Parliament 19th February 2016

Flood risk funding and Brexit have dominated written Q&As in Parliament, Catherine Paice reports

Ears at the Oxford Farming conference pricked up when DEFRA Secretary of State Liz Truss (Con, South-West Norfolk) announced farmers would at last be allowed to maintain their own ditches in a bid to alleviate flood risks. For years farmers haven’t been allowed to get rid of detritus, even silt, without permission – a move backed by some conservationists who said it encouraged wildlife. Ms Truss also pledged new powers for Internal Drainage Boards (IDBs) and other groups to maintain watercourses. Little has been heard since, and the squib continues to look damp. Exactly how would local responsibility be shared, and what additional powers does the Secretary of State plan to grant, Alex Cunningham (Lab, Stockton North) asked in a written question?

Under-Secretary of State Rory Stewart (Con, Penrith and the Border) said discussions had been held between DEFRA, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and the Somerset Rivers Authority, as a result of which Somerset authorities may raise extra funding via a “shadow precept”. This gives them the power to add up to 1.25% onto council tax bills from April 2016, so that funding won’t be seen any time soon. Recent flooding cost Somerset up to £147.5m, initial figures estimate. Is better progress being made by other regions?

The Government is funding Lead Local Flood Authorities (LLFAs) to do what they need to do under the auspices of the Flood and Water Management Act, Mr Stewart said. As part of the Provisional Local Government Finance Settlement 2016-17, DCLG has proposed protecting LLFA funding in real terms over the life of this Parliament. Again, how much spare there is for new initiatives to protect from flooding is far from clear.

Mr Stewart said: “We will continue to discuss with IDBs and other groups where they could take on more responsibility and control of local flood risk management, including by facilitating flood risk partnerships.” In other words – it’s up to local authorities to sort this out between them, including agreeing where IDBs could do work on the Environment Agency’s part.

With Brexit dominating headlines, Baroness McIntosh of Pickering (a new life peer, former Conservative MP Anne McIntosh) wanted to know the potential impact on farm incomes of an EU exit, for all farmers in England and Wales and, separately, for hill farmers. Lord Gardiner of Kimble’s reply was brief: Government is fighting hard to fix the aspects of EU membership that cause frustration, he said. Addressing only the first part of the question, he said about 130,000 beneficiaries get CAP support of an average £18,500 per beneficiary. So, CAP payments of around £2.4 billion, and no mention of how much or how long that would be replaced by the Government in the event of a Brexit.

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