The Upper Brue Internal Drainage Board

Blog post May 11 2014

I have come across a copy of a copy of Michael Vearncombe’s History of the Upper Brue Internal Drainage Board. This History begins with a summary of the Levels’ history, which raises various questions which I found were best answered by Michael Williams’ book about the draining of the Levels (see 2/3/14). What impressed me about Michael Vearncombe’s work was his painstaking examination of the Drainage Board’s minutes going back to 1881, and it is this that the body of his booklet is based on.

The local drainage boards in Somerset were set up following the Somersetshire Drainage Act of 1877. This was the latest in a long history of efforts to organise effectively the drainage and the maintenance of waterways on the Levels, and it is still in place so must have been reasonably workable. Qualification to sit on these Drainage Boards is ownership of at least 20 acres of land in the relevant area, so they have tended to become the mouthpiece of local farming interests – in a situation where management of an area such as the Somerset Levels genially involves tension between farming interests and the demands of conservation.

My own background has led me to assume that conservation, including the preservation of wetland species of flora and fauna, is ‘good,’ and intensive modern farming is ‘bad.’ Meeting Phoebe Judah, and speaking briefly to Michael Vearncome on the phone as well as reading his History, quickly showed me that this is excessively simplistic. These are good people, doing their best in often difficult circumstances, and having dairy farms and suchlike in an artificially engineered landscape is not a situation of their creation or choosing.

The Internal Drainage Board has limited powers, a bit like a local council but with specific responsibilities towards local waterways. Until recently the Upper Brue board met in Glastonbury Town Hall. For nearly 100 years their activities were overseen and co-ordinated by various versions of the Somerset Rivers Authority, which became part of the Wessex Water Authority in 1974. Wessex Water still supply our domestic water, but responsibility for waterways passed to the National Rivers Authority around 1990, and then to the Environment Agency. The Drainage Boards themselves were re-organised locally in 2012 and there is now one board (replacing four) for the whole of the Brue and the Axe, with its offices in Highbridge.

The minutes show the Board’s on-going concern to prevent pollution – by Morlands sheepskin factory, for instance, or farmers with silage run-off. Often these complaints fell on deaf ears and the Board’s powers to enforce anything were limited. Mention of outside conservation bodies first appeared in 1977:

“The question of conflict between peat extractors who wanted lower water tables and wildlife conservationists was raised … A survey was being conducted by the Nature Conservancy Council and the Board were a little sceptical … From then on the question of wildlife conservation was to take a considerable amount of time, ingenuity and money to appease the conservationists. A few years later a full-time environmentalist … was appointed to look after the interests of the wildlife of the area.”

From then on conservation issues were mentioned more and more frequently, and the attitude that conservationists needed ‘appeasing’ fell away. By 2003 there was an RSPB representative appointed to the Board – at that time she was also the only woman at Drainage Board meetings. The key issue was always the water levels – which are maintained by pumping etc – farmers and particularly peat extractors wanting a low water table, conservationists wanting it higher. The Board was doing its best to arrange ‘wet’ and relatively ‘dry’ areas adjacent to each other.

By the beginning of the new millennium worked-out peat extraction areas were beginning to be used as wildlife sanctuaries. With last winter’s exceptionally wet weather, and the prospect of climate change making a repeat of this more likely in the future, the on-going viability of intensive farming on the Somerset levels is now being called into question.