The issue of surface water flooding has been recently embroiled in a game of parliamentary ping pong. Last year a group, including the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), tried to push through one simple amendment to the Housing Bill which could stem surface water flooding for the future. It was passed by the House of Lords but then it was rejected by the House of Commons.
Flooding costs the economy millions of pounds each year and misery to the thousands affected by it, so why is the government knocking back this amendment and not trying to tackle the problem head on to try and stop it from getting any worse?
Surface water flooding is a growing problem in the UK and as more of the land which previously allowed water, like rainwater, to soak away slowly is concreted over, the problem is only going to get worse.
The scale of the problem is huge. To try and put it into context, in London alone, £4.2bn is being spent on a new super sewer – Thames Tideway – just to cope with the additional surface water run-off into the Victorian combined sewage system.
“If you were designing a system from scratch, would you combine perfectly good rainwater with sewer water?” asks Tideway chief executive Andy Mitchell. “No. But that is where we are.”
Mitchell says that the new sewer will reduce the number of spills annually from 60 to around four, but he warned that if London continued to grow and did not consider more sustainable drainage solutions, then the number of spills would increase.
One of the cruxes of the problem is that currently every new development is automatically allowed to connect its surface water run off to the existing combined sewer system, leaving little incentive for developers to consider sustainable drainage solutions (SuDs) as part of their schemes.
It is this automatic right which the lobbying body would like to see removed from the Housing Bill.
“In no way are we saying that development shouldn’t be able to connect to surface water sewerage systems, what we’re saying is that there shouldn’t just be an automatic right to connect – to just put in a conventional drainage system and then connect it,” says MWH executive technical director and ex-president of the ICE David Balmforth.
“There is that right at the moment.”
Balmforth wants to see developers obligated to implement measures to manage the surface water run-off in place before permission to connect to the sewerage system is granted.
“We’re suggesting that the automatic right to connect is replaced by some sort of permitting system or conditional process,” he says.
He thinks that, despite the resistance, this system will ultimately improve the quality of developments through better spatial planning, increased water quality and biodiversity benefits. He also says that it would put schemes which currently consider SuDs and those that don’t on a fair footing, opening up opportunities for innovation.
“It will remove uncertainty and put all developments on a level playing field,” says Balmforth. “It will reduce flood risk overall.”
The issue now stands with government which is reviewing the more general implementation of SuDs on development schemes. Balmforth wants this process to be short and snappy.
“The information is all there in the new Ciria SuDs manual. We don’t need to waste any more time gathering information. They might need to produce a summary, but there’s no reason why we have to labour that point.”
So how will the government respond – prevention or costly cure?