Solving the surface water problem naturally

There are around four million properties at risk from surface water flooding. In 2015/16, more than 37,000 areas were externally flooded by sewage; and over 4,000 properties were internally flooded by sewage.[1] Plus, when too much rain enters the sewers they are allowed to spill untreated sewage into our rivers and sea. This happens thousands of times a year. Yet management of our surface water does not get prioritised or funded by Government to anywhere near the same degree as flooding from rivers. Even though the same Government document highlighting that nearly four million properties are at risk of surface water flooding also quoted 2.4 million properties are at risk of flooding from the rivers and sea, with one million at risk from both.

By using a naturalised approach to drainage, sustainable systems help reduce the amount of water entering our sewers. They can also improve the quality of water entering our sewers and create beautiful green spaces attractive to people and wildlife. Yet progress on integrating Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) into our urban environment is slow, through both new development and retrofitting.

WWT and CIWEM carried out a recent survey, which brought to light a number of reasons for this. For new development, we found that some problems can be addressed by better information and a change in culture, but ultimately better Government policy is required in this area to combat uncertainty and inconsistency. This is also the case with retrofit. SuDS provide many social benefits through reducing flood risk and providing green spaces, however, the financial incentives for a landowner to invest is less obvious. In addition, because of huge resource capacity issues in local authorities, they are unlikely to prioritise investment without a national driver.

So where do we go from here? Well there are a few nuggets to surface water management in the 25 year Environment Plan. In line with our recommendations, the Government aims to put in place more sustainable drainage, particularly in new development through considering changes to the planning framework and guidance. It also plans to improve existing arrangements for managing surface water flooding, through promising to create green and blue spaces and improving people’s ability to connect to nature and improve health and well-being.

However, for the 25 Year Plan to succeed, it is vital that is has buy in from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Developing metrics and details on next steps for implementation for the Plan will be key. The rhetoric to provide high quality housing is a small whisper alongside the need for numbers. This should not be acceptable. Good quality housing which is resilient to our changing climate can and should be provided without question. Between 2012 and 2015, the nine biggest housing developers increased their housing output by 33%. At the same time, revenue grew at more than twice this rate, increasing to 76%, with profit before tax rising by a staggering 200% in this period.[2]

The Government is currently drafting a surface water management action plan. To help deliver the aims in the 25 year Environment Plan, we recommend it includes the following:

  • National SuDS standards to include standards for delivering multiple benefits as the Welsh standards
  • A review of Government funding to reduce flood risk, identifying options to better allocate funding for surface water flood management projects.
  • Government has proposed to increase planning fees in order for planning authorities to have more resources. This should not just be used as suggested to increase the number of development applications being processed but should be used to increase expertise in sustainable drainage and ecology, to ensure planning conditions are met and to facilitate pre-application discussions.
  • Opportunity mapping should be undertaken between Lead Local Flood Authorities and Local Authorities which maps potential development against a variety of variables including water quality issues, environmentally sensitive areas and flood risk. This will help identify where SuDS would make the most impact in both new and existing development and therefore best value for money.
  • New build is only a small percentage of housing stock and the Government time and again fail to discuss retrofit. The action plan needs to acknowledge the role of retrofit SuDS and finally provide a driver to empower local authorities to invest in SuDS as flood risk mitigation. We propose Government promote strategic roll out of SuDS retrofit options and considers options for developing funding opportunities such as green bonds or facilitating collaborative funding.

Hannah Freeman
Senior Government Affairs Officer, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust and Chair, Blueprint for Water

[1] Discover Water (accessed 13th July 2017) http://www.discoverwater.co.uk/sewer-flooding

[2] http://www4.shu.ac.uk/mediacentre/research-reveals-scale-housing-developers-profits