At Last we have National SuDS Standards…

Written By: Market Development Director, Hydro International.

Photo Courtesy of Cole Easdon

DEFRA served up an extra treat for us to digest over the Christmas holidays.  The National Standards for SuDS were published for consultation on December 20.  For the complete industry reaction, I suspect we’ll need to wait until the New Year is well underway.

The National Standards are designed to provide a structure for the new SuDS Approving Bodies (SABs) to make judgements on the acceptability of drainage schemes for developments and redevelopments.    They are an essential part of the Government’s extremely positive proposals to encourage widespread SuDS adoption in England and Wales and prevent automatic connection of stormwater drains to the public sewer network.   It’s up to us an industry to use the consultation to make sure the Standards will do their job well.

But firstly, it must be noted that the considerable delay in the publication of this consultation has already put the Lead Local Flood Authorities on the back foot.     It looks highly unlikely that the SAB roles will come into force as the Government originally intended in April 2012.  Instead it will be October – or possibly even later, depending on the preparedness of the LLFAs for the task.

The National Audit Office has already highlighted concerns about the readiness of local authorities in recruiting and skilling-up staff for their new roles (see the news story).     My impression is that only about a third of LLFAs have the people they need in post so far.  While some leading lights have made excellent progress (as often highlighted on this website), others have been adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach.  What’s more local authorities are expressing concerns that the delay has made it difficult, if not impossible, to get agreed funding for posts in their budgets in enough time, without a definite start date.   There will also be no ‘up front’ loading of the central Government funding promised to help get SABs underway, so any LLFAs that choose to recruit early will have to foot the bill in difficult economic times.

To do their job, the standards must drive through consistent sustainable outcomes across the land, but with such a varying picture ‘on the ground’, there is real cause for concern.  A first look at the proposed standards tells me that there is still much room for varying interpretations and perceptions of what SuDS are.  The proposed Guidance to be drawn up to go alongside the standards will therefore be critical to future success.

The proposal for exemptions from the standards on the grounds of “disproportionate cost” is a particular worry.   The draft standards propose that ‘full compliance’ with the standards is not required where the SuDS design would be more expensive than a ‘conventional design’.  But what exactly constitutes a conventional design?  Experience shows that perceptions of SuDS versus conventional can get very muddled.

As I have already said in a previous blog which highlighted this proposed ‘loophole’ when it was first scooped by NCE Magazine, there should be no such thing as ‘SuDS’ or ‘No SuDS’, in my view.   By applying SuDS principles – as outlined in the standards – and the full toolbox of SuDS techniques there should be very few schemes that would fall through the net, and any such schemes should be seen as the very rare exception, rather than the rule. If this clause really does deliver a ‘get out of SuDS free card’ for ill-informed developers – or even local authorities – it could compromise the whole spirit of the Act.

Proposals to enable the local planning authority to impose ‘more stringent’ requirements also raise more questions than answers, and the liberal sprinkling of ‘where practicables’ provides opportunities for caveats that we must be careful of.

Having said that, the SuDS standards also contain some key principles which are to be applauded.  It’s particularly welcome to see that the standards fully embody the requirement for water quality treatment and for a treatment train of SuDS components to achieve this, according to the site conditions.

It’s also made clear that developers must make full plans for the maintenance of SuDS, which will be carried out usually by the LLFA.

As we would expect the standards will demand that SuDS should deal with stormwater at source, above ground, and use and integrate with public space wherever possible.  They should also take future account of climate change.  Schemes should favour infiltration and attenuation.  Wherever possible, the site should be returned to pre-development greenfield runoff rates

To achieve these objectives, I hope the standards will show that a mix of SuDS components, natural –  or used in combination with proprietary systems – can achieve the principles and requirements of the standards.   This is the principle of Engineering Nature’s Way, which I believe offers a practical, achievable and clearly-understandable way forward.

Let’s not forget too, that the Standards are only the tip of the iceberg in some ways – as they only apply to new development.  There’s a lot more work to be done to develop opportunities for retrofitting SuDS into our urban environments.

Visit the Defra website to find out how to respond to the consultation.

Access a copy of the draft standards.

Photo courtesy of Cole Easdon.

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