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A slippery subject

It could be at least another year before national sustainable drainage standards are published. Margo Cole spoke to industry experts about their views on future.

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Sustainable solution: Standards for SuDS still needed

A survey carried out at the end of last year provided clear evidence of current concerns about the implementation of sustainable drainage solutions (SuDS) on a national scale. The survey of local authority drainage specialists, conducted by Hydro International for its Engineering Nature’s Way initiative, found that an overwhelming majority was concerned that the current government is not committed to the long term implementation of SuDS.

“There are plenty of examples of SuDs happening, and focusing on the legislation misses the point”

John Bourne, Defra

Sustainable drainage has long been championed as a vital tool in efforts to reduce surface water flooding and to encourage water re-use.

The inclusion of SuDS in all new housing developments was a key recommendation of the Pitt Review carried out after the 2007 floods, and the government appeared to be following this through when it published draft national SuDS standards for consultation at the end of 2011.

However, despite that consultation closing in March 2012, the latest indications from the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) are that the standards are unlikely now to be produced until April 2014 at the earliest, so the government’s perceived ambivalence to SuDS - as suggested by the survey responses - may not be all that surprising.

It is understood within the industry that much of the delay is being caused by the difficulty in addressing all the objections to the draft national standards - particularly those raised by the powerful housebuilding lobby, who fear the additional cost burden of implementing SuDS solutions on all their new developments.

But the objections do not end there. The survey found that 78% of local authority drainage engineers think the draft standards are “not sufficiently clear”.

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SuDS action: Concerns about adoption remain strong

However, Defra deputy director John Bourne believes that local authorities should not wait for new legislation or guidance to implement SuDS.

“There is an awful lot that can be done on SuDS without going through the legislation,” he told a gathering of experts hosted by Hydro International in December. “Local authorities that do planning control can do quite a lot.

“Where legislation is important is if you have a shared SuD - who maintains it and who funds it? But for everything else there’s nothing stopping you.”

He added that the process of developing national legislation was “complicated and difficult”, and said that the government was “still trying to deal with those issues”, but added: “There are plenty of examples of SuDS happening, and focusing on the legislation misses the point.”

“It’s not rocket science, you just need to have the will and the cooperation of all the stakeholders”

Jeremy Jones, JRJ Consulting

Speaking at the same event, JRJ Consulting director Jeremy Jones agreed that it was “erroneous or false to say that you can’t do any SuDS until you have national standards”, as they will only apply to new build. “If you really want to make a difference you have to work on the existing fabric,” he said.

“It would be nice to have standards for new development, but it’s not a necessity in order to take the implementation of SuDS forward.”

What would make a difference, according to Jones, would be better collaboration between all the stakeholders involved in funding, adopting and maintaining local SuDS infrastructure, and also those that would benefit from the corresponding improvement in water quality, amenity provision or reduced risk of flooding.

So different levels of local government - or departments in a single local authority - must work more closely with each other, as well as with water companies and the Environment Agency.

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“If any of these parties are not cooperative or collaborative, then we are not going to move things forward,” said Jones. “It’s not rocket science - you just need to have the will and cooperation of all the stakeholders involved in order to make it happen.”

One of the major sticking points that is preventing more SuDS schemes from being implemented at the moment - other than legislative compulsion to do so - appears to be the issue of who will adopt and maintain SuDS infrastructure once it has been installed.

This infrastructure may include traditional drainage pipes and storage tanks buried underground, but it is just as likely to include ponds, canals, vegetated channels and swales.

There is also concern that local authorities lack the resources to cope if SuDS become compulsory.

The draft legislation gives local authorities the role of SuDS Approval Bodies (SABs), with responsibility for evaluating and approving SuDS in all new developments, as well making arrangements for them to be adopted and maintained.

But 60% of respondents to Hydro International’s survey said they do not feel “sufficiently prepared” to take on this role, and only 25% thought their local authority had access to sufficient funds to execute the role effectively.

As London Borough of Lambeth sustainability engineer Owen Davies said: “Our biggest concerns are funding, maintenance, skills and staffing levels.”

It seems that, whatever the consensus may be that SuDS are a good idea, there are still many more issues to be addressed before widespread implementation is achieved.

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