Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Dr. Dale H. Porter

Second Advisor

Dr. Judith F. Stone

Third Advisor

Dr. John O. Norman

Fourth Advisor

Dr. John McCormick


"The Tragedy of the Rivers: Building Authority over the British Water Environment" examines the problem of rivers as common public resources in modern Britain. Viewed historically, the enduring problem of environmental pollution control in Britain has been the establishment of regulating authority over aspects of nature that are regarded simultaneously as economic resources, public utilities, and public amenities. Legislators, subject to pressure from industrial polluters, political parties, and advocates for environmental quality, sought at different times to locate authority at local, regional, national and extra-national levels. Each effort failed to resolve the issue of authority over the environment, because administrative solutions merely shifted the pollution elsewhere. The administrative solution of nationally directed, regionally administered multipurpose agencies ultimately failed as they were undermined by internal conflicts of interest fueled by competing popular conceptions of river water as a natural economic resource, a common commodity, or as an amenity for recreation and leisure.

Three themes are evident from the study. The first was the struggle to define the appropriate level at which authority over the environment was vested. Thesecond concerned the structural composition of institutions that were both regulator and polluter. The British experience suggests that the multi-purpose structural arrangement of the regional water authorities, who were both regulator and polluter, could not effectively function to protect the river common. Thethird was how to use scientific and technical knowledge. Advocates for one position or another have used scientific and technical knowledge as a neutral "authority" to demonstrate the correctness of their position. However, there has been a gradual recognition that such knowledge is tentative, dependent upon conditions and subject to change, which in one sense redefines the "authority" of this resource. Lastly, natural ecosystems, such as river basins or watersheds, provided a geographical and natural framework for regulatory control especially with regard to integrated resource management and pollution control. The British experience in the 1970s suggests that while the proper decision in regards to geographic size was ultimately made, the authorities created lacked thenecessary legislative powers to match their river systems. This remained a challenge for the future.

The work is based upon primary materials gathered from the British Library, Public Record Office, Thames Water PLC, the Port of London Authority, and the archives of the City of London and the GLC. Contemporary materials include newspaper accounts, letters and conference proceedings on related subjects and interviews with government officials, related water and sanitary engineers, and pollution control officers. Relevant secondary literature was also utilized.

Access Setting

Dissertation-Open Access