New SuDS Regulations – Where Now for SuDS?

Written By: Market Development Director, Hydro International.

Swale with manhole in foreground

A brave new world for SuDS began when new planning regulations came into force last month, designed to ensure, where possible, that Sustainable Drainage Systems are used on major new developments in England.

With a much-needed push for new homes underway, it ought to be a relief that more than 10 years of wrangling over legislation to make SuDS compulsory is over.  But with publication of just two pages of technical standards, the rules are a mere shadow of what many had hoped for – with some going so far as to call them ‘pathetic’.

In his ministerial statement in December, Eric Pickles laid out a new regime for SuDS.  Then, the publication of 14 non-statutory technical standards to guide planning authorities, designers and developers, replaced the much more detailed and prescriptive regulations drafted but never enacted as a part of the Flood and Water Management Act.  After years of industry debate and consultation, the substantial and detailed draft National Standards have been cut to just two pages.

The non-statutory technical standards essentially see English regulations back to ‘square one’ – not much different to the original PPS25 guidance that preceded even the recommendations of the Pitt Review – although tweaked to account for climate change.

In fact, the new non-statutory technical standards contain little in themselves to make them specifically recognisable as standards for SuDS – reflecting principles of quality, quantity, amenity and biodiversity.

The standards are concerned with outcomes, rather than practice, and any specific reference to water quality objectives have been removed. Treatment of runoff is, at best, only implied. Water quality will continue to be protected via Environment Agency consultation on planning applications. Local authorities will be driven by their regional catchment plans to meet Water Framework Directive targets for the ‘good status’ of rivers.

In his statement, the Minister sets out an expectation that developers should demonstrate clear and affordable arrangements for maintenance of SuDS over the lifetime of a development. But there is no mention of this within the technical standards themselves.

The Welsh Assembly looks set to stick with its version of the much more prescriptive approach established via the proposed Schedule 3 of the Flood and Water Management Act (FMWA). With Scotland already having its own legislation, we are looking at a devolved regulatory framework for SuDS.  The original intention of the FMWA to harmonise National Standards seems all-but forgotten.

With the lack of Government guidance, local authorities are also likely to develop their own regional approaches to SuDS design and construction.  Developments crossing over regional or county borders could have to contend with more than one set of rules. Along its length, one river will be discharged into according to different local authority policies and national regulations.

SuDS Best Practice

So will uncertainty and fragmentation in SuDS delivery continue? What does best practice for SuDS look like – and where can designers and developers go to find it?  One harmonising factor is likely to be the revised SuDS Manual from CIRIA, expected to be published later this year, providing an updated ‘bible’ for the use of a full toolbox of SuDS components.

The English standards are only enforceable for housing developments of ten homes or more – the equivalent commercial or mixed development.  They apply only to new development, and not to highways construction and maintenance. It looks unlikely that there will be regulatory support in the near future specifically to drive retrofitting of sustainable surface water drainage in urban environments.

Highways England has its own standards to ensure runoff is controlled and treated to protect the environment around trunk roads and motorways. Their work, perhaps, provides the most encouraging glimpse of a brighter future for sustainable approaches to surface water drainage.

Highways England has shown great commitment to combating pollution through its own guidance and has embedded robust water quality research into its HAWRAT risk management tool for designers. This more scientific understanding of water pollution management sets a more evidence-based approach to delivering repeatable, maintainable through-life performance and guaranteeing that pollution is avoided.

Designers and Highways Authorities are doing some great work to trial and develop innovative technology to treat water quality often in challenging locations where there is limited space, for example in the M25 widening projects, where hydrodynamic vortex separation is providing reliable, maintainable surface water treatment in a small footprint.  Proprietary devices such as Hydro’s Downstream Defender® are being used as stand-alone solutions or together with natural SuDS components, for example protecting the sediment forebay of a pond.

It seems the arguments about SuDS and what defines them, and what constitutes best practice will continue for some time to come.  We hope that resources like Engineering Nature’s Way can continue to play a part in supporting the industry.

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