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Why half your borough's council tax goes to drainage boards

Much of Boston borough is at or below sea level. So much so that without the power of pumps the water in the area's network of ditches, drains and even the non-tidal river would not flow to the sea.

That would see the low-lying areas, many of them now built on, revert to marsh and more serious flooding would be commonplace.

Originally land drainage was undertaken centuries ago to provide more fertile farmland, but now many low-lying drained areas are home to residential and commercial premises.

Since the 1970s council tax collected from residents by Boston Borough Council helps pay for the work of the internal drainage boards (IDBs) whose job it is to maintain the borough's drainage systems and "keep our feet dry". Prior to this the IDBs sent their own drainage rates bills out.

That means around 57p in every £ (£1.852 million a year) of all the council tax the borough keeps - it also collects on behalf of Lincolnshire County Council, Lincolnshire Police and parish councils - goes to the internal drainage boards. Put another way the council keeps £77 of the £178 it collects from a band D property.

There are concerns that the cost of land drainage should be more evenly shared. Some have said it is unfair that council tax payers in an area which has internal drainage boards bear the cost of dealing with water flowing into their area but originating from outside, where there are no drainage boards.

Peter Bateson, Secretary of the Lincolnshire Branch of the Association of Drainage Authorities and Chief Executive of the Witham Fourth Internal Drainage Board, has some sympathy with this view, although he says his IDB has very little water to drain from outside its catchment area. Others do and receive some compensation by way of highland water contributions from the Environment Agency.

He agrees a fairer system would see the cost of drainage shared equally across the UK. To those living on the top of a hill who would claim no flood risk or drainage issues he would say: "Well, you have a roof and it gets rained on and that water has to be managed somewhere along the line."

A scheme for drainage costs to be shared throughout Lincolnshire is currently under consideration by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

Mr Bateson says he understands the concerns of borough councillors who have faced reduced funding because of Government cuts and austerity measures over the past few years and increased concerns around the "double whammy". This will be where, come 2020, central Government funding to all local authorities will cease and major funding, out of which the IDBs will have to be paid, will come from 100 per cent retention of business rates. Some rural areas, where there are not such opportunities for business growth, will suffer. They may not have the necessary infrastructure, skilled workers, transport links or even the development land that commercial enterprises demand.

In areas such as Boston borough, agriculture is the number one industry, and much of this is business rates exempt. And some of these rural areas have drainage boards - the double whammy. There are 111 IDBs in Great Britain, with a concentration along the east coast, and especially around The Wash where much land is top-class grade 1 in the vegetable basket of England.

Mr Bateson said: "The withdrawal of the central grant in favour of business rate retention is unfair for those local authorities which have IDBs and we have responded to DCLG's consultation on this topic to highlight this unfairness to support Boston Borough Council."

Mr Bateson explained that in this area drainage led to peat shrinkage which means much of the Fens now lies in a shallow bowl. Water within this bowl has to be literally "lifted" to persuade it out to sea. Drains are engineered to fall six inches in a mile and pumps are relied upon to move the volume from ever-deeper drainage channels into the sea. But at Hobhole, on an average spring tide, the sea level can be seven metres (23 feet) higher than the water in the drain. Fortunately the power of the pumps at Hobhole is such that they can discharge up to 27 tonnes of water a second against a high tide.

No one disputes the importance of the work of the drainage boards and Mr Bateson considers they give value for money. He said the average increase in their precept over the past ten years has been 1.6 per cent per year.

Witham Fourth IDB manages 700 kilometres (435 miles) of drains and seven pumping stations keeping an area of 40,000 hectares dry in which there are 2,200 properties. Most of it is agricultural land, important for the nation's food security. It's a big job requiring expensive kit - some individual machines priced at £170,000. Recently flood doors weighing up to 20 tonnes have had to be replaced at a pumping stations. As well as cutting 700 kilometres (435 miles) of bank (both sides) every year it has to de-silt the network every five to ten years ensuring the waters can run freely.

In addition to the precept met by borough council tax payers the board also charges landowners according to the rateable value of their land - about 45 percent of the board's income comes from landowners who pay an average of around £9 for every acre. But major funding for some big projects comes from other sources such as central Government and even the EU.

Hobhole Pumping Station had a £700,000 refurbishment and all but £50,000 was grant funded. And it has recently received, after the Brexit vote, £500,000 from the EU towards the £1.07 million cost of raising the height of five kilometres (3.1 miles) of sea defences from Wrangle to Leverton - the first time the EU has funded a flood defence project in the UK.

This future-proofed work in response to the 2013 flood, said Mr Bateson, will give added confidence to businesses which might want to operate in the area in much the same way that the Boston Barrier will improve the town's prospects for commercial growth, essential if business rates are to become such an essential source of local authority income.

The work of the IDBs is a balancing act amid uncertainties posed by Nature and weather. Enough water has to run through the system to aid flushing so silt does not build up, drains have to be managed without damage to the environment and habitat and consideration given to abstraction by farmers for irrigation and leisure users such as anglers and boat owners.

At Hobhole Pumping Station - the final outlet on the Witham Fourth Internal Drainage Board's system - the sea can sometimes be seven metres (23 feet) higher than the water on the landward side of the pumps.

Fortunately the power of the pumps is such that as much as 27 tons of water a second can be discharged even at high tide.

Boston Borough is also served by Black Sluice, Welland and Deepings and South Holland Internal Drainage Boards.

HobHole 12 Feb 201693 Displays a larger version of this image in a new browser window
This aerial photograph demonstrates the constant fenland drainage battle. The sea at high tide, on the right of Hobhole pumping station is seven metres higher than the level of water to be drained on the left.

Weed removal Displays a larger version of this image in a new browser window
Maintenance of a smaller fen drain to remove weed growth and return the drain to its original design standard.

Grass cutting Displays a larger version of this image in a new browser window
Flailing grass along a bank top using a specialist machine.