Landscape sector aims to break drainage deadlock

New measures put forward as landscape experts lament stalled implementation of the Flood & Water Management Act.

Sustainable urban drainage: landscape elements designed to help water flow into permeable ground - image: TCPA
Sustainable urban drainage: landscape elements designed to help water flow into permeable ground - image: TCPA

Local authorities may be able to charge the owners of new homes for urban drainage measures such as ponds and swales. This is one option being looked at that could break a four-year deadlock on who should pick up the bill for sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS) built into new housing developments to lessen flood risk.

Recent floods have made action imperative, argue many in the landscape sector, led by the Landscape Institute. Sewers cannot cope while Government "appears paralysed" when it comes to fully implementing the Flood & Water Management Act, the institute insists.

The act forces builders to include landscape elements in their developments so that water from roofs, patios and drives flows into open, permeable ground instead of conventional drainage systems that struggle to cope with weather extremes.

Policy block

But up to now policy has been stymied because of spending cuts and regular staff reshuffling at Defra. Meanwhile, ministers and experts have been unable to agree on issues around sustainable urban drainage.

Builders maintain that blending in ponds and grassy flood-catchment areas will swallow up valuable land and push up costs. Councils say it is fair to bill owners of new homes because those who own existing houses have to pay for their run-off water to be treated in the sewage system by water firms.

Construction Industry Research & Information Association associate Paul Shaffer says there are more benefits to capturing water on the surface - it is simpler and easier to maintain while plants break down pollutants naturally. This in turn throws up opportunities for the landscape sector.

"It raises the game on drainage. To have a good system, builders will have to employ landscape architects and civil engineers. SUDS aren't necessarily more difficult but they need a different mindset and more thought on natural levels and solutions, something the landscape sector can deliver."

This hits a chord with an increasingly impatient Landscape Institute president Sue Illman, who is calling for an end to the "paralysis" on fully implementing the Flood & Water Management Act. The recent flooding across the country has once again exposed the UK's lack of resilience, she points out.

"We have the means to better protect ourselves against flooding with the introduction of wetlands, reed beds, drainage channels and porous driveways," says Illman. She argues that SUDS are cost-effective and could also contribute to stimulating growth.

"Yet developers and housebuilders are against this modest investment for new development, which is the tip of the iceberg. Unless we start a comprehensive programme of retrofitting SUDS alongside larger-scale catchment management programmes, problems will continue to get worse."

Landscape consultant Peter Neal agrees. "With major flooding across the UK this is a timely part of a much wider debate on how to collectively fund and maintain the smart green infrastructure that communities will increasingly need in the future," he says.

"Everyone can benefit from adopting more sustainable approaches to drainage and therefore everyone - developers, utility companies, homeowners, local and county councils and the Environment Agency - should contribute in different ways.

"It doesn't seem fair that homeowners are left to foot the bill unless they can benefit from some form of green infrastructure discount on their council taxes and water rates in return."

Sustainable Water Industry Group chair Neal Landsberg echoes Illman: "Progress has been frustratingly slow but resistance is futile because the legislation is in place, as are the technologies. A key issue here is around pockets of ignorance on what can be done."

He continues: "Some limited growth has been seen by landscape architects and sustainable water management installers who can help in ways developers may not have considered. But the builders and developers need to engage with them more."

Sharpen up

Builders and developers could sharpen up in other areas, says landscape architect Janine Pattison. "They are concerned about the impact on potential purchasers of their properties if they come with an obligation to cover the maintenance costs of the drainage.

"If they accepted above-ground options such as rain gardens the costs could be spread over time rather than waiting for the drains to fail and then incur a large cost."

A Defra spokeswoman says: "Reducing the impacts of flooding on houses and businesses is a key priority for us and we are committed to introducing sustainable drainage systems to help reduce the risk of floods from new developments.

"SUDS are usually cheaper to maintain than conventional drainage and we will be consulting soon on how they will be maintained by local authorities."

Deansfield High School - Design incorporates sustainable features

Capita has been appointed by Carillion to provide landscape and architecture for Deansfield High School in Wolverhampton.

The design for the complex for 800 secondary-school children is a bold, contemporary, three-storey brick, striated render and concrete blockwork building.

However, it is the external environment that will catch the eye - and water. The school, set in the heart of an economically deprived area, will boast excellent sporting facilities and a large pedestrianised boulevard.

The heart of the landscape design will be a sustainable drainage pond and a species-diverse meadow environment for its entrance approach. The design development paid high regard not just to end users but also to the elements.

Building information modelling (BIM) technology has been used to model the school throughout the design-development process, including water issues. The school is scheduled to open in September 2015, with external works due to be completed in April 2016.

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