HL Deb 13 January 1976 vol 367 cc78-87

5.57 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill he now read a second time. In introducing this paving amendment Bill I should perhaps begin by explaining briefly what land drainage is about since the words do not really do justice to the importance of the subject. Local drainage is concerned first with the protection of both agricultural land and urban property from flooding, including inundation by the sea; and, second, with the improvement of agricultural land by the prevention of water logging and the control of the water table. The work carried out by drainage authorities covers a very wide range of activities. The largest project in hand at present is the construction of the Thames Barrier which will protect London from North Sea tidal surges. With its associated downstream defences the current estimated cost of this scheme is over £300 million. At the other end of the scale are the numerous small projects involving the widening and deepening of minor rural watercourses at a cost of a few hundred pounds.

In other words land drainage affects us all in both town and country since it is concerned with the control of our rivers and watercourses and with the maintenance of our defences against the sea. Like the Thames Barrier or the sea defences along the East coast, which have recently been put to the test, some of the work carried out by drainage authorities is designed as a protection against the occasional flood or high tide, but in other areas such as the Fens, the pumps must be kept going regularly to take the water away from rich agricultural land which would otherwise be inundated. Land drainage is therefore vital to the life of the community, and statutory powers have been given to drainage bodies to carry out drainage works by a series of enactments over the past five centuries. So this Bill is concerned with a very important subject.

Noble Lords will have noted that the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum attached to the Bill begins with the words: This Bill paves the way for a land drainage consolidation. It amends a number of Acts concerned with land drainage. The amendments clarify various matters and remove various anomalies and impediments to consolidation". This sums up the reason for introducing this Bill. Its purpose is to prepare the way for the long overdue consolidation of the Land Drainage Acts which will be achieved by the Consolidation Bill which I introduced in the House earlier today on behalf of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor. It is therefore very much a lawyers' Bill and I am very glad that the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, who is a distinguished lawyer particularly in this field, will be taking it for the Opposition. It makes no significant changes in the present legislation. For this reason I will not detain the House at this stage with a detailed explanation of its contents, but will confine my remarks to a brief outline of its main provisions.

The first point I should make clear is that this Bill is concerned only with legislation affecting England and Wales. Land Drainage in Scotland is dealt with by separate legislation which is not affected by the amendments contained in the Bill. Clause 1 is concerned only with definitions. Clauses 2 and 3 both relate to the meaning of "annual value" and "rateable value" for the purposes of various provisions of the Land Drainage Acts 1930 and 1961. The problem here is that under the 1930 Act the annual value of property was related to the Schedule A assessment, but the 1961 Act changed this to the rateable value in relation to urban property, whilst leaving agricultural land and buildings on the old annual value basis. Because rateable values were so much higher than Schedule A values, the Act provided a formula by which the rateable values should be adjusted in order to maintain parity between agricultural and urban property. Unfortunately, the Act confined this adjustment to the provisions concerned with the levying of drainage rates and did not extend it to cover other matters in which the annual value of land plays an important part—such as the voting rights of ratepayers, eligibility to stand for election to a drainage board or the qualifications needed to appeal against a drainage board's decision. The purpose of these clauses is to correct that omission.

Clauses 4 and 5 are concerned with the rights of entry of internal drainage boards and local authorities in carrying out their land drainage functions. Legislation about rights of entry often—quite rightly —gives rise to discussion in this House, but in this case the Bill is concerned only to bring together and harmonise existing powers of internal drainage boards and to make them applicable to the land drainage functions of local authorities. Perhaps in the hope that my remarks will reach a wider audience. T ought to comment here that some local authorities appear to think that the Water Act 1973 transferred their powers and functions in relation to land drainage to Regional Water Authorities. This is not the case. District councils and county councils are still responsible for land drainage except in respect of main rivers or watercourses under the control of internal drainage boards.

Clause 6 removes doubts about the meaning of "agricultural buildings" for the purpose of drainage rates or drainage charges by declaring in effect that the term has the same meaning as for general rating purposes. Clause 7 is in a sense rather more than a paving amendment. What it does is to provide for the payment of compensation to employees of drainage authorities who lose their jobs or suffer a reduction in pay because of certain types of scheme or agreements under the Land Drainage Acts. For example, there is a provision in the 1930 Act which allows the Minister to approve a scheme for the amalgamation of internal drainage districts. If such a scheme is made it could mean that a clerk who was previously employed in one of the districts would be made redundant. Under this clause the drainage authority will be given powers to pay him compensation. However, this is not a new provision. It replaces a similar provision in the 1930 Act, which no longer has any effect because it covers only employees who were in office before the 1930 Act took effect. But the clause goes somewhat further than the original provision in that it also covers redundancies arising as a result of agreements entered into between internal drainage boards and district councils under Section 25 of the 1961 Act.

Clause 8 and Schedule 1 deal with fines for certain offences under the Land Drainage Acts. These provisions remove inconsistencies between the provision of the Acts and increase the maximum fines to levels currently applying for similar offences under other legislation. Clause 9 and Schedule 2 make a large number of minor amendments to land drainage enactments, many of them purely legal in character intended to remove anomalies and inconsistencies and technical impediments to consolidation.

I hope that this brief summary of the main provisions of the Bill will have demonstrated that it contains nothing controversial or new. Many of the amendments would not in themselves justify new legislation; they are nut forward solely as a prerequisite to the consolidation of the Land Drainage Acts. As such I hope that they will be accepted by the House. Indeed, in the light of the comments made by a number of noble Lords, —including the noble Baroness, Lady Elles—in our recent debate about the Renton Committee Report in which they expressed support for the Committee's recommendation about consolidation, I venture to hope that this step towards the consolidation of the Land Drainage Acts will be welcomed. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Strabolgi.)

6.9 p.m.


My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, has not attracted a greater clientele to take part in this debate. Certainly I hasten to applaud the Government's efforts whereby they have found Parliamentary time for the necessary legislation of the sort that we have just had described. I suppose that a number of us as practitioners have had from time to time to advise on some of the more obscure aspects of the Land Drainage Acts as they now stand; certainly I have had my share of this. This has become increasingly difficult as legislation is filed upon legislation, and there are all sorts of complicated amendments made to Schedules in Acts, inserting new subsections, and so on, so that nothing could be more desirable than the Consolidation Bill which was introduced earlier this afternoon. I am looking forward to seeing its text, and no doubt that will be available tomorrow.

The noble Lord has very properly said that land drainage is an important subject. I now live in a part of East Anglia where there is a good deal of land in the river valleys which lies below sea level. They are quite reasonable agricultural areas and they are protected solely by the works of the internal drainage boards from incursions by the sea. Indeed, those estuaries used in fact to be tidal waters with ships sailing on them no and down the rivers and all over what are now the green grass areas as well. But I do not think we are nearly as badly affected as those in the Fens and other parts of Lincolnshire. I remember at one time asking why it was that roads in the coastal area of Lincolnshire took a series of interminable right angled turns as they progressed on their way, making it impossible to drive at any reasonable speed at all. I was told that it was because in those parts the roads were infinitely less important than land drainage. Land drainage had priority. and the roads had to find their way across the ditches as best they might. The noble Lord is perfectly right in saying that this is an important subject, even if its prominence comes to the public attention only on occasions when we have disastrous floods—something which fortunately we have just very recently avoided.

Turning briefly to the contents of the Bill, there is something which has been omitted and I should like the noble Lord to help me about it. He mentioned the provisions of Clause 7. I wonder whether he has any idea of the likely numbers of people who may lose their jobs by reorganisation. There must have been time by now for the new water authorities and their drainage committees to have begun to look at these matters. It may be that some indication is available of the numbers of people—clerks of boards, and so on—who may no longer have their jobs and who will be provided with compensation for their loss. I hope the number will not be large and that the compensation they receive will be as generous as possible in the present climate.

As to the fines in Schedule 1, it appears to me that they are up to the modern "tariff" which is imposed in current legislation, and I would ask the noble Lord whether he could confirm that this is indeed the case. In Schedule 2 there are four provisions which puzzle me slightly. They are in paragraphs 1, 3 6 and, I think, paragraph 38. It appears that new subsections which were inserted mainly in the 1930 Act, and in the case of paragraph 38 by the 1961 Act, by the Water Act 1973, are now being taken out again. It would seem strange that Parliament should have changed its mind so quickly within a matter of some two years, and I wonder whether the noble Lord could tell us what will be the effect of the removal of these four subsections which were put into the earlier legislation only in 1973. I believe that some people are under the impression that this will mean a substantial change in the powers of local internal drainage boards and other local organisations. I very much hope that it will not and that this is a technical matter. If the noble Lord can give me any reassurance on this, I shall be very glad to have it.

Finally, I want to ask the noble Lord for a progress report upon one matter. There are two forms of levy made under the Land Drainage Acts, if I have the matter right. There are general drainage charges, which are imposed in areas where there is no internal drainage board and local authorities probably deal with matters which were mentioned by the noble Lord. But there are, in areas where the internal drainage boards have been appointed, assessments for drainage rates which are not dissimilar to ordinary rates, although not quite the same. For many years there has been a system whereby these rates have been assessed by reference to the values put upon land under what used to be Schedule A. Schedule A was an income tax impost and it continued for a long while until it was finally abolished in 1962. There was meant to be a quinquennial revaluation. I believe that in some cases this had not happened for very many years indeed: in most places the last one happened in the 1930s. I believe there are a few exceptional cases where assessments were made in about 1946, but I hasten to say that the legislation requires that you should ignore those.

Therefore, for the main hart we are dealing with assessments which have been on the books and are the result of valuations made not later than the mid-1930s. This was done by the Commissioners of Inland Revenue and, of course, many pieces of land did not have their own Schedule A assessment. We are now expected to continue with this system, and have been continuing with it, despite the general abolition of Schedule A for all other purposes. Under the Agriculture (Miscellaneous) Provisions Act 1968, there are powers for internal drainage boards to bring up to date the situation where land conies to their attention which has no Schedule A assessment, or anything of that kind. They are required to do their best to distribute fairly the burden of the drainage rates in their area. So far as I can make out —I think they would probably agree—they are more or less devoid of any guidance on how to do this, except that they are supposed to assess what they think would have been the annual value of this land for the purposes of Schedule A in about 1935, if the facts were then as they are now. This, as time goes on, becomes an increasingly difficult thing to do. There will have been cases, I think, where internal drainage boards have had to use these powers, and the first question I should like to ask the noble Lord is: can he let us have a progress report as to how they have been getting on? Have they been able satisfactorily to work this antiquated and extraordinary system so as to produce at least some form of rough justice?

The second question is this: since nothing was done in the Water Act of 1973—I think this is right, because Schedule 5 deals with drainage charges but not with drainage rates—and since nothing has been done so far to rectify this extraordinary anomaly, can the noble Lord tell us when some more up-to-date form of assessment of values for the purposes of drainage rates is likely to be introduced? I can appreciate that it may he very difficult to find another method. You cannot use rateable value for agricultural land, because that was derated in the late 1920sand so is not on the valuation list. Something else has to be put in its place. Can the noble Lord tell us how much longer internal drainage boards, and valuers who have to advise clients, farmers and people of that sort, will have to use this very out-of-date system?—because I can promise him that it is becoming increasingly difficult to operate and the law and the practice are becoming most obscure. I wish there had been something about that in this Bill, but I dare say it would have been too controversial and that is why we have not got it. At least the noble Lord now has the opportunity, perhaps for the first time for many years, to tell us how these things are working in practice. I hope that he will do so. As for this Bill, I very much welcome it and I hope that it will have a speedy passage through both Houses so that we can have the Consolidation Bill on the Statute Book and use it as quickly as possible.

6.19 p.m.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Viscount for the general welcome he has given to the Bill, and also for what he has said. I think he is fortunate in living in East Anglia. I was brought up there and was at school there during most of my youth. I have always retained a great affection for it. Of course, East Anglia is the part of this country that is really the most affected by this Bill. In fact, as the noble Viscount mentioned small estuaries, I remember very well those estuaries like Cley and Blakeney, and we were told at school that in Elizabethan times each of them, as fairly important ports, sent ships against the Armada. This gives some idea of the decline of that particular coastline and the importance to it of drainage.

In regard to Clause 7, the noble Viscount asked me how many will lose their jobs under any possible amalgamation. We hope that very few are likely to be affected. Many of the boards are small and do not employ many staff. Often the work is done by local solicitors on a fee-paying basis. The noble Viscount also asked me whether, in our view, the fines are up to the modern tariff. We believe that they are and that they take account of the falling value of money. I may say that they have been determined in consultation with the Home Office and parallels can be found in other modern legislation.

The noble Viscount also raised an interesting point about paragraphs 1, 3, 6 and 38 of Schedule 2. I can understand the reason why the noble Viscount has asked for clarification of these provisions, and of related repeals in Schedule 3 relating to regional land drainage committees. The explanation is that under Section 19(1) of the Water Act 1973 water authorities are required to delegate their land drainage functions, except for certain financial matters, to regional land drainage committees—or RLDCs, as they are known.

At the time when the 1973 Act was drafted it was considered necessary to place beyond doubt the requirement that for certain of the land drainage functions a water authority must not submit proposals other than those approved by its RLDC, and that they must submit such proposals without modification. It is now considered that these obligations are implicit in Section 19 of the 1973 Act, and the express provisions referred to in paragraphs 1, 3 and 6 of Schedule 2 to this Bill are unnecessary, especially in the context of a consolidation Bill. I am very glad that the noble Viscount raised this point, because it gives me the opportunity to give an assurance that the omission of these provisions will in no way weaken or detract from the powers of regional land drainage committees.

The noble Viscount also raised the question of Schedule A and referred to paragraph 12 of Schedule 5 to the Water Act 1973. I agree with the noble Viscount that it is unsatisfactory for internal drainage boards to continue using the Schedule A assessments for agricultural land and buildings. As he said, the last general revaluation for Schedule A purposes was carried out as long ago as 1935. In the long term the only satisfactory solution would be a complete revaluation of the 3 million or so acres of land included in internal drainage districts. In fact, the Ministry discussed this possibility with the Inland Revenue about three years ago, but at that time they were heavily committed to other revaluation work and they could see no possibility of taking on this task until 1979 or 1980. Soon after that discussion with the Inland Revenue the Layfield Committee on local government finance was set up—I believe by the previous Administration—andwe must clearly await their Report, which I am glad to say is expected shortly, before deciding on the next step. I can, however, give the House an assurance that we are well aware of the need for action to bring these values up to date, and that we shall take the first opportunity to do so as soon as decisions have been made on the Layfield Committee's Report.

In the meantime, drainage boards can make use of the powers available to them under Section 30 of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968. This gives them power to determine a new valuation for any land if, in their view, this is necessary to secure a fair distribution of the burden of drainage rates in their district. The Act also enables an owner or occupier of land to ask the board to make a new assessment. There are rights of appeal to the local valuation court and to the Lands Tribunal against decisions by a board. We know that at least one board has completely revalued all the land in its district, but for the most part we suspect that boards are content to operate on the old Schedule A assessment, as the noble Viscount and your Lordships know.

As I have said, the position is not satisfactory, and the Government do not think it is satisfactory any more than the noble Viscount does. But I am sure the House will appreciate that until decisions arc reached on the more general questions which are being considered by the Layfield Committee, particularly the question of the rating of agricultural land, we cannot take any steps to improve it. I hope that that reply has answered the various questions raised by the noble Viscount.

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