Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Watering down SUDS

I did wonder whether or not it was coincidence that the Annual Meeting of the Inland Flood Risk Management Group meeting was help on the top floor of the Local Government Association’s HQ in Smiths Square, London. Did they know something the rest of us didn’t or were they just being overly cautious?

Flooding in Armitage Bridge 2008
This was the first meeting of the group I had been to as their incoming Chair. The outgoing Chair for the last 4 years Cllr Mike Haines was leading proceedings and my role was very much to meet people and pick up the key issues and debate on current matters regarding flood risk. We started off with an interesting presentation on SUDS or Sustainable Drainage Systems to you and me. The basic issue is that due to climate change we are getting much more sustained heavy rain events. This coupled with the growth of impermeable concrete and tarmac surfaces (and less green fields for water to drain into) means that flooding events are becoming much more common. Events such as the Armitage Bridge flood is just one example among a growing number of flash floods that have affected communities. So flooding is not just about rising sea levels it is also about the capacity of our current drainage systems to cope with increasingly heavy rainfall. SUDS are techniques and methods of reducing run off of rainwater into conventional drainage systems. This could mean use of permeable paving or reed beds to aid slow release of rainwater into drains. This clearly is an issue for Planning Committees to consider and the draft National Planning Policy Framework also has things to say about SUDS. So I suppose you might expect SUDS would be used in all developments if we want to reduce flooding risk. Unfortunately it is not quite that simple. The message from DEFRA in the meeting was quite clear and it could be summed up as follows, “To promote growth regulation should not add cost”. So if SUDS are likely to make a development morecostly and so unviable then the developer could simply argue that they don’t want to do it and proceed with a conventional drainage solution. The question I asked was, “The National Planning Policy Framework has a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’. If the developer says it is unaffordable to put in a Sustainable Drainage System it is by definition ‘unsustainable’ does this make it fundamentally out of step with the principles of the NPPF?” Well the question got a few knowing laughs from those present as we all basically knew that arguments for economic growth are paramount in the NPPF and ‘sustainability’ is so ill defined as to be meaningless anyway. The truth is that SUDS can in many cases be cheaper to install and maintain than conventional drainage systems but my principle concern is that standards and principles of development and regulation itself can be set aside in the name of economic growth. As a Green it is a principle for me that we don’t compromise our environment as ultimately this does not make economic sense. In actuality how much of an issue will this be?  I guess the proof of the pudding is in the eating so we’ll have to wait and see but my concerns were certainly shared by many of the local authority officers at the meeting one of whom without a trace of irony said SUDS appears to be being ‘watered down’. A local SUDS Advisory Board will decide what is viable/affordable but I guess the question is what happens if there is a dispute with the developer? Is there an appeal process?

Lord Chris Smith, former Labour Cabinet Minister and current Chairman of the Environment Agency, spoke about the separation of responsibility for surface water flooding and watercourses from them to Local Authorities. They have also been holding capacity building workshops for Local Authorities to help  them with their new responsibilities and around 96% of Local Authorities have been involved in these which is pretty impressive. The key concern for the Environment Agency like many bodies is reduced funding and reduced capacity. It has a stretching target of giving 145,000 houses better flood defences yet has fewer officers on the ground and will be commenting only on high risk planning applications. The concern is that applications which might have been improved or benefitted from their input will now slip through the net.
All in all this was a useful primer for me to get a background in the key issues and test out some opinions on people who are much better informed than I am. I’m looking forward to learning much more about flood risk over the next year.

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