Solving the Puzzle of SuDS Ownership

Written By:

Surface Water Swale

Who is best placed to own Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) in the UK? Until we put this enduringly thorny problem to bed, will we ever be able to settle on effective and workable regulations?

Maintenance, and who should manage and pay for it, has often been something of an afterthought in our enthusiasm to make SuDS design in new and retrofit development an everyday reality.

Yet, a cycle of reviews, consultations, stalled legislation and technical guidance has left SuDS delivery – especially in England – in a constant state of flux. We also have an increasingly fragmented and regional approach to SuDS design and delivery.

Now the Government is committed to a new SuDS review.

In 2008 the Pitt Review clearly identified that action was needed to clarify who should own and maintain SuDS. Based on its recommendations, the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 laid out an approach that would have seen all SuDS in new development in England and Wales being adopted and maintained by the Lead Local Flood Authority.

Regulating SuDS in new development through the planning system instead has slashed through red tape, but with non-statutory technical guidance reduced to a bare minimum, many believe adoption and maintenance have still not been properly addressed. Under the current system a variety of organisations could own and maintain SuDS, as ably outlined in a helpful Susdrain Fact Sheet produced by Robin Campbell at Arup.

Now the Government have committed to review how effectively the approach is working. Could it be that, by clarifying, once and for all, the question of ownership, we could lay all this perpetual policymaking to rest? So who should adopt, own and maintain SuDS in future?

Local Authorities? The now established Lead Local Flood Authorities may have the required expertise, but could they always guarantee the levels of funding and the ground staff needed to inspect SuDS, plan and carry out maintenance? Would Local Authority maintenance teams be sufficiently qualified to maintain complex drainage systems?

Or, should Water and Sewerage Companies adopt and maintain all SuDS? In principle, they are already set up to manage conventional drainage and sewerage assets – are SuDS really so different? However, do they currently have either the experience and the appetite to take over the responsibility for quality construction and maintenance of SuDS components? As private companies, owned by shareholders and controlled by a regulator principally tasked with keeping down customer charges, would water companies prioritise the use of sustainable surface water assets that might be perceived as more costly for them to maintain?

Or, should ownership be left to the most appropriate organisation? It could fall to the local authority, Water Company or Internal Drainage Board. Equally a developer, private land owner, a group of residents, or individual property owners can own and maintain the asset. In some cases the costs of maintenance may be passed on to the occupier in the form of service charges.

This is the fragmented arrangement that exists in England at the moment. One advantage of this approach is it offers flexibility to arrange expert maintenance, either through the owner’s direct service organisation or sub-contracted via a specialist maintenance company.

It’s very early to tell how the arrangements for SuDS delivery in England, only established in April 2015, are affecting long-term maintenance, but there are some signs that more work in this area is needed. For example, the Upton Meadows housing development is much celebrated as a showcase of forward-thinking SuDS design and community involvement. However it was recently reported that residents reacted angrily to a plan by the new landowner to make a £200 annual charge for maintenance of the SuDS features on the scheme. The story shows, at the very least, a lack of understanding in the requirements and arrangements for SuDS maintenance of a scheme which was not adopted by the local authority. This might be avoided if ownership was instead, for instance, always the responsibility of one authority.

I don’t have the answer – and perhaps there simply is not a straightforward solution. It may take many experts to come to a conclusion. For sure, a lack of clarity about who is responsible for maintenance, and fears about how specialist features can be properly maintained in perpetuity could lead to SuDS features being neglected or orphaned, a problem also highlighted by experiences in Scotland. Without making SuDS compulsory on all new development, there could therefore always be some level of reluctance to include them.

The guiding principle for maintenance arrangements should be ensuring they are sufficiently robust to ensure the effective whole-life performance of SuDS. For this to happen, an approach based on proper science and engineering is required so that SuDS schemes can be inspected appropriately and demonstrated to operate as designed.

For proprietary or mixed SuDS schemes, maintenance and service schedules can be easily established according to the local site conditions. At Hydro International, we are beginning to incorporate new arrangements into our product purchase to make it easier for owners and operators of SuDS to understand the required maintenance of a highly efficient device, and plan for regular servicing.

As long as a question mark remains over ensuring maintenance and adoption, I believe it will be difficult to put a lid on the delay and uncertainty that seems to have dogged the implementation of SuDS for so long. The Government’s review into the effectiveness of SuDS policy in England simply has to get to the bottom of the ownership problem.

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