Is English SuDS Policy Working?

Written By: Market Development Director, Hydro International.

SuDS on a housing estate

Do we really need another review of SuDS policy? We’ve had plenty already and, going right back to the recommendations of the Pitt Review, the case for SuDS is well proven; they are cost effective, practical, multi-functional and bring biodiversity and amenity.

However, this statutory SuDS review will be different: the UK Government will investigate whether or not its own policy for including SuDS in new developments in England has been effective so far.

So, this review is welcome – providing it ‘does what it says on the tin’ and gets to the bottom of whether or not the English way of doing things will ensure widespread SuDS implementation, and whether or not it does enough to satisfy the large body of expert opinion that believes the policy is ’toothless’.

Bear in mind that the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments have all introduced different, and many would argue, more robust regulations and technical guidance.

Drama in Westminster

The Government conceded to the review after a dramatic intervention at Westminster during the progress of the Housing and Planning Act 2016, which received Royal Assent on 12 May. Widely supported by professional bodies – including CIWEM and the ICE, as well as by many environmental groups – an amendment was proposed that would have removed the automatic right for a developer to connect to the public sewer.

The consequence would have been to compel all new developments to include SuDS. (The current policy applies only to major developments of over 10 properties or equivalent, and still allows an opt-out if SuDS are considered inappropriate or unviable for the site.)

Although the amendment was ultimately doomed to fail, the Government conceded: “to carry out a review of government planning policy and local planning policies concerning sustainable drainage in relation to the development of land in England.”

The counter-move was led in the House of Lords by the Liberal Democrat Peer Baroness Kate Parminter, and went through several dramatic stages. In a Lords debate on 25 April, Baroness Parminter said: “the evidence we have is that the system is not working.” She told the Lords: “The Government are not putting in place any comprehensive monitoring, such as how often SuDS are included or not included in new developments, or how often viability is cited by developers as a reason for not including them.”


During the same debate the cross-bench peer Lord John Krebs referred to a survey carried out by the Adaptation sub-committee of the Committee on Climate Change, of which he is chair:

“We surveyed about 100 planning applications in flood-prone areas and found that only 15% of them had installed SuDS. Barratt Homes has subsequently reported that in 2014-15, a third of its developments contained no SuDS provision. At the moment the policy is simply not being taken up in the way it should be. Moreover, when SuDS are installed, it is not clear who is responsible for maintaining them.”

Time to bed in?

However, the Government argued that the English planning policy on SuDS, which began in April 2015, has not had enough time to bed in. While there was no firm commitment on the scope, or timing of the review, calls for it to be robust, timely and evidence-based were acknowledged.

So, is English SuDS policy working?

It’s vital to find out and to ensure hard evidence is gathered. That’s why Engineering Nature’s Way’s own SuDS the State of the Nation 2016 Survey included a question that asked respondents to share their experiences of any planning refusals on the grounds of SuDS.

SuDS Incentive

Lady Parminter and her fellow peers argued that unless the automatic right to connect to the sewer is ended, there is ‘no real incentive’ for developers to include SuDS. But, the Government dismissed the proposal as “unnecessary and impractical”.

Terry Fuller, Chief Executive of CIWEM, said in a press statement: “It is absurd that in the current age we still allow developers to build homes and automatically connect to the sewer system, without any consideration of the impact of doing so.”

But Housing Minister Brandon Lewis made it clear in the Commons on 3rd May that the Government would not agree to proposals that would “increase burdens on housebuilders…be unworkable for those building new homes and…effectively slow the pace at which they can deliver them.”

The episode has, in reality, changed nothing for the engineers and planners working to implement SuDS best practice in England. Whatever the politics of the “ping-pong” debate, the sheer strength of professional and expert opinion coming down in favour of greater regulation in SuDS is undeniable.  Equally, the depth of feeling around the need to ensure new house building does not increase flood risk was clearly heard.

Stay True to Principles

In the battle for greater implementation, it’s important not to throw the proverbial SuDS baby out with the bathwater. We must stick true to the principles that selecting SuDS components from a full toolbox can create a management train that includes both ‘natural’ features and manufactured devices. This way, we can achieve the sustainable outcomes we all desire, have clear maintenance schedules and prevent further overloading of the sewer network.

Wherever you are in the devolved regions of the UK, you won’t go far wrong by following CIRIA 753 The SuDS Manual, as a source of reliable best practice design guidance.

For more details of the debates during progress of the Housing and Planning Act visit:


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