In the early part of the 20th century the control of rivers and land drainage was in the hands of the Commissioners of Sewers. These Commissioners date back to the 13th century in the case of Romney Marsh but, more generally to the Sewers Act of 1427 which empowered the Commissioners of Sewers, who were appointed by the King, to levy drainage rates on the occupiers of land benefiting from drainage and sea defence works carried out by the Commissioners. The charges were based according to the area of land each occupier held. (It should be noted that these drainage rates were the forerunners of the ‘Poor Rate’ first levied in 1601 by Elizabeth I and of the general rates which we pay today). In the case of local rivers, the East Kent Commissioners of Sewers were the people responsible for ensuring that the rivers were kept clear and that the risk of flooding was reduced to a minimum.
Following a report by Murdoch Mackenzie (Maritime Surveyor in His Majesty’s Service) in 1775, the Stonar Cut Act of 1776 was passed enabling a channel controlled by floodgates to be constructed across the neck of a large loop in the River Great Stour. When there is prolonged heavy rain and the flow in the river is running full, the Stonar Cut gates are opened and part of the flow is diverted down the Stonar Cut direct to the sea, bypassing the town of Sandwich. When this operation is carried out, it is known as “running the cut” and, although the gates are worked by electric motors now, this method of lowering water levels in the river is still used. This operation benefits approximately 3,000 acres of land.
The first quarter of the 20th century saw serious flooding in a number of areas of the country and eventually in 1927 the Government set up a Royal Commission to report on existing arrangements for land drainage and land drainage law and how these might be improved. The result of the Royal Commission’s investigation lead to the passing of the Land Drainage Act of 1930 and it is from this time that the current history of land drainage in East Kent dates.
The East Kent Commissioners of Sewers was abolished in 1931 and the Kent Catchment Board was constituted in its place. From that time to the present, a number of changes of title, each bringing new responsibilities have come about. The first change in 1938 was to the Kent Rivers Catchment Board; this was based in Maidstone and was responsible for all rivers in Kent. In 1948 this became the Kent River Board, in 1964 it became the Kent River Authority and in 1974 it became the Land Drainage Division of the Southern Water Authority. On 1 September 1989 it became the Kent Division of the National Rivers Authority and from 1 April 1996 it became the Environment Agency (Kent Area).
The 1930 Act also gave Catchment Boards powers to promote schemes for the constitution of Internal Drainage Boards and in 1938 the River Stour (Kent) Internal Drainage Board was constituted. The 1930 Act and some other pieces of land drainage legislation were consolidated into the Land Drainage Act of 1976. Following the passing of the Water Act in 1989, which contained certain provisions which affect Drainage Boards, the Internal Drainage Boards (Finance) Regulations of 1990 was passed and these regulations initiated widespread changes to the financing and electoral arrangements of Internal Drainage Boards. The Land Drainage Act of 1991, supplemented by the Water Resources Act of 1991 and the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1991, followed and these Acts are now principally the Acts that give IDBs the powers and responsibilities they have. These Acts call for IDBs to exercise a general supervision over all matters relating to land drainage within its drainage district but it should be noted that the Board’s powers to do works are ‘permissive’ and not mandatory.
The Environment Agency has exactly the same powers outside Drainage Districts and they are also required to exercise a general supervision over Drainage Boards’ affairs. Designated “Main Rivers” (approximately 255 km of watercourses in the Stour catchment) are maintained and administered by the Environment Agency who has powers of jurisdiction over land within 8 metres from the top of the bank of “Main Rivers”. Within their own districts, local Borough, City and District councils have precisely the same powers as Internal Drainage Boards but councils normally only exercise these powers within urban areas.
The River Stour (Kent) Internal Drainage Board maintains and administers approximately 177 km of IDB “designated watercourses” and has jurisdiction over land within 8 metres from the top of bank of these IDB “designated watercourses”.
The Board’s constitution allows for 19 Members. 10 Members are appointed by the Local District Councils of Ashford, Canterbury, Dover, Shepway and Thanet and the other 9 Members are elected by its Agricultural Drainage Ratepayers. In addition to its 19 Members, the Board actively encourages appropriate stakeholder groups to nominate representatives for co-option. At present, the Board has co-opted onto the Board a representative from Natural England who advises the Board on conservation and biodiversity issues.
The Board continues to make steady progress in carrying out its objectives. Various improvement schemes have been carried out over the years in conjunction with partners who have included the Environment Agency, Natural England, Kentish Stour Countryside Project, Kent Wildlife Trust, Ashford Borough Council and Canterbury City Council. One improvement scheme made available pumped drainage to a large area of lowland marsh downstream of Canterbury. In addition to improvement schemes, the Board carries out its own works to compliment and extend the benefits of larger schemes.
Each year the Board undertakes an annual programme of maintenance works, which includes weed cutting, de-silting, bank management, tree & shrub maintenance, spoil treatment and the maintenance, operation and improvement/replacement of water level control structures. All engineering work is undertaken by “specialist” drainage contractors under supervision of the Board’s Engineer.
The Board directly employs a full time Clerk & Engineer to the Board, an Engineering Assistant, a Water Level Controller, a Finance & Rating Officer and a Technical Assistant.