HL Deb 15 June 1961 vol 232 cc299-327

3.20 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this complicated measure has been examined at great length in another place, and doubtless many noble Lords are familiar with its proposals and expert on them. I hope, therefore, that I need not speak for too long, but I think I must give a broad picture of the events leading up to the Bill and an explanation of its more important provisions.

The basis of this Bill is the Report made by the Committee which sat under the distinguished chairmanship of Sir Arthur Heneage. The terms of reference of that Committee were: To consider proposals and make recommendations for the amendment and modernisation of the law relating to land drainage in England and Wales. The general position at the moment, before we pass this Bill, is that river boards have responsibility for rivers which are designated by them as "main rivers". The river board areas cover the whole of England and Wales except for London, and there are 32 of them. Internal drainage boards are set up where there are special drainage problems within river board areas. These cover about 10 per cent, of the country, and there are, I believe, about 300 such internal drainage boards. But there are two gaps in this structure, as your Lordships will probably have already noticed: first, that a large number of watercourses, especially what we term the "intermediate" watercourses, are no one's responsibility; and secondly, that agricultural land, except in drainage districts, makes no financial contribution to the work of land drainage. This is because the river boards get their money by precepting on local authorities, and agricultural land is derated.

The proposals of the Heneage Committee were very sweeping. Broadly, they were that, first, every watercourse in the country that is not already the responsibility of the drainage authority (the drainage authority being either the river board or an internal drainage board) should come under the control of river boards. Secondly, to enable the river boards to meet this additional liability they recommended that all land within a river board area—including agricultural land, of course—should contribute to the funds of the river board by a new type of charge, which would be mandatory, and would be based on Schedule A values, there being no rateable values on agricultural land which could be used.

These proposals were, in the view of the Government, too far-reaching and, indeed, it was impossible to secure the necessary support for them from the organisations interested. As a result, negotiations were entered into with the interested organisations—that is, the Country Landowners' Association, the National Farmers' Union, the River Boards' Association and the Association of Drainage Authorities—to try to find a less drastic and more acceptable solution Ito the problem. The results of these negotiations were announced in a White Paper (Cmnd. 916) published in December, 1959, and as an Appendix to this White Paper there was published the text of the agreed principles which would form the basis of legislation.

It is true that it took rather a long time before these proposals now finally incorporated in the Bill were formulated and agreement was secured from the organisations mainly concerned, but I am confident your Lordships will agree that the resulting proposals which are now before us justify the wait. I should like to pay tribute to the organisations. They approached their task and their differences in a statesmanlike way and they showed themselves ready to make concessions where there were clashes of interest. The Government are grateful to them for their helpful approach, which alone made possible the agreement that is set out in the White Paper.

The proposals now incorporated in the Bill are more flexible than those recommended by the Heneage Committee, but their basic purpose is still the same—to overcome the problem of neglected intermediate watercourses. While, as I have said, the Report recommended that all intermediate watercourses should be taken over, the proposals embodied in the Bill will give river boards freedom to take action where it is necessary to do so. We are convinced that this is the right approach. The powers are, in fact, permissive and not mandatory.

The main proposals of the Bill, which come under Part I, are designed to secure that river boards will be able to obtain additional revenue by means of drainage charges levied upon agricultural land outside internal drainage districts. At the present time this land does not make any contribution towards the cost of drainage works, and it is appropriate that for additional work the money needed by river boards should be contributed by a levy on this land.

There will be two types of drainage charge, the general charge and the special charge. To take the general charge first (we are now on Clause 1 of the Bill) river boards will be given this permissive power to levy a general drainage charge over the whole of their areas outside internal drainage districts, which are, of course, already contributing. This charge will be equivalent to river boards' precepts borne by the general body of ratepayers. Thus the agricultural occupier will pay for drainage work to the same extent and in the same way as his mainly urban counterparts, the general body of ratepayers. Its purpose is to enable the river board to do additional land drainage work on existing or new "main rivers". So far as agricultural land is concerned, a new principle is incorporated here which I must bring to the attention of your Lordships; and this, of course, also applies to the special drainage charge, to which I will come in a moment. The charge is not related to benefit, as is the case in internal drainage districts: it is a community charge.

I turn for a moment to the second type of charge, to be known as the special drainage charge, As the White Paper made clear, this will be levied by river boards where there is a special agricultural need for additional drainage work in the river board's area, and the proceeds of this charge can be used only on designated watercourses. Broadly, it is proposed that river boards shall levy this charge over all, or at least a substantial part, of their areas. For, as I have said, this charge is not to be related to specific benefit, but is designed, as the White Paper makes clear, to meet circumstances where there is a special need for drainage work in the interests of agriculture. When the Minister considers for approval schemes for levying the special drainage charge, he will have regard particularly to any contributions from local authorities and internal drainage boards which are likely to be available.

As proposed by the Heneage Committee, these drainage charges will have to be based on the Schedule A valuations of the agricultural land concerned. While we must admit that these valuations are in many cases out of date, they do, nevertheless, reflect the relative values of agricultural land and provide a practical basis upon which to assess the drainage charges. We have carefully examined the possibility of using other bases, but I am afraid I have to say that there are no other suitable official figures available. The limit of the two charges, the general charge and the special charge, taken together will be one shilling in the £. Therefore, noble Lords will appreciate that the charges are unlikely to be onerous.

River boards will need to obtain information about Schedule A valuations in order to levy the drainage charges. A great deal of thought has been given to how this should be done, and the Inland Revenue will do all they can to help by supplying river boards with the information which they have available relating to Schedule A assessment on occupiers. But a difficulty arises here where owners have elected to bear directly the Schedule A charges on their property under Section 110 of the Income Tax Act, 1952. Where they have done this it will be difficult for the Inland Revenue to give river boards the information they need to enable them to levy a drainage charge upon occupiers. So Clause 14 of this Bill, which was introduced on Recommittal in another place, overcomes this problem. It provides that, where an owner has exercised his option to pay Schedule A charges, he will also, in the first instance, bear the drainage charges on his property, though subsequently, of course, he will be able to recover the charge from the occupier.

I admit that this is a complicated procedure, but it is eminently practical, and will overcome many difficulties that would otherwise have arisen. The point we must bear in mind is that Schedule A tax is a landlord's property tax, and the drainage charge is an occupier's tax. Owing to the fact that there are no rateable values for agricultural land we have to use the Schedule A assessments, which are primarily an owner's tax, to levy the occupier's charge. It is bound to be a complicated procedure but is, we feel, quite practical and gets us out of this difficulty.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Earl one question? I have not a copy of the Bill in my hand, but is the rate to be levied on what might be called riparian land, or on all agricultural land within the drainage board's area?


It is to be levied on all the land. The whole principle of this general charge is that the rate will be leviable for the whole area of the river board. The special charge will, in many cases, be over the whole leviable area, and in all cases over a substantial area. I should like to say how much we appreciate the very helpful attitude of the Country Landowners' Association, and in particular of the noble Lord, Lord Do Ramsey (and I am very glad to see him in his place to-day), who has made this agreement which is now incorporated in Clause 14 possible. This means, of course, that landowners will be undertaking additional work in order to make this Bill work, and we are grateful for their co-operation.

I am aware that in certain circumstances the levying of drainage charges will be expensive in relation to the revenue obtained. I should like to make two points about this. First, the powers that we are going to give to these river boards to levy these charges will be permissive, and obviously river boards will not levy the charges if and when it appears to them that it would not pay them to do so. Secondly, even where the collection costs may be high the net revenue made available to river boards will be valuable, particularly to the poorer boards, and I am glad to say that the River Boards' Association agree with us on this point.

I may be asked what sort of revenue this is going to produce; how much it is going to help the river boards. Of course it is difficult to estimate what the likely yield of drainage charges will be, because we do not know which river boards will take advantage of the new powers and levy the charge. But I think I ought to attempt to give some figures, as my right honourable friend did in another place.

He said there—and these are the best estimates that we have—that the potential revenue from the general drainage charge on the basis of present precept rates (which I think are an average of about 3d.) could be a yield of revenue of about £500,000 a year. Perhaps another £500,000 might be raised by the special drainage charge. That would represent a 20 per cent. increase in the income of river hoards. In addition, Exchequer grants for improvement works would, of course, be payable in the usual way; and this might be a further substantial contribution of, say, another £500,000. So we have a total of £1½ million of extra revenue coming to the river boards from the imposition of these two charges. So it is a substantial matter, and not, as has been said in some places, a matter which will mean a great deal of trouble and have very little result.

One of the criticisms (and I mention it because I should like to meet them halfway) which has been made about this Bill, is that the wording of the White Paper has not been exactly followed in the Bill. People do not generally worry about the actual words unless they feel there is some difference of meaning. The main reason for the criticism was the fear that river boards would not use this new revenue from drainage charges for additional work. We have explained that the exact wording of the White Paper, which is ordinary English, is not suitable for incorporation in a Statute which by no stretch of the imagination can be called ordinary English. The Bill, as amended, goes as far as possible, and I can reassure noble Lords that we have an undertaking from river boards that the revenue from drainage charges will be used as intended. It will not be used simply to reduce the precepts upon county councils and county borough councils, which I think was the fear. The additional money will be for additional work. In other words, drainage charges will, broadly speaking, be used to undertake more drainage work, and not the same drainage work that was being undertaken before.

Clearly, where drainage charges are being levied, those contributing should be represented on the river boards, and whilst it would be wrong to upset the very carefully arranged existing balance, we have in Clause 15 made provision for this additional representation. We therefore propose that up to two additional members may be appointed to a board where the drainage charges are being levied.

Perhaps I may now turn to Part II of the Bill and the First Schedule. Your Lordships will not, I am afraid, be able to find any connecting theme in this Part of the Bill., other than the general theme of good government, because what has happened is that the opportunity has been taken of this drainage legislation to bring in a number of desirable Amendments to the Land Drainage Act, 1930, and the River Boards Act, 1948. These are dreadfully detailed matters, though I think each of them is important. I think we should not be alarmed about it. At this stage I do not propose to do more than indicate some of the most important.

I should like to emphasise that none of the miscellaneous provisions in Part II of the Bill, which refers mostly to the internal drainage districts of the boards, makes any alterations in the basic structure of the internal drainage boards. Those boards are doing excellent work, and all we are doing is simply to take the opportunity of overcoming the various anomalies which have come to light in existing arrangements.

Now, with the passage of time, it has become clear that certain inequities have arisen in drainage rating because the drainage rates are based upon Schedule A valuations. As I have said, Schedule A provides a good basis of assessment. However, there are difliculties where properties have been re-valued on the basis of post-war rental values. Such valuations are higher than the assessments on comparable properties based on pre-war valuation, and clearly the levying of drainage rates on two different bases creates unfair situations, especially here in the internal drainage districts where the rate poundage may be considerable—it may be more than 10s. in the £. The Bill, as presented to your Lordships now, therefore contains two clauses which were not in it originally—Clauses 22 and 23—which I am sure will commend themselves to your Lordships because they overcome these difficulties.

I do not think I need weary the House with an exposition of the changes that the Government propose to make in the detailed arrangements of drainage rates, but I should like to draw your attention to the provisions in Clause 25 which will give drainage ratepayers power to take the initiative in securing a review of the differential rating arrangements made by an internal drainage board. As many of your Lordships will be aware, drainage boards are empowered under the Land Drainage Act of 1930 to levy different levels of drainage rates in districts according to their view of the benefit received.

This has hitherto been something which drainage boards have determined for themselves, but we now consider that it is equitable that the persons paying drainage rates should also be empowered to ventilate any grievances they have with drainage board arrangements. We are, therefore, providing in Clause 25 that where a representative body of drainage ratepayers think that they have a case they may petition for a change to be made. Decisions on the question will generally be made by the appropriate river board. Whilst dealing with differential drainage rating arrangements I should perhaps mention that we are proposing to give drainage boards greater flexibility in the kind of differential rating arrangements which they can make. Also in Clause 25, we propose to allow drainage boards to establish independent sub-districts where that is appropriate.

Now in Clause 35 the Bill will also empower drainage ratepayers to take the initiative in asking for a review of a drainage district's boundaries where they consider alterations should be made to take account of charges arising from building developments. As the law now stands it is for the river board to take the initiative for a change of boundaries of an internal drainage district. The new proposal will be a great step forward to allow ratepayers to ventilate their grievances. Boundary reviews will be subject to the approval of the Minister, who will be able to take an objective view of the cases presented both by the drainage board and by the drainage ratepayers and will be able to consider the effect of a boundary review upon the viability of any drainage district. Again, in the same Clause 35, the Bill provides that it will, where appropriate, be possible to deal with the problem by means of a change in differential rating arrangements rather than by the more drastic procedure of altering district boundaries. As a result there will be a great deal of flexibility in the powers available for dealing with what is frequently a prickly local issue.

Another very important clause in the Bill is the new power which we propose to give local authorities. This is designed to enable them to deal with local flooding problems in their areas. The power will be conferred initially upon county boroughs and county districts. The county councils will also be able to act either in default or at the request of county districts. These powers will not in any way derogate from the responsibilities of river boards for the general oversight of drainage in their areas, and local authorities will not be empowered to undertake work on main river under this provision.

Some concern was expressed whether the Minister of Agriculture would be able to grant-aid local authorities under this clause where drainage schemes do not benefit agricultural land. I should like to take this opportunity of making it clear beyond doubt that approved schemes by local authorities under this provision of the Bill will be eligible for grant-aid by my Ministry. We are also proposing to bring up to date the powers available in Section 52 of the Land Drainage Act, 1930, for the promotion of local improvement schemes. In effect, these powers, in Clause 29 now, will be complementary to the powers which will be exercisable by local authorities and which I have just described. The local improvement scheme powers will be available to county councils, county borough councils and river boards, and are intended to help in the promotion of schemes in small areas of rural land where it would be inappropriate to establish a new internal drainage district. They will be a useful addition to the means of overcoming one aspect of local drainage difficulties.

So much for Part II of the Bill. I will just turn very briefly to Part HI. The provisions in this Part of the Bill are designed to overcome problems where the condition of ditches is causing drainage difficulties between neighbours.


My Lords, may I interrupt for one moment? I am not quite clear about river board arrangements. What happens when the land drainage is taken over by canals? To whom would the payments be made then?


I do not quite follow the noble Lord's question: what happens when the land drainage is taken over by a canal? The authority for land drainage must be with the river board or the internal drainage board. I do not think that a canal can ever be a land drainage authority. Perhaps I can come back to that matter in my reply. Perhaps the noble Lord will say something about it in his speech.

May I turn briefly to the ditching provisions? These are designed to overcome problems, as I have said, which have caused difficulties between neighbours. The Land Drainage Act, 1930, attempted to deal with this kind of problem by giving an owner or occupier whose land was suffering injury through a neighbour's neglect of his ditches the right to remedy the position by requiring his neighbour to put them in order. That sounds reasonable enough. He was empowered to enter and do the work himself in default, and the 1930 Act also made analogous provision for an owner or occupier to carry out improvement work upon a neighbour's land. The difficulty with these provisions has been that owners and occupiers are understandably reluctant to take direct action against their neighbours.

Part II of this Bill is designed to overcome this problem. Instead of having to take direct action against his neighbour, the new provisions will enable an occupier of land to apply to an agricultural land tribunal for an order enabling remedial or improvement work to be carried out on ditches of a neighbour's land. Thus the need for direct action which is so uncomfortable will be avoided. I am sure that these new provisions will provide a much improved procedure for use where neighbours have not in the past been able to arrive at settlements between themselves in their disputes about ditches.

I think at this stage that is all I have to say on the Bill, which is a very complicated measure. I will do my best in my reply to answer any points that may be of interest to your Lordships and which any of your Lordships may raise. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Earl Waldegrave.)

3.50 p.m.


My Lords, may I first of all congratulate the noble Earl upon his extremely lucid exposition of what is, after all, a very complex measure. For those not immersed in the technicalities of drainage legislation the noble Earl has brought much light in many dark places within this Bill. One other word of cheer to the noble Earl before I proceed: I ought to tell him at once, to ease his mind, that we on these Benches welcome the Bill; he is assured of an unopposed Second Reading.

I must say that at first glance I had a great deal of sympathy with the vital recommendations of the Heneage Committee's Report, and I accept the more leisurely approach of the Government only because of my absolute confidence in the river boards. Before proceeding to touch upon the Bill, however, I should like to make a modest but a very sincere request: that is, that once the Bill has passed through this House, if it does pass your Lordships, since so many are in a state of suspended animation, I hone no time will be lost by Her Majesty's Government before they produce a Consolidation Bill, so that not only Members of your Lordships' House but also those minions who have to administer the drainage law will be able to understand the modern, up-to-date drainage law, this Bill forming a part of it. I need only quote one paragraph in the Bill to justify my request. This is Clause 3, subsection (5): A scheme under this section may make provision for any of the matters referred to in sub-paragraphs (i) and (ii) of paragraph (a) of subsection (1) of section four of the Act of 1930 (as modified by paragraph 3 of the Third Schedule to the River Boards Act, 1948) and, "subject to subsections (6) to (10) of this section, those Acts shall apply to such a scheme as they apply to a scheme under paragraph (b) of the said subsection (1). That, your Lordships will agree, is as clear as mud, and Her Majesty's Government will do well to help all those technicians, as well as laymen, who have to administer this law by producing a Consolidation Bill at the earliest possible moment.

Might I also call the attention of noble Lords to the 35 paragraphs in the two Schedules, each one more or less explaining another Amendment, some of them extremely complicated? If noble Lords will look at those 35 paragraphs and read them carefully, I am sure they will agree with my modest plea. I can readily understand the difficulties both for the technician and the layman—and the layman largely makes up the river boards, since he represents some local authority—when they are confronted with these cross-references, all of which, of course, are utterly inevitable in the circumstances and I make no complaint about them.

I suppose my interest in land drainage commenced when large areas in and adjoining my own Parliamentary Division were flooded several times in the late 'twenties and early 'thirties, when some six or seven hundred men, women and children had to be taken from their homes to live in schools, generally for about two months, while their homes were cleansed and made once again habitable. I also saw on all those occasions, except one which was in the dead of winter, cereal crops floating down the river, and this painful experience turned me into a drainage enthusiast. I had also read that very revealing Bledisloe Report on land drainage in 1927. Later I was a member of the Standing Committee in the House of Commons when the Land Drainage Bill of 1930 was under review. Finally, for my sins I was made responsible for negotiating the River Boards Bill to the Statute Book in 1948. Therefore, thanks to my very close contact with flooding problems and drainage problems over the years, the noble Earl has a very sympathetic ally in anything he does or tries to do to improve the drainage of our all-too-few acres of agricultural land.

The 1930 Act was a very good, if belated, start. The 1940 Act was an extension and an improvement—I know it was, because it was my Bill. I believe this Bill goes a long way towards filling in the missing links. Thanks to a very searching analysis in another place, both in Committee and on the Floor of the House, I feel that this Bill is much better than it was when originally introduced. It is true it took a long time to find its way into your Lordships' House, some ten years after the presentation of the Heneage Report, but I make no complaint. I know something about the long-drawn-out negotiations when so many interests are involved. I appreciate the wisdom of aiming at the maximum measure of agreement, especially where additional payments are imposed upon a large number of people, so long as those agreements do not result in frustration and inactivity.

As the noble Earl has said, Part I, is, of course, the important part of this Bill; it gives the river boards power to levy a general charge on all agricultural land outside the areas of internal drainage boards. That is an extension which is long overdue in the light of our experience over the last 30 or 31 years. I know how hesitant farmers are to initiate drainage schemes or set up internal boards if they fear that they are likely to be called upon to make a contribution to the cost, even though they are in most areas the only beneficiaries from any improvement schemes. Indeed, my experience of farmers, much as I love them, is that they are the most rabid anti-nationalisers in the country; but I never met a farmer who opposed nationalisation of drainage, particularly if someone else was going to pay for the cost of the work.

There are 32 river boards, as the noble Earl said, and two catchment boards still in existence, whose major responsibility is, of course, to deal with the main rivers. Most of their revenues come from the county authorities and their ratepayers. Also there are 300 internal drainage boards who derive their revenues from urban communities in the area for which they are responsible. But the intermediate watercourses—which the noble Earl did not emphasise too much, I thought, although I knew what he would be feeling—connecting farm ditch to the main river, representing thousands of miles of streams, large and small, but those that are outside the internal drainage districts, are just nobody's responsibility at the moment and of course little or no work is done upon them. That is the main weakness in our existing drainage law. The result, of course, is that 90 per cent. of occupiers of agricultural land make no payment at all towards drainage costs, except those occupiers within an internal drainage board's area. Much of the land must have deteriorated since 1930 when the original catchment boards were set up, simply because it was nobody's business to undertake it unless schemes were initiated by the farmers themselves. That meant more internal drainage boards, or a combination of farmers with foresight who knew that well-drained land was a good solid investment.

To enable river boards to take over some of the responsibilities so far neglected—and I ought to add, to deal with the forgotten areas—the resources of the river boards must be increased: hence the proposed new charge referred to by the noble Earl on agricultural land which is at present contributing nothing towards drainage. Fortunately, thanks to these prolonged discussions and negotiations, there is general agreement now on this new principle, and I think it is fair and just that those who benefit by land drainage should at least contribute something towards the work undertaken. The cost should be modest; in any case, as the noble Earl has explained, it is limited, and in the end I think it will be a good investment, not only for the farming community but for the whole nation.

The expenditure of the river boards over the past ten years, so the Minister told us in another place, has been something like £50 million on capital improvement schemes, and the expenditure at the moment is running at about £6 million per annum. I shudder to think what might have happened last year had this £50 million not been spent both in my own old Parliamentary Division and in many other areas in various parts of the country. Some doubt has been expressed as to whether the river boards will tackle the job effectively, as their powers are only permissive. I personally entertain no doubts at all. I think the figures I have just quoted clearly indicate that the river boards are responsible bodies. They have plenty of initiative and enterprise, and all they need is more power and the resources to extend their activities.

Special schemes on which drainage works are required in the interests of agriculture in the whole or any part of the river hoard area will be possible when this Bill becomes an Act. I think this is a major step forward to deal with some of these forgotten acres; it should serve a useful purpose if full advantage is taken of it. As the noble Earl has said, to finance these schemes a special levy can be charged where the Minister is satisfied that agriculture will benefit, Such schemes may be large or small or widely scattered, but they will be helping to complete an unfinished job. Every scheme must satisfy the Minister that benefits will match expenditure. There are ample safeguards for the doubting Thomases in subsections (7), (8), (9) and (10) of Clause 3. Indeed, my worry is that there may be too many safeguards which will stultify the possibility of some schemes being undertaken.

These combined charges, the general and special charges, again as the noble Earl has said, and as I want to emphasise, cannot exceed 1s. in the £ over Schedule A value. The increased revenue from these two sources has been estimated in another place to be round about £1 million a year; but as capital improvement qualifies for a Government grant, the actual sum may be well up to £1½ million a year. I think that this will prove to be a first-class long-term investment to the farming community.

Part II of the Bill is designed to increase and modernise local authority powers on carrying out drainage schemes and, among other things, to improve the machinery of the present law. These improvements and amendments are both timely and necessary if the job is going to be done. There are scores of anomalies and inconsistencies in rating law, both in general and in detail, and much outmoded law relating to the powers of local authorities. It would be wasting your Lordships' time, and, I fear, your patience, if I attempted to deal with them even in general and not in detail. They were dealt with rather faithfully in another place. Therefore, I prefer to call in aid the Government's White Paper (Cmnd. 916) paragraphs 28 to 44, where all the proposed Amendments which are embodied in this Bill are explained much more clearly than I could hope to explain them to your Lordships.

There are further explanations in the 35 paragraphs of the two Schedules to the Bill. They are chiefly in elementary language—a bit complex if one tries to memorise them all, and much more complex if one had to carry them out in practice. All I need say about them, therefore, is that they are largely based on the recommendations of the Heneage Committee, a body of high-ranking specialists on drainage who devoted years to their investigations. I think they did a magnificent job, and if the proposed amendments in the Bill and the new machinery work out anywhere near as well as we all hope, then I think they will have made a massive contribution to the better drainage of our precious land, and both town and country in the end cannot fail to benefit.

Before I close I should like to ask the noble Earl a question, to which I hope he will reply. I hope I may be able to be here, but as trains do not wait for one man there is just a possibility that I may not. I refer to a letter that I received from the Essex River Board. I am sure the noble Earl will know all about the subject when I raise it, and I raise it now merely so that he will be warned that at some stage in the passage of this Bill we hope to raise the question in an acute form. I would just read the first paragraph of this message from the Essex River Board: The Board, in common with other river boards, feel that the country is concerned that the powers proposed in the above Bill relating to the restriction of structures affecting water courses, are not wide enough to ensure that drainage interests are not seriously interfered with by development on land immediately adjoining the water courses. I am sure the noble Earl will understand what that is all about.

Since this question was raised in another place and the Government at that time were unwilling to accede to the request of the river boards, I hope that between now and the next stage of the Bill the noble Earl's right honourable friend will look more generously on what, after all, is the view of an expert body, for if the river boards do not know what the dangers are after having been in operation now since 1930 as catchment boards, and since 1948 as river boards, I do not think anybody else can really understand them. My Lords, I repeat my first few words: we welcome the Bill, we wish it well, we hope it accomplishes what we should all like to see, and we shall help it on its way through this House.

4.9 p.m.


My Lords, I, too, welcome this Bill. I do not claim to be a great expert on drainage, like the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Barnburgh, who has just sat down, or Lord De Ramsey, who is going to follow me. But I have always had a keen interest in the subject, living as I do on very flat land on the edge of the Fens, though I am not myself in an internal drainage area. If it were not for the work done by the internal drainage boards and the river boards, of course, my neighbours would be ducks, instead of people farming some of the richest agricultural land in England. Moreover, I am very close to the scheme, which is costing something like £10 million, run by the Great Ouse River Board for the drainage of the Fens. So I have a tremendous admiration for the work of the river boards.

Although we have not had the criticism to-day, the criticism one has heard of this Bill is, first, the delay; and, secondly, that it does not go far enough. On the first point, that of the delay, my view is that the importance of getting agreement between all the interests concerned is worth a considerable amount of delay. Of course, this Bill introduces, as we have been told, a new principle for the payment of drainage rates on agricultural land in that we are now paying rates, or may be paying rates, without benefit. There has always been this controversy over many years between the high land—though the high land is not necessarily high in altitude: it is, rather, land which does not necessarily benefit from drainage schemes—and the low. I know that near me there was an attempt to set up an internal drainage board, but because land which would have been included was sand on chalk, and the people felt that they would get no benefit, since any rain that fell went harmlessly through it, that scheme fell through and it never came into being. So I think it is a big step forward that all the interests concerned have agreed to this new level. I think it is a perfectly fair one, because in every other sphere people pay rates without getting immediate benefit; and, after all, the main contributors to the river boards are the local authorities and county boroughs, who in many cases get very little benefit, although they are some of the main contributors to the revenue of the river boards.

I am glad that we have not gone quite so far as the Heneage Report proposed, but that each area is to be dealt with on its merits. I am glad that the noble Lord has repeated the assurance that was given by the Minister in another place that this money would be spent on new works or extension of the main river, and not used simply as a supplement to the general income of the river boards. I think that that is an important point and one that perhaps sugars the pill a little. I myself am glad that we did not go as far as the Heneage Report suggested, because I think there was a very genuine fear, probably completely unfounded, that it might be the thin end of the wedge towards agricultural re-rating; and, unfounded as those fears may be, they existed and I think it would have been wrong to ride roughshod over them.

So far as the special levy is concerned, I agree with it in principle, and I am glad that there are the necessary safeguards. I hope that the fears expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Barnburgh, will not be realised and that the safeguards will not prevent the river boards from taking effective action. But when we come to these drainage schemes I think they require very careful consideration. After all, drainage is not just a matter of digging out the main river or the intermediate watercourse. If one is to get the full benefit from it one must have the co-operation of all the people in the area who are likely to benefit from the scheme, because digging out either the intermediate watercourse or the main river is only the start. If the full benefit is to be realised there are the farm ditches and all the drainage of the fields to be dealt with—work which involves a great deal of capital. But unless that part of the scheme is carried out, then the money spent may well be wasted. So I am glad there are the safeguards that the scheme will be considered on its merits.

In that connection, I am pleased, too, that there are the new powers in Part III of the Bill covering farm ditches, because we all know that one person who is obstinate or unable to do out his ditches may hold up the drainage of a number of other people. In some cases, if the lie of the land is right, it is possible for one occupier, merely by doing out his own ditches, to bring water down and flood out another who is obstinate, so that he has to do something about his own ditches. But, of course, that does not always apply. The fact that these powers exist may well mean that people will do out their ditches, rather than have all the bother of going to the Agricultural Land Tribunal and fighting the question.

It would, perhaps, as I think was suggested in another place, have been tidy to deal with all the questions of water—water conservation, flood prevention and drainage all at once. There is at the moment, I believe, a Committee studying the question of water conservation (and of course it has a big bearing on the subject), but we should remember the difficulties in getting agreement between all the interested parties—between the people whose land is going Ito be flooded and the people who want to use the water, the fisheries. If we waited for that agreement this Bill would be indefinitely postponed.

This Bill does something towards flood prevention, both by increasing the revenue of the river boards and by allowing them to carry out more necessary works, and also by giving this new power to the local authorities under Clause 33 to carry out their own schemes in co-operation with the river board; and I feel that, when it comes to the major flood-prevention schemes, they should, in most cases, be dealt with as things apart, possibly by a Private Bill. In many eases they involve tens of millions of pounds, and cannot, I think, be covered quite by the ordinary general legislation. In fact, I regard this as a useful Bill; I welcome it, sand I feel that it will fill a gap which at present exists in the general drainage legislation.

4.20 p.m.


My Lords, I am naturally biased in favour of the Bill, having taken part in the discussions between the interested associations and the Ministry. I shall confine myself to Part I of the Bill. I believe that the Bill faithfully follows the White Paper and provides the mechanism for the solution of a very old problem, involving both land drainage and flood prevention. This mechanism is designed to prime the pump and not to run it. It is very similar to that recommended in Sir Arthur Heneage's Report, which has been so valuable to all of us concerned. But circumstances have altered greatly since then: there are no longer shortages of raw materials, and surpluses are back again, at home and abroad. To-day, more than ever, good economics are wanted, as well as good drainage, and to achieve this greater flexibility and greater discrimination in any scheme are needed. In other words, the emphasis needs shifting. So, while Heneage provided more scope for potential improvements at a time of shortages, the Bill, it seems to me, sets out to meet only the actual demand at a time of surpluses.

It should be remembered that, apart from capital grants, the improvements effected by the Bill are to he financed on a broad basis to benefit agriculture generally; and, although there is justification for this, the fact remains that, as the noble Lord, Lord Amherst of Hackney, pointed out, only some individual farmers can derive benefit from it, and many cannot. It is therefore all the more important to ensure that no money is wasted, and that the bitter experience of Section 14 schemes during the war is not repeated.

The extent of the demand for improvements is even more difficult to assess than the area of land involved. The latter could be calculated at great expense, but the former must inevitably vary with the times. The criticism that the Bill does not provide enough funds arises partly from this difficulty but also, in part, from a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem, which is essentially an economic one as much as a land drainage one. This is fully recognised in the Bill which, while making the general charge for drainage works, which one hopes will pay, makes a special charge "in the interest of agriculture", which clearly must pay. The solution does not, there-fore, depend simply on doing out hundreds of miles of derelict brooks, since a brook is not a drainage system; it is merely an outfall to one, and by itself drains very little land. Obviously, it would be a waste of money to provide outfalls, and maintain them, without a reasonable assurance that advantage would be taken of them.

I have noticed, like others, that even Fenmen, who rightly boast of the high standard of their land drainage, and without which they could not exist at all, are not a few years before they all take advantage of a new main drain, How much more likely is this to happen in the uplands, where perhaps only a small part of the farm is affected; where the crops are generally of less value; where the demands on capital are equally great, or perhaps greater; where the cleansing of the brook, however expensive, will be but a small proportion of the expense of providing or renovating the rest of the drainage system—an expense which can often equal the whole value of the land which could benefit? Nevertheless, the place to start any improvement must be the out-fall, and the Bill should enable this to be done wherever that, rather than lack of capital or enterprise, is the limiting factor to improvement.

Naturally, the river boards would like more money. What public authority would not—and, having got it, would not spend it? But they have loyally co-operated in the agreement the effectiveness of which so largely depends on them rather than on farmers alone. Since, rightly, most of their legislation is permissive, in theory they should not have to sell land drainage, but only meet the demand for it. In practice, much improvement work would never get done if they were unwilling to put up with a great many kicks and few thanks for initiating works in the interests of land drainage and flood prevention. I am confident that those boards which decide to operate the scheme, dedicated as they are to their job, will do so successfully. However, the number that do so decide will depend on an important point raised in another place—namely, the collection costs of the charges. The criticisms expressed there were accepted, and the Minister inserted Clause 14 during the Report stage in order to meet them. The Inland Revenue and the C.L.A. both committed themselves to specific assistance, the details of which belong rather to the Committee stage. But the noble Earl did very kindly acknowledge the co-operation of the Country Landowners' Association; and, though it was far from popular with landowners, I am sure that the decision to assist will be loyally abided by.

The amount of money available for works, as opposed to administration, admittedly not large (for reasons which I have explained), depends on the smooth working of Clause 14. It is not overstating the case to say that the decision of some river boards whether or not to operate the scheme will depend as much on this point as on anything else. Any reassurance that the noble Earl the Parliamentary Secretary can give, to the effect that the Ministry will watch this clause, and will give both their moral and their practical support, it necessary, to its efficient working, will be very welcome. Finally, my Lords, it would be quite wrong to expect any immediate or spectacular results from the Bill—a not unusual feature of an agricultural Bill. But it does provide a way, where there is a will, to improving many, many acres. I therefore hope that your Lordships will give the Bill a Second Reading.

4.27 p.m.


My Lords, I suppose I must confess to a certain tendency towards a spirit of contradictoriness—some might even call it "bloody-mindedness"—which makes me feel, in view of all the support that this Bill has had and the welcome it has received, that I should take a somewhat different line; but I am afraid I cannot. I think it is a good Bill, I think it is a well-thought-out Bill, and I think it is essentially a practical Bill which will be very valuable and will achieve the purpose which it sets out to achieve. The only point which I have on the Bill itself is an extremely minor one; so minor that perhaps it is not worth mentioning here, but I feel I should mention it, as one of the farmers living on the high land who are going to be affected in the future—and, I think, quite rightly affected.

It is, I believe, Clause 15 of the Bill which allows the Minister to appoint two extra representatives of the new areas which are going to be brought under the Bill. I do not know if two is the appropriate number. The maximum number allowed is forty. In other words, that number of two will represent approximately 5 per cent. of the board. If that is in line with the total contribution that is to be expected from that group of people, then I think it is correct; but possibly the noble Earl can tell us at some stage later, if not this afternoon, whether, in his view, it is worked out very roughly as in proportion to the contribution which is expected or whether it is simply a modest figure thought up for no particular reason.

The other comment which I have on the Bill is of a much more general nature, and possibly it is unfair to make it here, but I think it is worth making. The Bill is a drainage Bill, but drainage is only one aspect of the general water question. Let me put this problem in its smallest form, again from a personal point of view. As I have said, I live and farm on the high lands. The area is not very high, but it is one where there is no drainage problem whatsoever. We have to get rid of our very modest amount of water, and we get rid of it quite easily and cheaply into occasional ditches, into streams, and thence down to the rivers and out to the sea. That water presents a problem to the people lower down, and it is quite unfair—I admit it, and that is why I welcome the Bill—that they should have to pay extra charges for getting rid of land water. I should have to pay something to help in getting rid of it. But I do not want to get rid of the water at certain times of the year; I would far rather keep it on my land, because it is very dry. Especially during the summer months, I should be prepared to pay a considerable amount of money to be able to lay my hands on water which has gone away and which I have paid for to get away. And it is not only I; there are many other farmers in my area, and throughout the whole country, who feel the same as I do.

Clause 3, subsection (1), which is dealing with special charges which may be made, says: Where it appears to a river board that the interests of agriculture in the river board area or any part of it require the carrying out of drainage works in connection with any water courses in the area, and so on, a special charge can be made. If that could be so enlarged as to bring into the scope of "drainage works" the conservation of water, which is the second stage of drainage, it would make the Bill an infinitely more valuable one. It would mean that instead of taking the water right away, carrying it out to sea where it disappears for good, it could be stored, even at greater expense to that special area. I am sure that many farmers would be prepared to make a larger contribution in order to enable this to be done. The double purpose, then, of drainage and of irrigation would then be served.

I have mentioned this point from a restricted and personal aspect, but I think the general importance of water supplies is worth underlining, and particularly water supplies to agriculture. The amount of water consumed rises every year, not only because people get cleaner but because piped water supplies, when it is just a question of turning on a tap, encourage the use of water in country districts. People will use a greater gallonage daily than if they have to walk 100 yards or further to the village pump or well. In various aspects of agriculture, milk production, and livestock production of all kinds, a greater amount of water is every year being used. That water, as things are at present, finishes up wasted. Perhaps "wasted" is the wrong word, because the water has been used once; but it does go off into the sea and is never seen again, until by some mystical process it comes back in the form of clouds and rain, probably having fallen on Russia in the meantime.

We require that water. Farmers are increasingly conscious—to return to the solely agricultural aspect of this subject—of the benefits that can be obtained from irrigation. I believe I am right in saying that the ideal amount of rain which is needed for crops during the six growing months is something in the neighbourhood of an inch every week; in other words, about 24 to 25 inches during the six growing months of the year. There are certain areas of England, but mostly those where arable crops are not known to any great extent, which have rain in excess of that; but where the bulk of our arable irrigation is carried out, our rainfall for the whole year does not exceed the 24 inches required for the six growing months. For that reason, 'irrigation has been seen to be a most valuable part of agriculture.

In certain places there are farmers who are well situated in this respect, having large rivers running through their land from which they can pump water on to their ground in a very effective and reasonably cheap manner. But even in those places where the rivers are fairly large, if this practice is developed to any increased extent, as I hope it will be in the interests of agriculture, we shall find ourselves running into the very serious problem of shortage of water. Undoubtedly, in the drier areas where there are not even large watercourses, that problem is already beginning to show itself.

I think it would be very unfortunate if, having produced this admirable Bill to deal with the removal of water where there is an excess of it, we were to sit back and say that we have now finished that work and can get on to something else. Even if we said that each is a watertight compartment, one getting rid of water and the other bringing it back, the two must be carried together; the thinking must be in sympathy with the two different interests. I hope before long, even if it is not possible with this actual Bill, to see some proposal put forward by the Government which will not only control the abstraction of water in an orderly and reasonable manner, but will encourage the conservation of water which otherwise would disappear, so that irrigation problems will be made that much easier for agriculture. My Lords, I do not want it to be taken that these remarks that I have made are in any way critical of the Bill, because I repeat what I said at the beginning—and other noble Lords have already said it—that it is a good Bill and a well-thought-out and useful one.

4.36 p.m.


My Lords, I am very grateful 'indeed for the general support that your Lordships have given to this Bill. If I may say so, we have had what I would term both political support and technical support. There is no one who knows more about the technical side of land drainage than the noble Lord, Lord De Ramsey. He supported the Bill largely from a technical aspect, and contributed a very valuable speech which we shall read with great interest. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Barnburgh, who is well known as a former Minister of Agriculture (but it may not be remembered that he was Minister at the passing of the 1948 Rivers Board Act, which we are also now discussing) was also able to support the Bill.

He asked whether this multitude of small clauses and Schedules did not mean that we really ought to try at some time to introduce a Consolidation Bill for land drainage. I sympathise greatly with what the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Barnburgh, said about this, but he knows, as we all know, how very difficult it is to find Parliamentary time for what really cannot be described as more than simplifying or tidying-up legislation when there are so many other urgent things to consider. Admittedly, the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Barn-burgh, chose an extraordinarily good example of the difficulty—or, if I may so put it, the difference—between statutory English and White Paper English, which I referred to in my opening remarks. Nevertheless, I feel it would be wrong for me to promise that there would be time in the foreseeable future for more legislation on land drainage in the form of a Consolidating Bill, though I sympathise with what lay behind his remarks.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Barnburgh, quoted a letter from the Essex River Board. I do not think I had actually seen that letter myself, but I am well aware of the problem which was in the mind of that river board and to which they were referring. Without going into a lot of technical jargon, that letter was about what are known as "flood plains". I would assure the noble Lord, who courteously told me that he would not be able to hear my reply, that this matter, which affects Clause 30 of the Bill, is being most urgently and carefully considered. I sympathise with the river board in their feelings about this matter, and I fully agree that something must be done.

But here we are really dealing with a planning issue. We have the statutory planning authorities. Are we to take the powers away from a statutory planning authority and, in this particular instance where there are structures in a flood plain, give planning powers to the river boards? I do not think that we should do any such thing lightly. We ought to give the administrative arrangements that we are making a chance to work. A joint circular will be going to planning authorities about consultation with river boards. Your Lordships will appreciate that it is difficult to write statutory consultation into legislation. I think we have to see first whether these fears are real or exaggerated, and allow the administrative procedure to work, as I believe it will.

My noble friend, Lord Amherst of Hackney, supported the Bill and said he was glad that I had reiterated the assurance that this was additional money for additional work. I cannot emphasise too strongly that that is what the charges in the first part of the Bill are. There is no conception that the charges are simply a method of shifting the burden from the ratepayer to the agricultural occupier. It is a sharing of charges and they will not be levied unless the additional work calls for additional money.

I have already referred to the extremely valuable speech of my noble friend, Lord De Ramsey. Again, I assure him that we shall watch carefully the collection costs and the net revenue that will be available to river boards from these charges. It is extremely hard to assess these matters before the boards have actually started to do their work. It may be in certain cases that the charges will be considerable in the first years while the new assessments are being prepared by the river boards. But I hope that with the help of not only the Revenue authorities but also the landowners, for instance under Clause 14 procedure, there need be no excessive collection costs and this difficulty will not be one that will cause the Bill to lose its value. The principle of non-specific benefit for agricultural land, as my noble friend reminded us, appears in this Bill for the first time in land drainage legislation. My noble friend can rest assured that we shall take every possible care to see that this new principle is not abused.

I turn to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Walston, who always speaks in a most interesting way on any subject connected with agriculture, and he raised several points of interest. He spoke of the value of water conservation and of the new techniques of irrigation which are becoming so prevalent. I would remind him that the River Boards Act, 1948, I think in Section 9, lays the duty on river boards of conserving the water resources of their areas as far as is practicable, and therefore in a sense the legislation which he asks for is already there. The 1930 Act also defines drainage as including irrigation and the supply of water. As the noble Lord probably knows, this matter is having special attention at the present moment. The Central Advisory Water Committee are likely to report very shortly on water conservation and the powers required for the further control of water resources.

The noble Lord, Lord Walston, raised one other matter which has been discussed at some length in another place and up and down the country by people interested in and concerned with this legislation—that is, Clause 15, to which I referred in my opening remarks and which gives extra representation on the river boards to the new payer, the agricultural occupier. The noble Lord was not quite correct in saying that there are 40 members on each river board. That is the number that may be on the boards. The Bill provides for up to two additional members to be appointed where drainage charges are levied, and we hope that this will give the new drainage charge payers an effective voice. What we cannot do in this Bill is to upset the whole existing pattern of representation on the river boards. The membership of those boards is not proportionate to the contributions, and once we start to upset the present balance we should be in grave difficulties. We believe that the addition of two others to a board would not upset the balance but would give the new payers representation to the proper extent to which this point should be met.

My noble friend, Lord SoM̃ers, asked what happens when drainage is taken over by a canal. I am afraid that I misunderstood his intervention. I thought he meant drainage authority, but what he meant was that the drain actually went into a canal. He had particularly in mind the Kennet and Avon Canal, which is largely used for drainage. The position there is that the Kennet and Avon Canal comes under the Thames Conservancy, which for the purposes of the Act is a river board. Perhaps that is not the correct way to describe it—it is White Paper English, not statutory English. There is no difference in the financing of land drainage work, whether the channel happens to be a canal or an ordinary river; in fact, some canals are main rivers. In the jargon of this legislation, they have been mained. So I think that my noble friend need have no fear that any violent difficulties occur where land drains into a canal. I am sure that this is a good Bill and will have a real effect on this important subject, and I am glad that your Lordships have welcomed it.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.