Drainage duty: delivering sustainable urban drainage systems (SuDS)

A government U-turn on who should oversee sustainable urban drainage has put pressure on planners, writes John Geoghegan.

Attenuation pond: included in Bicester Fields housing scheme, Oxfordshire
Attenuation pond: included in Bicester Fields housing scheme, Oxfordshire

In 2007, the UK was hit by some of the worst floods in living memory, causing £3 billion of damage and 13 deaths. As a result, the government commissioned Sir Michael Pitt, later to be made chief executive of the Planning Inspectorate, to report on how the country could increase its resilience in the face of potential future deluges.

A key recommendation was the use of eco-friendly sustainable urban drainage systems (SuDS) such as ponds, reed beds, porous roads and shallow drainage channels known as swales. Pitt found that the conventional public sewerage system struggled to cope with the sudden influx of high levels of rainwater in 2007. By contrast, SuDS are designed to let rainwater be slowly absorbed where it falls rather than channelling it through traditional drainage.

Pitt's suggestion was included in schedule 3 of the Flood and Water Management Act, passed in April 2010. It said SuDS would be compulsory in all new developments from April this year. The act also proposed that SuDS be approved, adopted and maintained by SuDS approval bodies (SABs). These would be the responsibility of flooding and drainage authorities - either county or unitary councils - with a consent process separate to planning.

Since then, several authorities have started preparing for the establishment of SABs. In April, the government said full implementation of schedule 3 would have to wait until all drainage authorities had set up such bodies. But in the summer, it announced a change of direction.

In a consultation document entitled Delivering Sustainable Drainage Systems, the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Communities and Local Government jointly announced that responsibility for approving and maintaining SuDS would fall to the planning system and local planning authorities. The roll-out of SABs would be dropped.

Why the change? According to the consultation document, councils and housebuilders raised "a number of issues" with the original proposals. A key one, it says, was "the impact on development" of approving SuDS under a consenting regime separate from the planning system. It would have meant that developers would have had to seek two kinds of permission for projects that included drainage. There were also concerns about further delay if drainage authorities were not fully prepared to set up SABs.

As a result, planning authorities are now set to assume a range of responsibilities from spring 2015. The government proposes making SuDS compulsory in all new schemes of ten homes or more. Under the proposals, inclusion of SuDS would be given increased weight as a reason to approve applications, while those without "could be rejected".

As well as consenting SuDS, authorities would also be expected to ensure that they are maintained "to a minimum level of effectiveness" by the use of planning conditions. Such conditions would prescribe construction in line with a "detailed scheme" agreed between the authority and applicant, the consultation says. They would also ensure that the SuDS are maintained "for the lifetime of the development". Any conditions "must clearly identify who will be responsible" for maintenance, its funding "should be fair for householders", while "minimum standards" should be set out.

Under the proposals, any breach of standards would incur planning enforcement action. Developers would play a key role by either taking responsibility for maintaining SuDS themselves or transferring it to a third party, whether a private management company, a water and sewerage company or a local authority. Planning authorities would also "need expert advice" on sustainable drainage, the document states, which is "likely to give rise to a new burden". It also proposes five compulsory consultees on any SuDS application, including the Environment Agency, local highways authorities and, where the system links with public sewerage, sewerage companies.

Many planning officers are concerned about the proposals. Mike Kiely, chairman of the Planning Officers' Society, says that, while members welcome scrapping plans for a separate consenting system, the responsibility for ongoing maintenance is "another burden on the planning system" that could slow it down. As part of the broader drainage infrastructure network, SuDS should be kept up by drainage authorities, Kiely says, just as highways authorities look after roads.

Alongside councils, housebuilders also lobbied against a two-track system. But Andrew Whitaker, planning director at the Home Builders Federation, says there is concern about planners taking on assessment of the effectiveness of drainage systems and of their impact on the urban environment. While the latter is a planning issue, the former is technical, and it is unclear which would be prioritised in determining applications, he says.

Another problem is the issue of who takes responsibility for SuDS after construction, which Whitaker feels the proposals do not address. Currently, he says, most SuDS are handled by private management companies, although some have been adopted by authorities or water companies. Nick Orman, urban drainage spokesman at professional body the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management, says: "Pitt said the main barrier to the incorporation of SuDS into development is their adoption once the system is designed and constructed. People don't know what to do with them afterwards, and I can't see the problem being addressed here. Without that, it won't make a big difference."

Dan Hayes, director of civil engineering at consultancy Peter Brett Associates, describes the proposals as "a business-as-usual approach". The variety of maintenance options included means that "no clear and consistent approach" will emerge, he fears. He adds: "Whether or not the planning profession has the time, effort or inclination to enforce minimum compliance remains to be seen." He says, "on balance", the proposals will be "less effective" in reducing flood risk than the original plans in the act.

Gordon Hunt, county drainage engineer at Oxfordshire County Council, which set up an informal SAB in anticipation of the act's implementation, describes the proposals as "a last-minute panic" by the government. He says: "Why spend money on these flooding authorities who've been getting ready to do this over the past three to four years and then at the last minute say: 'We will adjust planning and they will do it'? Most of the district councils don't have the staff or the expertise to do it, but the county councils have been building up for this as the lead flooding authorities."

Not all in the sector share these concerns. Real estate lawyer Christine de Ferrars Green, a partner at Mills & Reeve, says the new ideas are "a considerable improvement" on the 2010 act. Incorporating them into planning would "allow an holistic approach to be taken in relation to SuDS", so that they can be "delivered as an integral part of the green infrastructure and amenity facilities" for new projects.

But Hugh Ellis, head of policy at the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), questioned whether consenting SuDS through planning meant that the National Planning Policy Framework's viability test would apply. He says: "The worry is that developers would argue their way out of it, saying they can't do it because it adds to the cost. I can't see any safeguards against that." The TCPA, which has long championed the use of SuDS, wants to see a firmer commitment on them from the government. Ellis adds: "Our concern is that SuDS are not an optional extra but a key built environment feature making places more resilient to flooding."

Case Study: promoting suds

Although the government has scrapped the idea of rolling out SuDS approval bodies (SABs), as included in the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, a number of authorities have nevertheless created informal SABs. One of these authorities is Oxfordshire County Council, which has promoted SuDS on all major schemes comprising ten homes or more since 2007, explains county drainage engineer Gordon Hunt. The county has an agreement with all the district councils in its area whereby its team of drainage engineers check all major planning applications and advise on sustainable drainage.

Hunt says: "We want to see SuDS on all developments. My team look at all major planning applications in the council and we check some of the minor applications as well. We check the layout and design and advise consultants and developers.

"We look at all the developments now as an SAB would do, as per the 2010 act's requirements. We had been planning this for several years, as have most flooding authorities."

While the team would recommend using SuDS wherever possible, Hunt says such systems are sometimes unsuitable for brownfield sites because of the risk of contaminating the water supply.

Hunt says the team pushes for porous pavements and roads on all schemes except for main bus routes, which must use tarmac. Ponds and swales are also promoted where possible.

As a highways authority, Oxfordshire can take on highways-based SuDS such as porous pavements and roads as well as swales and ponds that meet the highway, Hunt explains. But for non-highway SuDS, the district councils draw up section 106 planning gain agreements, under which developers have to set up a management company to maintain the SuDS.

The work that the council has done in the past few years has already made a difference in reducing flooding in the county, says Hunt. He advises other councils considering a similar approach to "go for it", adding that, in comparison to using conventional drainage, using SuDs is "easy to do, cheaper to maintain, which has got to be good, and it works".

Conference Planning's Energy Infrastructure and Environmental Sustainability conference takes place on 2 December in London, and includes two sessions on how to encourage SuDS uptake and maximise their benefits. Please visit www.planningresource.co.uk/ planning-for-energy-and-environment for more details.

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