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Viewpoint - Howard Robinson

Weathering the storm - How construction can help local government tackle flooding issues.

People in this country have long had an obsession with all things meteorological. Yet, despite recent high profile examples of flash flooding, too often our preoccupation with the changing climate has been all talk and little action from the construction industry and from government.

To date, the industry has failed to call for legislation that would change the way we manage and alleviate the pressures that unpredictable rainfall patterns place on our traditional drainage systems.

Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) have at times fallen by the wayside in local authorities' plans – perhaps a result of cost-cutting, lack of forward planning, lack of understanding of what the systems can offer or because contractors are not always being equipped to install them. Responsibility for provision, operation and maintenance of SuDS has clearly not been set out by central government.

This is set to change as we now stand on the cusp of new legislation which will alter the way local authorities manage flood risk.

The Pitt Report and Defra's announcement which outlined a broad proposal for the Floods & Water Bill will, if implemented in 2009, have far reaching implications.

Pitt rightly states that the responsibilities for certain drainage assets still remain unclear.

Thankfully, the Floods and Water Bill will address this need for clarity. Local authorities will have a clear responsibility to tackle surface water flooding. They will be supported by the Environment Agency, which will have a new strategic role to oversee this work.

Environment minister Phil Woolas recently indicated that government would give local authorities new powers to ensure that organisations and landowners fulfil their obligations such as the maintenance of drains. Ultimately, the draft Bill could pave the way for more specific legislation on SuDS.

While this legislation is not in place yet, I believe that the construction industry now has a clear responsibility to develop, specify and ensure that contractors understand how to install SuDS systems. Given the pressures on our permanent drainage systems, SuDS will play a vital part in the overall strategy of local authorities for water management and flood mitigation.

Critically, SuDS need to be given priority over traditional permanent drainage designs at the early stages of projects as a specific planning condition – this would provide a more robust framework for implementation.

The technology is already available. Previous pavement technologies can work as part of a wider SuDS programme to reduce flood risk. They enhance public safety and protect the aquatic environment by filtering pollutants from surface water before it is released back into watercourses. They also offer huge potential to capture rainwater for reuse elsewhere.

Permeable pavements and SuDS have been used in France, the United States and Sweden for over 20 years with proven success. Yet they have not been used as widely in the UK. I am hopeful that the Floods and Water Bill will help to transform this.

Howard Robinson is head of product development at Tarmac.

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