Article reproduced from The Churches' Legislation Advisory Service (CLAS) Circular 2009/16 (5 November 2009). CLAS is the ecumenical body that communicates with the Government on proposals for legislation.
On 22 October various representatives of community groups, including the Churches’ Legislation Advisory Service and the Church of England’s Cathedrals and Church Buildings Division, attended a further meeting with Huw Irranca-Davies, the Minister for Marine and Natural Environment at Defra. The background was that after the previous meeting on 7 September he had agreed to look again at the matter of charging for surface water drainage (SWD). It was than announced at the Labour Party Conference that the Government had decided to legislate for a social tariff for community groups.
Irranca-Davies said that he could not pre-empt the Queen’s Speech (thereby implying that there might not be sufficient parliamentary time for legislation). That said, his proposal is as follows:
1. Legislation as part of the forthcoming Flood and Water Management Bill will allow for the kind of concessionary scheme currently operated by Severn-Trent. The Government does not propose to legislate for complete exemption, and the legislation will be (quasi-) permissive: companies will be able to take account of the affordability of surface water drainage costs for community groups and devise their own schemes.
2. The Government does not regard it as its function to set out schemes for individual utilities.
3. Under the legislation, the Government will produce guidance which itself will be subject to consultation, under four heads:
- the utility companies will assess the advisability of concessionary schemes;
- the guidance will determine which organisations should benefit;
- all customers will have to pay something – there will be no total exemptions; and
- the utility companies will have to consult their customers.
The Bill will refer the utility companies to guidance about the types of organisations that may qualify for preferential rates and the issues that they should consider in setting such rates. Ofwat would then approve the tariffs.
The question was raised as to whether it was appropriate that the utilities should themselves determine who should be the beneficiaries of any social tariff, to which he replied that the overall charging regime was meant to be cost-neutral: relief for one group of consumers would mean higher charges for another. The solutions would have to reflect local circumstances, eg the impact of a social tariff in terms of higher bills for households.
He was also adamant that the principle should be maintained that every consumer should contribute to drainage costs. Extreme weather events had increased and Defra was convinced that they would go on increasing; and it was part of the policy to encourage the move towards sustainable drainage. The annual cost of dealing with surface water was £600 million and we needed to put in place means of dealing with the problem, ranging from high-cost engineering solutions to low-cost soakaways.
A representative of the Consumer Council for Water argued strongly against any kind of social tariff at all, on the grounds that the cost would bear harshly on low-income domestic consumers; however, her argument appeared to fall on deaf ears. When asked for an assurance that Ofwat would follow the guidance, Irranca-Davies said that the guidance would be backed by primary legislation. He also made it clear that the guidance would be addressed to the utility companies, not simply to Ofwat. He accepted the offer of the stakeholders present to contribute to the drafting of the clause and associated guidance.
So far, so good – but two outstanding issues remain. First, we shall be looking very carefully at the Bill when it appears and, in due course, at the draft guidance. Secondly, given that there is a strong likelihood that Parliament will be prorogued and dissolved in early April to make way for an election on 6 May, there is no cast-iron guarantee that the Bill will reach the statute-book.
[Source: CLAS summary]