateful to the hon. Gentleman who is to reply to the debate, but I think that it is symbolic of this divergence of interest that we should have here a spokesman of the Ministry of Agriculture rather than someone from the Department of the Environment.

The financial arrangements for supporting land drainage are based largely and historically on the principle of benefit—that those who stand to gain most from the improvement of land values because of land drainage should be the ones who pay the drainage rates. This system makes sense only in the context of the agricultural interest involved in land drainage. When one comes to the people involved simply by owning houses in a drainage district, the principle ceases to have much meaning.

The system of electing members of internal drainage boards, whereby more votes are given to the owners of land of more value, gives a weighted preponderance to the large land owners in such elections. It is amazing to me that there should be such a weighted electoral system still in operation in what we have come to regard as our modern democratic society. The effect of it is in my experience to leave most of the elections to internal drainage boards uncontested, with the nominees of the large land owners generally returned unopposed. The Minister has been unable to tell me what proportion of such elections is uncontested, but my guess is that it must be high. This is another way in which the system is somewhat geared to suit the agricultural interest involved in land drainage.

Mr. John E. B. Hill (Norfolk, South)

The membership of these boards requires a considerable knowledge of drainage. It follows, naturally, that land owners and farmers would be amongst the most likely candidates, since they know about land and draining.

Dr. Marshall

Membership of this House requires a considerable knowledge of the way in which the country is run, but we are elected to it on a system of one man one vote and that to me is how democracy should operate.

I have talked about the way in which the present arrangements for land drainage have been suited largely to meet the agricultural interest. I grant that this may have been all very well years ago, but things have somewhat changed as development of the countryside has introduced a new social pattern. Increasingly, urban areas have grown out into country areas and more and more people are living in the countryside and working in towns.

This is all part of the process of the merging of the interests of town and country life which the Government recognise in their proposals for local government reorganisation. There should be some recognition of this as we attempt to build a new structure for our land drainage system. People whose only connection with land drainage authorities arises because they own a house in a drainage district are naturally concerned with the system because it may help prevent flooding of their property. They have no direct interest in the improvement of surrounding agricultural land.

This pattern is repeated many times in my constituency. The whole of the Borough of Goole, after which my constituency is named, is included within the boundaries of two internal drainage districts, namely the Dempster drainage district and the Goole and Airmyn drainage district. In the constituency, too, there is the township of Thorne which almost entirely falls again within the areas of two drainage authorities, the Black Drain Drainage Board and the 'Tween Bridges Drainage Board. There is the added complication that these two boards fall within the area of two distinct river authorities, the Yorkshire Ouse and Hull River Authority on the one hand and the Trent River Authority on the other. Altogether there are 19 internal drainage boards covering parts of my constituency and in nearly all of them I come across householders who feel aggrieved by the present arrangements and the way in which they are faced with demands for the payment of land drainage rates.

There have been some cases where a man has bought a house, moved in and been completely unaware of his liability to pay drainage rates until receiving the first demand. I agree that this is something which should be dealt with by the legal profession, but it is an added complication causing grievance among householders later. Many people feel it should be up to local authorities to look after their drainage problems. They resent having to pay drainage rates in addition to the general rate. More and more people are baffled by the strange routes followed by drainage district boundaries which so often seem to separate identical properties on ground at the same height above sea level. It is even possible for a drainage district boundary to sever someone's garage from his house so that he pays drainage rates on the garage but not on the house.

While an expert can appreciate how the boundaries have been drawn up, with the knowledge of the known highest flood levels and a contour eight feet above that, that does not matter to the householder who is often baffled by such arrangements. In some villages in my constituency this has created feeling between different sections of the village. Further, boundaries do not always fully correspond to the areas where flooding is most likely to occur. Some of the worst flooding that has occurred in the Goole constituency in recent months was in an area excluded from the nearest internal drainage district but completely surrounded by that district.

In many cases which have come to my notice the drainage board will accept no responsibility for getting something done to relieve flooding problems. This is another weakness of the system. Internal drainage boards have statutory powers to undertake drainage works, but they are not made to carry out statutory obligations. Their powers are permissive; no one can force them to use them. In such a system, the principle of benefit which is often talked about as being the main principle of our drainage arrangements is meaningless for householders.

Drainage district boundaries can be reviewed, but not more than once every 10 years, and drainage rate exemption orders can be made for specific properties. In the last 10 years, 218 such orders have been made. Under Section 25 of the Land Drainage Act, 1961, arrangements can be agreed between drainage boards and local authorities covering their district for the total income otherwise derived from the collection of drainage rates to be paid by local authorities from the general rate fund. While this tends to iron out some of the anomalies to which I referred earlier, it gives an unexpected bonus to owners of agricultural land who then benefit from general derating.

The procedures for adjusting boundaries are somewhat cumbersome. They are not easily understood by the public. When one looks at the patchwork of 368 internal drainage authorities in England and Wales, some of them covering less than 1,000 acres, one readily appreciates the administrative difficulties in carrying out boundary adjustments or making exemption orders.

In a recent review of the boundaries of a drainage district in my constituency, the reviewing body—the river authority—was unaware that a certain row of houses existed at the edge of the district. The changes which were made as a result of that review did not become known to the internal drainage board concerned, which continued to levy drainage rates upon the land even though it had been excluded from its district, and the board is now having to repay those rates. I am grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for the attention he has given to this case, and I mention it purely as an example of the administrative confusion which can occur from having a multiplicity of boards covering very small areas.

Those are the main problems. I am speaking mainly from the point of view of householders who own property within the drainage district. The heart of the problem is the divergence between the agricultural purpose of land drainage and the flood prevention purpose affecting the community as a whole. Householders' interests are distinct from farmers' interests, and that distinction must be recognised in the operation of land drainage arrangements.

It is probably my function in a debate of this nature to talk more about the problems than about the solutions. I accept that it is not easy to find solutions to problems of this nature, but in the financial arrangements for drainage rates all householders should be covered through the local authorities in whose areas they live.

On the agricultural side perhaps we have to have means of raising finance for land drainage, based not on boundaries of historic importance but more perhaps on a register of agricultural land. I am thinking of the fact that at present river authorities are able to levy drainage charges on land which is not within the internal drainage district. It would seem to me that some system of this nature might be applicable right through the area of a river authority.

It seems that the time is now ripe for a thorough review and, if possible, a thorough reorganisation. The drainage system as it operates in this country has indeed baffled many people in the community. Coming into this as one representing a constituency which has so many internal drainage boards I ask that a thorough investigation be made at this time of the possibility of reforming the system as a whole.

3.56 p.m.

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

As a representative of a constituency which was probably one of the first in this country ever to be reclaimed from the sea by civilisation, I speak with a little self-interest, but, of course, I appreciate the very deep concern of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) for his part of the country.

There is nothing new about the conflict of interest to which he draws the attention of the House this afternoon. The fact remains that rain will fall upon every acre of this country whether of agricultural land or of concrete, and it will, of course, run off the roads and concrete and urban development and flood neighbouring agricultural land. This conflict of interest has been examined by previous Governments for many centuries, and it is fair to say that at this moment of time we have probably reached a better compromise than ever before. I advisedly use the word "compromise" because this is what it must be.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about rateable values and problems of charging for the services necessary to disperse rainwater and to prevent flooding. I seriously suggest to him that it is the owner of agricultural land and the occupier of agricultural land whose whole livelihood suffers when drainage is inadequate. When a drain gets blocked in an urban area and there is flooding of a road or a hold up on a road, the outcry quickly has the matter put right, but if there is a field in which nothing can be grown because the run-off has been too great from the neighbouring development and the ditches and rivers have not been adequately opened up, that is a problem for only one individual land owner or occupier. While the hon. Gentleman's constituency may have 19 drainage boards he must accept that there are very large areas of the country without such facilities. Having farmed in part of a river authority's area where there was no drainage board I can assure him of the disadvantages.

When he speaks about rates and the costs of running drainage boards perhaps he will cast his mind to the other aspects of the financing of river authorities the greater part of whose money comes from urban councils, cities, and so on, and equally, the majority of (he representation on those river authorities is proportional to the amount of money which goes into them.

I have no wish to deprive my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary of proper time in which to reply to this important debate, except to say that the whole question of water and of the circular which has been issued, and the—to my mind, vital—question of drainage of all land, will have to be considered substantially and in detail by this House—though I doubt whether the Christmas Adjournment is the right time to go into that detail. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will convey to his right hon. Friend the importance of drainage to the wealth of the country and the agricultural community. If he wishes to make substantial changes, he will have to consider carefully where improvement can be made upon the present system.

4.0 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Anthony Stodart)

The hon. Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) has taken a great deal of interest in land drainage problems. This is not surprising, as I understand that there are in his constituency the whole or part of no fewer than 23 internal drainage districts, although I understood him to say that there were 19. At any rate, no one could fail to appreciate his concern about drainage boards and the interests of the drainage ratepayers.

Land drainage in England and Wales has had a long history, and legislation on it goes back over 400 years. The present organisation of drainage boards is governed by the Land Drainage Acts, 1930 and 1961, and by Part IV of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1968.

As the hon. Gentleman referred to it, I will interpolate a few words about the Report of the Central Advisory Water Committee. Land drainage and fisheries were excluded from the terms of reference of that Committee because, as the report recognises, there were no problems in these spheres comparable to those relating to water conservation and the control of pollution.

The future of the organisation for land drainage and fisheries has been reserved for further consideration after consultations which I shall shortly be having with the interests involved. The concern of my right hon. Friend is to ensure that, in the new circumstances created by the proposals for the reorganisation of water and sewerage services, land drainage and fisheries will continue to be efficiently organised, and our purpose in consulting the various interests is to seek their views on how this may best be done. The new circumstances did not require a review of the responsibilities of internal drainage boards.

There are, as the hon. Gentleman said, just over 360 internal drainage districts in various parts of the country, covering 3¼ million acres. As my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) brought out, if obliquely, most of them are concentrated in the Fens and in Yorkshire. The common feature of all these drainage districts is that they are in lowland areas. There, special local problems exist requiring regular drainage works, such as an internal drainage board can carry out to improve the cultivation of the land and to protect the land, houses, and other property from flooding.

Drainage districts must include only such areas as will derive benefit or avoid danger as a result of drainage operations; and so the boundaries are related to flood levels. This provides a realistic measure for assessing those areas which would be likely to suffer from flooding. The work the boards do is vital to the safety and well being of those areas. Naturally those who benefit are those whose property and land is protected as a result of the work that is done.

The hon. Gentleman referred to what one might describe as the obscurity of many of these drainage boundaries. The boundaries of internal drainage boards are not fixed for all time. It is always open to a river authority to submit a scheme to alter the boundaries of a drainage district and there is statutory provision to enable a specified number of ratepayers to petition a river authority to make such changes. Over the years there have been a large number of boundary alterations. There is no reason why there should not be more. Indeed, within the last 10 years, while no new drainage districts have been set up in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, eight schemes have been confirmed to reorganise districts, mainly by bringing the boundaries up to date. This is admirable, and I hope that it will continue while facilities for so doing exist.

Dr. Marshall

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the boundaries of any particular internal drainage district can be reviewed at most once every 10 years?

Mr. Stodart

I will seek that information and will let the hon. Gentleman know the answer. There is one principle which is fundamental to all land drainage legislation. It is that those who derive special benefit as a result of drainage operations should bear the costs of work done on their behalf.

This principle has been reviewed by several independent committees in modern times, notably by the Heneage Committee which reported in 1951, but none of them felt justified in recommending any deviation from it. The boards recover their expenditure through drainage rates; that is, of course, expenditure not covered by direct grants, to which I shall refer later. On the whole I feel that those who pay these rates receive reasonable value for their money. I certainly do not think it inequitable that the cost of this work should be borne by those who benefit directly in this way.

This leads me to the important and not uncontroversial subject which was touched upon by the hon. Gentleman as to the method of electing members of drainage boards. Historically, the principle that those who benefit should pay has led to special voting rights and the electoral provisions in this respect differ from those which govern national and local government elections. Basically, the number of votes any owner or occupier can cast at an election varies from one vote to a maximum of 10 in each capacity. But each drainage ratepayer, however small, has one vote whether he is owner or occupier. This scale of voting is laid down in the 1930 Act. This was reviewed by the Heneage Committee but it made no recommendations for change.

I have to cross swords with the hon. Gentleman on one matter when I say that we must bear in mind that the work of drainage boards is primarily agricultural in character. That is my view, and I hold to it. Within certain limits the voting arrangements give the larger vote to those who contribute the largest part of the cost of the drainage board's works. There is an element of differentiation in the voting power but, while it departs from one man one vote, it is far from going to the length of £1 one vote.

By leaving some extra voting power to the man with the big rateable value, something is done to prevent the numerous urban rate payers inside the drainage districts—in terms of the relatively small contribution that each makes to the cost of flood prevention—from completely swamping the national interest in the land and the interests of farmers who have so much at stake and who individually make much bigger contributions. On the other hand, the maximum of 20 votes does very little to reflect the interests, say, of a very large industrial concern like a big power station. But it stops it from dominating the board as it would if its contributions were matched proportionately by votes. On the whole, I think that the system provides a reasonable amount of justice.

The boards are chiefly concerned with improvement works and maintenance on the minor arterial watercourses in their districts; but some take on large flood prevention and pumping schemes.

Unfortunately, it is a fact of life that many lowland areas have to receive into their districts the water which drains from the uplands. I know the hon. Member feels that it is unfair that the drainage ratepayers should have to foot the bill for work needed to cope with this additional water.

I entirely appreciate this point of view. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have my own problems about this. But there are provisions in the Land Drainage Act, 1930, which can be of help here. Section 21(3) makes provision for river authorities to contribute to the expenses of internal drainage boards, where it is fair for them to do so because of the quantity of water coming off higher ground.

Any contribution the river authority might make would of course help to relieve the burden of the rates in the district. But action under this provision has to be initiated locally by the drainage board. It must present its case to the river authority; and it is for the latter to consider whether assistance would be justified. If this is refused, or if the board considers that the amount of the contribution is inadequate, it can appeal to my right hon. Friend. He considers the views of both sides. Thus we have a means of resolving any serious local differences.

I now turn to the suggestion that the cost of land drainage operations undertaken by internal drainage boards should be spread more widely, by making it a charge on local authorities who would meet it through their general rate. This idea has been considered many times before. It reflects a common impression that the whole cost of land drainage operations is met by the drainage ratepayers alone. But this is not the case.

General ratepayers everywhere—including those in upland areas where there is no land drainage problem at all—make their contribution towards drainage operations through the precepts of the river authority on the county and county borough councils. This recognises the broader community benefit derived from work carried out by river authorities on the main rivers in their areas, which carry water from the uplands to the sea; and the same applies in the case of sea defences which protect lowland coastal areas from tidal flooding.

There is also the very substantial contribution made by the taxpayer through the grants which my Department gives to river authorities and internal drainage boards, in order to assist them in carrying out much-needed improvements as well as new works in their areas. In this way, the cost of land drainage is already spread over the whole community, but those who live in drainage districts and derive particular benefit from the special work which is done there do have to make a special contribution. I believe that this is reasonable.

Even so, there are other possibilities of a solution to this sort of problem if the drainage ratepayers feel strongly about the matter and can persuade their local authority to make use of the powers available to it under Section 25 of the Land Drainage Act, 1961. This enables any local authority to enter into agreement with an internal drainage board to pay in a lump sum the aggregate of the drainage rates that would otherwise be collected by the drainage board from individual drainage ratepayers.

Here again, however, the initiative has to be taken locally. Only the local authority can decide either to spread the cost through the general rate over the whole of its area or limit it to those who live inside the drainage district.

The power is thus entirely permissive, as it must be in matters such as this which involve so closely the prerogative of the local authority and the interests of its electors.

Equally, it is for the drainage board to decide whether it would want to enter into an agreement of this sort. If there were general local support, it seems to me that such an arrangement is eminently sensible and reasonable. It could operate to the advantage of both the drainage board and the local authority.

I know there have been difficulties about this in the hon. Member's constituency. I can only suggest that he should take the matter up with the river authority and see whether it can use its good offices to secure the co-operation of the drainage board concerned. My right hon. Friend has no power to intervene, so it would be quite wrong for him to try to do so.

On a more general point, I would like to make it clear that, although most drainage boards are elected bodies and enjoy a measure of autonomy within their districts, they are still subject to some control by the river authority. In particular, the latter have default powers which it can exercise if the drainage board is not doing its job properly, and if any land in its district is likely to be injured by flooding or inadequate drainage. If need be, it can exercise all or any of the powers of the drainage board. It would even be open to it to petition the Minister for an Order to enable it to take over all the powers and duties of the board. Obviously, there are statutory safeguards for the interests concerned, but the mere existence of these powers should be enough to ensure the boards do not fall down on their job.

To sum up, the present organisation of drainage boards and the system under which they levy their drainage rates is not so inflexible as might first appear. Both the organisation and the rating system have by and large worked well over the years—I dare say that the hon. Gentleman will be disappointed by what I am about to say—and my right hon. Friend sees no need for any substantial change just now. Obviously we shall pay careful attention to what the hon. Gentleman said and we shall consider the points which he has made.

Present legislation affords means by which sensible solutions to particular problems can usually be found, given good will, common sense and the cooperation of all the organisations concerned.

An adequate supply of water is one of the blessings of this life. To have too little can make for great misery. To have too much in the form of flooding is equally disastrous for those affected. To prevent flooding, action must be both resolute and swift, and those who are to act must have the necessary powers to do so effectively.

I should like to place on record the appreciation of both my right hon. Friend and myself for the work which the drainage boards do. It is of great value to the country.