26 Jun 2012
With one voice, a cry for ‘clarity, clarity, clarity’ has gone out to Government in response to the National SuDS Standards consultation. There are strong indications that both local government and industry believe the standards, as they currently stand, are not yet fit for purpose.
The devil is definitely in the detail as far as the new standards are concerned: The problem is – no-one is quite sure what the detail is. Many are worried that a dilution of the original principles has crept in, introducing exemptions in a number of areas which could undermine the whole intent.
What’s more, just when everyone should be gearing up for an October 2012 start, everything seems to have gone quiet at Defra. No doubt, the responses will have given the Government much food for thought.
So here’s my best guess at the top seven big questions on Defra’s ‘to do’ list.
1. What Will the Guidelines Contain?
The Government has promised detailed Guidelines to accompany the National Standards. There’s little doubt that the Standards in their current form are insufficient without them. As the Local Government Association (LGA) attests, the standards are more ‘a set of guiding principles’ than a ‘national standard or specification’. Many agree the guidelines would need to have been written, scrutinised and agreed by industry before the new SuDS approval system begins. To be effective, the guidance needs to be binding, not just advisory.
2. When will the new regulations commence?
Local Authorities have requested at least 6 months’ notice before commencement. This already takes us beyond October. One leading local authority respondent, the Cambridgeshire Flood Risk Management Partnership claims a 1st October start is “unrealistic” and “unlikely to be achievable” for many councils to build skills and capacity. It seems April 2013 is looking ever more likely – a route favoured by myself.
True, some local authorities are well advanced in their preparations and there is nothing to stop them and forward-looking developers from adhering to SuDs principles in the meantime – providing there is clarity on adoption of any SuDS features developed during the interim phases.
3. What will the Transitional arrangements be?
The Government’s suggestion of a phased implementation in which only developments over 10 dwellings will be required to have SuDS approval for the first 3 years has drawn mixed views. Phasing would allow lessons to be learned on larger schemes by developers and local authorities alike, but some feel this could water down and delay the national take-up of SuDS significantly, as many smaller developers are precisely those that require more guidance and support. One option would be for SABs to be able to sub-contract the necessary expertise from industry, where the skills already exist.
4. What does ‘affordable’ mean?
Affordability is the most hotly debated issue of all: The Government’s statement that “Drainage for surface runoff should be sustainable and affordable to build and maintain” may seem easy to agree with at first glance. But how will affordability be tested in practice?
Developers welcome the addition of an affordability test as part of the guidelines. But there are major disagreements on what affordability means: For developers it means that the cost of constructing SuDS should not outweigh the benefits, protecting them from unnecessary costs. But focusing on capital costs alone is not comparing like with like, and some fear affordability will be used as a ‘get out’ clause. Many argue that affordability should consider the holistic, whole-life benefits of a SuDS scheme. The multi-benefits of SuDs, such as amenity and biodiversity, could also be monetised in some way.
Incidentally, there is a strong argument that SuDS are cheaper or comparable to conventional systems, in any case. And what exactly is meant by conventional, by the way?
5. What does Reasonably Practicable Mean?
The term ‘reasonably practicable’ is used 15 times in the proposed standards. In a dispute between a developer and a SAB – who decides what that means exactly? Will the guidance be sufficient, or will it be left to lawyers to argue?
6. Where does the LA’s responsibility to adopt end, and the Water Company’s begin?
There appear to be some significant potential differences of interpretation of the definition of “sustainable drainage system” as “those parts of a drainage system not vested in a sewerage undertaker”. Respondents have demanded more clarity in terms of which parts of the drainage system will be adopted by the SAB and which part by the Water Company. The forthcoming publication of Sewers for Adoption 7th edition may be able to provide more guidance.
7. Why Exempt Single Properties from SuDS Approval?
The proposal that SuDS Approval and subsequent Local Authority adoption should only be required for drainage systems serving more property is a cause of inconsistency, if not confusion. Why should a large commercial scheme, such as a supermarket for example, not go through the SAB process? What about residential buildings in multiple occupation? Unadopted SuDS on these developments would have to be maintained by the tenants or building owners.
Runoff from large single properties could have significant impact on surface water drainage in the area. What recourse would the water company have in such circumstances? Surely a ruling based on minimum area of land would be more reasonable?
I must stress that there is overwhelming support for the Government in implementing the Flood and Water Management Act, and for the principles embodied in Schedule 3, which seeks to implement the National Standards.
Getting things right from the outset is so important, because failure will lead to a patchy and inconsistent implementation of SuDS across England and Wales. It’s been five years since widespread flooding in England set us on the road to radical changes in surface water management. We must neither falter, nor delay any further.