Philip Whiteman and Ian Briggs
The recent news that the Minister for the Environment, Owen Patterson, has visited flood torn Somerset and the Environment Agency, has had a bit of a tough time in the media. It has started to open up a few interesting questions and issues around who is actually accountable and who is responsible for flood response. Undoubtedly facing persistent flooding problems is deeply distressing for those affected and it is far from unreasonable to expect the response from the State to be swift, appropriate and well managed.
But who should respond and who has a say over what the local priorities are is perhaps a more complex question to answer. On further investigation it would appear that our system of local public administration has a few dark corners that are somewhat enlightening to explore.
One slightly dark corner that the media seems to have paid little attention to is the Local ‘Internal Drainage Board’ (IDB). What may come as a surprise to many, especially if you do not operate in a particularly high risk area, is that these IDBs are actually part of the complex firmament of democratically elected local bodies.
Internal Drainage Boards as local public organisations are specifically charged by legislation to supervise matters of water level management. Whilst current powers are determined by the Land Drainage Acts of 1991 and its precursor of 1930, the antecedents of these curious bodies can be traced back to Henry II in 1297. Not surprisingly, their boundaries are not coterminous with principal local authorities, but instead with water courses.
The 121 IDBs are distributed across the low lying areas of England and Wales, such as the Somerset Levels, Fens or Romney Marshes. Board members are elected by the IDB ratepayers and may sit alongside appointees. Herein lies another oddity: each elector, usually an agricultural land holder, is awarded a number of votes related to the size of land holding or occupation – something rather reminiscent of voting rights pre- the 1832 Great Reform Act! Whilst local authority members may sit as appointees, it is not remarkable to comment that control of IDBs holds little interest to political parties.
The very existence of the IDBs offers some interesting avenues to explore. One question that presents itself is around Government’s intention to respect that it is often the local community that holds local knowledge and solutions to problems existing within communities. Now, one can see that the Environment Agency itself has a few problems to deal with – it has not escaped media attention that the Agency is facing cuts at a time when the headline news is demonstrating that many local people are living with persistent flooding. Clearly one significant advantage of a large scale Agency is that it learns lessons from previous practice and can then make judgments as to the best way of dealing with problems. It can lay down standard operating processes and procedures and is in a position to balance a wide range of competing issues such as general environmental and ecological sustainability, whilst at the same time responding to social need.
However, if the flooding problems in the Somerset levels are allegedly a direct product of the failure to dredge rivers (and here we are not offering any opinion on that matter), should the decision be one that is taken locally or should it be one that conforms to a standard operating process? We have on one hand a body open to public scrutiny that is made up of local people and elected representatives who are resourced through a local precept taxation system and a national body that is answerable to citizens through national government. In this type of situation, very complex inter relationships develop between the principals and their agents! This complexity is furthered by the addition of principal councils and DEFRA – who also have an interest in flood prevention policy and measures.
If, as we have seen through the introduction of locally elected Police and Crime Commissioners, government has an appetite for bringing public institutions closer to the people, then it may seem more than a little strange that in some of our most sensitive localities this argument over prioritisation is between Ministers, local people and a government agency. Perhaps we should look to promote a more visible role for the Local Drainage Board.
They are clearly important to local people in high risk areas, but with increasing pressure on local authorities to absorb ever increasing numbers of new houses and reports that new homes are being constructed on flood risk zones, we may need to think more deeply about how we manage this tension between control at a local level and the advantages of having a national response to such emergencies.
Philip Whiteman is a Lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies. He has research interests in the impact of central government and regulators on the role, service delivery and performance of local government and other local bodies. He is currently looking at developing a case for researching how guidance is an important instrument for steering local government over and above legislative instruments.
Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at INLOGOV, and sits on a rural Parish Council in Warwickshire. He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.