HL Deb 17 November 1981 vol 425 cc471-94

7.34 p.m.

Lord Buxton of Alsa rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will review the functions and accountability of internal drainage boards and consider what legislation is required to ensure objective assessment of their drainage proposals.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, at this hour I shall waste no time or words. Nevertheless, I think your Lordships will agree that in view of the importance of the subject, we must not let it suffer for that. Before speaking to my Question on internal drainage hoards law to the Government, I wish to make it clear that I am a landowner and farmer in a modest way and that my Question is not directed against landowners, farmers or agriculture. For once all parties should take a dispassionate and objective view of this quite separate subject.

Secondly, my Question is not directed in any way against the members of internal drainage boards. Most of them in my part of the world are neighbours or people one knows of, all whiter than white, their integrity is beyond question and I am certain that applies to members of other boards throughout the country; they are all performing their jobs entirely properly and according to the law as it stands.

Thirdly, I wish to make it clear to my noble friend the Minister that I do not criticise this Government or present Ministers because they are in no way responsible for the law, or lack of it, as it affects internal drainage boards. In my view, the law is simply out of date, and this Government arc in no way responsible for that. I therefore trust that nobody will feel that they must rush to defend certain aspects of the present IDB situation, as was the case with the Countryside Bill, where everybody thought the sanctity of agriculture was being questioned.

In the good old days there was no problem with drainage hoards. It was then sensible to have the local farmers and people who owned the land on the local drainage boards; it made good sense that they should be the members. It also made reasonable sense that the clerks of the boards were often their solicitors. But times have changed and the situation today is dramatically different from 20 years ago. The first major change is new engineering and technology and the availability of vast machines for digging and excavating, machines which can do in a morning what used to take 20 men a week or a month. It is really absurd for anyone not to recognise that the situation is totally different today from times when the customs and practices were on a very much smaller scale and therefore generally acceptable to the public and other interests.

The second factor, which is of critical and far-reaching consequence, is that drainage boards have access to substantial finance in the form of grants from the Ministry of Agriculture. Grants are now far bigger than they ever used to he and these huge sums of taxpayers money might not be a danger without the machines, and drainage boards obviously could not afford the machines without the Ministry millions; but the two together compound the problem and amount to a major revolution in the countryside. It would be naive to pretend that we do not face a totally new situation and possibly a massive threat which really demands urgent attention.

The remarkable thing, as I understand it, is that internal drainage boards—I shall call them IDBs for haste—are not subject to anyone's authority; they seem to be under no control, they can do what they like, and therefore unless they are equipped with a wealth of scientific, technical, biological and economic wisdom and experience, they can constitute a serious menance. I am not saying they all do, but they can. The unpallatable truth is that the boards as a whole have few of those qualifications, if any, and in some glaring instances have not sought advice and do not listen to it when it is offered. The result can be disaster, as in the calamitous case of the dyke at Horsey Mere and a large part of Broadland. This sort of blunder at the public's expense and at the expense of the public interest cannot be tolerated, and this aspect alone proves that the law concerning IDBs is quite inadequate. That is not to say they are not doing their job properly. I am simply saying that the law is quite inadequate.

Being subject to no controls and restraints, the boards are not even required to get permission from landowners to enter and start digging. The first an owner may know about it is when he wakes up and sees a JCB digging away at his meadows or dykes. The ratepayers have no say in the matter, the local authorities have no authority and the Ministry is powerless to intervene, as I understand it, unless grant is sought. I do not believe that any Government could defend such power and privileges for a mere handful of people in this country. Will the Minister at least concede that it is unacceptable for the boards to operate on people's land without prior warning and consultation?

Your Lordships will remember that in regard to the Countryside Bill landowners were complaining that they had no prior notice of SSSIs or entry by conservationists. Now, we cannot have it both ways. Nobody can now say that they are in favour of entry without warning by internal drainage boards.

Whatever drainage boards may manage to do on their own, of course the main danger looms when grant is available from the Ministry. I understand that, when grant is applied for, the application goes from the Ministry's regional engineer to the Ministry. T believe that one individual in the Ministry can then authorise grants up to £1.5 million without any further ado. The Treasury has to authorise bigger schemes, and it has been reported that these bigger schemes are sometimes phased over two or three years in order to keep them under the ceiling of £1.5 million.

As I understand it, at no stage have any other interests had a status or a presence in the process. No one else has been consulted. There have been no economists, no independent assessors, no scientists, no ecologists, no exposure of the figures or the calculations. The main worry, I think, is that there is no economist to assess the viability and economic validity of a proposal. It is all progressed at an engineering level. It is on a purely technical basis that the fate of Britain's landscapes is being put in the balance. There is also no environmental assessment of the likely consequences of proposed schemes, which is how things came unstuck on the Broads.

A serious aspect is that IDBs and the Ministry decline to expose their figures, calculations and assessments. I cannot understand why. Why they cannot be disclosed for other citizens' perusal and reassurance, I do not know. For some obscure reason, all this data is hidden away as if it were classified information the divulging of which would put the security of the Realm at risk. How can that conceivably be justified? Why should any Ministry or authority not concerned with defence or security spend taxpayers' money on a large scale without public understanding and acceptance of the merits? If the cost/benefit analyses which the regional engineers prepare for the Ministry are kept secret, surely this is somewhat disdainful arrogance. By what right are we denied scrutiny of the details?

It is my impression that the overall situation is becoming worse. In 1978 the Minister gave money to 100 drainage schemes, in 1979 to 125 drainage schemes, and in 1980 to 154 drainage schemes. So the threat and the cost are increasing at the rate of 25 per cent. Frankly, it looks as if somebody does not have a very keen regard for monetarism and the reduction of public expenditure. I would not ask the Minister to answer off the cuff, but I should like to know whether he can indicate the likely total in 1981, the forecast expenditure in drainage grant in 1982, and how many individual schemes exceed £1 million, such as the Halvergate Broadland scheme, which, with compensation payments, would cost the Government over £2 million.

On the subject of costing the viability, in a letter to me in September, an agriculture Minister—not my noble friend Lord Ferrers—stated: The way in which we test economic viability is by use of a cost/benefit assessment using methods approved by Government economists".

That is all very well—and these people may be brilliant at their jobs—but if that is the case, why can we not see their calculations and figures, if they are so convincing? I am not prepared to accept a somewhat disdainful assurance on such a vital aspect without even seeing whether these people are not merely better at it than I am, but are as competent as qualified economists and financial advisers such as would he employed by public companies.

To be frank, and with due respect, the Ministry itself fosters the doubts and suspicions about schemes, by hiding the calculations when we the public and the people providing the money have every right to comprehend what is going on. Does the Ministry have so little confidence and conviction in its own work on drainage projects that it does not care to let anyone peep over its shoulder? As a result of this concealment the conclusion must inevitably he that the calculations would not stand up to public scrutiny. That might be very unfair, but that is the inevitable conclusion, and that really is the Ministry's own fault.

Perhaps some skeletons in the cupboard might rattle out. But the one thing I am sure of is that the Ministry should he aware that the biggest skeleton in the cupboard of all time will be Halvergate, if it proceeds. I would urge that prudence and political wisdom now demand acceptance of the fact that the present hopeless confusion on this ill-conceived project of Halvergate can only go from bad to worse, and that the wise step at this stage is to hold a public inquiry and have all the issues properly and sensibly aired in public. Otherwise, rest assured, my Lords, the anxiety and mounting protest will not die down. Citizens and taxpayers have become severely rattled as a result of the chaotic confusion on this Broadland issue that has now emerged among the Broads Authority, the Countryside Commission, the Nature Conservancy Council, the water authority, the Ministry of Agriculture and other local and conservation authorities. They are all at sixes and sevens, and nobody will be reassured by bland claims that the Ministry considers the project to be a good egg and is therefore going to dole out taxpayers' money in grants. The rumpus is not going to abate and the difficulties will not go away. Approving grant for the scheme at this stage will simply be a case of the Ministry putting its head in the sand.

In September the New Scientist stated: The real scandal about IDBs is that simply by satisfying certain ill-defined technical requirements they can get vast sums of public money for socially and ecologically questionable schemes".

And of course in Halvergate you have just that. So, apart from asking that the IDBs be brought within the law, comparably to other citizens and other bodies, and subject to some appropriate authority, so that their schemes, especially the big ones, are properly assessed from the economic and environmental point of view, I must also urge the Government to investigate the alarming annual escalation of projects and the serious increase in Government expenditure in grants to IDBs, especially at a time when it is Government policy—which, incidentally, I support—to reduce public expenditure. At the present time, and in the light of the urgent pleas by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to reduce public expenditure, the huge cost of Halvergate, for example, and other similar projects in the country is, frankly, rebellious and perhaps even scandalous.

The next point perhaps explains part of the trouble. The cost accounting methods of drainage hoards are outmoded. They are not allowed to accumulate funds or to set aside money for depreciation, and therefore they have nothing in the kitty for replacing old equipment, usually drainage pumps. If, like any other properly run organisation, they did have reserves, they would be able to replace their pumps when the time comes with pumps of similar capacity. Nobody would protest, and everyone would be happy. Because of this ancient restriction, when they need to replace equipment the drainage hoards either have to raise the rates or get a Ministry grant. A Brant can apparently be made or countenanced only if it brings an improvement—that means bigger and better pumps—and this is what presumably stimulates what I have to regard as all the phoney arguments and calculations in order to justify the project. If the drainage scene was not a rather weird world, IDBs could simply replace their equipment, and the Government would he saved all the headaches.

The Ministry claims that drainage schemes qualify for grant only if they meet its profitability criteria. It may be that the main reason why these are widely suspected of being unsound is that they are not exposed. But certainly one professor of economics, quoted in the New Statesman, states that the Ministry ignores factors which critically affect the total cost to the Government as a whole of converting pasture to arable, such as the cost of guaranteed prices for winter corn, the cost of storage and other EEC items, let alone the probability that these cereals are in surplus and often finish up by being sold to Russia at a loss.

It appears as if the Ministry functions in a kind of gilded cage and in isolation from the rest of Government—that may not be true, but I say that it so appears—and simply ignores the knock-on effects for the nation which its priming of hush drainage projects with taxpayers' funds on an ever-increasing scale may bring about. With respect, the Ministry appears to operate in blinkers labelled "increased agricultural production" and to pursue blindly that objective, regardless of other interests in the community. This is politically imprudent in the long run.

Finally, there are certain characteristics about IDBs which to me would be somewhat humorous if the activities of the boards could not potentially be so damaging. Everyone in an IDB district pays rates to the hoard, both farmer and urban dweller. IDBs are this country's only independent rating authorities—I should repeat that: they are the only independent rating authorities. They were somehow left out of legislation in 1925, and seem to me to have become a sort of Monte Carlo or Vatican City within the realm, a state within a state. Their power, privilege and immunities are frankly amazing.

Your Lordships might think that the farmers and agricultural dwellers who benefited from IDB activity would bear the brunt of the rates and that the innocent urban dwellers, who derived little benefit or none whatever, would be let off lightly. Your Lordships' thinking would be adrift! Much helpful information on this was published recently in the New Scientist, and that stated that in one IDB area 98 per cent. of the land is agricultural but the agricultural ratepayers paid only 7 per cent. of the drainage rates; the other 93 per cent, was paid by the 2 per cent. of urban ratepayers.

In another IDB area the average rate per acre for agricultural land is 23p, and for non-agricultural property (wait for it, my Lords) it is £165.91. Need one say more about the need for reform and for new legislation to bring it up to date? This is no criticism of IDBs; we are talking about the law. I pray that the Minister w ill readily agree that there is really little left to argue about; it is merely a question of what should now be done.

A working party on IDB rating arrangements, reporting in February 1978, made several recommendations which have still not been acted on. The working party was set up in 1977 following concern expressed in both Houses during the passage of the Land Drainage Act 1976. It contained representatives of agricultural and water interests, including the Ministry official in charge of IDB grants and representatives from the Department of the Environment. Their chief recommendation was that agricultural land and buildings in internal drainage districts should he valued on a basis consistent with that used to determine general rating values. The working party found that: over recent years one effect of the current system had been, in some and possibly in many districts, to reduce the incidence of drainage rates upon agricultural land and buildings and to increase that upon general rated property to an extent not easily justified".

They put it mildly. So now the Minister can decide to do what his predecessors failed to do, which is to implement the recommendations of a Government working party.

It is most probable that this question of rates, as between farmers and other ratepayers, fouls up the cost calculations already done by the Ministry and the IDB on Halvergate and Broadland, and it should be virtually impossible to go ahead, therefore, until the rating question has been sorted out. Otherwise, the calculations are bound to be wrong after the rating business has been sorted out.

Then, again, the constitution and conduct of IDBs also needs attention, to put it discreetly. They are splendid people; they have done nothing wrong, in my view. Nevertheless, it is all an anachronism. In theory, their members are elected; but we all know for a fact that considerable embarrassment would be caused if the Minister asked for a return from the 214 IDB boards stating when they last had an election. I would be prepared to bet a modest sum that many have not held a genuine election in living memory.

As I stated at the beginning, it was all fine in the old days. The boards are sort of self-perpetuating clubs—very good clubs, and I am sure they are dedicated to their work, both the members and the managements. Of the 214 boards, 11 clerks run 101 of them, and one man is clerk to 32 boards. That is no criticism; it is simply describing the general background. The whole scene is., frankly, supremely undemocratic, but really no harm ever came of it in the past. It was all fine until the new technology and engineering came along, and until substantial Government grants became available. That has revolutionised everything; the situation is no longer tolerable.

The Government, surely, cannot possibly condone individual citizens, however worthy, levying rates on other citizens without any official pattern or objective scrutiny, appointing themselves and their successors with no obvious democratic processes or provision for citizens' rights; entering people's property without any notice or permission; spending huge sums of taxpayers' money without any proper supervision or assessment of the consequences; and, finally, declining to reveal any of their statistics, documentation or calculations. The situation is outrageous enough when no public money is involved, but it is a threat to the whole country when the Ministry stokes up the outrage by giving large grants.

The purpose of this debate is simply to call attention to the IDB situation and the law, so that the Government can consider what steps are urgently required. I wish to repeat that I am criticising nobody, least of all the members of the drainage boards, and not this Government, the CLA, the NFU or anybody else. But it would he senseless to deny the facts. Probably the wisest and most prudent first step would be to freeze all current schemes and projects except for funding in urgent cases the maintenance of the status quo—clearly that is important—and to hold a public inquiry around the Halvergate and Broadland problems, which would thereby help to unravel the knots into which so many authorities have now tied themselves on this particular issue and at the same time point the way to the reforms and revised legislation for IDBs which nobody could possibly deny are urgently required.

7.56 p.m.

Lord De Ramsey

My Lords, when the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, started his speech I felt we could live side by side peacefully. When he had finished, I was not quite so sure; but I am certain that we should try very hard to do so. As a member of an internal drainage board I can invite him to attend any of our meetings, just like any member of the public. He can scrutinise any of our books, and can take them away so far as I am concerned. But I would emphasise that there is nothing undercover.

On these boards—and I have served on one for a considerable time—you get somebody who is a keen angler, and he thinks that the whole thing is in aid of fish. Then you get somebody else who is a farmer, who is at the top end of the district and who suffers from drought. He thinks that irrigation is the main object of the board. Or, again, as the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, mentioned, there are those who think that environmental matters are not only the chief function but are the most important aspect on which emphasis should be placed. They are all wrong. The emphasis should be placed on getting rid of surplus water, so that plants can achieve their maximum potential. That is where they should place the emphasis. These other matters should he given their due consideration, as one neighbour would give to another. But, make no mistake, that is where the emphasis should lie if you do not wish ever to suffer hunger or starvation.

Going on further, I should like to give an example of where the Council of Nature Conservancy and an internal drainage board can co-operate. There is a nature reserve in the Fens called Woodwalton, the home of the great copper and the fen violet. The great copper is dependent on a certain dock, and that, in turn, is dependent on a high water table. The two bodies put their heads together, and they raised the water level by over two feet. They are surrounded by some of the richest land in the country, and there was a great danger, of course, that if proper provision was not made that would suffer. But by co-operation this was prevented. And how?—by clay coring the whole of the boundary banks and by raising the freeboard. In so doing they dug the clay and created two meres. This was a very satisfactory solution. I would say that it could he and is the norm. If the noble Lord has suffered, then that is the exception and he is unfortunate; and there are other unfortunates in this world.

I will not keep your Lordships long. I hope I have not been too informative but there are just one or two points. The internal draining hoard is the place where those who eventually take a prominent part in water conservation and land draining learn their jobs. The Ministry have often expressed appreciation of the cooperation between the Association of Drainage Authorities and themselves. T believe the noble Lord and I, even if we have had the occasional "up and downer", would resolve our difficulties.

8 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Buxton did the House, and, I think, the whole community, a service by putting down this Unstarred Question. Like him, I am a farmer and landowner and certainly have applied for and received drainage grants. Last year, I drained five acres of land which was very satisfactorily done—and I say, "Thank you, dear taxpayer" for the grant.

I should like to concentrate on two or perhaps three points: certainly the technical factors, land values and pollution. On the Surrey Weald near Gatwick Airport many of the fields were drained in the early years of the last century when corn prices were very high owing to the Napoleonic wars and there were large numbers of French prisoners of war. It was therefore economic to drain the fields because the French prisoners of war did not have to he paid. They used 2-inch clay pipes which are now going out of fashion and the land drainage they put in is still working. Nowadays the common agricultural policy takes the place of the Emperor Napoleon and Ministry of Agriculture grants take the place of the French prisoners who were taken at Trafalgar and Salamanca.

Nowadays we use large machinery like High Macs for ditching. The High Mac has a bucket on it which lifts one ton or a yard of clay at a time. It does this and digs it out of the ground, batters the ditch and puts the spoil on to the side in about one minute. As my noble friend Lord Buxton said, there are now new pipe-laying machines which set the levels with laser beams. This was not possible 25 years ago. The new plastic pipes now in existence do not have to be handled in the same way as the old clay pipes. They come on rolls and they do not slip apart—which the clay ones do—with a slight land subsidence. The new Archimedean screw pump shifts water at a rate which was inconceivable in 1948. The large four-wheeled drive tractor pulls a heavy load of chippings necessary to overfill the drainage pipes fast and efficiently. This technical advance underlies the real fall in the price of drainage in recent years. This is an excellent thing. Nobody is criticising that but what one does criticise, as my noble friend Lord Buxton has said, are the independent drainage boards who, I think, have got a little out of control.

I come now to land values. I checked on land values this afternoon with a land agent in Norfolk who is connected with some of the land drainage schemes. I will not name him. He was obviously slightly on the defensive. He told me that no reclaimed, improved Broadland marsh land has been sold recently. But (and this is an independent drainage board figure) the value of land for which they hoped to have a gross margin of £298 per hectare must be in the region of £1,900 to £2,200 per acre. Those are conservative estimates. The present gross margin for unimproved grazing marsh (again an IDB figure) is £67 per acre. This Norfolk agent suggested that the values would be between £800 and £1,700 an acre. The £1,700 an acre was an exceptional case sold last year. Since then there has been a slight fall in land values. I have heard from other sources the figure of £500 an acre mentioned for these land values.

These increases are solely due to public money. Of course, I do not suggest that improvement grants must not allow private gain. That, in a way, is their object and their necessity. Grants for capital buildings, for factories and housing and other subsidies, all end up ultimately, and should do so, as private gain. All I am saying is that when proposals that have this effect are acted upon they should he subject to real public scrutiny and that furthermore the reasons should be substantial and very visible for that improvement and that public gain.

At the moment too many people's views are ignored. For instance, the Yorkshire Water Authority's officials privately admitted that they rushed through the Barnsley Tidal Barrage Order so as to avoid the public ruckus over another of the schemes to flood Farndale. This is the English habit of trying to govern in secrecy. It is something to which all Governments of all parties are prone. It is much easier not to have boring people like me trying to point out the errors of their ways. It is a matter of anything for a quiet life. That is not democracy. Democracy is a matter of plans and projects publicly and visibly accountable.

In this tidal barrage scheme, no one studied the environmental aspects beforehand. The Ouse and Derwent Internal Drainage Board took up an offer of the Yorkshire Water authority for money for a drainage pilot scheme but refused to allow the cost benefit analysis to be seen by the Nature Conservancy Council or the Yorkshire Naturalists' Trust. The NCC is a Quango and so is the internal drainage board. They seem to regard each other as did Marlborough and Boufflers. They treat each other with the courtesy due to a noble enemy. That is wrong. They are all public servants.

Pollution is best illustrated by what has happened at Horsey Mere. This matter I raised earlier in a Question in this House. The Happisburgh to Winterton Internal Drainage Board drained Horsey Mere by deep dyking. This released sulphuric acid and ferric hydroxide into the stream, killing and choking aquatic life. The Smallburgh IDB, who incidentally entered Hickling Broad without notifying its owner, the Norfolk Naturalist Trust, has for the past 18 months discharged the same lethal ochre into Martham Broad, a site worthy of special protection under the international Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. Incidentally, both IDBs have the same clerk. This is a release of ochre into the stream according to the Broads authority. This definition is important because I received a letter from my noble friend Lord Avon after I raised this point at Question Time in July. The water authority, who are the parent body of the IDB concerned, thinks: That to succeed in a prosecution it would not be sufficient to show that there had been a pollution of the stream to which the discharge is made, but that it must be proved that the matter was itself poisonous, noxious or polluting before the point of discharge". The Broads authority have shown that it is discharged into the stream and it is known by practically every third-form science student that sulphuric acid and ferric hydroxide is not something you give to your great-aunt for tea.

The Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) Act 1951, Section 22, states: (1) Subject to the provisions of this Act, a person commits an offence punishable under this section— (a) if he causes or knowingly permits to enter a stream any poisonous, noxious or polluting matter''. The IDBs concerned caused the release of ferric hydroxide into the stream. That is unanswerably true. Having read Lord Avon's letter, and having re-read the Act, I can see no reason to believe that both the Small-burgh and the Happisburgh to Winterton IDBs have committed an offence. I think that the water authority's advice to my noble friend should be looked at again and referred back to them for further consideration.

For all these reasons and above all to protect the honourable and decent people on the IDBs—and they are as my noble friend Lord Buxton said honourable, decent men doing a public duty to the best of their ability, but I think their constitution and their methods and their composition are in the light of modern needs archaic—I would ask Her Majesty's Government to look again at this constitution, these methods and this composition.

The details of the Halvergate proposals are well known to my noble friend Lord Ferrers who is to answer tonight. The arguments have been expressed forcefully by all sides. At Halvergate I think it would be better either to do no improved drainage or to drain it all. The compromise would be expensive and unsatisfactory. Of course, I prefer the pumps to be replaced by pumps of similar capacity.

Now it looks as if the Broads authority is not happy on the so-called compromise proposals. Surely there must be a public inquiry. This would be of enormous help in a general look at the IDBs, their function and composition. We can get ourselves out of this muddle. I sincerely hope that my noble friend will take this advice which is given to him in the friendliest possible way.

8.14 p.m.

Lord Stanley of Alderley

My Lords, I think that all noble Lords will agree that internal drainage boards have an important job to do and that they do it efficiently. If this job was not done some of our most productive land would revert to marsh and would result in a loss of wealth both to the farmer and indeed to the nation. The result would be indirectly more unemployment. Your Lordships may not all agree with me but I believe that unemployment is our nation's worst evil and I am sorry to say that I would sacrifice a bird or two for a job or two. My noble friends Lord Buxton and Lord Onslow called attention in their speeches to modern methods of drainage and farming. As a result, the countryside can he changed dramatically overnight and things now are different than they were. So we should look at things again and maybe call a halt.

Men have been saying that since before the spinning jenny. Such a philosophy I do not think has done us a great deal of good or is viable. However, if we can accommodate both jobs and birds, I would be happier. I put it to your Lordships that, although internal drainage boards put their duty to maintain and indeed improve good agricultural land as their top priority, they are conservation-minded and indeed have to be under our new Act, the Wildlife and Countryside Act, which demands that they further conserve as opposed to have regard for conservation.

My noble friend Lord Buxton said that IDBs were not responsible to anyone. I hope that my noble friend Lord Ferrers will confirm that they are—they are responsible to their ratepayers; they are responsible to the water authority under Section 1 of the Land Drainage Act; and, indeed, they are responsible to the Ministry of Agriculture.

The noble Lord also brought up the question of how much farmers pay as opposed to others. My figures show—and no doubt my noble friend Lord Ferrers has the same figures—that on average the farmers pay 64 per cent. of all the costs. My noble friend quoted one particular case of only 7 per cent. being paid by the farmers. If he looks at that particular case—if it is the same one as I have considered—there were two power stations and a factory that were causing quite considerable drainage problems. So the fact that there was quite a large area of land did not reflect the true position on that particular site. I would remind your Lordships that it is 64 per cent. on average, if you can believe an average.

Both my noble friends Lord Buxton and Lord Onslow seemed to have tremendous faith in economists, ecologists and bureaucracy in general. That somewhat surprised me coming from them. If one queries, as did my noble friend Lord Onslow, the preponderance of farmers on internal drainage boards, I would remind your Lordships that under Section 81 of the Land Drainage Act the local authority has the opportunity to have members on those boards. Sadly, I am told that they are inclined not to exercise this right. The solution lies in the hands of the local authority to take this responsibility seriously and I am sure that everybody would welcome such representation.

There is also the new code of practice which we discussed during the passing of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. I hope that my noble friend Lord Ferrers will be able to say a word or two about that. Countryside responsibility has been discussed ad nauseam over the past 12 months by your Lordships, as the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, stated. One view is that farmers are destroyers of all that is beautiful in the country, and the other is that we very much care for where we work. If noble Lords subscribe to the first view, I suggest that the only remedy is to get rid of us all and substitute cardboard cows as I notice they have done at Milton Keynes.

Needless to say, I subscribe to the second view, and in evidence I submit the British countryside. This question has been fuelled by the recent passing of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. May I say that there are quite a few parts of that Act that do not please the farming community; but both major farming organisations are pledged and are doing everything to make it work. I hope and believe that I carry noble Lords with me in saying that such an attitude is correct. All of us who are involved with the countryside should try to stop turning our ploughshares into swords, which the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, has done admirably the other way, and give the countryside, and in particular the internal drainage boards, the space to work out their new responsibilities—and they have new responsibilities—under this Act.

8.20 p.m.

Lord Melchett

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, has said, we are discussing the activities of internal drainage boards following very shortly upon the passing of the Wildlife and Countryside Act and the imposition of new duties on 1DBs. Like him, I very much hope that the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, will be able to say something about that when he comes to reply. I think it is fair to say that the Act, partly because of the amendments that were very narrowly defeated in your Lordships' House and also because of those which were carried in your Lordships' House but not in another place, leaves a great deal of uncertainty regarding questions of interpretation and attitude and, above all, probably of resources being made available by the Government which are going to be crucial as to whether, when the Act is implemented, it is effective or not. Nowhere is that current uncertainty clearer than when we come to look at the actions of IDBs.

Perhaps before going on to IDBs I may take up one point which was made by the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley. It is not fair or true of him to say that there are two attitudes towards farmers—either that they are responsible for destroying everything or, alternatively, that they are the true conservationists (I am paraphrasing roughly what he said). As he knows, the overwhelming majority of those of us who took part in the debates on the Wildlife and Countryside Bill took the view that farmers, by their actions, have been responsible for a great deal of destruction but very often they have done that unwillingly. They would much have preferred to take different courses of action were it not for the system in which they are forced to operate. We took on the real culprits as the Ministry of Agriculture and its policies and those of successive Governments towards the agricultural industry. That is also true, and it has also been clear from remarks made by various noble Lords about the actions of internal drainage boards. Nobody is suggesting that the members of these boards are villians setting about the destruction of the countryside; but it is also clear that the framework within which, very often, the Ministry of Agriculture forces them to operate makes them destroy the countryside.

Perhaps I may turn first to the question of who pays the rates. This was something which was taken up in our debates on the Wildlife and Countryside Bill, and the noble Earl, Lord Avon, wrote to me about it. First, the case of the IDB where farmers were contributing about 7 per cent. and which may have a factory or power station on its land is by no means unique. The noble Earl has told me that about 6 per cent. of IDBs are in that position, and their farmers contribute less than 10 per cent. of the total rates. According to the figures I have been given, in about 33 per cent. of all IDBs farmers pay one half, or less, of all the rates. I do not know whether my figures tie up with those of the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, but, according to the Government, in about one-third of the IDBs farmers pay half or less than half of the rates. That would be all right if in a third of the IDBs farmers made up a half or less than half of the membership, but of course they do not. Even if we took the figures of the noble Lord, Lord Stanley—I think he said 64 or 67 per cent. roughly of the total rate bill was paid by farmers—if they represented that proportion of the total membership of IDBs it would be difficult to complain, but of course they do not. They make up very nearly, if not totally, 100 per cent. of the membership. That is where the problem is. There is a great contribution of finance to IDBs by the general public, with absolutely no representation on the internal drainage boards which are spending that money. I agree with the noble Lord that there ought to be local authority representation on them, and I shall refer to that later when I ask the Government what they intend to do as a result of this debate.

Incidentally, I do not think that that would be nearly enough. Representation on IDBs, I think, ought to be either entirely open and democratic or be via a local authority which is itself elected by the whole community or, as a very minimum, in proportion to the percentage of the rates which farmers and the rest of the community pay; so that on some IDBs farmers would have 7 per cent. of the seats and the local authority or the general public would have the other 93 per cent.

Underlying a lot of the problems faced by IDBs in some of the particular cases which have been quoted is the rationale which MAFF imposes on them. What is happening in a number of areas of the country is that existing drainage pumps are becoming out of date, obsolete and in need of replacement. The IDBs can only get the substantial grants which are available from the Government if they can meet the economic criteria which MAFF itself has to face when it discusses its money with the Treasury. That means that the IDB has to convince MAFF that it will get an economic return on its investment. That means it is impossible for most IDBs to look simply to replace pumps with others of the same capacity. There is no additional economic return from that and MAFF will not grant-aid it. The IDBs have to meet the whole cost. They are not prepared to do that, particularly when it is very simple—especially, as the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, said, the figures are very rarely subjected to public scrutiny—for the IDB to pump up the capacity of the pump a bit and say: "This is going to lead to such and such a degree of agricultural improvement and of increased return to the nation in the form of increased food production, and therefore, oh MAFF, give us a grant"—which they do, of course.

The consequence is that areas which have not previously been capable of being converted to arable are, and a huge loss of wildlife and landscape amenity interest takes place. I think that is almost entirely because of the conditions under which MAFF grant-aid internal drainage boards, and I entirely agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, has said, that the replacement of existing pump systems should be grant-aided by MAFF. If that happened I think the internal drainage boards would not be under the scrutiny which no doubt many of them find unpleasant at the moment.

Just to finish that point, I said that very few cases were subject to public scrutiny. Of course the odd one about land drainage proposals has been, and the Ribble estuary is the best-known example. My own feeling is that the whole approach adopted by the farming interests and the TDB in the case of the Halvergate Marshes has been a desperate attempt to avoid such public scrutiny, because I very much doubt whether the scheme really would stand up to an independent economic analysis. This is very embarrassing for the Ministry of Agriculture, which only gets its money from the Treasury on that basis. It seems to me, as noble Lords have said, that the strategy committee, at least of the Broads authority, have decided that they are not in favour of index-linking the com pensation that is to be paid at Halvergate, and the whole issue has become extremely muddled and confused—not least because new legislation has come on to the statute book while the whole so-called compromise which would have led, from a conservation point of view, to the destruction of most of the area has been patched up by those working locally.

It seems to me that the only reasonable thing for anybody involved now to be in favour of is a public inquiry so that the whole thing can be thrashed out openly and sensibly. The only serious argument I have heard against that, apart from the fact that the IDB would lose, is the extra delay that would be caused to the landowners and farmers involved. The implication is that what would be delayed is the new drainage. Of course that is not the case. What the public inquiry is investigating is whether public money should be spent on the scheme, and that would be delayed while the public inquiry was held. There is still nothing over most of the area of Halvergate to stop landowners and farmers doing what they will with their own money to the area. It is not subjected to any statutory designation, except for a small part of an SSSI which is, anyhow, excluded from the scheme. All that would be delayed by a public inquiry is the decision of whether or not to spend taxpayers' money. I think, given the confusion, the difficulty and the change in the law since the Wildlife and Countryside Act came on to the statute book, that would be a sensible course to take. I hope the noble Earl will be able to tell us that is one the Government will seriously consider once the Broads authority have endorsed, as many of us hope they will, the decision taken by their strategy committee.

I should also like to say a word about Horsey Mere, Martham Broad, which the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, in particular, mentioned. I had a copy of the letter which he was sent on 30th October, by the noble Earl, Lord Avon, when both he and a number of others of us at Question Time in the House questioned whether the IDB was, in fact, in breach of the law and should be sued by the Anglian Water Authority for breaching the Control of Pollution Act. In part of that letter, the noble Earl said that the Anglian Water Authority's engineers and scientists are well aware of local concern and, as you will know, measures are being taken to minimise any cause for complaint by local people and conservationists. In fact they "— that is, the Anglian Water Authority— believe that any attempt to undertake a prosecution could be counter-productive by undermining their credibility with the IDB, if it were to fail on insufficient grounds". I believe that the Anglian Water Authority has taken a responsible attitude with rather a difficult IDB in this case. Unfortunately, since that letter was written, when a compromise was, indeed, agreed, the IDB have up-ended it. The compromise involved a new positioning for the new pump and a new dyke being dug, so that the water which is causing the problem could go downstream of the broad into the River Thurn. The repositioning of the pump would have cost an extra £11,500, half of which the Ministry of Agriculture agreed to pay, and half of which the Nature Conservancy Council and the Broads Authority would have paid. The extra dyke would have been paid for by the Anglian Water Authority who, being very statesmanlike and reasonable, had adopted it as a mainwater course. That would have been paid for 72 per cent. by the Ministry of Agriculture in grant aid, and 28 per cent. by conservationists; in practice, probably, the Norfolk Naturalists' Trust.

What has thrown all this reasonable compromise up in the air is that the IDB have very recently turned round and said that they want conservation interests to meet the extra annual maintenance costs. These have not been specified, except for the extra £600 which they say would be spent on the maintenance of the road, extra man-hours visiting the second pump and various other things. There are a number of other items which are not enumerated, including the payment of extra wayleave to the landowner whose land is benefiting from the whole new drainage scheme, in any event, and the extra electricity to run the pump—again, not itemised.

That is an example of just how irresponsible an internal drainage board is capable of being, even when its parent authority, the Anglian Water Authority, has been doing its best with, obviously, a good deal of encouragement from the Government, to reach a reasonable compromise with conservation interests. I hope that the noble Earl, if he cannot answer tonight—I have not given him notice of this—will, at least, be able to write to me and say that the Government are doing something to get this internal drainage board back into line.

I should like to come to a conclusion, because I know that many noble Lords have been in the House a long time waiting for this debate. I hope that the Government will be issuing a circular to internal drainage boards, as a result of the new duties imposed on them by the Wildlife and Countryside Act. I think it is unlikely, although I hope I shall be proved wrong by the noble Earl, that the Government are prepared to undertake a major review of the workings of internal drainage boards and, in particular, of the representation of those who pay for their work.

But even if they will not do that, as the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, has asked them, I hope they will consider issuing a circular which will say something about the local authority representation on IDBs, which will clearly represent a minor improvement within the existing framework. I hope they will ensure that IDBs have available to them conservation advice, and that this will be made an obligation on IDBs in the circular.

It would be an improvement, incidentally, if IDBs were prepared to ensure that, where a conservation landowner owned land within their area of operation, that conservation organisation was voted on to the IDB. My information is that conservation bodies, many of whom are very large landowners, have, in practice, found it impossible to get representation on IDBs, although every other local landowner and farmer in the district appears to find very little difficulty in that.

I hope that such a circular would, as the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, suggested, make it an obligation on IDBs to warn owners and occupiers before they enter on to land. Even routine maintenance works can now be extremely disruptive and destructive of conservation interests and, indeed, can involve individual landowners—as I know from personal experience—in considerable expense. Very large amounts of spoil can be dumped on one's land, without any warning or notice being given, and if one is farming properly it is necessary to work all that spoil down and reseed it with grass, unless one wants to be landed with a large amount of thistles and ragworms.

I hope that such a circular could make clear to IDBs that, as well as their duties to consult the NCC about operations which are likely to damage SSSIs, they should also consult the NCC about routine maintenance works on SSSIs, for the kind of reasons I have suggested. And, of course, the circular should draw the strongest possible attention to the new duties placed on IDBs under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

These problems which we have been discussing this evening, associated with land drainage, are not by any means the only ones. I am aware that we have been talking a lot about the Broads. On the other side of Norfolk, there are at least two current proposals for embankments on the Wash and for a major land drainage scheme on the Upper Wensum—one of the few rivers in Norfolk that still have otters on it. That one is promoted by the Anglian Water Authority. The embankments on the Wash are, on the whole, proposed by local landowners, which would also he extremely serious.

We have been concentrating on one part of land drainage, but I believe that the general problem of needing to persuade MAFF—because this is what MAFF gets its money as a result of—that a particular scheme will produce an economic return lies at the heart of a lot of these problems. I believe that that is, in the long-term, not in the interests of the farming community, because in the long-term MAFF are going to get caught more and more frequently with their pants down at public inquiries, where their cost-benefit analyses simply do not stand up to independent scrutiny and, in the long run, grant aid to the whole of the farming industry will be put in jeopardy. I very much hope that we can persuade MAFF to alter course before that happens.

8.37 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, we have certainly had a most interesting debate on the subject of internal drainage boards. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Buxton for having introduced this debate, because this is a subject which does not often find the light of day and yet it is one which is very important. I could not help being a little amused because, when he started off, I agreed with the noble Lord, Lord de Ramsey, who said that he felt he could go along with him. But by the time my noble friend had come to the end of his speech, I thought he had virtually put a torpedo right through the internal drainage boards, and he then said, in that charming way of his, "Of course, there is little left to argue about. It is merely a question of what has to be done". At the end of his speech, I thought there was a great deal to argue about. He said that the boards are undemocratic, and the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, followed along in the same tune, asking "Who are the culprits? MAFF, the Ministry of Agriculture, forces the IDBs to do things which they do not wish to do and they destroy the countryside. "

I want to start with one basic philosophy, that it is wrong to say that it is wrong to drain. I reject the premise that by improving land you are necessarily destroying the countryside. I reject the philosophy that it is shaming to take action which encourages food production in a country which produces only 70 per cent. of the food which we could grow, and in a world which is having its population increased by 50 per cent. in 30 years. Therefore, on those counts, I reject the philosophy that it is bad to drain or that by improving you are in fact destroying. Having said that, I entirely accept that work must be done and care must be taken, by draining and improving the countryside, not to destroy that which ought to be conserved.

But there is a feeling nowadays that if you improve something you arc not improving it; you are doing a disservice to the community. It ought to be made clear that it is not a disservice to encourage food production. If one looks back to the days of 1927, the Royal Commission said some very pertinent words: Originally the lowlands were in many cases swamps. The ingenuity of the lowlander has reclaimed them, and from being vast, unhealthy wastes they have in many instances been converted into some of the richest and most valuable lands in the Kingdom". That is something which we ought to take pride in and which we should not regret or he ashamed of.

May I say one thing about Halvergate. My noble friend Lord Buxton has repeated his oft-praised tune that there should be a public inquiry. That tune was followed by my noble friend Lord Onslow, and chimed in with what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Melchett. There is a problem at Halveragte. There are statutory bodies. There is the Broads Authority, the internal drainage boards, the Countryside Commission, all of which have been set up by Parliament to deal with problems on the ground when they occur. When my noble friends say, "Will the Minister hold a public inquiry?" I tell them that it would be churlish of the Minister to hold a public inquiry before these bodies have even decided whether or not they can come to an agreement. The first thing to do is to let the people on the ground try to come to an agreement. That is what my right honourable friend wants to do. I would go further and say that there is no point in having these bodies if my right honourable friend is obliged to hold a public inquiry before they have even pontificated and said what they think.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, does that mean that if they do not come to an agreement he will recommend that there should be a public inquiry?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, it does not mean that. It means exactly what I said: that both my right honourable friend and I want the bodies on the ground to come to an agreement if that is possible. If that is not possible we are then involved in a new position. But I very much hope that agreement will be possible. The land for which the internal drainage boards are now responsible and which, as my noble friend Lord Buxton has pointed out, contain same valuable conservation sites is in its present condition simply because of the efforts of the boards and their predecessors. These are not natural landscapes or habitats. In most cases they represent areas which have been reclaimed for agricultural purposes. The main function of the board and the board members is to decide what work should be done on the drainage system during the next year, how much it should spend and therefore what the drainage rates should be. I suggest that it would be quite unreasonable for these decisions to be taken by members who are not themselves ratepayers, or who have not been nominated by ratepayers.

I accept that contested elections may not be held by some boards. The point, however, is that the statutory procedure is laid down and must be followed. Each elected member holds office for three years. At the end of that period the clerk must advertise the vacancies and call for nominations. Any ratepayer who owns or occupies property with a rateable value of more than £30, or who owns four hectares of land or occupies eight hectares in the district may stand for election or may nominate somebody else to stand. If only sufficient nominations are received to fill the required number of vacancies there is no need for an election. I see nothing wrong with that. If the same board members are re-elected time after time without challenge one is entitled to assume that the ratepayers are content with their administration. For my noble friend Lord Buxton to say that that is undemocratic is, with respect, nonsense. The system is there which makes it democratic. If people do not choose to avail themselves of that system, that is their fault.

The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, referred to the membership of internal drainage boards. Where an internal drainage board has an agreement with a local authority whereby the local authority pays the drainage rates on behalf of the owners of urban property, the local authority is entitled to up to two-fifths of the seats on the board. But it is up to the local authority to enter into such an agreement.

Like any other public body, drainage boards are not only accountable to their electors or ratepayers. They are accountable to the district auditor, in that their financial accounts are examined by him annually. They are also accountable to the responsible Minister for many of their functions—the bylaws, the differential rating orders and so on—and they have to submit an abbreviated account to the Ministry every year. They are accountable to individual landowners and tenants when they want to enter on to their land to carry out work on the drainage system. I am bound not to agree with my noble friend if he says that these boards are not accountable.

My noble friend Lord Buxton said that internal drainage boards could enter land without the permission or the knowledge of the owner. It is true that, like many public authorities, internal drainage boards have the right to enter land in order to carry out their functions, but perhaps I could tell him that Section 39 (3) of the Land Drainage Act 1976 says: Except in an emergency, admission to any land shall not be demanded as of right under this section, unless notice in writing of the intended entry has been given to the occupier and, if the land is used for residential purposes or the demand is for admission with heavy equipment, has been given not less than seven days before the demand is made".

Lord Melchett

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Earl could take steps to remind internal drainage boards of that section because my experience, and that of the Norfolk Naturalist Trust, is that that does not happen. The first one knows that works are taking place is when one finds one morning that a High Mac is scooping the mud out of the river.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, if that irritates the noble Lord, then he ought to take out a writ against his local drainage board. I daresay that then it would not happen again. What I think is behind the question of my noble friend Lord Onslow is that the boards are run by people who have a loaded interest—in other words, those who farm or own the land or who live in the area. In a sense, this is perfectly correct because it is the land which they own or farm which will be affected by the work of the internal drainage boards. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that and with having a body elected from those whose property is to be affected.

What my noble friend did not quite say but which I think he insinuated was that others also are affected—that conservation, environmental or other interests are affected by the work of the drainage boards, even though they possess no legal right of tenure over the land, and that therefore they ought maybe to be represented on those bodies. But the lives of all of us are affected by the actions which others take and in which we have no specific rights or influence. One only has to look at those who come to London every day. They find that they are affected by the one-way streets and the office buildings. All these decisions are taken by a local authority which is elected by the ratepayers of the land affected.

The main criticism made by my noble friend Lord Buxton is about the way in which the activities of the drainage boards may have adverse effects on conservation. I should be the last to deny that there have been some instances where individual drainage boards have carried out work which has caused damage to important wildlife habitats. But when one considers that there are no fewer than 263 internal drainage boards in England and Wales which cover 3 million acres of land, it is remarkable that the number of cases which have evoked public controversy over the last five years in which internal drainage boards have been involved is so small that they can almost be counted on the fingers of one hand. It is perfectly true, as my noble friend Lord Buxton said, that vast machines can do in a matter of days what previously it would have taken men many weeks to do. That is the advantage, or may be the price of progress. Anybody who wields this capability of altering the landscape without sensitivity invokes, quite understandably, the wrath and indeed the fear of others. I say "fear" because one detects, especially from these figures which I have just given, not so much concern that a lot of damage has been done but a fear that the advance of technology may make progress the master of man and not his servant.

This fear does not relate only to internal drainage boards; it relates to all facets of life where people feel: Where is this new technology taking us? Indeed, I would even suggest that that fear is what lies behind the campaign for nuclear disarmament. It is not a fear of what has been done; it is a fear of what might be done. The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, made this fear quite plain and I sympathise with him in regard to that point. I do not think that that in itself is a justification for altering the nature of the drainage boards, although it may well be a justification for the drainage boards to take even greater care over what they do.

My noble friend, and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, and my noble friend Lord Onslow, as well, said that much of the internal drainage boards' expenditure is in the form of public funds, and that therefore a greater control should be exercised over the use of those funds. While I acknowledge my noble friend's reasoning, I do not agree with it. The whole nature of grants, whether they are grants to agriculture, to industry or to the regions is to assist work and to stimulate it. Of course it is the duty of Ministers to sanction this expenditure of public funds, to ensure that they are spent wisely and prudently. This the Minister does because a grant is not an automatic entitlement; it is subject to the approval of the Minister.

My noble friend said that grants for damage schemes had escalated since 1978. He referred, I think, to the "Ministry millions". If I may say so, without rebuking my noble friend, I thought that was an extravagant use of language. He asked me how many schemes have been made over a million pounds. Only one scheme in recent years has been of the order of over a million pounds. Of course, the total amount of grants goes up year by year because of inflation, but in real terms there has been virtually no change in the payments to drainage boards for at least 10 years. When the actual payments are expressed in terms of 1981 cash it can be seen that they have averaged £3 million a year during this period. In the financial year ending March 1972 the adjusted value of the grant was £3¼ million and in the year ending March 1981 it was £2¾ million. The estimate for expenditure in 1982 is about the same level as this year; in other words a total of about £6 million, of which the grant will be about £3 million. As my noble friend Lord Buxton rightly said, the number of schemes has gone up but the total expenditure in real terms has not.

The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, referred to the Wildlife and Countryside Act and I believe this will greatly improve the position. The Nature Consercancy Council has not in the past notified the internal drainage boards of the existence of SSSIs and where damage has been caused to such a site it will often have been due to ignorance on the part of the drainage board rather than to anydeliberate lack of care for the environment. The Act will now bring drainage boards within the ambit of Section 22 of the Water Act 1973, which itself is amended and strenghtened. It will first require the drainage boards to exercise their functions in such a way as to further the interests of conservation and amenity, so long as that is consistent with the purposes of the Land Drainage Act of 1976. It will place upon drainage boards the obligation to consult the Nature Conservancy Council if any of their works or operations seem likely to damage an SSSI of which details have been notified to the drainage board. The officials of the Nature Conservancy Council are at this moment engaged on a special exercise with the help of my Ministry and the water authorities in order to identify those SSSIs which fall within, or are close to, internal drainage districts. When such sites are identified, notification will be sent to the clerk of the drainage board concerned, so when the exercise has been completed there should be no reason why internal drainage boards should unwittingly have caused damage to those sites.

In addition—this will please the noble Lord, Lord Melchett—my department and the Department of the Environment are drawing up notes for the guidance of the Nature Conservancy Council, the water authorities and then internal drainage boards in operating the consultation procedure which is required by the Act. These will then he sent to the organisations for comment so that within a few weeks I hope that every drainage board will be apprised of what is required of them under the Act.

Before any grant is paid on an internal drainage scheme, it is necessary to determine the benefits of it. This is a complex subject and I would not wish to go into too much detail. I will confine myself mostly to saying that the purpose of such an appraisal is to satisfy ourselves that there will be an adequate economic return on our investment, either in terms of the flood damage to property which will be avoided or by the way of increased production from the land. It is indeed a test of economic viability.

My noble friend Lord Buxton complained that these economic appraisals are not published—and I think the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, did, too. There are two reasons for this. First, the cost/benefit analysis which internal drainage boards, and indeed all drainage authorities, are required to submit are an integral part of their application for grant aid. The application also contains details of the scheme design and the estimated costs and so forth. The purpose of the application is to enable the Ministry or the Treasury to judge whether the scheme satisfies the requirements of technical and economic viability. That is a decision which they must make on behalf of the taxpayer. I do not believe that my noble friend could really be suggesting that all these applications—and we have over 200 of them per year—should be published for public debate. If so, one wonders why it is just drainage applications. Why not apply the same rule to all other applications from public bodies for Government grants? The problem would in fact be enormous.

The second reason for not publishing them is that the estimates of potential benefit are often based on information which is given confidentially by the farmers in the benefit areas and we should be in breach of that confidentiality if we were to publish all the data. But I can assure my noble friend that for every agricultural drainage scheme in which there are allegations that the Ministry has over-estimated the benefit there is an urban flood protection scheme where the ratepayers complain that the benefit to them has been underestimated.

When we receive an application for grant aid towards the cost of a drainage scheme we look carefully to see whether there is economic justification for the payment of grant aid. If the scheme fails this test no grant will be paid and that is the end of the matter. If there is justification for grant on economic grounds, we then have to consider whether there are any environmental reasons for not paying grant and here we look to the statutory bodies for expert advice. If they advise that the scheme will cause unacceptable damage, we then have to consider whether its design can be changed so as to avoid or to reduce the damage. If a change in the design results in a scheme which is acceptable to the conservation interests (which is often the case) the scheme can usually be approved for grant aid even if the design adds to the cost. But if that proves impossible then a judgment has to be made by the responsible Ministers. I do not pretend that this is easy, but at the end of the day when all the assessments have been made a balance must be struck. I hope that your Lordships will accept that the Wildlife and Countryside Act on the statute book as it now is will have the effect of giving us the policies and the procedures for handling these very difficult problems.

should like to refer to one item which was referred to earlier, and that is the paying of drainage rates, on which my noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley had some comments to make. In fact 64 per cent. of all drainage rates are paid by farmers. In 67 per cent. of internal drainage boards farmers pay more than half the rate bill. The article in the New Scientist which was referred to did in fact highlight the Dun internal drainage board. This, of course, is quite exceptional; it is one of only 15 in which farmers paid less than 10 per cent. of the rate. That is because that particular TDB contained five coalmines and two power stations and a lot of urban development. It was not, therefore, representative of the norm.

Lord Melchett

My Lords, if the noble Earl is leaving that point may I ask him whether the Ministry have figures to show what sort of representation there is from non-farming interests on the 33 per cent. of IDBs where farmers pay less than half the rate? That is really the point I think a number of us were trying to get at.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I have not got those figures. I will see if I can find them and if I succeed I will let the noble Lord know. I was grateful to the noble Lord for the information he gave about the demands of the Happisburgh IDB for the Nature Conservancy Council to contribute towards the maintenance cost. This is a recent development and I shall look into this and see whether a compromise settlement is possible.

My noble friend Lord Onslow referred to Martham Broad and pollution. The matter of pollution is a matter for one particular department. My noble friend Lord Avon wrote to Lord Onslow and my noble friend Lord Onslow disputed what my noble friend Lord Avon wrote. Rather than join in that particular discussion myself, I will see that my noble friend Lord Avon has the remarks of my noble friend Lord Onslow drawn to his attention.

We have today had a debate on an important issue over which I think there is very genuine concern. I should like to tell your Lordships that there are three points of criticism which the Government are quite ready to accept. First, we accept that drainage boards should have the power to put money into reserve to cover the costs of replacing old equipment. That at the moment is not done. We accept that the electoral arrangements under which those owners of highly rated properties have more than one vote are out of date. And we accept that the way in which urban property is rated is not satisfactory. There are some aspects of the law relating to drainage boards which need to be reviewed. The question is therefore not so much whether we should review the legislation, but when. As your Lordships will be aware, resources and manpower are scarce, but I assure your Lordships that we shall put a review in hand as soon as resources can be made available.

I thank your Lordships for what you have said. Concern has been expressed and in expressing that concern I think your Lordships have reflected a view which is not confined just to this House. We are all conscious of, and indeed apprehensive of, our own responsibilities, whether they be as a farmer, as a member of a drainage board, or indeed as a Minister. We all have to chart a very difficult route between progress and preservation and between economics and aesthetics. I hope I have been able to show that the Department over which I happen at present to have a responsibility is no less conscious of these responsibilities and of the importance of the way in which they are exercised than are others. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Buxton for having introduced this Question.