Local Governance and Community Resilience: How Internal Drainage Boards (IDBs) and Communities Managed Flooding in England

Lead Research Organisation: University of Hull
Department Name: History


This project examines forms of community flood risk management in the past through IDBs and their immediate precursors, to determine their viability as a model for future policy. It develops an approach that views flood as a social construction as much as a physical hazard, and that places people and environment at the centre of a more historically oriented understanding of flooding in England. Valuable records are neglected and lessons that might be drawn from first-hand experience overlooked. This is an urgent issue given recent serious floods (e.g. Somerset 2014, Cumbria 2015).

The network of IDBs is an underrated and under-researched factor in flood risk resilience. 18th century Acts of Parliament began to take drainage out of the hands of Commissions of Sewers and place it with local communities, in drainage districts. The legacy of these districts, IDBs, remain integral to community flood risk reduction, yet little is known about their formation, functions, politics or personnel and how these have changed. This project questions the role IDBs have played in flood risk management, the extent to which they constitute an important manifestation of community-level resilience, and the degree to which the changing nature of their governance is crucial to an understanding of effective, future, flood management policy. These are relevant questions given government policies in the wake of the Pitt Review.

IDBs have been instrumental in creating much of England's lowland landscape as well as shaping the nature and extent of local flood risk. Understanding how these boards operated and how decisions were made will reveal much about the extent to which localised flooding has altered, and the relationship between the level of flood risk and the nature, practice and extent of community structures in a given area. We wish to determine the degree to which historically shared risk fosters community cooperation and resilience (social capital), what manner of persons participated in the decision-making process, and whether such community-based models of management proved to be proficient managers of flood risk governance. We will also examine the institutions, practices and policies of IDBs in managing changing levels of flood risk, what factors influence their development, and how local issues relate to wider ones of flood and environmental governance. We wish to appraise whether IDBs represent an effective model for future local flood risk management.

As the political geography of community flood risk management in England is diverse, we will focus on the IDBs role and function in 4 areas: Lincolnshire, the East Riding, Cumbria and Somerset. These counties represent a cross-section of flood risk issues that have historically confronted communities including: storm surge and coastal flooding on the east coast; heavy rainfall from North Atlantic storms along the west coast; land reclamation in Somerset, the East Riding and south Lincolnshire; upland catchment management in Cumbria; and riparian flooding in all areas.

To undertake this research, we adopt an applied history approach that understands flood risk as a historically-generated process that can only be properly understood through an examination of how communities "normalise risk" over time. This is a methodology that Bankoff has long piloted based on a belief in community resilience and local formal and informal institutions of governance. The relevance of community-based disaster risk reduction to England is overdue and can provide practical insights into flood risk management in the present.

The hallmark of this project is outputs based on solid historical research that have practical application to policy. Our intention is to make an important contribution to the literature on the nature, history and management of flooding in England, as well as to consider models of governance to serve as the basis for more devolved forms of flood risk management in the future.

Planned Impact

There is a growing critique in the media and in official reports on government flood policy that UK water management and flood defence services are too centralised, too reliant on costly technical expertise and hard infrastructure, disconnected from the needs of micro-scale environments, and environmentally and financially expensive. Local community groups and government agencies are currently exploring what forms of user-organised flood resilience systems might replace those traditionally installed by the state (Environment Agency (EA), local councils and private water companies). Yet surprisingly little attention is given to highly relevant past experiences of flood resilience actions which were locally-based, did not rely on costly engineering expertise, and were closely aligned with local environmental needs.

Previously water authorities and local councils employed dedicated teams of researchers who used local records to make decisions about water management in particular micro-scale environments, using a wide range of documents including IDB records and river commission reports. However, the advent of the internet has facilitated a cultural change within such organisations that now prioritise externally-sourced expertise and instantaneous information via the internet. Nevertheless, when dealing with flood management in micro-environments, archives often yield more relevant and useful information. Local records detail past, hard-won management strategies of riparian communities that faced much the same geological, topographical and climatic challenges as their descendants do today. Much of this locally specific environmental knowledge has been lost due to urbanisation, population movement and industrialisation. Few vestiges of orally transmitted, long-term environmental knowledge remain, whereas historical documentation provides insight into the iterative, experience-led process of knowledge formation gained over time.

Analysis of IDB records and related sources will demonstrate to water companies, local councils and the EA how relevant such records are to current flood challenges. We seeks to trigger a cultural change across the whole water sector, the EA and even DEFRA, which will revive the use of archival research and appreciation of local knowledge. The project will also share with practitioners the positive historic experiences of IDBs as they developed participatory flood-resilience plans with local people who stood to gain the most from their success. It will demonstrate the value of community based responses to flooding in a manner that appreciates local people's long-established knowledge about how water has flowed through their landscape, lives and livelihoods, and that directly involves them in its management. Academic expertise of this sort is not readily available to flood professionals, which is why this project will seek proactively to share its research findings with them.

The project will feature four workshops in each case-study regions, aimed at flood-resilience practitioners working within the EA, water companies, environmental charities, local councils and community action groups. At these workshops, researchers will demonstrate the benefits of using archival documents to inform flood-resilience plans and systems. Workshops will feature talks by archivists to explain how easily their staff can support people lacking any formal archival research to access the information they need. The presentations will make direct and clear links between the records and their use to inform current and future flood challenges. We will make available this workshop material on our project website and promote it as widely as possible using social media. The researchers will also negotiate with the organisers of flooding and relevant water industry events such as 'Flood Expo' to present our research findings through formal presentations, seminars, panel debates and by staffing a stall or promotional stand.


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