Sustainable drainage hit by late changes to bill

A last-minute removal of stricter sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) rules from the Housing & Planning Bill has disappointed experts in water- sensitive urban design.

Sustainable drainage: multiple benefits and clear goals - image: Sue Illman
Sustainable drainage: multiple benefits and clear goals - image: Sue Illman

The requirement for SuDS to be included in all new developments was one of several amendments deleted from the final version of the bill, which gained Royal Assent on 12 May.

The House of Lords introduced several changes to the text including the removal of the automatic right to connect to existing drainage systems. All new developments, large and small, would instead need to use sustainable drainage measures such as green roofs, swales or ponds to allow water to drain away.

The amendment was intended to help protect homeowners from flooding and improve amenity and biodiversity benefits to communities. But it was withdrawn following a Government pledge to carry out a review of existing planning policy related to sustainable drainage.

Opponents of the amendment in the House of Commons said it was unnecessary and impractical, and would impede the Government's plans to deliver one million new homes by 2020. They also argued that the Government already strengthened SuDS-related planning regulations in April last year. The review, which will take place by April 2017, will look at whether those regulations have been effective.

Baroness Parminter, who originally put forward the amendment, said she is "disappointed" it has not passed and expects the review of flood policy will "demonstrate all too clearly that ... SuDS are not being delivered".

Construction industry group CIRIA, which produces the SUDS handbook, would have liked the amendment to pass to give SuDS regulations "stronger teeth", said CIRIA associate Paul Shaffer. "It would have been great to remove the automatic right to connect, as a way of making sure the consideration of SuDS is a bit more robust than at the moment. So it is a bit disappointing. It's not where we would like it to be.

"We would really like the review to be quick and robust, and to think not only about the flood-risk elements but about other opportunities to improve water quality and provide better places and spaces. The review needs to be looking at the strength of local policy that's in there and the performance and quality of schemes that are coming through."

Pick up of SuDS is still very patchy, he added. "The two-tier interaction between county councils and local planning authorities is really convoluted to make sure planners have got their heads around it. I do think London might be different - some local authorities are doing really good work while others are struggling."

The idea that SuDS could stop the Government achieving its 2020 targets is "nonsense", according to Green Roof Consultancy director Gary Grant. "It's not SuDS holding up housing - it's issues like costs of housing, affordability, planning," he said. "The reality is that the world is changing, flooding is likely to become more severe and frequent, and engineers and sensible people know this is just what you have to do."

Grant pointed out that while politicians are dragging their feet, many practitioners and councils are "just getting on with it" - including many developers who previously lobbied against being forced to use SuDS. "I am optimistic that eventually there will be a change of culture but I would still welcome a much more robust legal framework to make these things everyday," he added.

Bicester Ecotown and North West Cambridge are major developments that are heavy on SuDS use, and both Wales and Scotland are miles ahead of England thanks to implementing their own measures, said Grant.

Alister Scott, professor of environment and spatial planning at Birmingham City University, accused the Government of "short-term myopia". The presumption that SuDS would eat into housing profits and slow building is not based on hard evidence, but using a parliamentary inquiry to delay or obfuscate something is "a great delaying tactic" for Governments, he added.

"The amendment was important in helping to secure some environmental viability into housing schemes, which is conspicuously absent. However, ever since the (National Planning Policy Framework) issues of viability - namely economic developer-led viability - has led to a squeeze on anything that might hinder profitability. Thus zero-carbon homes, green infrastructure and affordable housing targets all have suffered and been made largely impotent," he added.

"The trouble is that SuDS are seen as a bolt-on rather than integral to the scheme. This helps fuel the idea that they are optional extras. Retrofitting will be very expensive. SuDS schemes have multiple benefits, which can help with use as open space for recreation and biodiversity. There are clear goals to meet from climate change legislation that the Government have continually sought to prevaricate and delay.

"We have to put in place adaptive measures to look at what works and what doesn't. I am not saying mistakes have not been made in use of SuDS, but that does not stop SuDS being required with planning consents for housing and development."

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