Internal Drainage Boards (IDBs) are independent public bodies responsible for managing water levels in areas where there is a special need to ensure the quality and effectiveness of drainage. There are currently 112 IDBs in England, overseeing 22,000km of watercourse and 500 pumping stations. They make a significant local, regional and national contribution to flood resilience.

It is therefore important that IDB governance is strong, and that the IDBs’ Boards are sufficiently engaged, diverse and experienced to manage their responsibilities However, a 2017 NAO report[1], questioned whether current IDB governance and accountability arrangements were sufficient to ensure that they are able to meet future demands. The report highlighted issues relating to governance, oversight, skills and accountability.

CAG Consultants were commissioned by Defra to undertake a review of the factors affecting Internal Drainage Board (IDB) board membership and their impact on governance. Our report is now available on the Defra website.


The research included document reviews, an online survey of all IDBs, qualitative interviews with members of 15 IDBs.

A ‘Framework’[2] case and theme-based approach to analysis was undertaken. This allowed analysis to be undertaken within case studies (e.g. analysing several/all themes across one case study) and thematically (e.g. analysing a theme across several/all case studies). The qualitative analysis was then triangulated with insights from the online survey and scoping activity.


IDBs identified two key challenges in terms of board membership:

  • securing future landowner members when faced with a diminishing pool, caused by the concentration of land in fewer hands, of ever busier landowners; and
  • sustaining local authority membership in the face of increasing demands on councillor’s time and, in some cases at least, a diminishing number of councillors.

As a result, many IDB stakeholders reported concerns regarding their ability to meet what they described as an increasingly onerous administrative burden and some reported that, in addition, they faced increasingly complex demands on their time.

A range of approaches were being adopted to address these and other challenges. Some smaller boards reported that they were considering joining consortia to achieve economies of scale, whilst removing the need for a large number of board members. Others reported that they had found it beneficial to buy in expertise and other forms of assistance from larger IDBs. Others had found that operating sub-committees, to address specific issues and priorities, had enabled them to become more responsive, but noted that this demanded more of members.

The research suggested that any follow-up action should focus on:

  • Raising the profile of IDBs among the general public and local authority councillors
  • Ensuring that local authorities are aware that they can appoint non-councillors as IDB board members, and encouraging them to take this approach where they find it difficult to fill vacancies
  • Improving communication between IDBs and local authorities as regards filling board member vacancies
  • Encouraging local authorities to strengthen and formalise the role of their IDB board members as intermediaries between relevant local authority officers and the IDB
  • Encouraging IDBs to provide induction and ongoing training for local authority members, which could be standardised across IDBs.
  • Ensuring that clarification of the role and responsibilities of board members is included in induction and training. In particular, local authority board members should be advised on how best to recognise and manage the tensions that may arise between their roles as IDB board members and as local councillors.
  • Introducing reporting on the attendance of local authority board members as means of helping to address non-attendance.
  • Encouraging IDBs to engage with their local authority board members, where attendance is low, in order to identify the most convenient time for meetings to be held.
  • Addressing the needs of those IDBs that may require additional support to ensure that they are able to fully comply with some forms of regulatory obligation, e.g. health and safety.

[1]NAO (2017) Internal Drainage Boards, National Audit Office. Available at:

[2] An approach developed by the National Centre for Social Research for analysing qualitative data in policy research.

Mar 26, 2020