With a housing white paper, two Westminster sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) reviews, an active National Infrastructure Commission and Committee for Climate Change, a Communities & Local Government Committee parks inquiry and a forthcoming 25-year environmental plan, there is currently plenty of activity around housebuilding, planning, the environment and landscape in the corridors of power. This makes it the perfect time to lobby on the seemingly neglected issue of SuDS, according to experts.
Earlier this month the Chartered Institution of Water & Environmental Management (CIWEM) and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) published their report, A Place for SuDS, to coincide with a Government review of SuDS policy. The report and recommendations (see box, p6) are backed by 18 organisations including The Landscape Institute, Susdrain, the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Institution of Environmental Science, all of whom believe "significantly greater effort should be invested in delivering sustainable drainage and green infrastructure both in new and existing developments than is currently the case".
Based on CIWEM's Big SuDS Survey last year and consultation with a range of experts, the report found no evidence to back up oft-repeated concerns about SuDS adoption. These are primarily that it would cause delays to construction and would cost more - neither need to be the case with well-designed SuDS, the report states. Meanwhile, some four million properties are already at risk of surface water flooding in the UK and up to £1bn of flood damage is incurred every year.
"The urgent need to deal with the housing shortage must also be linked with the connected crises of flood risk, water scarcity, water quality, public health and well-being and biodiversity loss," the report points out. "It is vital that in building new homes we do not build more risk. We must build, but build well."
Liberal Democrat Lords spokesperson for environment, food and rural affairs Baroness Parminter is due to present the report to DCLG minister Lord Bourne on Monday (20 February) and petition for a decisive SuDS policy from Government.
"I'm quietly confident," says report co-author and CIWEM policy adviser Laura Grant. "I think there's a lot of support for this. It's common sense and it's what everyone's calling for," she adds. "The biggest block is the adoption and maintenance issue. What our findings show is that it doesn't need to cost a lot of money, it's just the bureaucracy of solving who would do the adoption. You just need a management plan in place."
Former Landscape Institute president Sue Illman says the current Defra/DCLG review is too narrow, focusing on a "deep diver" approach to SuDS policy in around 12 local authorities. "It will be interesting to see what does come out of that. I think that those involved feel that it does need to be much more comprehensive. I'm not surprised by the survey. It seemed to me that the role of lead local flood authorities in particular is something that needs to be looked at more closely because they offer the key to delivery."
She points out that the Committee for Climate Change outlines that 70% of the high-profile risks from climate change involve water in one form or another. "It's a hot topic. We've got two committees. The Committee for Climate Change has a legal obligation because of the Climate Change Act, the Government needs to have an adaptation plan in place, and the National Infrastructure Commission under Lord Adonis which is tasked with setting out a strategy and holding the Government to task on its delivery."
Another sticking point has been who would look after SuDS after construction, with local authorities already struggling under the yoke of austerity and property developers not keen to get embroiled in establishing maintenance trusts or charging buyers levies. Grant says: "There's a lot of argument that we don't want to put an unnecessary burden on developers. There are ways round it."
Among water firms there is "general agreement that improving the management of surface water flows" will be increasingly important as we deal with climate change and urban creep, according to Yorkshire Water drainage strategy manager Brian C Smith. He says the future requires more integration and a change in how the industry operates.
Water companies are responsible for flows in the sewerage system but "storm water is an uncontrolled demand on our sewer systems and the dominant cause of hydraulic incapacity in the sewer network", affecting water companies' ability to comply with environmental and regulatory obligations. Water UK is currently surveying its members on the issue. A spokesman says: "Our members were invited to contribute to CIWEM's report and some took this opportunity. We and our members broadly agree with the outcomes of CIWEM's work. Water UK continues to actively investigate the extent to which water companies can adopt SuDS themselves."
Schedule 3 of the Flood & Water Management Act 2010, which required the creation of SuDS approving bodies (SABs) in the planning system, was dropped by the Government because of a perceived bureaucratic burden on future development. But it has received a better reaction outside England. Northern Ireland has ended the automatic right for new development to connect to the sewer system and Scotland has had SuDS as a general requirement since 2006. Now the Welsh Assembly is planning to consult on whether to implement schedule 3 and create SABs.
Illman remains optimistic. "There will come a point where we need action. The Climate Change Committee and the National Infrastructure Commission understand how water management can affect infrastructure and the whole economics of the country. Maybe that will be enough to tip the balance. This is the future of the country, which is why we need to get it changed now. We don't need to be building problems for the future."
For tree consultant Jeremy Barrell a trip to Lyon in France with the Trees & Design Action Group showed how things can be done. The city has a policy of not piping any water off site for all new developments, leading to SuDS and more tree planting, giving a host of added benefits. "This is a holistic way of looking at it that nobody over here has worked out yet," he says. "It's a shame the Government have ducked it continually. As soon as you sort out SuDS on your site, you don't have to pay for the water to be carted off by the sewage system, which is overloaded."
Report - Key recommendations
- Discharge of surface water to sewer system should be conditional on inclusion of high-quality SuDS in new developments.
- Clear decision on adoption and allocation of SuDS maintenance responsibilities, including fundraising for ongoing maintenance and future replacement.
- New standards aimed at optimising amenity, biodiversity and water quality benefits as well as reducing flood risk.
- Government should undertake follow-up review of barriers to retrofitting SuDS in existing developments and make proposals on how to incentivise retrofitting.