Flood and drainage strategy must be based on catchments, said Norfolk expert

Henry Cator, new High Steward of the Great Yarmouth borough

Henry Cator, new High Steward of the Great Yarmouth borough - Credit: Archant

A national flood prevention strategy for England must be based on river catchment management from 'source to sea,' drainage expert and Norfolk farmer will tell MPs on Wednesday.

Henry Cator, chairman of the Association of Drainage Authorities, will urge members of the environment select committee to adopt a policy first agreed by government more than 80 years ago.

After decades of decline in land drainage, which had severely reduced food production, 400-year-old laws were scrapped in 1930 to enable a whole river catchment approach.

Broadland farmer Mr Cator, who represents 230 internal drainage boards covering 10pc of England's land area, said that the current system of flood prevention and river management was not working. As an independent voice of land drainage, he said: 'What we're seeing is that the current system is not working.'

A farmer at Salhouse and chairman of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, he said that the whole river approach must make more sense. 'There is no one quick-fix solution because each catchment and river is different.'

'We're saying: Extend the area over which IDBs have control to include the headwaters. It goes back to the original proposals of river catchment boards,' said Mr Cator.

A Royal Commission, which reported in December 1927, recommended that 361 drainage authorities should be replaced by 100 main river catchment boards. These boards – and 47 were established from 1930 – had the legal power to levy drainage rates from headwater to outfall.

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Since the National Rivers Authority had been scrapped in 1994, there has been a more fragmented approach, mainly driven by an imperative to trim spending, he said. 'Even if we went back to the 47 catchment areas, it would starting off at a better place than we're at the moment.

When King Henry VIII approved the Statute of Sewers in 1531, it gave powers to local bodies to levy rates and do the work. 'That is the premise on which all these IDBs are set up. It is a very close connection between the benefit and the person who pays.

'And if you extend the area, then maybe it would demonstrate better manage management of water courses, which would help to meet the cost of insurance – an example of a quid pro quo,' he added.

After major flooding in 2007, Michael Pitt's review recommended that funding should be given to local authorities. Further, this policy was not based on whole catchments – the approach for drinking water supplies.

Mr Cator, who is a member of Norfolk County Council's strategic flood review panel, noted that the River Waveney marks the authority's southern border. 'This is the problem when you go on political boundaries rather than catchments,' he added.

The Environment Agency's centralised funding arrangements forced IDBs to bid on a 'cost benefit basis' based on the Treasury's rules. 'All the money is distributed centrally – and everyone has to bid for a central pot against a formula of cost benefit, which is why everyone is saying: Is it fields or front rooms? The answer is: 'You can't really have one without the other. This is the disconnect.'

Mr Cator said that the IDBs, which broadly covered the area below the three-metre contour, should cover the whole length of river catchments – protecting homes, businesses and property upstream as well as downstream.

He said that water strategy had to look at the overall management. 'So when there is a drought, you don't look around and say: Where has all the water gone?