Inquiry into SuDS finds “sub-standard planning policies” are leaving communities unnecessarily exposed to flood risk

Too few sustainable drainage schemes are being delivered and many are failing to deliver maximum benefits, says Select Committee report

Report recommends strengthening planning rules to require high-quality SuDS schemes to be installed in all developments of more than one property

May 22nd 2017

The House of Commons published a report last month by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, following an inquiry into the UK Government’s implementation of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. [1] The Committee solicited views from interested parties on whether the Government has implemented measures in the Act in a “timely, proportionate and effective manner,” with a specific focus on provisions that have either not been fully implemented or not been implemented at all. [2] In particular, the Committee sought views on the effectiveness of Defra’s alternative approaches to measures set out in Schedule 3 of the Act concerning sustainable drainage systems (SuDS). Views were also sought on measures concerning reservoir safety, the transfer of private sewers to water and sewerage companies, and water customer debt.

Future flood prevention: “Fragmented, inefficient and ineffective governance”

When the EFRA Committee issued a call for submissions to the inquiry in January 2017, it stated that the inquiry would be a short inquiry into specific implementation issues “since the Committee does not intend to revisit broad flood risk management roles and governance issues addressed in its previous future flood prevention inquiry.” [3] A report on that inquiry was published in November 2016, titled Future flood prevention, which found current flood risk management structures to be “fragmented, inefficient and ineffective.” [4] Those findings have been endorsed by a number of interested parties, including the Government’s Committee on Climate Change Adaptation Sub-Committee, who said in response to the latest inquiry: “There is no evidence that implementation of the Act has led to a reduction in flood risk.” [5]

In contrast, Defra issued a report to the EFRA Committee in January, titled Post-legislative Memorandum on the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, which claims that the Act has provided better flood risk management and delivered improvements for water customers, a view at odds with the Committee’s own findings. [6] In its latest report, the Committee repeats its calls for the implementation of its previous recommendations, which set out to tackle “the broad strategic and governance concerns” raised in its Future flood prevention report. [7]

Sustainable drainage: “Sub-standard planning policies” and “low-quality schemes”

The Committee’s latest report, titled Post-legislative scrutiny: Flood and Water Management Act 2010, was published on April 26th 2017 and is just as scathing in its critique of the Government’s policy towards sustainable drainage systems. [8] The reports says that the Government’s commitment to deliver a million new homes by 2020 must be achieved cost-effectively and without increasing flood risk. “Sustainable drainage systems,” it says, “which remove surface water through green methods such as infiltrating water through permeable surfaces or storing run-off in ponds and swales, are a key part of the policy solution. SuDS reduce the pressure on conventional drainage, can cost no more to build and maintain, and can have multiple benefits for amenity and the environment.”

However, the report finds that current approaches to SuDS implementation have led to “far too few schemes being installed in new developments” while “too many schemes fail to deliver maximum biodiversity, water quality and amenity benefits.” The report highlights a number of weaknesses in the planning system which are hampering the take-up of SuDS, as detailed below, and recommends a number of policy improvements to remedy the current deficiencies.

In his summary of the Committee’s findings, Committee Chair Neil Parish MP said:

“Plans to deliver some one million new homes by 2020 must be achieved without increasing flooding. Sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) are an essential part of the solution as they provide a cost-effective, green method of removing surface water from built-up areas. The Government purports to support SuDS but has not commenced provisions to set up a robust policy framework to promote their use. Instead it has adopted sub-standard planning policies which have led to far too few schemes, many of which are of low quality, being installed in new developments. Significant improvements in the numbers and quality of SuDS schemes installed must be delivered by the end of 2018. We urge our successor Committee to consider calling for the full commencement of SuDS provisions in the 2010 Act if this is not achieved.”

Improving regulation: SuDS Approval Bodies or Local Planning Authorities?

The 2010 Act included measures to set up SuDS Approval Bodies (SABs), which would work alongside local planning authorities and provide the expertise to approve all sustainable drainage schemes included in development proposals. However, these measures have not been implemented. Instead, following a lengthy delay and two consultations on the issue, the Government announced a change of plan, incorporating the approval of SuDS into the National Planning Policy Framework with local planning authorities given the statutory duty of approval. The changes came into effect in April 2015 – see our January 2015 article “Sustainable Drainage Systems – Government announces changes to planning system”.

The EFRA Committee’s report does not recommend at this stage setting up SuDS Approval Bodies (as outlined in Schedule 3 of the 2010 Act), but rather recommends a number of policy improvements and other measures to strengthen the existing framework. However, the Committee does issue a cautionary note to its successor, as stated by Neil Parish in the above quote, suggesting that a review of progress in improving the SuDS regime in 18 months’ time may be necessary “to ensure that a far higher proportion of new developments are installing high-quality SuDS. If policies fail to provide as robust a regime as that under the Flood and Water Management Act by the end of 2018, we consider it would be appropriate for that Committee to consider recommending commencement of Schedule 3 measures.”

Strengthening the existing framework

The report highlights a number of weaknesses in the planning system which are leading to the current deficiencies in implementation, with too few SuDS systems being installed, and too few schemes of high quality. Firstly, the changes that were introduced in April 2015 exclude minor developments (defined as fewer than 10 properties) from the requirement to include a sustainable drainage scheme. However, the report states that 90% of planning applications are for developments that fall below this threshold. The Schedule 3 measures in the 2010 Act would apply to any development of more than one property, whilst a number of submissions to the inquiry, including one from the Association of British Insurers, “urged the Government to mandate the installation of SuDS in all new build, of any size.” The report recommends that the Government strengthens planning rules to require high-quality SuDS schemes to be installed in all developments of more than one property in order to reduce flood risk from smaller developments whilst also delivering environmental benefits.

Secondly, the report points out that developers can invoke cost (for instance, claiming that the cost of implementing a SuDS scheme would be so prohibitive as to make the development unprofitable) or practicality (for instance, claiming that a SuDS scheme is simply not feasible given the nature of the site) as a way of opting-out of planning rules. The report says: “Ministers have stated that SuDS need not be installed if demonstrated to be ‘inappropriate’ for a site or if maintenance and operation requirements are not ‘economically proportionate’.” It recommends a tightening of planning guidance to reduce significantly the potential for developers to use cost or practicality grounds as a way of opting-out of SuDS installation.

Thirdly, current planning rules give developers an automatic right to connect surface water run-off to a mains sewer maintained by a water and sewerage company. The report says the ‘auto-connect’ rule does not provide developers with the incentive to develop sustainable drainage options. It calls on the next government to end the automatic right of new developments to connect surface water discharges to conventional sewerage systems.

Fourthly, developers can be reluctant to install an elaborate sustainable drainage system because of a lack of clarity over who might be responsible for its ongoing maintenance and worries over the potential cost. The question of who should be responsible for SuDS maintenance over the lifetime of the scheme has been the subject of much debate and various maintenance options have been suggested, including adoption of the scheme by a water company for example. On the subject of adoption and maintenance, the report recommends amending statutory definitions of a sewer to make it easier for Water and Sewerage Companies to adopt SuDS. Making this easier would provide an incentive for the installation of high-quality systems, it says: “We called in our Future flood prevention report for Water and Sewerage Companies to become Water and Drainage Companies with a remit for local surface water management… Bringing local flood management and water management together would drive companies to adopt holistic solutions such as SuDS since these would often provide the most cost-effective methods for delivering their regulated range of obligations.”

Quality: Raising the standards

The report says that many low-quality SuDS systems are being built which miss opportunities to deliver optimum benefits for local amenities and the environment, according to the evidence to the inquiry. It cites an example from Somerset County Council’s submission, which expressed disappointment that SuDS schemes “overwhelmingly comprise below-ground, hard-engineered solutions.”

What constitutes a “high quality” sustainable drainage system? The report explains that the concept of sustainable drainage covers a range of measures from a simple system which limits discharge using conventional pipes, through to complex green infrastructure systems incorporating features such as permeable surfaces, ponds and swales, green roofs and rainwater harvesting: “these more complex schemes, broadly defined as ‘high quality’ SuDS, can not only control water flows effectively but can also deliver other benefits.” Such benefits include improved water quality and the addition of quality green space, providing areas for recreation and also valuable habitat for wildlife.

However, the report says that “sub-standard policies” are failing to deliver maximum biodiversity, water quality and amenity benefits, and are leaving communities unnecessarily exposed to flood risk. A survey conducted by CIWEM (the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management) found that only 8% of respondents believed that the current framework was providing high-quality and effective SuDS in England. The report states that two reasons were commonly given:

  • Firstly, because developers want to retain as much of a site as possible to build on, they can be reluctant to sacrifice more than the minimum amount of land for drainage features. The report states that below-ground, hard-engineered solutions may take up less space than high-quality SuDS.
  • Secondly, there are no planning requirements that oblige developers to consider SuDS at an early stage of drawing up site proposals; rather, a requirement for sustainable drainage is added at a later stage when planning conditions are specified. Because the design of the site will already have been drafted at this stage, lower quality SuDS (such as a pipe to a tank) are commonly constructed rather than a more elaborate multi-benefit SuDS which might include landscaping features such as ponds or swales.

The report recommends that standards must require SuDS schemes to deliver multiple benefits wherever possible – including biodiversity, amenity and water quality benefits – as well as simply reducing water run-off rates: making technical standards for SuDS construction a statutory requirement would provide a stronger basis for enforcement, it says.

In his summary of the Committee’s findings, Committee Chair Neil Parish concludes:

“Planning rules must be strengthened to ensure that all new developments, of any size, are required to install high-quality sustainable drainage systems. Guidance must be tightened to reduce significantly the potential for developers to opt-out from installing schemes on cost or site-practicality grounds. In addition, standards for SuDS construction must be made statutory to provide a stronger basis for enforcement and make it easier for Water and Sewerage Companies to adopt SuDS. We call for an ending of the automatic right of new developments to connect surface water discharges to conventional sewerage systems to spur developers to develop sustainable alternatives.”

Notes

[1] The report states: “The Flood and Water Management Act 2010 provides the statutory underpinning for flood and water management approaches in England. It is a broad Act which redefined and clarified authorities’ responsibilities for managing flood and coastal erosion risk management, as well as setting out measures on miscellaneous matters from sustainable drainage to the affordability of water customers’ bills.”

[2] “Implementation of Flood and Water Management Act examined,” 26th January 2017. See https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/environment-food-and-rural-affairs-committee/news-parliament-2015/flood-water-management-launch-16-17/.

[3] Ibid (Note 2).

[4] Future flood prevention, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, 2nd November 2016. Available as a PDF from https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmenvfru/115/115.pdf.

[5] Committee on Climate Change, Written Evidence to the EFRA Committee (para 6), February 2017. Available as a PDF from http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/environment-food-and-rural-affairs-committee/postlegislative-scrutiny-flood-and-water-management-act-2010/written/47379.pdf.

[6] Post-legislative Memorandum on the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, Defra, January 2017. Available as a PDF from https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/585493/flood-water-management-post-legislative-scrutiny.pdf. In its latest report, the EFRA Committee says: “Government departments are required to publish a Memorandum including a preliminary assessment of how an Act has worked in practice, normally three to five years after Royal Assent, and submit this to the relevant Departmental Select Committee for potential scrutiny.”

[7] Post-legislative scrutiny: Flood and Water Management Act 2010, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, 26th April 2017. Available as a PDF from https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmenvfru/990/990.pdf.

[8] On what constitutes a sustainable drainage system, the EFRA Committee report says: “Sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) are designed to control surface water run-off close to where it falls and to mimic natural drainage as closely as possible. One of their uses is to reduce the causes and impacts of surface water flooding. SuDS can include a number of different practices or mechanisms designed to drain or soak-up surface water in a more sustainable way than the conventional practice of draining water run-off through a pipe into a sewer. Practical examples include soakaways (draining water through permeable surfaces into the ground) and ponds (draining water into a surface water body).”

Acknowledgement

Photograph: Permeable paving surrounding a SuDS pond near Renton, West Dunbartonshire © Copyright Lairich Rig and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. “The pond is out of shot to the left in this photo.”

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