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)


Making a Great 25 Year Plan for the Environment

The Government is in full swing drafting a 25 Year Plan for the environment (again). If done properly, with legally binding targets and milestones, we have the potential for the most ambitious but deliverable opportunity for the environment we’ve had in many years. Environmental NGOs have been working together to try and ensure the plan fully delivers for nature.

From a water, aquatic, fish splashing, frogs croaking, otters swimming perspective we are seeking commitment to improving protection and management of the aquatic environment.

This includes:

Ambition – we welcome that salmon are once again swimming up rivers where they have been absent for years, but there is still a long way to go. Less than 20% of our rivers, lakes and groundwaters are at good ecological status. River basin management plans take us some way to improving the quality of our water bodies but we must not rely on them as the sole answer to water quality. The timeline for those plans goes up to 2027 and this is a 25 Year Plan. Let’s build on the plans, and set ambitious targets for water quality into the future. Let’s face the issue of diffuse pollution. Simple changes to planning and land management could have significant benefits and reduce the costs to society of water treatment, flooding and loss of biodiversity.

Monitoring – we are concerned about the potential severity of cuts to environmental monitoring and hence the ability to identify problems, implement solutions and ensure that the polluter pays. Long-term monitoring is important to understanding change. Government bodies  need data to make informed decisions, and this data collection requires resources and expertise. Environmental monitoring underpins good investment and apportionment of costs. There should also be a framework to enable the agencies to utilise third party data much more easily.

Integration and multiple benefits – funding often considers individual projects for too much water, too little water and water quality. Yet how we manage water using natural processes can do much more holistically. Re-meandering not only slows water down which reduces flooding, it can also locally increase low flows up to 15% [1]. Similarly, sustainable drainage systems can reduce surface water run-off and improve water quality and biodiversity as well as provide societal benefits; wetlands can be created which remove chemicals and sediment from water before it reaches a water course whilst also providing biodiversity benefit and slowing water down.

Let’s start thinking about managing water, rather than managing floods or drought or chemicals. Funding needs to incentivise delivery of multiple benefits from the inception of a project. It just doesn’t work if bolted on as an afterthought to tick a box. Strong regulation, incentives, new markets and new ways of working are all required. 

Natural Capital Accounting – we welcome a natural capital approach but alongside the following stipulations. There is a need to protect the environment because it is the right thing to do. Biodiversity loss is one of our biggest problems and one of the hardest things to monetise, but arguably the most important area to stop loss, protect and enhance. Assigning a monetary value is not always possible and sometimes we should protect the environment even if the pound signs do not add up. We also have to be careful that in putting monetary values on environmental services we do not bias investment towards easy wins, such as flood mitigation and carbon storage. The 25 Year Plan should include a set of biodiversity indicators and targets, separate from natural capital objectives.

Catchment based approach – we need to take a catchment based approach for integrated water management, from source to sea. Adequate monitoring is crucial to identify issues in catchments and understand where the most beneficial interventions will be. Opportunity mapping could help identify not only the issues in a catchment, but also how measures might act upon each other and who might benefit.

The plan needs to apply across Government. Without commitment from other departments such as Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government, DEFRA cannot achieve the Government’s ambition to leave the environment in a better state than it found it, even with the most ambitious plan.

The Government have promised that the 25 Year Plan will be a living document, but let’s make it as good as it can be from the start. We’ve been sharing our thoughts with Government and now there’s the opportunity for you too. Every day in Parliament, nature’s needs are drowned out by other louder voices. Now, with the future of our environment laws at stake, it’s #TimeToBeHeard. Please take the time to email your MP.

Hannah Freeman
Senior Government Affairs Officer, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust


Hell or High Water – Tackling flooding and drought together with nature

Catastrophic floods caused millions of pounds of damage and turned people’s lives upside down in summer ten years ago. Government has done a lot since then, but flooding continues to devastate our country.

This year, despite a relatively dry start, the summer has still seen flash flooding events. So, why do we still throw our arms up in disarray and throw money after a flood event, rather than invest properly in protection? Why aren’t we better prepared when we know the problem will recur? People still cry out ‘I didn’t think it would happen to me’, but if we look at the geographic distribution of the last ten years of floods, we see it can happen anywhere:

We had flooding in 2008 in Wales and the North East, flooding in Cornwall in 2010, flooding in Southern England in the winter of 2013 (despite the dry period from 2010-2012), severe floods in winter 2015 in Cumbria and, more recently, flooding in the South West in 2016.

We have destroyed our local environment’s ability to cope with rainfall. You can build all the hard defences you like, but it will always push water elsewhere. Allowing nature to slow the water down and soak it up from the source to the sea helps to reduce the amount of water filling and over filling our drains and rivers.

What about earlier this year when people were worried about too little water and hoping for rain? If our flood defences, rivers and drainage systems weren’t managed to get rid of water as quickly as possible and instead allowed water to move more slowly and percolate through soil, we would be able to rely less on irrigation and our groundwater would be more resilient to drier winters.

It makes sense to invest in natural interventions that improve flood resilience and water storage at the same time. Unfortunately, money is spent either on water resources or on flooding, not on both, and not enough work has been done on trials and evidence for integrated management.

There are a number of opportunities coming up where this can change.

  • Water companies are producing their business plans and could propose to investigate the impact of measures to mitigate flooding on water resource resilience. As water companies now have a duty towards company and environmental resilience, this surely makes sense as a win-win?
  • DEFRA is spending £15 million on natural flood management schemes, but has not allocated any money for monitoring. These schemes need to be monitored, not just for one year or three, but long-term to highlight the multiple benefits they provide, such as environmental resilience to dry weather events and water resources resilience.
  • DEFRA’s 25 year environment plan has the potential to not only help the environment adapt in the face of climate change, but to help our communities adapt by creating, enhancing, protecting and restoring our natural spaces, and clearly recognising the benefits that the environment brings us.

So, the Government and public utilities have a big role to play preventing future flooding. In the meantime, your community can make a difference in your area: better soil management in agriculture, local tree planting, house protection measures, sustainable drainage systems. They’re our homes and businesses, and we can work with nature to help protect them. So, let’s face the music and go dance in the rain.

Hannah Freeman
Senior Government Affairs Officer, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust

We need to protect the environment for future generations

One of the main things I’m taking away from the election result was the voice of the young and I don’t necessarily mean under 25s – it looks like the under 45s swung the vote. The young clearly want change and I still feel I am in that bracket. So I challenge the government to show us, show us that it is not just the next five years that matter but the future. The future for those first time and second time voters, the future of our children, the future of our planet.

So, what could the Government do to safeguard the environment for the future – for our future – 80% of the British public want the environment to have the same if not stronger protection after Brexit[1] and wetlands alone provide over £7 billion in services a year.

Perhaps we should look to Wales. Back in 2015, the Welsh Government created an Act dedicated to safeguarding the future from short-term thinking, known as the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act. This means that all public bodies in Wales now need to consider how their decisions and policies help towards the goals under the Act. These goals include a resilient Wales and a globally responsible Wales. The former looks to “maintain and enhance a biodiverse natural environment with healthy functioning ecosystems that support social, economic and ecological resilience and the capacity to adapt to change (for example climate change).” We have no similar driver in England, simply a repeated rhetoric “that we will leave the environment in a better state than we found it”, which you’d think couldn’t be hard considering less than one fifth of our water bodies are in good ecological health and 13% of wetland species are nationally threatened[2].

Our children have less contact with nature than ever before and miss out on the health and well-being benefits that result. Yet housing plans threaten to stifle communities in an attempt to build as many houses as cheaply as possible. Sustainable drainage can help provide wildlife habitats in urban environments whilst also reducing surface water flood risk, improving water quality as well as enhancing local areas. Natural capital and environmental and social cost benefit should be integrated across ALL Government departments and create opportunities and drivers to make our cities bluer and greener.

There are so many opportunities ahead of us, including creating an agricultural system which delivers public goods for public money and offers a secure future for young farmers. However, Government has kicked into long grass proposals to put in place a sustainable and fairer water abstraction regime. Climate change will bring much more erratic weather events and we need to be certain that our systems are resilient and as effective as they can be to deal with these changes. Government must deliver a sustainable abstraction regime by 2020.

We also need to restore, create and enhance wetlands. Not just because coastal wetlands can help buffer communities against sea level rise or because restoring river habitats can help reduce flooding, but because ponds and lakes and wetlands are important for their own sake, for the wildlife that rely on them and the enjoyment we get from them.

If Westminster had the same duty as those in Wales placed upon them would it make a difference? Let’s not keep hearing that the Government will leave the environment in a better state than they found it – it’s time to show us.

Hannah Freeman
Senior Government Affairs Officer, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust



Environmental Priorities for Future Water Company Investment

As the water companies in England and Wales sit down to draft their future investment plans for 2020-2025 (PR19) they are doing so at a time of unprecedented change and uncertainty. We must make sure that the environment does not become a casualty of confusion and that the plans will deliver for people and nature. Our Blueprint for PR19, launched today, sets out the priorities for the environment for PR19.

The Blueprint for Water coalition of 18 environment NGOs has been talking to the water companies, regulators and with the Government over the last year to share our ideas and inform our thinking on the environmental priorities for PR19. Our Blueprint for PR19 sets out these priorities.

Why are we interested?

The water companies in England and Wales are major players in the environment. They invest over £8bn per year on behalf of their customers – all of us. It is essential they play their part if we want to see healthy rivers, clean beaches and coastal waters, safe drinking water, less waste, reduced flooding and thriving wildlife. We certainly have work to do – the 2016 State of Nature report[i] found that 13% of our freshwater and wetland species are currently at risk of extinction and only 20% of water bodies in England and Wales are currently achieving ‘good ecological status'[ii].

What do we want to see?

We passionately believe that a healthy natural environment is at the heart of a resilient and successful water industry – an industry that can meet the needs of current and future customers and deal with the challenges we face, such as climate change and population growth.

Blueprint for PR19 sets out four headline outcomes we want to see achieved:

  1. Improving catchment management from source to sea;
  2. Stopping pollution of our waters;
  3. Using water wisely whilst pricing it fairly; and
  4. Keeping our rivers flowing and wetlands wet.

For each of these four outcomes, we have identified a number of specific priorities we want to see addressed in the plans. It also suggests how we might measure success.

Over the next month, we will be publishing a series of blogs from Blueprint coalition members and from the water sector on each of these outcomes…watch this space!

What can you do?

We are urging water companies to adopt our Blueprint for PR19 and you can do your part too.

The water companies will be engaging with stakeholders and customers over the next year to ensure their plans align with customer interests and priorities. So, please take the opportunity to have your say and stand up for nature. Check your water company’s website to see how you can engage and feel free to share or use the Blueprint for PR19.

Finally, if you want to find out how your company is performing, and how it compares with other companies, then take a look at this great new website

You can read a summary of our priorities or download the full Blueprint for PR19 publication.

Nathan Richardson, Senior Policy Officer, RSPB



[i] State of Nature 2016

[ii] River Basin Management Plans 2015

Water resilient cities and schools

Our urban environments face unprecedented challenges from climate change and increasing population. Our environment is becoming fragmented and our children are not enjoying the access to the natural environment they need. Making our cities greener and bluer can help our cities face these challenges and make their local places more resilient. One way we can do this is through sustainable drainage systems (SuDS).

Sustainable drainage systems can, if designed appropriately, benefit us in a wide variety of ways. For example, they reduce the risk of surface water flooding by slowing and reducing the flow of water, which runs off hard impermeable surfaces before it reaches the sewer. They can also improve the quality of that run off, removing polluting particles in the water as well as from the air, improving air quality. They can store carbon, provide habitat for wildlife and increase people’s health and well-being.

So why aren’t they everywhere?

Well, these benefits aren’t really seen as pounds and pence and they don’t accrue to any one person, business or even sector. They are societal benefits that diffuse across communities and as such there are limited drivers to install or retrofit SuDS into our urban spaces. There is also no current Government policy or driver around fitting SuDS into existing developments despite the many advantages.

We want to change this. There are real benefits to retrofitting SuDS. Today WWT and Business in the Community (BITC) launch a report that highlights these benefits and suggests one possible way forward.

WWT have been working with BITC and others, including Arup and MWH to produce this publication. Using the CIRIA Benefits of SuDS Tool (BeST) we indicate what the scale of a roll out of SuDS across Greater Manchester could look like.

We report that a roll out of SuDS across Greater Manchester should be cost beneficial and of good value. Societal and environmental benefits under our test case range from £4 million to around £50 million depending on the scale of the roll out. The greatest benefits accrue around mental well-being and education. However, important benefits, including flood risk reduction and water quality improvements, could not be quantified at this high level as they are so site dependent.

Together with BITC, we propose a pilot roll out of SuDS retrofit across Greater Manchester. A pilot would provide much-needed demonstration sites for schools, NHS sites and businesses in the North West. Societal and environmental benefits will accrue to communities and businesses across the roll out area. A pilot roll out would demonstrate the opportunities for flood risk mitigation in the urban environment and could aim to optimise other societal and environmental benefits. This should be led as a joint venture between government, the private and third sector, working through the Manchester Urban Pioneer. Alongside practical demonstration sites, the pilot should consider prospective sustainable funding options for such natural capital investment.

The Government promised to leave the environment in a better state than it found it. This doesn’t just mean the rural environment. Let’s make our urban spaces rich in bird song, buzzing bees, flowers, ponds and trees which everyone can enjoy. Let’s start making the connection and build SuDS for schools, for flood reduction, for healthier rivers, for communities, for cities, for the future.

Read WWT’s new report on SuDS.

Hannah Freeman, Senior Government Affairs Officer
Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust

The importance of our Natural Infrastructure

Prioritising the identification, protection and restoration of Natural Infrastructure provides a significant opportunity to realise the Government’s ambition of us being the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than which we found it.

In every parliament, the National Infrastructure Commission sets out their views about our long-term infrastructure needs in a National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA). Looking over a 30-year time horizon, they consider the demand and supply of infrastructure services and assets, such as roads or fibre optic cables, and make recommendations to government on how these needs are best met.

They consider major sectors including transport, energy, water & wastewater, and flood risk management – areas where projects could impact significantly upon the environment. What they don’t tend to consider is whether these sectors could in fact benefit from the services that our countryside and green spaces provide.

Continue reading “The importance of our Natural Infrastructure”

SuDS and Sovereignty: Parliament pushes back on impermeable paving!

Thanks to Brexit, the question of Parliamentary sovereignty is much in mind: when can the Executive act without the consent of Parliament? The Supreme Court’s judgement that a Parliamentary vote is needed to trigger Article 50 is a check on executive power.

Behind the furore of Brexit, though, another balancing act has been taking place between Whitehall and Westminster that is having a real effect on people’s lives.

Continue reading “SuDS and Sovereignty: Parliament pushes back on impermeable paving!”

Natural Flood Management

While the winter we are currently experiencing has been relatively dry, none of us will soon forget the catastrophic weather that hit Britain just twelve months ago. A relentless series of storms battered the UK throughout December 2015, causing unprecedented rainfall in many areas and resulting in widespread flooding and massive damage to infrastructure, homes and businesses in affected regions, particularly the northeast of England.

Hard-engineering structures remain the go-to approach for managing flood risk, while dredging often rears its ugly head as an immediate response to severe flooding events. Dredging is a highly destructive activity for fish populations and as an angling organisation the Angling Trust feels very strongly that it has no place in modern flood risk management (see the Blueprint Dredging Up Trouble report). However, the situation is gradually changing –  is there now a more natural and cost-effective long-term solution? Natural Flood Risk Management (NFM) is an in-vogue expression used by government departments, local authorities and conservation NGOs alike, but what does it actually mean?

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The Government responds to the EFRA Committee’s Flood Report

In November 2016, I wrote a blog about the EFRA Committee’s Report on Future Flood Prevention. On balance, the report was a useful contribution to the national debate about how we best prepare for floods. We have now seen the Government’s response to the report and it tells us little we didn’t already know.

There is a reassuring commitment to a catchment-based approach and recognition that tackling flood risk should not be considered in isolation from other environmental challenges such as improving water quality, recovering wildlife and sequestering carbon. This does not take away from the importance of natural flood management; rather it enables us to build the case for investment by factoring in a full range of benefits. The end result is that schemes to slow the flow and make space for water would be rolled out much more widely, benefitting communities where investment for the flood risk reduction alone may not have stacked up.

Continue reading “The Government responds to the EFRA Committee’s Flood Report”