Plans for new Rivers Authorities are flawed and threaten our environment

rivers smallThis post is by Tom Lancaster, acting head of land use policy at the RSPB.

The world of flood and coastal erosion risk management (FCERM) is complex, and at times niche. But it is something that affects the lives of millions, and will become an increasingly pressing priority as the impacts of climate change get worse.

We all have a stake in the decisions to protect communities, businesses and nature from floods, whilst making the best use of the nation’s resources. They should be debated openly, both locally and nationally. Above all, managing flood risk should take place within a long term strategic framework, rigorously assessed to ensure maximum bang for our FCERM buck.

In this context, the current passage of the Rivers Authorities and Land Drainage (RALD) Bill is an odd thing indeed. A private members bill that few have heard of, it is currently midway through its parliamentary journey, having completed the House of Commons stages with limited scrutiny. The bill would do two main things. It would enable the creation of new public bodies, the Rivers Authorities, with powers to review flood risk management locally and raise money from local taxpayers to fund additional work. And it would address gaps in land valuation data to remove a known barrier to the creation and extension of Internal Drainage Boards (IDBs).

Scathing criticism of the proposals
As I said, it’s niche, and seemingly innocuous. And yet the bill was last week subject to a scathing report from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which outlined an “exceptional number of criticisms”, and concluded that it is “an attempt, upon flimsy grounds, to set aside the procedures which Parliament has put in place to protect the interests of citizens who would be unfairly affected by legislation.”

Transparent this bill is not. What’s more, the committee concluded that the bill would “…authorise the issuing of precepts—in effect, taxation—in a way which would be unaccountable and unscrutinised”. It also found the bill to be a “ploy” to avoid a hybrid bill, which would entail a lengthier parliamentary process subject to greater levels of scrutiny.

For several weeks, the RSPB has been raising concerns directly with Defra and peers about the RALD Bill, many of which were echoed in the House of Lords committee report. While we have a long standing position that flood risk management needs greater investment, this bill risks setting up Rivers Authorities in a way that could undermine strategic flood risk management, and the existing system led by the Environment Agency (EA) and higher tier councils.

There are three big concerns
These concerns are based on three broad areas. First, the bill would enable a Rivers Authority to operate through annual plans, without sufficient reference to existing long term flood risk management strategies. The activities would not be subject to any assessment of costs and benefits, and the authority would be able to precept – raise money through council tax – to fund these activities before publishing their annual plan, which is itself not subject to any meaningful consultation. This would open the door to suboptimal flood risk management at best, and potentially environmentally damaging activities at worst. EA flood defence investments achieve a cost benefit ratio of roughly 9 to 1 from public money; this is the bar that any further investment should aspire to and, at present, there will be no way to hold a Rivers Authority to this benchmark.

Second, the bill provides a Rivers Authority with wide ranging powers, including access to the functions of other government bodies, but their programme of works would be planned without those bodies’ duties and responsibilities, and without any statutory purpose. For example, whereas the Environment Agency has significant and specific duties to protect and enhance the natural environment, a Rivers Authority would only have the much looser duty to contribute to sustainable development, placed on all flood risk management authorities.

Finally, the bill does not prescribe a sufficiently robust set of governance arrangements for a Rivers Authority. The closest current analogue to a Rivers Authority is an Internal Drainage Board. Whilst some IDBs are excellent, a recent National Audit Office report revealed significant issues with their governance, transparency and accountability.

Consultation has been inadequate
At present, the RALD Bill risks opening up a Rivers Authority to the same flaws, as it does not prescribe the make up of an authority board, or how the board should operate. This is compounded by inadequate duties and consultation requirements.

You might ask why does this all matter? It matters because, as things stand, the RALD Bill risks reversing decades of progress toward more strategic flood risk management that takes better account of the natural environment. It opens up the potential for a new class of public body to operate with inadequate environmental safeguards, without sufficient accountability or transparency, in a way that could lead to poor flood risk management outcomes and value for money. This is all the more incongruous given the urgent need to deal with our deteriorating climate.

So what should happen now? At present, we are in limbo. The House of Lords committee report was so damning that the committee stage for the bill, initially scheduled for Friday 14 June, has now been postponed. Whether Defra can amend the bill sufficiently to address their concerns is an open question. What is clear is that pressing on with the bill in its current form is not – or, at least, should not be – an option.

We do need more investment in flood risk management, and this should focus on win-wins for nature, climate and communities. If this bill cannot be amended to meet this need, Defra should go back to the drawing board, and come up with more considered legislation that does.

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