HC Deb 29 June 1972 vol 839 cc1815-38

Order for consideration, as amended, read.

10.12 p.m.

Sir Bernard Braine (Essex, South-East)

I beg to move, That the Bill, as amended, be now considered.

This is a general powers Bill. Its purpose is to remove certain defects in the present law governing the Essex River Authority's responsibility to deal with certain local problems, and to rationalise the system of financing land drainage and to make it more efficient. The Bill aims to achieve this rationalisation and greater efficiency by abolishing 19 drainage districts, which the authority administers under present arrangements, which would end the levying of the drainage rate, and to do so at a comparatively small increase in the burden borne by the general body of ratepayers.

I make it plain at the outset of our discussion of what is a highly technical Bill that in asking Parliament to abolish the drainage districts in its own area the Essex River Authority is not attacking the principle of drainage districts as such. It believes, as I do, that in some parts of the country these districts, which still support their semi-autonomous drainage boards, perform an extremely valuable function. In Essex, however, with one or two exceptions there have been no separate drainage districts for about 40 years.

The drainage district system is seen at its best, of course, in areas that are predominantly agricultural, but where there has been extensive urban development, as in Essex, it gives rise to considerable and increasing difficulties, and these the Bill seeks to remove. The statutory definition of a drainage district is contained in Section 1(5) of the Land Drainage Act, 1930: …such areas as will derive benefit or avoid danger as a result of drainage operations. 10.15 p.m.

Inevitably this means that in areas where, for one reason or another, flood levels are changing, drainage district boundaries must change too. Where flood levels increase, these boundaries must be extended, and where as a result of development they fall, boundaries should be contracted. Thus, there has been need for periodical review of drainage district boundaries, and Section 36 of the Land Drainage Act, 1961, provides for petitions to be submitted to the river authority asking for such reviews to take place. There then follows a long-drawn-out procedure before the adjustments can be made.

It happens that the process of urbanisation has proceeded faster in the County of Essex than almost anywhere else in the country. The mere fact that my constituency has been the subject of four boundary changes since 1945 is proof enough of the enormous changes in the character and population of the county. What may have been a satisfactory arrangement for drainage purposes only a quarter of a century ago no longer meets the needs, as my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. McCrindle) will, I know, agree, of our fast-growing and increasingly urbanised county. Indeed, if we take Essex as a whole, only about 10 per cent. of the river authority's total drainage rate is now derived from agricultural hereditaments.

As a consequence we have a system of financing the essential work of the river authority that is increasingly anomalous and almost impossible for the ratepayers to understand. We have some people in urban areas who pay drainage rates and some who do not. We have some people living on one side of the road who pay drainage rates while people on the other side do not. This is not only unfair but is seen to be unfair.

Of course, the greater part of the Essex River Authority's revenue is derived from a precept levied on all the local authorities in its area. The effect of this is to levy a charge on every general ratepayer throughout the whole area at a uniform rate. The local councils also exercise some measure of control over the level of the rate demand. This is fair and is seen to be fair. Moreover, it is an efficient system because the local councils act as a collecting agency, and in contrast to the levying of the drainage rate, it is very much less costly to administer.

The greater part of the provisions of the Bill are not controversial. Some will be particularly useful. Clause 8, for example, removes a legal obstacle to the obtaining of an order which would enable the Essex River Authority to take over navigable rights on the River Stour which have been in abeyance for some years because the former navigation company went into liquidation. This is necessary in order to resolve certain local difficulties between angling and sailing interests. Then again, Clause 12 is vital to protect underground water resources from contamination by industrial wastes and toxic effluents, especially in the more industrialised parts of the county. This provision is urgently necessary.

I do not need to detain the House with these provisions since they were all carefully scrutinised by the Select Committee. In fact, with only two exceptions the Bill aroused no opposition whatever. The first exception was in respect of the control and use of underground water by mineral operators, and the provision was struck out of the Bill.

The second exception was what is now in Clause 9, which provides for the abolition of drainage districts. The Select Committee discussed this Clause for two and a half days before deciding finally to overrule the objections. The House might like to know that the objectors called no evidence but relied solely on the submissions of their counsel. On the other hand, the Essex River Authority provided expert witnesses who were subject to lengthy cross-examination by the objectors' counsel. In the end the Select Committee approved the Clause.

I understand that my hon. Friends who object to the Bill are not objecting to it as a whole. It would be very odd if they did since no objections to what is now in the Bill, save objections to Clause 9, were registered when it was subjected to close scrutiny by the Select Committee. I assume that they are objecting to Clause 9. Therefore, on that very reasonable assumption, I turn to that Clause.

We have an anomalous situation in Essex. In the catchment area of the River Roding and in the County Borough of South end no drainage rate is levied. Elsewhere in the authority's area drainage rate is levied but on an increasingly in- equitable basis because of the way in which our county has developed in recent years. Thus, the Bill proposes to end these anomalies by abolishing drainage districts and the drainage rate and replacing the revenue which the authority will lose by a small addition to the existing precept on the general body of ratepayers.

It seems to me that opposition to Clause 9 is based on the relatively small increase in the amounts which the five objecting local authorities will have to pay by way of precept if the Bill is passed without, in their view, their receiving any corresponding benefit. However, the local authority which will have to find by far the greater part of the increase, the Essex County Council, is not objecting to the Bill. It may be argued by my near neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden)that the County Borough of Southend is already making a contribution, in addition to its precept, towards a large drainage scheme within its own boundaries and that this more than compensates for the absence of any drainage rate contribution. But Southendis not alone in this. Other local authorities in Essex which are not objecting to the Bill are also making contributions to similar schemes, notwithstanding the fact that some of their inhabitants already pay drainage rate. One example is the Ben-fleet Urban District Council, in my constituency. It might be helpful, in order to facilitate the discussion, if I were to answer these objections in advance.

As I have indicated, there is a totally anomalous and unfair division between areas in our county liable to drainage rate and areas which are not. Many people who are liable to drainage rate are living on low fixed incomes. They simply do not understand the system and consider it unjust and discriminating. I have a great sheaf of letters here sent by private ratepayers, to the rate authority. I do not propose to quote them all, but would like to quote a few to show what such people feel about the system.

One person writing from Clacton says: Under protest I am paying the sum of £5–9–0. I think this is grossly unfair in this Fleetwod Avenue—some pay, some don't. I am more than 20 yards from Pickers Ditch. Because this person is 20 yards away from a ditch he sees no reason why he should pay for drainage.

Another person writes: My aged and crippled mother, 87, is worried over her river rates of £2.55. She is on a meagre pension…Has she to pay this amount? She never sees the river as she can hardly walk about the house. A third letter is from a constituent of mine: In remitting the enclosed amount of £1.70 I should like an explanation of why we are expected to pay for drainage in this present age. I was under the impression this was already included in water and ordinary rates. A fourth person writes: We have just read in the East Essex Gazette that you have exempted many people from river rating, No. 58 right next door to me, and also all houses right opposite, on a level with our bungalow in Slade Road, would you please let us know why we have received a bill for £6.96, even far higher than last year that was £6.38. Those letters are expressions of the complete confusion into which people are thrown by the present system. I feel sure that the hon. Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) will, if he has the opportunity, testify that this is an experience which obtains in other parts of the country.

Secondly, we are not proposing by the Bill to impose a vast burden on the five objecting authorities. The burden for them will be relatively small and in proportion to that borne by all the other local authorities which are not objecting.

Mr. John Loveridge (Hornchurch)

My hon. Friend mentioned one person who paid £5 9s. Even on the precept for 1972–73 the London Borough of Havering would have £131,700 to pay. Is it reasonable that this borough, which already pays more per head in rates because it is largely residential, should have to pay £22,000 extra under Clause 9?

Sir Bernard Braine

My hon. Friend is not comparing like with like. I was quoting particular instances of individuals who feel that the present system is unfair and anomalous. He surely does not question that. If my hon. Friend were rated in this way and his next-door neighbour was not because of the peculiar way in which our county has developed, he would feel the same sense of injustice. As to whether it is fair and proper for the London Borough of Havering to assume responsibility for a small increase in the precept, perhaps if my hon. Friend will permit me to develop my argument I may be able to convince him that there is justice in what the Bill proposes.

Thirdly, it may be argued that the spreading of the drainage rates over the precept will relieve agricultural land of any payment towards drainage because such land is derated. In fact, the present agricultural contribution towards drainage rate in Essex yields only £31,000 per annum. The answer is that after the Bill was deposited the Essex River Authority, with great wisdom and foresight, decided to levy a general drainage charge on all agricultural land within its area so as to ensure a fair contribution from agriculture towards land drainage. This change will produce an income slightly in excess of the present agricultural contribution and will, therefore, maintain the present balance.

Just as the present urban element of drainage rate income will be spread evenly over all the urban areas, so the agricultural element will be spread evenly over all agricultural land through the general drainage charge. We shall then for the first time have a fair and rational system which the ratepayer will understand. This was done specifically in the hope that local authorities like the London Borough of Havering and Southend facing a small increase in their precept would feel that the burden was being spread fairly. I hope that the House, too, will feel that this is a fair and sensible arrangement.

I mean no disrespect to my hon. Friends who are likely to oppose the Clause when I say that for the sake of all concerned it is imperative that we get the Bill. Surely where flood prevention and control are involved we must have a system which is fair, rational and efficient, and is seen to be so by all concerned. The Thames barrage scheme reminds us that even the great metropolis is not safe from the threat of flood disaster. The Greater London Council and the Government have wisely combined to provide resources to protect communities in London near the Thames. Some London boroughs which would not be directly affected by any flooding associated with the river are nevertheless bearing their share of that burden. Those few London boroughs which are in the Essex River Authority's area are exempt from this burden. But the Essex River Authority is responsible for improving the river defences below the barrier, and I submit that it is only right, as in the greater part of the Greater London area, that all local authorities in the Essex River Authority's area should bear a fair share of the cost of defence works downstream and out to the estuary.

I would hope, therefore, that my hon. Friends will not press their opposition to Clause 9 to the point of risking the loss of the Bill. If the Bill, with its many non-controversial and valuable provisions, were lost it would be a great setback to a river authority which anyone who has studied the matter knows faces a unique set of problems. It would hamper the authority in work of great importance to vast numbers of people, and it would perpetuate a drainage rate system which increasingly is felt to be unfair. It is right for the House to hear objections. But, that having been done, I hope that my hon. Friends will be disposed to let the Bill go through.

10.30 p.m.

Sir Stephen McAdden (Southend, East)

I participate in these proceedings with some difficulty. I have known my hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East (Sir Bernard Braine) for 40 years, and we have always been on the same side of the fence. What is more, this Bill was introduced at a time when the chairman of the Essex River Authority was Mr. Sydney Bates, a great personal friend of mine. So I have found myself in considerable difficulty in opposing it. Nevertheless, it raises matters of principle, and, therefore, it is necessary to say a few words against it.

The Bill has been eulogised by my hon. Friend. In support of it, he has adduced arguments in favour of a Bill that we are not even considering. I understand his enthusiasm for the Thames Barrier and Flood Prevention Bill. But that is not the Bill that we are discussing. We are discussing the Essex River Authority Bill, and that is a Bill to which objection is taken by the London Boroughs of Barking, Havering, Newham and Redbridge and the County Borough of Southend-on-Sea.

At the outset, I ought to declare an interest in the Bill. I happen to be a ratepayer in the County Borough of Southend-on-Sea. As such, I am not anxious to have my burden increased.

In accordance with Standing Orders, the Bill was deposited in November, 1971, introduced into this House, read the First and Second times, and committed. The five boroughs which I have mentioned presented a petition which was dealt with by the Committee, and now we have the consideration stage in this House.

The important point is a very short one, and there is no need for me to detain the House very long on this important Bill. The point is whether the statement made by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on 22nd December, 1971, constitutes Government policy. On that occasion my hon. Friend said: 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."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd December, 1971; Vol. 828, c. 1591.] That was a clear statement by the Parliamentary Secretary on behalf of his Ministry at that time. We who are objecting to the Bill say that that principle is being departed from in the Measure which has been deposited by the Essex River Authority and that the people in the five boroughs to which reference has been made are being called upon to make payments in respect of services from which they will receive no benefit at all.

This matter was raised before the Committee, and it is not my purpose this evening to attack the distinguished civil servants who gave evidence. I have always regarded it as a wrong principle for anybody to attack civil servants. What they said, in effect, was that as the Minister was the chap who, on appeal, could be called upon to exercise an opinion upon a scheme which might be submitted to him it was wrong that he should be called upon to express an opinion before them.

I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Minister is present. I am sure that Essex will be delighted that a neighbour from East Anglia in the person of the Minister should honour us with his presence this evening, and we shall be delighted to hear from him or from his junior Minister that he sticks to the view that one principle fundamental to all land drainage legislation is that those who derive special benefit as a result of drainage operations should bear the cost of work done on their behalf.

Mr. Loveridge

Is it not the case that this essential principle—namely, that there should be no rate payment without benefit—is an ancient one dating back to 1531?

Sir S. McAdden

I am not as ancient as my hon. Friend, and I cannot go back that far, but the principle which has been enshrined in our legislation for a long time is that there should be no taxation without representation, and so on.

The Heneage Committee investigated land drainage to a considerable extent, and its report of 1951 contains certain recommendations. I do not propose to read them, but paragraphs 30 to 40 and paragraph 59 onwards and especially paragraph 64 are relevant. If one reads that report one sees that all the responsible authorities agree with the view expressed by the Parliamentary Secretary. I cannot see why that view should be overthrown in the legislation proposed by the Essex River Authority, and it is primarily for that reason that we have decided to oppose this Measure.

It is all very well for my hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East to talk about the wonderful benefits which could flow from the Bill. I am sure that they will, but my hon. Friend must remember that some of us are guided by cetain principles, and I think that one should remember the view expressed to the Committee by the Ministry's representative. He said: My Department's position is rather special in that we have to bear in mind that if Parliament should decide to strike out Clause 10 in the Bill it would still be open to the River Authority or their successors to make use of the provisions of the Land Drainage Act to promote a scheme—or schemes—and submit it to the Minister for confirmation. The Minister then has a quasi-judicial function to perform and he will be bound to take into account any representations that were made to him in that connection. It is therefore important that he should be seen to be maintaining a completely impartial attitude. I can understand that, and I can understand the civil servant representing the Minister preserving the impartial attitude of the Minister, who, as he says, occupies a quasi-judicial position, but I cannot understand why there should be this attempt, as I interpret it, in the Bill to overthrow the views of the Minister as expressed by his Parliamentary Secretary.

What we who represent the views of the boroughs concerned wish to extract from the Minister this evening—I am sorry that he has to leave, but I am sure that he has left instructions with his junior Minister—is whether he stands by his junior Minister. Does he uphold that point of view? Does he stick to the view expressed on Wednesday, 22nd December, 1971? Does he still hold to the view that there is one principle which is fundamental to all land drainage legislation, which is that those who derive special benefit as a result of drainage operations should bear the cost of work done on their behalf? If he sticks to that we are home and dry and the Essex River Authority can take a long walk off Southend pier.

This is the one principle that we want established. I hope that we shall have a clear and definite answer from the Government Front Bench tonight. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary shakes his head. I thought that the Government Front Bench existed to give clear and definite answers.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture. Fisheries and Food (Mr. Peter Mills)

I was hoping to be able to state my position. The Government are purely neutral on this. They must be neutral. This is a Private Bill.

Sir S. McAdden

I thought that I had made it clear earlier that the Government were neutral about the Essex River Authority's attitude on the submission of further schemes, but the Government cannot possibly be neutral on the question of principle—principle enunciated by the Government. It is no use my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary pretending that the Government can be neutral on matters of principle. The principles were enunciated as long ago as December last. The Government cannot now say that although they stated in December in reply to the hon. Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) that these were matters of high principle, they will overthrow that at the last moment in order to please the Essex River Authority.

In these circumstances, I hope that the House will agree that the Government have a duty and a right not to be neutral but to stick to their principles whether or not they like them.

Mr. Dick Leonard (Romford)

The House will be grateful to the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir Bernard Braine) for the clear and moderate way in which he presented the case for the Bill. Hon. Members who are concerned about the Bill's effects are also grateful to the Essex River Authority for sending them—I assume that it was sent to other hon. Members—a clear memorandum setting out the case for the Bill earlier this week. The memorandum is a skilfully drafted document. It sets out the case persuasively and makes a serious effort to meet the case of the critics, in so far as that was understood by the authority.

The general case against the Bill has been put very fairly by the hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden). I associate myself with every word of his speech. My borough, Havering, is one of the boroughs which participated in the petition against the Bill. The ratepayers of Havering will be affected adversely by the Bill. It is made clear in the memorandum of the Essex River Authority that Havering will have to pay an extra £22,000 in rate precept as a result of Clause 9. The memorandum describes this increase, and the increase which will be requested from the four other objecting boroughs, in these words: With authorities of this size the increase in the precept might be thought to be of very little significance. That was a most misguided comment. I hope that the Essex River Authority realises that a statement such as that is not likely to be appreciated by the Havering ratepayers. They would not regard an extra £22,000 as of very little significance. They have faced a record increase in rate this year. It was justified because of the level of services provided by the borough, but it was largely caused by the heavy rate of inflation during the last year.

10.45 p.m.

The purpose of the increased precept is to replace the revenue lost from the abolition of drainage rates which would follow from Clause 9. The London Borough of Havering, unlike the other London boroughs affected by the Bill, pays a drainage rate. In the current year it is paying £2,672. This is not a contribution individually subscribed to by ratepayers in the borough who benefit from the activities of the river authority. It is a sum paid on their behalf out of the rates by the borough, which has sensibly come to what is known as a Section 25 agreement with the river authority. To gain the privilege of having the sum of £2,672 waived in the future, my borough is to be required to pay an extra £22,000 in precept. No hon. Member will be surprised to learn that the reaction of the London Borough of Havering to this extraordinary proposal is "Not on your nelly".

Dr. Edmund Marshall (Goole)

What does this represent in terms of pennies in the pound rate?

Mr. Leonard

I understand from the memorandum that it means an increased payment of 18p per ratepayer. If it is argued that this is a small sum compared with the total outgoings of the borough, I would readily grant the point, but I do not concede that because a sum is small it is necessarily insignificant and should not be scrutinised. The phrase "'Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves" will be as well known in Goole as it is in the rest of the country.

It is the duty of the officers and elected representatives in my borough to ensure that there is justification for every penny they spend on behalf of the ratepayers. This is an exceedingly bad bargain that is proposed for Havering and the four other boroughs which object to the Bill. It is proposed that they should shoulder a burden which would otherwise fall on the agricultural areas of the county of Essex.

The hon. Member for Essex, South-East said that the river authority proposes to levy a general drainage charge on the agricultural areas. I welcome this. I do not believe that the charge which will belevied on the agricultural areas will go anywhere near meeting the full benefit which those areas receive from the drainage operations of the river authority. I am not opposed to the idea that the rest of the community should contribute to the support of agriculture. Agriculture has received very generous support from the taxpayer for a long time, in the form of subsidies. When we enter the European Economic Community it will be similarly supported by the funds provided by the common agricultural policy. I welcome this.

But there is no case why the industrial, office and professional workers in my constituency, many of whom have incomes well below those of the farmers of Essex, should pay an extra subvention over and above the support which agriculture receives from the taxpayer. If there is a case for supporting agriculture, it should be at the expense of the taxpayer, not at the expense of the ratepayers of the London Borough of Havering.

Sir Bernard Braine

I am following closely the argument of the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Leonard) but I do not think the hon. Gentleman heard me say that there will be a slight increase in the burden to be borne by the agricultural element. I do not follow the argument the hon. Gentleman is using that industrial workers in his constituency are not interested in this matter. The rain that falls from the sky does not choose between his constituency and the next one. All of us in the Essex River Authority area have some responsibility for seeing that drainage is conducted in the interests of all in a healthy and efficient way. Therefore, the burden should be spread evenly. There are industrial workers living in the areas outside the hon. Gentleman's borough whose local authorities are not objecting to the proposals of the Bill. I think I am right in saying that the councils which are objecting to the Bill are contributing 47 per cent. of the precept and those not objecting are contributing 53 per cent. Let the burden be spread fairly. Surely that is a good democratic principle.

Mr. Leonard

I have acknowledged that the Essex River Authority was going to make an additional charge on the agricultural areas, but I find it extraordinary that it is suggested there should be equal contributions amongst all the people in the area to the services which are provided. After all, the inhabitants of the area do not receive equal protection or benefit from the drainage operations of the river authority.

That was the whole principle of the legislation which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Southend, East when he quoted the Minister in the debate last December. The principle is that those who benefit or suffer from danger should pay, not all the inhabitants in the area of the authority's operation. That is quite a new principle which the hon. Member for South-East Essex argued in his intervention.

The hon. Gentleman in his speech supported the view that the drainage rates should be abolished by citing letters from disgruntled ratepayers. I strongly agree that drainage rates as levied on individuals are an anachronism in 1972 and that they should be abolished. But to do that does not require the Bill which is before the House. It can be done under Section 25 of the Land Drainage Act, 1961, as is explained by the memorandum of the Essex River Authority. Let the authority come to an agreement with the other local authorities as it has already done with six of them, including the London Borough of Havering. The memorandum reads: instead of drainage rates being paid by individual ratepayers within the area of the rating authority, the total is paid by that body.'' If it does that it will achieve the main purpose of the Bill while preserving the broad principle that only those who benefit from the operation of the drainage authority should be required to contribute to its costs.

Mr. Peter Mills

It might be appropriate at this stage for me to make a brief intervention to explain the Government's view.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden) has put the case clearly, and, of course, the Select Committee went into it thoroughly. However, I must say categorically, that the Government are strictly neutral in this matter. This is a Private Bill, so it would be unwise for me to go into detail or argue the merits of the case. The Government cannot take sides in the matter. Therefore, I am sure that the House will understand my position.

I must first comment on the strong point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East. The principle that those who derive special benefit as a result of drainage operations should contribute to the cost is fundamental to land drainage legislation. The principle is still agreed that district boards and drainage districts are not obligatory. Where there is support and a need for drainage the Acts provide for the creation, abolition and change of drainage districts of all three types. That is what the Bill is about. A change is taking place here.

I should like to make two brief comments. The first is on the Essex River Authority's proposal to abolish the 19 drainage districts in its area. River authorities have wide powers under Section 4(1)(b) of the Land Drainage Act, 1930, to rationalise and reorganise drainage districts. This is the sort of flexible arrangement, that one expects if the drainage district system is to stand any chance of adapting itself to changing circumstances. With respect to the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Leonard), there is a change of circumstance here.

These river authority powers include the right to submit to my right hon. Friend for confirmation schemes to create or amalgamate drainage districts, to change their boundaries, and, what is more to the point in this debate, to abolish them. Under Section 11(6) of the Water Resources Act, 1963, they may apply to my right hon. Friend for a variation of their "main river"map—which determines the extent of their own land drainage responsibilities—to include or exclude water courses.

In considering proposals of this kind my right hon. Friend would follow the statutory procedures laid down in the Acts which afford opportunities for anyone affected to register objections. These objections would be considered on their merits after a local public inquiry had been held, if necessary, to help him in coming to a fair decision.

The Essex River Authority could have made use of these procedures, but it has chosen instead to proceed by way of the Bill. This explains why my right hon. Friend's report to Parliament says that he would not wish to object to the Bill. It also explains why he feels it necessary to maintain a neutral attitude on Clause 9, which does no more than the river authority could have done under the procedures of the 1930 and 1963 Acts.

As the House will realise, should Clause 9 be rejected, either here or later in another place, it would still be open to the river authority to submit to my right hon. Friend for confirmation schemes under the 1930 Act for the abolition of some or all of the drainage districts in question. These could give rise to objections, and in considering them my right hon. Friend would be acting in a quasi-judicial capacity. To take sides now could give the impression that my right hon. Friend had prejudged the case. That is why I have to be so careful tonight in what I say.

11.0 p.m.

Of course, hon. Members have a right to ask how we arrive at a fair decision. The answer is that we do so after a thorough examination of all the factors, whether they be urban, agricultural, land drainage, financial or organisational. This we would aim to do realistically within the spirit of the land drainage Acts, which explicitly provide machinery for change.

I wish also to discuss the general need for reorganisation of drainage districts. In this respect I wish to clarify the Government' sattitude to the general need for the reorganisation of drainage districts. At present there are 359 drainage districts covering about 3¼million acres—about 10 per cent.—of England and Wales. Nearly 30 per cent. of the districts are over 10,000 acres, and some are too small by modern standards. Some rationalisation, therefore, seems necessary. But the situation varies from one part of the country to another, and, viewed as a local problem, the need for rationalisation can be met by local initiative within a river authority area and does not necessarily call for reorganisation on a national scale. My right hon. Friend the Minister is aware of the need for change and accepts it.

There is a current major issue affecting drainage matters in the forthcoming reorganisation of water services, and my right hon. Friend hopes to make an announcement soon about the extent to which the new regional water authorities will undertake land drainage functions. Although our proposals will not directly affect the responsibilities of drainage boards, they will cover the functions of the existing river authorities, which, as I have explained, include the reorganisation of drainage districts and boards.

We have to work out the best form of land drainage organisation for the whole country. That should provide a framework for resolving the problems of drainage districts. That does not mean that the reorganisation of drainage districts and boards should come to a halt until regional water authorities are setup in April, 1974. That would be most undesirable. In short, the proposal by the Essex River Authority needs to be considered now on its local merits and not in the light of the national issue I have just described.

I am in an awkward position because I must remain neutral. I am sorry to keep labouring the point. I would like to be more forthcoming, but this is a Private Bill and I hope the House understands the position I am in.

Mr. Ronald Bray (Rossendale)

I intervene briefly in the debate in an unusual capacity. I have no constituency interest. I was on the Committee.

I oppose Clause 9 for the very reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden) put forward. The Bill has been brought forward with what I would term indecent haste, and that particularly applies to the Clause. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has explained that the reorganisation of water resources is already under way. The Essex River Authority already has the power under existing legislation to do exactly what is set out in the Clause. Those who benefit should be those who pay.

Sir Bernard Braine

I do not know whether my hon. Friend has any knowledge of the county of Essex, but I, like my hon. Friend the Member for South-end, East (Sir S. McAdden), was a Member when the 1953 floods hit our county and many people, particularly in my constituency, lost their lives. It was then that I realised just how important proper management of flood control really was. In the county of Essex at any rate, floods make no distinction of arbitrary boundaries.

Mr. Bray

I accept my hon. Friend's reasoning. But floods, which I agree take no notice of arbitrary boundaries—

Sir Bernard Braine

It was not my reasoning; it was my experience.

Mr. Bray

I will say that experience shows that floods take no notice of arbitrary boundaries, if my hon. Friend prefers. But surely the issue is that those who are directly affected should be those who contribute in part or whole, rather than have an overall precept for the district as proposed in the Bill? It was pointed out that a lady in Clacton living at point X was expected to pay a certain poundage and someone living at point Y was not. Those at point X paid because they were vulnerable, and those at point Y did not because they were not liable to flood. That is sound common sense. Why the sudden urge that the Bill be presented to the House and that this Clause be accepted, unless it is for the convenience of the authority in collecting the money?

Sir Bernard Braine


Mr. Bray

That was one of the points made in the Committee. If my hon. Friend studied the Committee's minutes he would see how much more convenient it is to have three, four or perhaps half a dozen accounts to send out to local authorities as opposed to many thousands. If he noted those details, perhaps my hon. Friend would agree with me. I wonder why there is the sudden urge to have the Bill on the Statute Book rather than wait for the report on the organisation of water resources.

Dr. Marshall

The hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Bray) has spoken from the impartial part of Lancashire which he represents. I join him as a Member for a Yorkshire constituency in taking the Wars of the Roses into the far reaches of Essex.

The contentious matter in the Bill is all in what is now Clause 9. The effects of the Clause in operation would be purely financial. There is no question of altering control of drainage arrangements. There is no question of varying the actual work done for land drainage. It is purely a financial matter.

The Essex River Authority is in an almost unique position in being able to introduce a Bill of this nature, for the simple reason that all the 19 internal drainage districts within the authority's area are already administered by the authority. Only one other river authority, Sussex, has this 100 per cent. administration by the authority. Therefore, it is within the powers of the Essex River Authority easily to effect the changes which it wishes by introducing the Bill. It is to be congratulated on so doing. There is no question of undue haste.

Under Clause 9 the authority will first be forgoing its income from drainage rates levied within the internal drainage districts. That is a total income of about £271,000. Of that, some £31,000 is paid in respect of agricultural hereditaments.

Another point, already mentioned, which must be emphasised in order to make it clear is that the element of agricultural contribution in the drainage rates is to be met by the policy of the river authority in increasing the agricultural drainage charges which operate right through the whole of the river authority's area. In other words, there is no question within this Clause of cross-subsidy, urban to agriculture. The agricultural interests will be paying more when the drainage charges come into operation than they do at the moment.

Mr. Leonard

An increase is being made in the charges met by the agricultural community, but does my hon. Friend really believe that the authorities which have objected to this Bill and which contribute 47 per cent. of the budget of the river authority get 47 per cent. of the benefit? The case is not that no charge is being met by agricultural areas but that the charge, even though it will be increased, is disproportionately low in relation to the benefit which the agricultural community receives.

Dr. Marshall

I shall come to that point. The issue I am contesting now is the feeling that somehow the London boroughs and the county borough of Southend are going to be subsidising agriculture. That is not true. As my hon. Friend says, some 47 per cent. of the precept income of the river authority is met by the four London boroughs and Southend. So one has the situation where the income which the river authority will be forgoing because it will no longer be collecting the same drainage rates will be made up in terms of extra precept.

The increase in the precept will be about 20 per cent. compared with the precept which the county boroughs and the county of Essex and the four surrounding counties currently contribute to the funds of the river authority. In this change-over there will be a saving—estimated at above £30,000—in administrative costs, because no longer will there be the job of having to maintain a register of drainage ratepayers; no longer will there be the business of having to send out individual drainage rate demands; no longer will there be the business of having to look into the complaints such as were contained in the letters read by the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir Bernard Braine).

I point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Leonard) that the increased precept which his borough, Havering, will be paying will have offset against it what it now pays by virtue of a Section 25 agreement, which will bring its total lower than the £20,000 mark. So the effect of this proposal is to switch a burden which is currently borne by the general rate-payers within the present drainage districts scattered around and up the valleys of Essex to the general ratepayers right throughout the whole of the Essex River Authority area.

The important point here is to remember that the present arrangements for rate rebates apply in respect of general rating but do not apply in respect of drainage rating. So people who are particularly aggrieved at having to pay drainage rates have no means of recovering a rebate. People in difficult circumstances who are unable to meet their general rates can go to the local authority and seek a rebate. Clause 9 would shift the burden to a more equitable administration of rate collection.

Mr. Bray

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the operation of the precepts on the local authorities as set out in the Bill represents the least painful method of increasing the revenue of the river authority?

11.15 p.m.

Dr. Marshall

There has been no suggestion that that is the purpose of the Bill. I see no evidence to support that. The figures which I have suggested show how the income through drainage rates will be made up by precept, and the two things balance. There is no means of getting extra income within the framework of the Bill.

The benefits to be gained from the Bill are very great. First, there would be an end to all the anomalies of the drainage district boundaries. One sees from the map of the Essex River Authority what unusual boundaries they are, streaking far inland up the watercourses. They are far more scattered and varied than those in my constituency. I have problems with drainage district boundaries, but I shudder to think of some of the problems which obtain in Essex. I am thinking particularly of those free-standing towns in Essex and Suffolk which find themselves partly inside and partly outside a drainage district. Chelmsford, Colchester, Manningtree, Basildon, Maldon and Sudbury all have the experience referred to by the hon. Member for Essex, South-East, in that there are people on one side of the street who pay the rates and people on the other side who do not. Therefore, the second great benefit to be gained from the Bill would be an ending of that sense of injustice among the domestic ratepayers in those areas.

Thirdly, there would be the ending of the inefficiency of drainage rate collection. At the moment the Essex River Authority must send out 18,500 rate demands a year, and the average amount of each demand is £7.

Fourthly, the passing of this Bill would end a small anomaly which could be important in future. Three of the internal drainage districts which are to be abolished by theBill—the Ripple, Rainham and Fobbing drainage districts—are scheduled, under the Government's proposals, to go into the regional water authority No. 6, which will be based largely on the Thames river basin. At the moment there are no other internal drainage districts within that river authority area. Therefore, if these three drainage districts are preserved they will be the only ones within the new regional water authority and as such would constitute an anomaly.

The only objection which I think carries weight was expressed by the hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden) when he reiterated the traditional principle of benefit. He went on to say that if we stuck to that principle we would be home and dry. I have to tell him that if he sticks to the principle of benefit he will be home and wet, because it is one of the accidents of history that the county borough of Southend has escaped having internal drainage districts overlapping its own area.

Certainly within the principles of the Medway letter, which are the guidelines for establishing boundaries of internal drainage districts, it would be possible to create new internal drainage districts which go inside the county borough of Southend. It would have been open to the Essex River Authority to take that action. This means that there is land in Southend which is in danger of flooding and which benefits from the operations of the Essex River Authority. Anyone who wants to know where the benefit is should go and look at Southend. Southend will benefit just as much from the land drainage operations of the Essex River Authority as other areas throughout the whole of the authority's jurisdiction.

This is a measure of rationalisation. I know from experience in Yorkshire, where in my constituency there are more internal drainage districts than there are within the whole of the Essex River Authority area, that the system of internal drainage administration is in need of reorganisation. For the country as a whole that is a matter of Government initiative which we eagerly await. I welcome some of the comments made by the Parliamentary Secretary on this subject. The Essex River Authority has taken the initiative because it is in a good position to do so. It is to be congratulated on the Clause, which I hope the House will support.

Mr. R. A. McCrindle (Billericay)

The hon. Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) brings to this subject an experience and expertise that none of us would dream of trying to equal. My brief contribution will be on an entirely different, albeit practical, basis.

I start by declaring an interest, in that I am a ratepayer of the London Borough of Havering. In addition, I represent the constituency of Billericay, which includes Basildon new town. It is fair to concede that the need for additional resources is largely due to the industrial and domestic expansion of the county of Essex over the last 20 years, part of which is concentrated upon Basildon new town.

I approach this matter with slightly divided loyalty. As a ratepayer of the London Borough of Havering I am not too keen on paying extra rates. On the other hand, I remind the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Leonard) that there have been many increases for other reasons in the 14 years I have lived there. In all fairness, one should be prepared to face an increase if it is for the benefit of the county and the area as a whole. After listening to the debate with an open mind, I have come to the conclusion that that has been proved by hon. Members who support the Measure.

I understood the sincerity with which my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden) spoke on the point of principle. I listened with great interest to the reply by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. I cannot see that the matter that was raised, which seemed to be a derivation from the old business of no taxation without representation, was very appropriate to the matter we are discussing.

We are saying that throughout the whole area of the Essex River Authority a great number of people benefit, and the intention of the Measure is to equalise that benefit and to equalise the payment for it. There will be people who will not like it. As a ratepayer of Havering I do not particularly like it, but I think it is the right principle.

Sir S. McAdden

This principle was enunciated not by me but by the Parliamentary Secretary, who repeated what I said earlier, that people should not be mulcted without receiving some benefit.

Mr. McCrindle

I have listened carefully, and carefully say to the House that my hon. Friend was repeating something said by the Parliamentary Secretary. I am not anxious to take sides or to state where the quotation originally came from, but, having listened carefully, and trying to make up my mind whether to be for or against this Measure on the basis of the debate, I come to the fairly firm conclusion that whether my hon. Friend for Southend, East said it or the Parliamentary Secretary—and I accept that he did, because my hon. Friend says he did— the point has been established clearly that the principle to which we should be paying attention is equalisation of payment as a return for equalisation of benefit as a result of the Measure.

Mr. Leonard

Perhaps the hon. Friend could explain how there is equalisation? He will know that the London Borough of Havering is named after a hamlet of that name on a hill, and perhaps he could explain how this hamlet will get any benefit from the Bill.

Mr. McCrindle

The House will be suprised to know that it was my intention to deliver an uncontroversial speech. I wonder whether the hon. Member for Romford was following my speech. One cannot single out a hamlet in part of Havering and try to prove anything. For a Socialist to do that is surprising.

It seems to me that payment is to be equalised because benefit is to be equalised, in broad terms round the area. My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Bray), very close at hand in Lancashire, said that there was something rather sinister about the Essex River Authority's having brought it forward at all. If my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale did not say that, I apologise. Far from being sinister, there is something progressive about it, and the House, far from condemning the Measure, should welcome it.

I accept what the hon. Member for Goole said about progressive measures that are on the way. I thought that this was a matter for congratulation for the Essex River Authority. Even if it is ahead of the country in this, it is the first of many occasions when this will be the case.

Having listened carefully and having tried to make up my mind on the basis of what I have heard, I conclude that the matter is one which can and should be supported.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill, as amended, considered accordingly; to be read the Third time.

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