Is this the End of the Beginning for Surface Water Management?

Written By: Market Development Director, Hydro International.

Surface Water Swale

We are at a turning point for surface water management in the UK. If you will forgive me for misquoting Churchill: this is not the end, or even the beginning of the end for SuDS.  It simply has to be the end of the beginning if we are to secure long-term flood resilience and surface water management.

For the first time, we have planning regulations in place in England that ‘expect’ SuDS to be built on new development.  So, we should be celebrating, shouldn’t we?

Except that, it’s not the outcome that many people expected and even the Government’s own advisory body on Climate Change is disappointed.  As I explored in my last blog, 10 years of wrangling over legislation to make SuDS compulsory may be over, but there is still much to be done.  The revised CIRIA 697 SuDS Manual published a little later in the year will be an important milestone in providing national guidelines.

In his latest Budget, Chancellor George Osborne has once again struck a red pen through planning laws that could stand in the way of achieving the target to build 200,000 homes in the UK by 2017 [read the news story].  Of course, the homes are very much needed, but will more freedom from planning regulations impact further on urban flood resilience? Will it be harder than ever to establish consistent and robust practice across the country?

I believe it’s essential that we do not lose sight of our goals for more sustainable flood risk management and especially for surface water control and treatment.

Climate Change is going to make keeping pace with flooding risks extremely difficult, even if spending on defences continues at ‘optimal’ levels over many years.  That’s not my assessment, but that of the Government’s own advisors in the 2015 Progress Report to Parliament from the Committee on Climate Change.

The Committee warns that current policy is inadequate to address the 100,000s of properties projected to face high levels of flood risk in future. New development will make matters worse and increased urban infill and impermeable surfaces are likely to bring more surface water flood risk, the report says.

The Committee is clear that the changes made to the planning system in April to encourage SuDS in new development in England “fail to address the fundamental barriers to the uptake of SuDS highlighted in the Pitt Review”. Failure to remove a developer’s automatic right to connect to the public sewers leaves a significant barrier in the way of progress.

Adequate measures to support ownership and maintenance of SuDS schemes have still not been fully addressed with arrangements decided on a case by case basis – leaving the danger that plans could be shelved if no agreement is reached.

It really should be possible to predict and monitor how all SuDS components will control water quality and quantity over their lifetime and set out clear schedules to maintain that performance. This is the only way to be sure that owners, public or private, will commit to looking after them. Engineered solutions can play a huge role in this – working alongside above-ground features where appropriate – because they provide a maintenance framework from the manufacturer.

In particular, it must be accepted in policy making that effective surface water management will never be achieved simply by regulating new development. There has to be much more focus on retrofitting to attenuate stormwater flows above ground and in public sewers, as well as ensuring polluted runoff is effectively treated. As recognised in the Committee’s recommendations, the role of the Water Companies is essential in delivering this.

Overcoming the continuing barriers demands a focus on implementing SuDS that are pragmatic, deliverable, and whose performance can be predicted and managed in the long term. The recommendations of the Government’s own advisors should not be ignored. We must continue to fight the battles and win the war for effective surface water flood risk policy and practice.

Read the full Report: Reducing emissions and preparing for climate change: 2015 Progress Report to Parliament
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This Government is busily dismantling all safeguards on environment and is in thrall to the so-called ‘home’ builders federation [what an irony: ‘Homes’ at risk of flooding, rather than ‘houses’ built to a decent standard]. This is also illustrated by the removal of carbon targets on housebuilders. So SuDS are not the only frontier with the demise of the Code for Sustainable Homes. The NPPFs puerile aspiration to allow development that is obviously sustainable is also pathetic. I don’t know what a sustainable development is; although I know what a non-sustainable one is! It’s the current generation of ‘homes’ being built.

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