SuDS – the final hurdle

It has taken five years for SuDS to make it from legislation into planning requirements but from April that will finally be the case. Now we just need the planning guidance, says Sam Ibbott.

The photo-op. When staged, politicians love them. If you follow politics, particularly at a local level, they can often be unintentionally hilarious – such as the classic pose of an MP crouched down and pointing at a pothole with a look of horror on his or her face as if the pothole had just said something rather untoward about their mother.

So when the country saw widespread flooding last year it was unsurprising that MPs of all colours hastily donned waders and took the opportunity to get photos of themselves looking sympathetic next to people whose lives had at best been inconvenienced and, at worst, devastated by rising water levels.

"Delivering SuDS through the planning system is arguably the path of least resistance, but preferable to further delays by going back to the drawing board."

Flooding is a national infrastructure concern, and with the issue so high in the public’s consciousness it would have been an opportune moment to announce at least one practical step forward – the implementation of Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS).

SuDS are the process of dealing with excess surface water by mimicking natural processes which slow the movement of water, or stores the water so it can either soak into the ground or evaporate. Not in themselves the answer to all flooding concerns by any means, but SuDS have an important role to play – particularly in urban environments.   

The independent Pitt Review on flooding, which first recommended the greater uptake of SuDS, was published in 2008 and they were formally legislated for two years later in the Flood & Water Management Act (2010). In September of last year the Government went to consultation with an approach for delivering SuDS through the planning system. A formal response was published in late December.

In a Written Ministerial Statement published alongside the consultation response the Government  made clear their “expectation” that sustainable drainage should now be included as part of major new developments “unless demonstrated to be inappropriate” – which could, for example, be the result of ongoing SuDS maintenance not being “economically proportionate”; if SuDS were to impair the deliverability of the development; or if they were to place “an excessive burden on business.”

Despite this, EIC welcomed the Government’s emphasis on a requirement for SuDS to be maintained over the lifetime of a development. Although the market in third party SuDS maintenance is relatively immature and there are potential difficulties in gauging the robustness of maintenance providers, it is an important principle to have set out from the start.

Responses to the consultation did however raise concerns over a lack of technical expertise at local government level to determine the suitability of sustainable drainage proposals when assessing planning applications. Although not originally proposed the Government has subsequently accepted EIC’s view that the Lead Local Flood Authority (LLFA) are well placed to provide advice on such issues due to their overall strategic responsibility for local flood risk management, including surface water.

These changes to planning will take effect from the 6th April 2015 and the Government intends to publish revised planning guidance in advance of this date, in addition to engaging with local government on a capacity building programme. By this time it will have been seven years from recommendation to implementation.

Delivering SuDS through the planning system is arguably the path of least resistance, but preferable to further delays by going back to the drawing board. With an ever-increasing call for more housing to be built, and all political parties likely to make a related commitment in their General Election manifestos this year, it is important to get SuDS regulations in place as soon as possible as our towns, cities, and urban spaces become ever more densely populated. If the result of a wider spread use of SuDS is fewer photo opportunities for politicians, that’s a price worth paying.

Sam Ibbott is deputy public affairs director, Environmental Industries Commission (EIC)

EIC is the trade association for the UK’s environmental technologies and services sector.