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NCE/Hydro round table: Flood of ideas

Last week NCE and Hydro International organised a round table discussion in London to influence forthcoming flooding legislation. Bernadette Redfern reports.

The panellists

  • Alastair Moseley Chair President of Ciwem and director at WSP Group
  • Richard Ashley Professor of urban water at Sheffield University and Managing Director of Pennine Water Group
  • David Schofield associate director at Arup, member of British Water Sustainable Drainage Focus Group
  • Alex Stephenson director Hydro International
  • Gordon Hunt drainage team manager, Oxford City Council
  • Jeremy Jones independent consulting engineer
  • David Rooke head of strategy and engagement, Environment Agency
  • Vicky Dawe head of non-agricultural diffuse water pollution team, Defra
  • Terry Fuller Chairman of Ciwem and director at Jacobs



In July of this year consultation about the widely anticipated Flood & Water Management Bill ended with the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) receiving over 600 responses.

This is far more than Defra would usually expect for a three month consultation period, but the huge amount of interest was unsurprising as the Bill is a response to the devastating floods of summer 2007. It was triggered by Sir Michael Pitt’s review of the catastrophic events, which called for a single Act of Parliament to bring together several disparate pieces of legislation. It also takes into account the government’s Future Water Strategy published in February 2008.

Scrutiny of the 600 responses is now underway and Defra intends to publish its response to them next month but this must also incorporate the views of the Defra select committee which has also heard evidence on the issue and will be making its own recommendations this autumn. NCE understands that an amended Bill will be published by the end of the year depending on Parliamentary timescales.

Making voices heard

Until the Bill is finalised industry professionals know that the potential remains for their views to be included. With this in mind representatives of Defra, the Environment Agency, local authorities, consultants, product manufacturers and academia met in London to debate issues raised by the responses. The event was organised by Hydro International with NCE and was facilitated by the Chartered Institution of Water & Environmental Management (Ciwem).

The Bill proposes some far reaching changes to the current flood risk management regime. These include:

  • Making local authorities take the lead on flood risk,
  • Removing the automatic right of developers to connect into existing sewers,
  • The adoption of sustainable urban drainage systems (Suds) by local authorities
  • A set of national Suds standards

To date, developers have been deterred from including Suds in their projects thanks to uncertainty over who would then adopt and maintain them. Water companies were reluctant to take on assets as without any legislation forcing them to do so, meaning regulator Ofwat would not allow them to charge water customers for their upkeep.

“We hope that all Suds in the pubic realm will be adopted by local authorities and the consultation document says that those obligations will be funded,” explained Defra non-agricultural diffuse water pollution team head Vicky Dawe.

Funding worries

But the funding is more about moving existing money around. Section 2 of the draft Bill says: “Local authority funds released by the transfer of private sewers, together with savings from better local flood risk management, are expected to more than cover the additional activities that local authorities will be required to perform.”

Local authorities doubt this will be enough, especially as the Bill also proposes to scrap sums paid to local authorities by developers for maintaining Suds systems. In January, Hydro International warned that giving new powers to local authorities would be ineffective unless they were given sufficient funding and knowledge of sustainable drainage principals to implement changes (NCE 5 January), and that an additional proposed investment of £16M from central government would not be enough to solve the problem.

“We know that [funding] is very difficult and we know that there are lots of issues around that and the way that we propose to do that initially with the transfer of funds from private sewers,” said Dawe.

“We know that [funding] is very difficult and we know that there are lots of issues around that and the way that we propose to do that initially with the transfer of funds from private sewers.”

Vicky Dawe, Defra

The transfer of private sewers from local authorities to water companies will be effective from 2011 but it is thought that not all local authorities will save money as a result. “The theory that commuted sums from developers will no longer be required as we are making savings from the transferral of private sewers is unrealistic. We don’t have any private sewers so that gives us no revenue,” said Oxford City Council drainage team manager Gordon Hunt. “Without the commuted sums from developers we can’t maintain the Suds.”

Hunt argued that the savings made by developers who can scrap kerbs and drainage infrastructure for a traditional road by installing permeable paving for example, would more than cover the commutable fee. He said that following the severe flooding events of 2007 his budget has had to quadruple to £900,000 and the team has recently hired in two new members. “But there is no new money for this, it has been taken from other departments,” he said. This means that not all councils will be able to do this.

“We are still talking about that, there is no quick fix,” replied Dawe. “Somebody pays, its either council tax or local government revenue, support grants or charging. One way or the other it needs to be paid for and we are having those conversations now. We have heard this response from absolutely everybody and we worry about it too,” she said. Councils are also worried about having the expertise to fulfill their new roles.

Individuals taking the lead

Hydro International director Alex Stephenson pointed to experiences in the US where individuals have taken the lead on surface water management. “What we saw when we went to the US (as part of the British Water Sustainable Drainage Focus Group) was that it works well where there is a champion.

One or two people within an organisation have to take the lead,” he said pointing to Oxfordshire and Hunt as an example of local authorities in the UK already doing this.

But not everyone agrees that the responsibility for flooding and Suds adoption should go to local authorities. “The most appropriate body may be the best body to serve it, not necessarily the local authority,” said independent consultant Jeremy Jones. “If the Suds approval body decides on a connection to the sewer what about the water company? It could cause downstream flooding. The Suds approval body should sit below an integrated group that can consider the needs of all stakeholders.”

“What we saw when we went to the US (as part of the British Water Sustainable Drainage Focus Group) was that it works well where there is a champion. One or two people within an organisation have to take the lead.”

Alex Stephenson, Hydro International

This is already happening in Wales with the establishment of the Integrated Surface Water Management Group, of which Welsh Water is a part, with other government agencies. However participation of the water company is mainly due to the unique nature of Welsh Water which runs as a not for profit organisation and is therefore free to make investments beyond those with regulatory approval.

“It is a completely different structure in Wales. We have thought long and hard about who and how to do this and how important partnerships are. At the upper tier, unitary authorities will have the decision but we will encourage discussion at pre-application stage and water companies will be statutory consultees to a proposed connection,” said Dawe.

“However it works, there needs to be a teamwork approach rather than one organisation imposing its will on other parties,” said Stephenson.

Further consultation

More consultation between stakeholders and sharing of information is another challenge that the Bill aims to meet by imposing a new duty for stakeholders to cooperate and share information relating to flood risk. This measure is much needed said the round table participants. “I work a lot with the Yorkshire planning people and it is a major problem that we don’t actually have any information about performance of sewage assets,” said Pennine Water Group managing director Richard Ashley.

Environment Agency head of strategy and engagement David Rooke confirmed that this is a problem and said the Agency had been working on it with industry body Water UK. “We recognised that issue and so we have now got agreement with Water UK to share that data, we want that to extend to local authorities,” he says.

Overall the panellists were optimistic about the changes proposed in the Bill but said that, more could be done. “it is a step in the right direction but it does not go far enough. It fails to grasp the need and opportunity for significant changes in the way in which our water systems are managed. Next year we will be back to the drought problem,” said Ashley.


Readers' comments (1)

  • We really need to bottom out adoption issues if this is going to work. Sustainable Drainage is the only way we will be able to deal with the future effects of Climate Change. Doing nothing will lead to increased flooding. Upsizing the "sewers for adoption" design criteria would just pass the problem downstream to the rivers and cause more flooding there. Water has to be retained on the individual site and released in a controlled fashion.

    Even if we haven't decided definitively who will adopt what elements of suatainable drainage in the future, let's work on local Memorandums of Understanding between the Water Authority, Local Authority and Environment Agency. This would be a clear advice document with all 3 organisations on the header that would show a united face to developers on the use of sustainable drainage on new development.

    At the moment, developers are often getting inconsistent and contradictory advice from these 3 sources and as a consequence. we are not getting the sustainable drainage schemes the public deserve.

    And the mandatory use of suitable Sustainable Drainage techniques needs to be written into the Core Strategy of every local authorities Local Development Framework. If we are serious about adapting to climate change, that policy might even state that all development (including Brownfield) should be restricted back to green field discharge rates.

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