SRA Annual Report 2019-20: Somerset Rivers Authority funding and legislation
Funding from local partners
For its first full year of work in 2015-16, the SRA had Interim Funding of £2.7million from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), Somerset’s local authorities and Somerset Drainage Boards Consortium. In December 2015, the Government gave Somerset County Council and Somerset’s district councils the power to raise a shadow precept of up to 1.25% of 2016-17 council tax, to fund the SRA in 2016-17. The figure of 1.25% was chosen because it came close to matching the SRA’s initial budget of £2.7m.
The SRA is still reliant upon annual shadow precepting and its level is still pegged to that initial £2.7m, although the actual amount of money raised has gone up. In 2019-20, it was £2.924million. In other words: the level of the charge is frozen, but as the number of households in Somerset increases every year, more people pay, so the total amount rises. The Parrett and Axe Brue Internal Drainage Boards also choose to contribute £10,000 a year each.
Funding from Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership (HotSWLEP)
The SRA gets no central government funding from year to year. However, in 2014 Government funding of £13.049m was awarded through the HotSWLEP Growth Deal Fund for the carrying out of Somerset’s 20 Year Flood Action Plan. As the body that now oversees the Flood Action Plan, the SRA has been spending this Growth Deal funding on several major projects, including dredging and the Bridgwater Tidal Barrier.
In February 2020, the SRA Chair and Vice-Chair met Taunton Deane MP Rebecca Pow, in her capacity as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State with responsibility for flooding at Defra. Ms Pow said that as Defra was taking forward two major Bills – the Agriculture Bill and the Environment Bill – there was currently no Government time available in Parliament for legislation that could put the SRA on a secure long-term footing and give it the power to raise its own share of council tax. However, Ms Pow expressed strong support for the SRA, and gave a clear undertaking on behalf of the Ministry of Communities, Housing and Local Government that the SRA’s ‘shadow precept’ arrangements would remain in place, to enable the SRA’s good work to continue.
Defra did draft a Rivers Authorities and Land Drainage Bill that was introduced to the House of Commons as a Private Members’ Bill by the Somerton and Frome MP David Warburton in March 2018. With cross-party support this Bill passed through the Commons in March 2018 and moved up to the House of Lords.
The Bill had its 2nd Reading in the House of Lords on 16 May 2019. Speakers included the Somerset peers Lord Cameron of Dillington and Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville.
Transcripts of all debates can be read on Hansard: https://services.parliament.uk/Bills/2017-19/riversauthoritiesandlanddrainage.html
In both Houses, the Bill’s ambitions attracted cross-party and cross-bench support. However, in June 2019 the Lords’ Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee questioned whether a Private Members’ Bill was, constitutionally, the best way of proceeding. After those arguments were backed by the Lords’ Constitution Committee, Mr Warburton withdrew his Bill in July 2019. He said he was “extremely disappointed” but “we’ll get there one way or another in the end”.
What MPs and peers said in debates
David Warburton, Somerton & Frome (Conservative)
“The devastating floods that hit my constituency and those of other Members during the winters of 2013 and 2014 will forever be ingrained in my mind… events really were shattering for Somerset… From adversity comes opportunity, though, and neighbours and communities in Somerset came together. Members of those communities wanted to take action to reduce the chances of such flooding happening again and properly to manage the risk. The people of Somerset were keen to take ownership and proposed the creation of a new locally funded public body known as the Somerset Rivers Authority… The Bill is the final piece in incorporating that authority formally and ensuring that it has a secure future.”
Peter Heaton-Jones, North Devon (Conservative)
“I look upon Somerset with envious eyes… The SRA has done extraordinarily valuable work… my hon. Friend’s Bill… seeks to hark back to a time when we rightly had rivers authorities, which were doing work that is best done by local experts, local people—those who know the environment.”
Luke Pollard (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Lab/Co-op)
“I thank the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome for introducing the Bill… The Opposition welcome and support this good Bill, because changes to flood protections for communities are long overdue…”
Lord Cameron of Dillington (Cross Bench)
“… in the aftermath of the floods [of 2014] the Somerset Rivers Authority was born to reunify the management [of river catchments] and ensure that such a disaster could never happen again—and so far, so good.”
Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville (Liberal Democrat)
“While no one particularly wants to introduce a new tax-raising body in communities, for those who have suffered the devastation that regular flooding brings, a tax to mitigate this is welcome. Like Flood Re, it would provide comfort and spread the risk and expense among the whole population of the area, as it is targeted at local priorities.”
Viscount Younger of Leckie (Conservative)
“The Government fully understand how important this is for the people of Somerset and support the work of the Somerset Rivers Authority.”