Local People are best at dealing with Flood Defence - 2nd December 2009


The disaster in Cumbria brings home to us just how important our flood defences are. There, but for the Grace of God, go Malton or Helmsley.


I know nothing about the particular circumstances of the floods in Cumbria, and what measures were taken to prepare for them. I do not know, for example, whether the rivers there had been allowed to silt up like the River Derwent in Ryedale, although one suspects that if the Environment Agency is applying the same policies countrywide within the UK, this may have been the case.


However, listening to the news, one hears some familiar themes. One of these is that in future water could be retained upstream in river flood plains. Another is the suggestion of a need for a single overarching body to coordinate flood “management”.


Stated simply in this way, these suggestions would seem to be reasonable, sensible and even indisputable. Experience suggests otherwise.


In Ryedale, responsibility for the drainage of the Vale of Pickering is vested in three drainage boards and the Environment Agency. The County and District Councils also have their own areas of responsibility.


The drainage boards are elected bodies and represent the landowners – mainly farmers - who pay the drainage rates. The District Council appoints representatives on behalf of the residents of non-agricultural land. Each drainage board raises a rate, has a separate budget and spends that budget within its boundary. The drainage boards are very effective. They maintain their flood defences well and are rarely criticised.


The Environment Agency is responsible for the rivers and river flood defences. The Agency is not an elected body; it is a London quango appointed by and answerable to national government. It levies money by invoicing the Drainage Boards, but there is no local control or accountability, and no way for local people to determine how its levies should be spent. It replaced the old River Boards, which were locally accountable: while the River Boards existed, flooding was rarely a serious issue.


The Agency has allowed river beds to silt up and river flood defences to decay. They make a virtue of this by claiming that de-silting the rivers will disturb the wild life, and that therefore, space should be made for flood water within the rivers’ “natural flood plain”. The combination of the efficiency of the drainage boards’ works and the neglect of the Agency has resulted, in Ryedale, in the rapid discharge of flood water from drainage board ditches into silted up rivers.


One might have thought that the answer to this issue would be to break up the incompetent Agency, and reward the drainage boards for their efficiency.


  Not so: if there is ever a single overarching authority to co-ordinate “flood management”, one can expect this to be the Environment Agency, and one can also expect this to be to the detriment of the drainage boards.


In fact this process has already begun. Government has instructed the drainage boards to reorganise and amalgamate. They want a single drainage board to govern land drainage in a huge area which includes the whole of the Vale of Pickering, much of the Vale of York, including the area round Selby, and most of the rest of North Yorkshire. This area is diverse, and the new drainage board, when raising the drainage rate, will be able to decide where to spend the money. They will have to prepare policies with lists of priorities, and these will probably require most of our money to be spent, as a first priority (as the Agency does now), where most of the people are – that is on drainage works which protect cities. Local control and accountability will have been lost, and the new big body will be easier for central government and the Agency to control than the many smaller boards which exist today.


The River Derwent discharges into the Ouse below Selby and therefore is a threat to no unprotected urban areas. So money collected from Ryedale will probably be spent, as a first priority, elsewhere.


The present system may have its weaknesses, but an overmighty Environment Agency and a few tame mega drainage boards will provide no improvement.



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