CPRE report examines the current state of house building in England

Large house-builders prioritise land acquisition rather than house building, says CPRE

July 28th 2015

The CPRE (Campaign to Protect Rural England) has published a report that looks at the present state of house building in England and asks the question, Why is the delivery of new housing at the current low level? This is the fourth report in the CPRE’s ‘Housing Foresight’ series, which is intended to stimulate debate on future housing policy.

There is a widely-held view that the key reason for low levels of house building is constraints on the supply of land. However, the report looks at the evidence and concludes that this is not the case. It is rather a combination of factors that have led to the current low levels of housing supply, the report says: specifically, national planning policy, constraints on the role of local planning authorities, and the business strategies employed by the large house-builders.

The report says that the vast majority of house building in England is undertaken by a small number of large-volume house builders, which has an impact on the stability and effectiveness of housing delivery. The small number of private sector companies who dominate the house building sector target greenfield land for development as a way of reducing risk and generating higher levels of returns for their shareholders, the report says. Analysis shows that only 8% of all planning permissions between 2007 and 2013 were granted to schemes of fewer than 10 units, despite the widespread availability of small brownfield sites in urban areas.

The report points to an assumption that making large greenfield sites available for development will increase the likelihood of housing being delivered. However, recent research by the Local Government Association found that more than 400,000 housing units with planning permission have not yet been built. It also found that the average time taken for a private sector development to go from obtaining planning permission to completion has lengthened from 20 months in 2007/08 to 28 months in 2012/13. These statistics, says the CPRE, strongly suggest that the strategies of the large-volume house builders are impacting upon the supply levels of housing.

Land Acquisition

The CPRE refers to a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), which argues for a reform of the building sector to meet the UK’s housing challenge. The IPPR says that the business strategies of the large house-builders are driven by the acquisition of land rather than the output of housing. Land granted planning permission for housing automatically becomes much more valuable than land without, and its value increases in the long term with house price inflation. The CPRE says that the nine largest housing developers have a combined 314,000 housing plots in ‘strategic land banks.’

The CPRE says “the rationale behind holding strategic land banks is that securing land and planning permission is costly, risky and can take a number of years to obtain. It also prevents rival companies purchasing land in a certain area.” Developers are therefore motivated to purchase and hold land because it is an asset of increasing value. They are also motivated to delay development until planning permission is secured and house prices reach a level that makes its development profitable.

“It is clear,” says the CPRE, “that the process of strategic land banking can lock up sites in areas of high demand and not enable other house builders to access suitable building land, potentially excluding other housing constructors from gaining access to suitable building land (e.g. housing associations, small builders, or even local authorities) who might be prepared to build more quickly.”

A report by the Office of Fair Trading has also pointed to the need to obtain land as the driver of the key corporate decisions made by the large house-builders. As well as acquiring land, the CPRE says the need for developers to secure maximum profits on each housing unit has also seen business strategies become focused on land trading. A report by the Royal Town Planning Institute says the focus on land transactions has meant that the house building sector has come to be characterised as much by trading land as opposed to actually building houses.

Greenfield and Brownfield

The CPRE says the preferred focus of the large house-builders has traditionally been on using greenfield land for the majority of new residential development. “These sites are seen as carrying less risk than previously developed (‘brownfield’) land as greenfield development typically requires less ‘sunk costs’ at the start of the development process for land preparation.”

Greenfield land was the default location for residential development before the 1990s, says the report. However, in the late 1990s and 2000s, major national planning policy changes prioritised brownfield land for development, and the proportion of housing built on brownfield sites rose significantly from 59% (77,143 dwellings) in 1998 to a peak of 81% (114,202 dwellings) in 2008.

The CPRE says that developers cited this prioritisation of brownfield land as a key part of the reason for low housing supply levels and urged a change to the ‘brownfield first’ policy without providing any evidence for their argument. In contrast, the report argues that increasing the supply of land allocated for housing only results in more damaging and inappropriate sites being released for residential development, whilst the completion rate (measured from the time when planning permission is granted) remains at the same slow level as before.

National Planning Policy

The CPRE says that the current planning system pressurises local authorities to allocate large greenfield sites for housing as they can make a significant contribution to meeting the five-year housing land supply targets required by national planning policy.

“It often takes more than five years to complete developments,” the report states. “In the current planning regime, this creates problems as land still to be developed on a site is removed from the estimate of the housing land supply. This increases the pressure for local authorities to grant permission for inappropriate development to comply with national planning policy.”

Recommendations: Empowering Local Authorities

The report argues that the current situation is unsustainable and that addressing it should be possible “through mechanisms which, first, prioritise suitable brownfield development, and, second, ensure that residential developments granted planning permission on greenfield land are actually completed before local authorities are required to make more greenfield land available for more housing.”

The report makes a number of recommendations to ‘get Britain building,’ many of which are focused on the role of local planning authorities and the constraints they currently face. The recommendations include:

  • Giving local authorities more power to decide on how long a planning permission should remain current. “At present, there is a default time limit of three years for a full planning permission and renewing permission is often an inexpensive process in many local authorities.”
  • Changing what constitutes the implementation of planning permission. This also needs to be examined to prevent developments remaining incomplete, says the CPRE. Many developers carry out initial groundwork and then abandon a site for a long period.
  • Giving local authorities the power to charge council tax on houses that have been awarded planning permission two years after planning permission is granted, even if development remains incomplete. Charging council tax on the completed property values of sites in this way will mean that house builders have an incentive to finish and market development, says the CPRE.
  • Reforming compulsory purchase orders to allow the acquisition of suitable land at its current use value (agricultural or industrial land values as opposed to residential). “Local authorities could then sell serviced plots to house builders, potentially accelerating completion rates because profits would be derived from the sale of properties as opposed to movements in land value.”
  • Giving local authorities the power to enforce a developer to complete a site within five years or to offer plots of land on the site to small and medium-sized builders. This would apply to large sites that have been allocated for residential development in a five-year housing land supply plan and are owned by a solitary developer.
  • Local authorities could also identify and map small publicly-owned sites in their areas and offer them to small and medium sized builders, housing associations or charitable trusts for residential development.

The report also calls for a greater transparency in land ownership and the development process. “A greater level of transparency in land ownership and land trading can enable better planning for housing, from the national to the neighbourhood level,” says the report. Research into strategic land banking and developer trading is hindered as there is no need to register these transactions, whilst land prices are hard to obtain and compare because there is no clear and accessible land ownership register. To remedy this, the CPRE argues that “it should be obligatory to register all land ownership, options agreements and sales with the land registry. To enforce this, financial penalties should apply if land is not registered after a year and, after five years, remaining unregistered land could become public property.”

The report says a greater transparency in the assessment of viability is also needed: “To minimise their costs in the process of independent assessment, developers employ companies that deliberately underestimate development values and overstate development costs to create an artificially pessimistic outcome,” says the report. The CPRE says that an ‘open book’ approach to the assessment of viability is needed to accelerate the development process.

The report, titled Getting Houses Built: How to Accelerate the Delivery of New Housing was researched and written by Luke Burroughs and is available as a PDF from the CPRE website.

Carbon capture and storage – CCSA publishes report

Carbon capture and storage is the key to developing a low-cost, low-carbon economy, says report

July 27th 2015

The Carbon Capture and Storage Association (CCSA) has published a report on the economic and strategic advantages of developing the UK’s carbon capture and storage capacity. The report states: “For over a decade, the UK has recognised the importance of commercialising carbon capture and storage in order to promote UK growth, deliver secure energy, and drive ambitious action on climate change.”

The previous government launched a competition for carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects in 2011, which resulted in two preferred bidders given the go-ahead for their projects. The Peterhead CCS Project is being developed by Shell and the Scottish energy company SSE, who say this will be the world’s first full-scale gas carbon capture and storage project: “Up to ten million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions could be captured from the Peterhead Power Station and transported by pipeline offshore for long-term storage deep under the North Sea.” BBC News reports that a planning application for the onshore elements of a CCS plant at Peterhead was approved by Aberdeenshire Council last month, and Shell and SSE are looking for government funding to develop a commercial scheme. [1]

The White Rose CCS Project is being developed by a consortium comprising Alstom, Drax and BOC. The partners say the aim is to develop a state of the art coal-fired power plant equipped with full carbon capture and storage technology which will also have the potential to co-fire biomass. The standalone power plant is located at the site of the existing Drax Power Station near Selby, North Yorkshire. The project is intended to prove CCS technology at a commercial scale and to demonstrate CCS both as a competitive form of low-carbon power generation and also as an important technology in tackling climate change. The plant will generate electricity for export to the electricity transmission network as well as capturing approximately two million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, some 90% of all carbon dioxide emissions produced by the plant. The gas will be transported through the National Grid’s proposed Humber pipeline for permanent undersea storage in the North Sea.

In its report, the Carbon Capture and Storage Association (CCSA) says that the two projects are making good progress on their engineering studies and permitting activities, and that the competition remains on track to enable final investment decisions to be made by early 2016. The CCSA also says: “It is hard to overstate how important the successful conclusion of the current competition is to the future of CCS in the UK. Failure to deliver two competition projects will seriously hinder the development of CCS in the UK, setting the industry back by a decade or more. The projects provide the foundations upon which the future CCS industry will be built, establishing essential infrastructure that can be utilised by Phase 2 projects.”

The previous government allocated £1 billion of capital funding for CCS in the 2010 spending review, and the CCSA says that to date around £100 million of this allocation has been spent on engineering studies and permitting of the two projects in the competition. It is calling on the present government to ensure that the remaining funds are retained for the CCS competition and allocated appropriately, so that construction work on the two projects can go ahead.

The economic and strategic case for developing the UK’s CCS capacity

The UK’s future low-carbon electricity is expected to be supplied by a diverse mix of technologies including offshore wind, solar, nuclear and fossil fuel power plants with CCS, and the CCSA report says that, compared with the other low-carbon technologies, CCS has not yet received the commensurate investment to enable costs to come down. However, the report presents evidence from the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) to show that CCS has the most dramatic impact on the costs of achieving a low-carbon economy, with the potential to rapidly become cost-competitive with the other low-carbon technologies. The ETI analysis “has provided new insights on the contribution that CCS can make to two of the UK’s energy policy priorities: the delivery of cost-competitive, low-carbon technologies and achievement of the UK’s legally binding carbon dioxide reduction objectives.”

In addition to the economic benefits, the report says that the development of CCS can help to maintain the future competitiveness of UK industry, such as steel, cement and chemicals, as it is the only technology available to de-carbonise these essential sectors.

The CCSA argues that, to deliver these economic benefits, there should be a progressive roll-out of CCS so that by 2030 the UK has in the region of 10GW of power stations fitted with CCS technology: “Delivering this scale of CCS deployment by 2030 will benefit the UK’s broader strategic objectives of reducing carbon dioxide emissions at least cost, ensuring a secure energy system and stimulating investment in new jobs and businesses… Deploying CCS, alongside renewables and nuclear, could deliver electricity prices around 15% lower in 2030 than de-carbonising without CCS.”

“Critical stage”

In making the case for developing CCS, the report states that the UK has a tremendous advantage of well understood geology for carbon dioxide storage close to large concentrations of carbon dioxide emissions. Also, the UK has one of the most advanced policy and regulatory frameworks in the world to support CCS. However, the report points out that we are now at a critical stage in the development of CCS as decisions made by the present government “will determine whether the UK is able to secure its goal of delivering a cost-competitive CCS industry in the 2020s and will be key to enabling the UK to deploy CCS on a large scale.”

The report identifies three key steps that will retain the momentum of the first projects and are essential if the potential benefits of CCS are to be realised. The first, as mentioned above, is to ensure that the two existing projects are delivered in order to create the foundation that the UK’s CCS industry needs. It asks the Government to enable final investment decisions by early 2016.

Secondly, the report says the previous government recognised that a second phase of CCS projects is required to deliver cost-competitive CCS in the 2020s. It is calling on the present government to bring forward a second phase of CCS projects in the power and industrial sectors, to be undertaken in parallel with the development of the two existing projects.

Thirdly, the report says the roll-out of CCS deployment in the UK is dependent upon the timely development of adequately defined storage sites that can accept the large volumes of carbon dioxide generated from the power or industrial facilities fitting CCS. The two existing projects will establish storage sites in two regions of the North Sea, which have additional storage potential and could possibly provide the capacity required for Phase 2 projects. The report calls on the Government to establish grant funding of up to £100 million to bring forward adequate appraisals of the UK’s carbon dioxide storage assets.

The report, titled Delivering CCS: Essential infrastructure for a competitive, low-carbon economy, is available as a PDF download from the Carbon Capture and Storage Association website.

Note: CCS Update

[1] On November 25th 2015, the Government announced the withdrawal of funding for the CSS Commercialisation Competition. Following the announcement, Shell issued a press release which said that the Peterhead CSS project would not now proceed. See Shell’s “Peterhead CCS Project announcement”.

More flood defence improvements for the ‘Northern Powerhouse’

Improvement works to River Humber flood defences and £45m investment plan for River Hull

July 23rd 2015

The River Hull Advisory Board has approved a £45 million plan to improve flood defences along the River Hull. The Advisory Board includes local MPs, local councillors, and representatives from the Environment Agency, Yorkshire Water, the National Farmers Union and Natural England.

The work, to be carried out over the next five years, will include raising riverbanks and upgrading a number of pumping stations. Further measures include using the Hull tidal barrier during prolonged rainfall and removing sunken ships. According to BBC News, about twenty sunken ships in the River Hull have been identified by the Advisory Board as causing severe obstructions.

The Chair of the Board, Graham Stuart MP (Beverley and Holderness), said: “Maintaining the existing river defence systems is critical for Hull and East Riding as failing to make this continued investment may result in flood damages estimated at £3.4 billion.” The Board has promised continued investment in existing flood defences over the next 100 years to reduce the risk of flooding to residents and businesses in Hull and East Riding.

In a further move in the region, the Environment Agency has announced it will be carrying out improvement works to the flood defences on the River Humber. The work will include improvements to the existing embankment, bulk excavation, importing fill material, reinstating the topsoil and seeding.

According to the Environment Agency, nearly 400,000 people live or work on low-lying land around the Humber Estuary. The Agency says that the Estuary is one of the many places that will be affected by rising sea levels, with current predictions showing a sea level rise of up to 0.35 metres by 2060 and up to a metre by 2110. Consequently, “we need to consider long-term protection of communities and habitats in this area.”

The Agency published a flood risk management strategy for the Humber Estuary in 2008, which outlined its plans for the next 25 years and beyond. The strategy “looks at different ways of managing flood risk; raising defences where appropriate, but also introducing sites for managed realignment and flood storage which will help maintain valuable habitats. It aims to ensure a good standard of protection from tidal flooding for the next 25 years and beyond for 99% of residents round the estuary and the important industrial areas.” The Agency also said however that “there are difficult decisions to make. Funds are limited, so the Environment Agency will not be able to improve all of the estuary’s defences.”

Andrew Percy, MP for Brigg and Goole, raised a question in the Commons on June 16th concerning flood defences for the Humber. As recorded by Hansard, he asked the Chancellor George Osborne to confirm that the East Riding of Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire will continue to enjoy its position at the centre of the ‘Northern Powerhouse.’ “I have a specific local issue in mind,” he said. “Will he continue to prioritise flood defence funding for our region, because it is important for encouraging investment into the Humber?”

The Chancellor responded: “I can confirm to my honourable friend that the Humber, the East Riding and northern Lincolnshire are a central part of the northern powerhouse. When we originally set out the vision of the northern powerhouse last year, we talked about the belt stretching all the way from Merseyside across to the Humber. I know about his passionate commitment to improving the flood defences in the Humber. He achieved marked success last year, but has an even more ambitious project in mind. As he knows, because of his work and that of my honourable friend the member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), the Environment Agency is undertaking a study of that proposal.”

The Chancellor also reiterated the Government’s commitment to the Northern Powerhouse in his recent Budget speech. See also our news item “Plans to build a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ include £300m for flood risk management” for the Government’s long-term investment plans for the Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire region, as outlined by the Chancellor and the Prime Minister in February 2015.

Photo: According to the Environment Agency, current predictions indicate that the sea level will rise up to 0.35 metres by 2060 and up to a metre by 2110.

Sustainable drainage systems an essential feature of a flood-proof city, says UK Water Partnership

City drainage systems of the future will have to manage the impacts of extreme rainfall events more frequently, says report

July 20th 2015

The UK Water Partnership has published a report that investigates the future relationship between water and cities. The authors say that cities of the future will face a whole range of challenges where water provision and use are concerned: “These revolve around the ability not only to meet fundamental needs in terms of water supply, waste water treatment and drainage services, but also to safeguard water’s many indirect benefits in spheres such as health, wellbeing and biodiversity.”

The report was commissioned by the Foresight ‘Future of Cities’ project and describes five visions of what a future city might look like. It also highlights a number of challenges that need to be overcome for such visions to be realised.

One such challenge is the likelihood that extreme weather events will become more frequent in the future. The authors explain: “The UK Met Office defines extreme or violent rainfall in the UK as greater than 50mm per hour (equivalent to a typical month’s total rainfall). City drainage systems of the future are likely to have to withstand and manage the impacts of such events more frequently.”

The authors describe a vision of a future city in which water-sensitive designs incorporate drainage and rainwater collection systems integrated with green spaces and parks, creating areas of biodiversity interspersed with access. The flood-proof city of the future, they say, would require the creation, preservation and restoration of ponds, woodlands and wetlands; green roofs; sustainable drainage systems (SuDS); and permeable surfaces for domestic gardens, both in urban centres and in upstream catchments. The authors also highlight stilt-based development as a possibility, particularly with regard to properties on floodplains.

The report highlights sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) as an example of a decentralised approach to water service provision, an approach that offers a range of practical. economic and environmental benefits. However, the report also says that guidance and regulation around these measures is disparate and inconsistent, and the applications are far from widespread. The future management of groundwater raises a further challenge, as groundwater influences the regulation of subsurface processes in cities, including the capacity for sustainable drainage systems.

The report mentions current research being undertaken by the British Geological Survey, aimed at maximising the benefits of SuDS and understanding their impacts, including looking at the provision of subsurface information relevant to SuDS and infiltration. However, it also says that further research is needed on the potential applications of sustainable drainage systems, and it raises a number of questions for future work, including:

  • Can we also develop a better understanding of the effect of city-wide SuDS implementation?
  • What are the environmental implications of the use of SuDS in cities and the use of storm water and groundwater, including greater use of bio-retention and rain gardens?
  • What would be a good ecosystem management approach to rivers, surface waters, flood management and sustainable drainage in cities?

As one step towards the realisation of the future flood-proof city, the report highlights the use of community-scale city demonstrators. City demonstrators, it says, could focus on sustainable drainage systems and other innovative solutions to the water management challenges described in the report. As a concrete example, Severn Trent Water is currently planning a major urban water demonstrator in Birmingham.

The report, titled Future Visions for Water and Cities – A Thought Piece, is available as a PDF download from the GOV.UK website.


Future Visions for Water and Cities – A Thought Piece, was prepared as a discussion paper by the Water and Cities Action Group of UKWRIP, the UK Water Research and Innovation Partnership. The UKWRIP partnership brings together the water industry, policy-makers and the research community and provides guidance and coordination for water research and innovation in the UK. It has now become the research and innovation group of the UK Water Partnership, which was launched earlier this year, and is led by the Natural Environment Research Council on behalf of Research Councils UK.


Photograph: SUDS at Hill Farm Estate, near Inverkip, Inverclyde © Copyright Thomas Nugent and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. The photo shows part of a Sustainable Urban Drainage System at a new housing development.

CIWEM statement on water leakage in the UK water distribution system

CIWEM says all water delivered to customers should be metered for the purposes of water conservation and a more reliable assessment of leakage

July 17th 2015

CIWEM has recently published a policy position statement on water leakage in the water distribution system in the UK. Explaining the context of the paper, CIWEM says: “Leakage is an important element in the supply-demand balance for most water supply companies. In the recent past droughts have exposed the vulnerability of some UK companies in maintaining supplies such that the question of what levels of total leakage should be accepted has been raised by the media, the public and specialist groups such as the All Party Parliamentary Group for Water.”

The statement outlines the key issues associated with leakage between the point of input to the treated water distribution system and the limits of underground supply pipes within customers’ properties. This loss of water, generally known as ‘total leakage,’ consists of distribution leakage on water company pipes up to the point of delivery and underground supply pipe leakage on customers’ pipes.

Stating its general position on water leakage, CIWEM notes that all water supply distribution systems suffer some leakage, and it notes further the generally accepted view that “it is not technically possible currently, or indeed desirable economically, to achieve zero leakage.” It recognises and applauds however the considerable reductions in leakage made by water companies in England and Wales since 1995 and in Scotland since 2006. CIWEM also recognises that “a considerable amount of energy is used to abstract, treat and pump potable water and as a result leakage contributes to the carbon footprint of water supply, as does the detection and repair of leaks.”

With regard to leakage management, CIWEM says it supports a holistic approach, “by considering the components of leakage on each part of the distribution system, and the selection of appropriate policies and techniques, such as management of excess pressures and pressure fluctuations to reduce leak flow rates and burst frequencies and to extend asset life.” In addition to pressure management, the techniques discussed in the statement include active leakage control, repairing known leaks, the configuration of the distribution system, infrastructure management, and customer metering.

On the latter, CIWEM notes that around one quarter of total leakage reported by UK water companies occurs on customer-owned underground supply pipes which convey water onwards from the property boundary (the point of delivery). CIWEM says that “the lack of universal customer metering at the property boundary means that the frequency and flow rates of significant underground supply pipe leaks (which tend to occur on a small percentage of supply pipes) are difficult to identify and assess. Also, if there is no apparent impact on the property or the supply of water, it can be difficult to persuade the owner to repair the supply pipe especially when the companies no longer have powers to shut off supplies.”

Defra held a public consultation in 2013 regarding the future management and ownership of water supply pipes. As a result, and in the interests of keeping costs down for the consumer, Defra decided not to carry out further work at present on transferring the ownership of supply pipes. CIWEM recommends that, in the long term, all water delivered to customers should be metered for the purposes of water conservation and a more reliable assessment of leakage.

The question of measurement is one of the key issues discussed in the statement. How should water companies measure leakage, in terms of volume and also economic costs, and what are the most appropriate performance indicators to establish and assess leakage targets? CIWEM says that the majority of household consumption in most cases remains unmeasured and has to be estimated thus giving rise to uncertainty in leakage estimates. It argues for a consistent methodology for the valuation of water abstracted from the environment, and it supports recent initiatives to clarify how leakage targets should be set.

Further recommendations include R&D and the use of new technology: “CIWEM encourages the use of new technologies which enable new leaks to be identified, located and repaired more quickly and cheaply.” It acknowledges the work of water companies, consultants and other organisations to research the mechanics and economics of leakage, and to find more efficient and effective control techniques, including the use of technology in pressure management systems to reduce the recurrence rate of leaks.

Other issues discussed include the benefits of leakage reduction and the problem of securing reliable water supplies. The statement is available as a PDF download from the CIWEM website.


UK water companies are legally obliged to produce a Water Resource Management Plan every five years demonstrating how they will manage the needs of future populations; how they will deal with climate change; and how they will develop options for managing demand, including water efficiency and leakage management measures and, where needed, new water supply resources. These plans include forecasts of total leakage levels. Most water companies published the final version of their latest plans (covering 2015 to 2040) late in 2014.

CIWEM is the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, the leading independent body for water and environmental professionals.

Visions of the Future – UK Water Partnership discusses water and the future of cities

Garden cityscapes, smart homes, flood-proof cities, deep geology, and communities in transition – Five visions for water management in future cities

July 16th 2015

The UK Water Partnership has published a discussion paper that examines the future relationship between water and cities. The paper was commissioned as part of the Foresight ‘Future of Cities’ project, which was set up to identify the challenges that UK cities will face in the future if they are to embrace the potential opportunities for becoming resilient, adaptable and thriving.

The paper, titled Future Visions for Water and Cities – A Thought Piece, was prepared by the Water and Cities Action Group of UKWRIP, the UK Water Research and Innovation Partnership. The UKWRIP partnership brings together the water industry, policy-makers and the research community and provides guidance and coordination for water research and innovation in the UK. It has now become the research and innovation group of the UK Water Partnership, which was launched earlier this year, and is led by the Natural Environment Research Council on behalf of Research Councils UK.

The paper sets out five different visions for water cycle management in future cities, and explores the research and innovation challenges that need to be faced in order to achieve them. The non-exclusive visions provide examples of how cities might tackle the issue of water management in the year 2065, with the key concepts described as follows:

Vision One: Green Food and Garden Cityscapes

More food is grown in cities, both inside buildings and on buildings. Water is subject to a highly monitored, highly managed ‘system of systems’ spanning city, catchment and underground geology, ensuring climate-resilient drainage and food production. Water-sensitive urban design management helps to underpin this vision.

Vision Two: Flood-Proof Cities

Existing cities, as well as new city areas floating on stilts, are designed to withstand sea-level rise, extreme rainfall events and the expansion of river floodplains. Alongside engineering methods, nature-based solutions and green infrastructure help to reduce vulnerability to flooding by interception, storage and the slow release of flood waters and heavy rainfall.

Vision Three: Smart Homes and City Networks

Harnessing the power of the Internet, every domestic appliance used by citizens and every utility network communicates key data on current/anticipated needs, status, condition etc. to city data-hubs, which manage water supply and demand to ensure optimal efficiency and optimal economic/environmental performance.

Vision Four: Cities and the Underworld

As functions increasingly move underneath the city and interact there too, the focus in the water sector is on how deep geology can be used to house combined systems designed to deliver effective drainage, water, heating and cooling services.

Vision Five: Community Transition Cities

Concerns about water and other key resources drive a new approach to environmental governance, based on changing communities’ habits and practices by ‘transitioning’ these to a more sustainable level. This transition is achieved through supported, utility-run programmes.

The authors then describe the challenges that cities will need to face in order for these visions to be realised: “Realising such visions will mean ensuring that the necessary technologies, capabilities, processes and practices are not just made feasible but also become available on the required timescale. This, in turn, requires the effective tackling of a range of underpinning and often interconnected challenges not specific to any one vision but applying more widely to the ability to set cities’ water use, needs and resilience on a secure future footing.”

Eight such challenges are highlighted in the paper, together with a selection of recent research and innovation initiatives and some of the key questions that still need to be addressed in each area. The challenges are described as follows:

Challenge 1: Water Quantity and Water Quality for Life, Health and Leisure

This challenge embraces the most vital water needs of urban communities now and in the future, in terms of both water quantity and quality. While sources of freshwater still exist in most cities, they may be contaminated (accidentally or maliciously) or insufficient to keep pace with 21st century urban population densities.

Challenge 2: End-user and City-dweller Behaviour and Demand

Using water more efficiently and, if possible, cutting overall demand are key goals for cities of the future, offering important benefits from both an environmental and an economic perspective. This is particularly the case in view of anticipated strains on water supplies resulting from rising populations and climate change.

Challenge 3: Infrastructure: Above Ground

Assessing the most appropriate scale for the provision of water services in cities is the next key challenge. Is small beautiful or is it a case of big is best? Is centralised better than decentralised? Which solution will provide the most effective and most efficient approach to providing water services in cities?

Challenge 4: Infrastructure: Below Ground

Away from reservoirs and treatment works, infrastructure systems are typically buried underground. This means that, as well as being part of the built environment, they interface closely and to an extent exist symbiotically with the natural environment. In particular, they are subject to stresses associated with a range of mechanical, chemical and environmental phenomena, which also accelerate the ageing processes affecting the materials and components that buried infrastructure systems consist of. All of these factors can adversely impact system performance.

Challenge 5: City Groundwater Management

Although closely related to the issue of below-ground infrastructure, groundwater – and specifically its function, governance and sustainable management in an urban context – demands special consideration. Any city-centric model of water issues has to take groundwater into account and recognise that water resources are supplied from a wider catchment area extending beyond the city’s administrative boundary, with flows into and out of the city hub requiring consideration.

Challenge 6: Risk and Resilience to Extreme Events

Cities have been built in a wide range of climatic areas, from deserts to monsoon regions. Understanding the risks they face in terms of extreme weather events and building resilience against these is a key challenge, especially in view of the evidence that climate change may alter both annual rainfall patterns and the frequency and intensity of extreme rainfall events. Evidence also exists that cities may alter local climates by generating a heat island effect and disturbing rainfall patterns. In addition to natural hazards, wider threats to city infrastructure may result from changes in policies and governance, economic crisis, war and acts of terrorism.

Challenge 7: Environment and Ecosystems

Cities of the future will need to consider the wider environment and how the goods and services they depend on are secured. Population growth and climate-driven events are two key factors that could result in greater reliance on local provision. In such a scenario, local ecosystems not only need to be protected – they could also help to meet demand by providing a wide range of goods and services.

Challenge 8: Cross-cutting Issues and Whole-system Approaches

Very few issues relating to water management for cities can be separated from drivers and impacts originating well beyond the water industry and water science. Optimising the relationship between water and the cities of the future will therefore require a focus not just on a range of cross-cutting issues but also on ‘whole-system approaches’ that integrate different parts of socio-economic systems and recognise the impact that every part of a system will have on every other part.

Towards Tomorrow

In describing a path to realising the five visions and meeting the above challenges, the authors say that, alongside research initiatives, city simulators and city demonstrators have a potentially valuable role to play in developing, testing and evaluating innovative ideas that could help shape the evolving relationship between water and cities: “When exploring the opportunities and evaluating the risks associated with water and its role in the cities of the future, city simulators and city demonstrators offer a potentially effective means not only of ‘de-risking’ innovative ideas but also of testing their interactions with non-water systems.”

Community-scale city demonstrators could aid investigation of the life cycles and interactions of innovative solutions to water, food, waste and energy management challenges in the urban communities of tomorrow. Real-life city demonstrators could focus on smart homes, smart networks, robotic repair technologies, urban agriculture, ecosystem and aquifer recharge, sustainable drainage or floating cityscapes, for instance. As a concrete example, Severn Trent Water is currently planning a major urban water demonstrator within the city of Birmingham.

City simulators, on the other hand, using cities as ‘living laboratories’ on their computers, and validating research through experiments and demonstrators, could help to target research resources at key issues. City simulators could help to target research designed to deliver better city planning, for instance, by creating interactive models that incorporate infrastructure, ecosystems, planning and maintenance, resilience to extreme events, socio-economic service levels, and demand and pricing systems for water, food, energy and transport.

The authors also make four recommendations directed at the Expert Group of the Foresight project, who commissioned the report, and also aimed at the UK’s R&D community in general.

Firstly, they ask Foresight and the R&D community to encourage the use, refinement and augmentation of the visions included in the paper, adapting them where needed, in order to engage with city authorities and help them develop their future city plans. Secondly, and for each of the eight challenges, they ask Foresight to note the gaps highlighted as a result of synthesising past research outputs, and encourage further review and assessment of existing and planned research to see how the gaps are being addressed. Thirdly, the authors would like to see the promotion of further engagement between researchers and users of urban research in order to translate research outputs into targeted outputs for users, such as planners, policy-makers, businesses and community organisations. Finally, they ask Foresight, through the UK Research Councils and its partners, to support the development of research and innovation opportunities such as multidisciplinary programmes, city simulators and city demonstrators, in order to address the challenges described.

RCUK (Research Councils UK) held a showcase event at a venue in London recently, presenting the five visions and running a number of workshops to explore possible routes to realising the visions. The ‘Water in Future Cities’ event was designed to facilitate dialogue and collaborations between researchers and research users in industry, government and the voluntary sector.

The discussion paper Future Visions for Water and Cities – A Thought Piece can be downloaded from the GOV.UK website.

Norfolk County Council explains causes of West Norfolk and Great Yarmouth floods 2014

“Extreme events cannot reasonably be accommodated by the design standard of the local drainage systems,” says Council report

July 13th 2015

Norfolk County Council has published two reports on the causes of the flooding that affected a number of properties in the King’s Lynn and West Norfolk area and the Great Yarmouth area in the summer of 2014. Around 100 properties in the two boroughs were flooded between May and November following heavy rainfall. The reports have highlighted a number of factors that contributed to the flooding, many of which are common to both boroughs.

Both reports say that a significant number of properties were flooded as the properties were located where the rainfall was naturally concentrated on flow paths and at low points. A number of properties were affected by surface water run-off that flowed off the highway. This was a particular problem where properties were lower than the adjacent roads, which increased the risk of surface water flooding.

The West Norfolk report explains: “In a number of catchments it was found that there are few positive drainage features within the road. Consequently there is a reliance on grips to remove surface water from the highway. In some areas these features were partially or fully obstructed by debris, silt or vegetation. This led to increased run-off being found to flow to low points where the affected properties were positioned. The flows were directed off the road due to a number of factors such as the fall of the road or the use of dropped kerbs.”

In some instances, the concentration of water on flow paths and at low points was exacerbated due to large areas of open land directing water towards settlements as a result of the topography of the land. In other cases, changes in land use such as the development of impermeable surfaces increased the risk of flooding. Both reports say that in some catchments external sewage flooding affected properties due to surface water ingress into the public sewer system. Both reports also say that “some areas in which affected properties were located experienced localised extreme rainfall. Extreme events cannot reasonably be accommodated by the design standard of the local drainage systems.”

Other contributing factors include:

  • A lack of connectivity in local drainage networks in part due to the loss of historic drainage features, such as ponds and ditches.
  • A lack of maintenance of open dykes which had resulted in excessive undergrowth, restricting the flow of water and causing localised flooding.
  • The outfalls to local drainage systems being submerged below the water level of local watercourses.
  • Slow infiltration of water into the soil.

As a result of its investigations into the causes of the flooding, Norfolk County Council has recommended that maintenance be considered a priority in future. It has also recommended that local planning authorities take into account the reports when considering the implications of proposed developments. Further recommendations include the need to seek additional funding for new drainage systems. The Council is currently considering plans for refurbishing Norwich’s drainage network, following an investigation into last summer’s floods in areas of the city – see our news item “Old drainage system a major factor in Norwich flooding”.

In a news item in the Eastern Daily Press last month, Toby Coke, Chair of Norfolk County Council’s Environment, Development and Transport Committee, said: “These reports give us the detailed understanding of the reasons why these areas have been so affected by flooding. It also informs all those with an interest in making affected properties more resilient to future flooding of what needs to be done to lessen the impacts of future extreme rainfall. Some improvements to drainage systems have already taken place or are planned. Other measures will require investment from the Government, which we will be urgently pressing for.”

The reports have also advised property owners to install protective and preventative devices, such as flood doors and air brick covers, in areas where the risk of flooding can not be sufficiently reduced. The Council recently held two drop-in events for residents, with representatives from Anglian Water, the Highways Agency, the Borough Councils and internal drainage boards on hand to discuss issues raised in the reports.

To read the reports in full, see “Norfolk County Council – Flood Investigation Reports”.


Photograph: Bradwell Village © Copyright Bob Crook and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. “Taken on 25th September 2006 when the Great Yarmouth area was flooded due to heavy rain.”