fylde counterbalance logo

search counterbalance

plain text / printout version of this article

countering the spin and providing the balance


Water, Water, Everywhere.

Wwater, Water, EverywhereIt was just a short time ago that aquatic Armageddon seemed to have taken over our land.

People's homes, and vast acres of farmland were flooded - and never off the television screens. Politicians of every colour took to green or black wellies and went to inspect the damage.

We can only hope that means something will be done, because at present, those charged with effecting the proper drainage of the UK have undoubtedly left undone some of those things that they ought to have done.

The root cause of our problem with water is that too many people now live in the UK.

ONS figures say the overall UK population has risen by 2 million since 2001. It has reached a peak of 61.4 million - which is a world away from the 53 million that many remember being the stable population of the UK

It's presently made worse in the UK because - in order to generate the taxes to pay for the pensions and social care of an increasingly elderly post-war baby boom population - the Government's immigration policies have, (and are still), designed to increase the number of people coming into the UK yet further.

In the short term, the encouragement of immigration of younger people will 'solve' the looming 'aging population' social crisis for politicians.

But in the longer term, it is creating a giant ponzi-scheme pyramid (because fertile younger inward migrants are creating their own baby boom which, when added to predicted births amongst the indigenous population, is rushing toward a combined population boom that will be even bigger than the post-war baby boom it is trying to solve).

"And so - ad infinitum"

In the end, this policy will self-destruct like the house of cards that it is.

However, in the meantime, the families of (currently) 212,000 net inward migrants a year - together with the maturing children born to existing UK families - will all have to be housed.

Add to that, the doubling of housing need that results from unbridled rates of divorce and separation, and you have what politicians are calling an enormous UK housing shortage.

So to solve that, we're planning to build more and more houses.

And we're building on land that isn't suitable for building.

And too much of our land is being covered in buildings and hard surfaces.

As a result of doing this for years, and because at least the present government - intends to continue doing it into the foreseeable future, we are now seeing flooding like never before, and will become worse and worse unless 'something' is done.

Happily, we can say that, 'something' was being done - or at least it was being *planned* to be done.

But that good intention had been evaporating slowly - at least it was until the December 2013 / January 2014 floods arrived.

As a result of those floods, we hope it might now be sorted out properly.

We're told that a start is going to be made in this week's budget - with 140m being restored to watercourse maintenance budgets.

Whilst welcome, we don't think that's going to be anywhere near enough to execute the plans that were prepared though.

Plans for addressing the problem of land drainage were laid long before the current flooding up and down the UK. But the current problems have pushed it back up the political agenda.

The favoured solution - (instead of stopping the building and admitting this country is already too populous and is too built up!) - is to put a new water control and management system in place which, in the end event, we will all have to pay for, both in terms of its administration, and probably as a new tax for the disposal of water from land that we own.

The rest of this article outlines the background to this change; what has been going on to solve the problems; how progress is presently stalled, and it considers some of the controversial issues that will confront many in the UK as they are implemented.

The wide-scale flooding that took place back in the summer of 2007 caused devastation across large areas of northern and central England and South Wales.

The place names may be different, but the flooding problems haven't got much better in 2014 as we have all seen.

The 2007 flooding exposed significant administrative gaps in the way that flood risk was assessed and managed - by the Environment Agency, by Local Authorities, and by Water Companies.

So the Government appointed Sir Michael Pitt to undertake an independent investigation into the flooding that occurred. His remit included a review the role of the organisations involved in the management of flood risk.

The report, which was called 'Lessons Learnt from the 2007 Floods,' recommended changes to the way we manage flood risk.

He did a very good job.

In particular, 'flooding' was, in effect, redefined.

Previously, it had only been considered 'flooding' when a main river burst its banks, or sea defences gave way and either the sea or a river inundated land - (whether farmland or urban areas).

But the Pitt Review introduced three new concepts of flooding

  • Pluvial flooding - which happens when natural and man-made drainage systems have insufficient capacity to deal with the volume of rainfall
  • Groundwater flooding - which occurs when heavy or prolonged rainfall makes the level water underground rise above its natural surface
  • Flooding from Ordinary Watercourses - that happens as a result of water overflowing from small streams, brooks and ditches channels

Sir Michael Pitt did a good job in defining these new causes of flooding, but until last week, our planning system had not caught up, because until then, our 'flood zones' are still defined by the earlier definition of inundation by rivers or sea. Even now, there are no national maps of groundwater flooding areas, and they don't even impact on the Environment Agency maps.

On 6th March 2014, in a separate, but linked, strand to this story, new guidance on flooding was issued by Government following the 'Taylor Review' of Planning Guidance to simplify planning.

From that date onward, for the purposes of applying the National Planning Policy Framework, 'flood risk' has been defined as "a combination of the probability and the potential consequences of flooding from all sources - including from rivers and the sea, directly from rainfall on the ground surface and rising groundwater, overwhelmed sewers and drainage systems, and from reservoirs, canals and lakes and other artificial sources."

That has brought the new 'Pitt review' definitions of flooding into mainstream planning policy.

The rough and dirty bulletpoint take on this (that some of our readers like) is that, in effect, government is about to 'nationalise' the drainage system in the UK. They are taking powers to control what must and may be done with drains and smaller watercourses.

The Pitt Review led directly to new legislation - 'The Flood and Water Management Act 2010' and, as a result, County Councils and Unitary Authorities across the UK have been designated as 'Lead Local Flood Authorities'

And now, national guidance on planning and flooding has also been changed.

The 2010 Act places a range of new powers, duties and responsibilities on the Lead Local Flood Authorities.

Many of these duties are completely new and have not been undertaken by any organisation before. Others may have been undertaken by different bodies in some areas, but are now to be carried out by the Lead Local Flood Authority

The result of this is that from (more or less) now onward (unless the picture changes again after the 2014 floods),

  • Flooding from sewage and from (most) reservoirs is exclusively to be the province of United Utilities.
  • Flooding from main rivers or the sea is the responsibility of the Environment Agency, and
  • the new Lead Local Flood Authorities are responsible for Surface Water Flooding, Groundwater Flooding, Highway Flooding, and Ordinary Watercourses.

Locally, Lancashire County Council and Blackpool Unitary Council are the new Lead Local Flood Authorities for our area, and they've been busy preparing for a start that was / is anticipated next month - in April 2014.

New staff have been appointed, and a draft of a joint 'Local Flood Risk Management Strategy' has been produced to guide their future working over the next 3 years or so.

After that they intend to review it every six years.

Apart from practical drainage matters, these bodies will also have a key role in decisions on planning applications to ensure that new development is both safe from the effects of flooding, and that it does not increase the risk of flooding.

We think this is where people will notice the biggest change.

Plans are already in place for a new Lead Local Flood Authority 'Supplementary Planning Guidance' document to be consulted by planning officers as part of the planning process - to ensure that local flood risk management issues are adequately considered.

Local Authority 'Core Strategies' will all reference this document.

Lead Local Flood Authorities will review and comment on Flood Risk Assessments submitted by developers as part of the planning application process.

The Environment Agency is consulted on flooding and drainage at present, and they will continue to addresses the risk of flooding from main rivers or the sea.

But because the Government's National Planning Policy Framework does not contain a robust mechanism to prevent development in areas at risk from local flood sources such as surface water runoff or smaller watercourses, Fylde Councillors (who have been shouting about this problem for years now), have been in a position where they were unable to refuse planning applications on the basis of local flood risks - because there was no evidence and no authoritative assessment made of 'groundwater flooding'. (as opposed to seas and main rivers) that could be used to justify refusal.

Hopefully this will change in the future.

The best that Fylde can do at present is attach a condition to a planning permission. This is a clunky one that was proposed to be attached to a recent application

"No development shall take place until a surface water drainage scheme for the site, based on sustainable drainage principles and an assessment of the hydrological and hydrogeological context of the development, has been submitted to and approved in writing by the local planning authority. The drainage strategy should demonstrate the surface water run-off generated up to and including the 1 in 100 year critical storm will not exceed the run-off from the undeveloped site following the corresponding rainfall event. The scheme shall also include details of how the scheme shall be maintained and managed after completion. The scheme shall subsequently be implemented in accordance with the approved details before the development is completed.

REASON: To prevent the increased risk of flooding, both on and off site. Surface water run-off should be controlled as near to its source as possible through a sustainable drainage approach to surface water management (SUDS). SUDS are an approach to managing surface water run-off which seeks to mimic natural drainage systems and retain water on or near the site as opposed to traditional drainage approaches which involve piping water off site as quickly as possible. SUDS involve a range of techniques including soakaways, infiltration trenches, permeable pavements, grassed swales, green roofs, ponds and wetlands. SUDS offer significant advantages over conventional piped drainage systems in reducing flood risk by attenuating the rate and quantity of surface water run-off from a site, promoting groundwater recharge absorbing diffuse pollutants and improving water quality. Ponds, reedbeds and seasonally flooded grasslands can be particularly attractive features within public open spaces. The variety of SUDS techniques available means that virtually any development should be able to include a scheme based around these principles and provide multiple benefits, reducing costs and maintenance needs. We also recommend that the developer considers the following, as part of the scheme:- Water management in the development, including, dealing with grey waters. Use of sustainable forms of construction including recycling of materials."

Other new aspects of the work of Lead Local Flood Authorities will include:

  • Maintaining a register of assets of physical features that have a significant effect on flooding in their area.
  • Investigating significant local flooding incidents and publish the results of such investigations.
  • Establishing a 'SuDS Approving Body' (SAB) for the design, building and operation of Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS).
  • 'Ordinary watercourse consenting' - which requires consent to be issued for altering, removing or replacing certain structures or features on ordinary watercourses.
  • Playing a lead role in emergency planning and recovery after a flood event.

Of these, the SuDS arena is the one that will affect most people.

SuDS stands for 'Sustainable Drainage System' and at its most simple it seeks to limit the rate at which rainwater enters a drainage system.

The idea is that it should not be able to enter the drainage system faster than it would have done if it had fallen on an open field.

The problems come when we build things - because roofs and gutters and downspouts and hard surface drives and patios around the houses, and the roadways and footpaths that get you to and from the housing, all transport rainwater very much more quickly than it filters through soil.

When you visualise the areas of hard surfacing in a modern housing estate you will see there are comparatively vast areas of roofs and hard surfacing where the water enters the drainage system via a grid or gulley very quickly.

When it does this there is a 'woosh' of water into the drains and into the watercourses which causes flooding toward the end of the line as the collective volume of water from thousands of upstream houses and roads heads toward the sea, or the river.

It causes ditch sides to overflow, or wells up through the ground and floods the land.

When you think that most of the land from about Stanley Park in Blackpool naturally drains toward Lytham Moss and the Ribble, and then consider the number of houses contributing surface water to that drainage system - houses that have been built on what were once green fields with a slow drainage rate, you get the picture.

For a few years now, developers, particularly in downstream areas, have been required to install measures to slow down the rate of water entering the drains. Typically these measures have used a narrow bore pipe (that restricts the rate of flow) as a final outlet. To do this, the developer has had to provide some way of holding back the water emanating from their hard surfaces.

One way is to use exceptionally large underground drainage pipes that can fill up like underground reservoirs when water comes in faster than it is allowed out - we illustrated this in plans for a development in Staining

Another is to build what are called 'balancing ponds' in the open air which do the same thing.

Open ditch / watercourse on a new housing extateMore recently, attention has moved to large, (preferably, shallow sided, but not always as in this picture) open ditches within housing areas which might have a trickle in the bottom most of the time

But in times of heavy rainfall, they swell to become larger, and sometimes deep water areas, releasing that water slowly and gradually to fall back to a trickle over a few days.

There are all sorts of problems that will come from these processes.

Consider a  situation such as the Jones Homes developments in Staining where the developments seem to be coming like slices of salami - a bit at a time, each extending from the previous one. Now imagine the drainage water pressure that would build up as say four or five developments try to exit through each other to reach the ultimate watercourse or main drain.

But there are also risks with the open water areas, especially on housing estates with young families. Open water and young children playing out on public open spaces have always been a recipe for disaster

And it will be the green public open spaces that will become the new repositories of artificially constructed open water and drainage watercourses.

And of course, older children's natural predilection to experiment with dam building in any stretch of moving water isn't going to help either.

Drainage spaces (such as old ditchlines) have been left in housing areas before of course. But over time, they inevitably become filled up with garden waste and grasscuttings, then they fail to have the width or depth to let water flow along them. These areas are usually seen by householders as 'waste land' and no one wants to maintain them.

Large areas of open water also brings the risk of birdstrike if the area is close to flightpaths at airports such as we have in Fylde, and, finally, if there are large areas of stored still or sluggish water close to housing, the 'Scottish Curse' of midges and mosquitoes can become a nuisance and sometimes a health risk.

So none of these methods is perfect and, as people living close to such systems will have seen, (and more will find out), it only needs a windblown plastic carrier bag to enter the drainage system on a stormy day to block the whole system up and cause localised flooding across roads and so on.

We therefore don't envy the task of the new SuDS Approving Body who will be responsible for approving the design of such systems.

These SuDS Approval Bodies will work in tandem with the planning system.

They will have to approve, (or otherwise), sustainable drainage proposals associated with any construction work for buildings, or any structure that covers land and will affect water absorption (and that includes patios), above certain thresholds.

From April 2014 they will do it for all major developments (10 or more dwellings and/or 0.5 hectares or greater of land).

They will also do it for redundant sites that are re-developed, and this is also being seen as a way to clean up the drainage system because Brownfield land often has what are called combined sewer systems - and when these overflow they discharge raw sewage into our rivers or the sea.

By focusing on a policy of Brownfield re-development, councils can help to reduce this problem (because redevelopment would be contingent on installing separate foul and surface water drainage systems and using SuDS for the surface water).

An example of this is the action plan for improving the bathing waters across the Fylde Peninsula that Fylde has signed up to, and which commits to installing 50 hectares of retrofitted SuDS by 2025 to reduce the runoff rate and volume that enters sewers and surface waters.

Typically, the components of a Sustainable Drainage System might include filter strips, swales, infiltration basins, detention basins, wet ponds, constructed wetlands, filter drains, infiltration devices and 'green roofs'.

These are - apparently without embarrassment - referred to as 'Soft SuDS' whilst the underground tanks and the like are (we presume) 'Hard SuDS'.

And then of course there will probably be the requirements, improve water quality and enhance amenity and biodiversity in the soft ones.

Once the principles have been established on large development, it is planned that anyone who builds more than one new house will be required to install a SuDS as part of their planning permission. We understand the intention to extend these regulations to smaller developments will happen quite quickly.

Government was planning new National Standards for sustainable drainage systems - including the designing, constructing, operating and maintaining drainage for surface runoff. A version of these was published by DEFRA in December 2011 but progress on them is currently stalled because of some complications (see later)

We understand that, in total, Lancashire County Council's 'Lead Local Flood Authority' department expects to consider around 2,000 planning applications a year. So it's going to need a few folk to look at what's being proposed, and probably to check things on sites as well. That's a biggish wage bill in the offing.

But the next part of the SuDS scheme is even more controversial.

The Government's 'Department for Food and Rural Affairs' is still working towards a finalised version of SuDS guidance where it is intended that the Lead Local Flood Authority will also have a duty to adopt and maintain those SuDS serving more than one property.

That's setting up a whole new quota of staffing and resources to work in a way that the Highway Authority does now. (Householders usually own the land outside their gardens to the middle of the road, but when the houses are built, the developer offers than land to the Highway Authority who 'adopt' (rather than actually own) it for maintenance purposes. So they sweep the pavements and roads, and clear out the gullies and so on).

The adopting of SuDS will create a whole new maintenance industry and we imagine they will have all sorts of powers to enter and work on land and so on.

It seems to us that whilst SuDS might have been thought a good idea when they were introduced, developers developed a dislike for them as they were increasingly demanded by planners. (Developers hate being responsible for things on sites they have 'finished' - so they don't want to have to look after them in perpetuity.)

Sometimes they have formed management companies comprised of all the householders (or to whom all the householders pay a service charge) to maintain the SuDS.

It sounds to us as though none of these arrangements has worked well enough, and, in future it will be a department of the County Council (or Blackpool within in their Unitary area), who is responsible for maintaining them.

We saw a quote in an official document that said "The SuDS legislation will be challenging to implement"

We think that's an understatement.

One of the other duties of Lead Local Flood Authorities is to 'Designate' assets or features that have a flood risk management function.

Designation will afford legal protection or status for some key structures or features (we imagine this would include things like weirs and spillways and trash screens and so on) that are privately owned and maintained but which make a contribution to the flood and coastal erosion risk management of people and property. It could be a feature associated with the flood risk relating to watercourses or the sea, or with coastal erosion risk.

If the owner of the 'designated asset' wants to do works or alterations that will significantly affect its flood risk management function, they will have to apply for consent from the designating authority.

That's not going to be popular.

Designation is effected by the 'designating authority' serving a legally binding notice on the owner of the feature, and, crucially (and to us amazingly), this notice will also constitute a local land charge.

This means that the notice will also apply to successive owners or occupiers of the land or property automatically.

That may well affect the sale value of some areas of land.

There will also be powers to 'serve notice' on a private land owner or an organisation if they have undertaken works on an ordinary watercourse without seeking consent first. This is because works undertaken to drainage systems could cause flooding further downstream for example.

So what's it all going to cost?

Well, the Government (via DEFRA) is currently providing an annual grant of 36 million a year to the 152 Lead Local Flood Authorities in England and Wales. Each is getting between 110,000 and 750,000 a year depending on their flooding 'need'.

Lancashire ranks 8th out of the 152 areas (and we think they're currently getting about 150,000 this (or last) year but it's not yet exactly clear. and they're not up and running yet)

Blackpool ranks 138th.

It's expected that some of the national funding will continue into the future.

But when new development occurs, a levy can be charged to cover the cost of new public facilities that are required as a result of the development.

Larger strategic developments have the potential to generate Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) funds which could be used to contribute to some 'flooding' prevention schemes, and especially those which will have multiple benefits, e.g. pond or wetlands that can attenuate surface water as well as providing what the planners call 'improved amenity value'.

Other local sources (e.g. Business Rate Supplements) are also being considered.

But the key issue of interest is likely to be that the Lead Local Flood Authority is expected be able to bill owners of new homes for *maintenance* of the SuDS.

At the moment, we're not clear whether that's going to be just the new households that go onto SuDS, or whether it will be a new tax that everyone has to pay. We think it's the former, but are not yet able to be definite on this matter.

It's also hoped (by a beleaguered Government trying to REDUCE public spending) that local communities, (perhaps supported by local councils and the Environment Agency), could, themselves, undertake things like the direct maintenance of watercourses, the reporting of flood events, and volunteering as flood wardens and being involved in local management of flooding.

If they're also having to pay new taxes for this, we suspect that idea too could be, ahem, 'challenging.'

We also suspect that's what's causing the big delay in implementing the plans.

On Monday 6 January DEFRA Minister Dan Rogerson announced that "regrettably, it is looking increasingly unlikely that we will be in a position to ensure that the scheme comes into force this April, which was our preferred date for implementation as stated previously".

Then the, BBC news carried a report saying the government was in "turmoil" over the implementation of rules to prevent housing developments making floods worse.

They said a deal had been reached on the long-standing question of how drainage features should be maintained, with Lead Local Flood Authorities being responsible for maintaining drainage features, such as ponds and grassy areas located to catch water running off roofs, but the policy remained postponed indefinitely because civil service cuts had left ministers "incapable" of implementing the policy.

Some argue this set-up is fair because owners of existing homes have to have their run-off water treated by water firms through the sewerage system, but after four years of arguing between Government, Councils and developers, the BBC say government has indefinitely postponed plans to introduce the new measures from April to allow time for further talks on details.

All political parties have described the discussions as "extremely sensitive" - and understandably so.

New taxes are not the most popular things, and the BBC said detailed policy on how the features will be cared for has been paralysed, with 500m worth of spending cuts at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) causing regular reshuffles of staff, and leaving key players unable to agree on how the schemes should be progressed.

Apart from probable public resistance to payment, there have been, (and are still) simmering conflicts between those environmentally driven folk who want 'green' drainage measures such as ponds on all new developments, and builders who want flexibility and to be able to catch run-off water in giant underground tanks. Developers fear that areas of open water will take up land and mean less houses which means it could put up the cost of the housing.

You can see why this is a rats nest of a problem, can't you?

Richard Ashley, Sheffield University's professor of urban water, told the BBC: "It is ridiculous. The government is ideologically in favour of deregulation but it's supposed to be introducing this complicated piece of legislation with a demoralised department with civil servants that keep changing." adding that "The housebuilders are lobbying furiously behind the scenes."

So, are local council planning departments up to speed?

We'd have thought that Local Authority Development Management Committees up and down the country would have had briefings, and maybe even meetings, to explain what the impact of the new measures is likely to be, and how planning applications will be affected after April.

Admittedly we haven't done a detailed survey, but we don't recall seeing anything about this matter on an agenda for Fylde's DM (or any other) Committee, and the few Councillors we have asked about it returned blank looks and silence. So we think it's not widely known about yet.

Once the Government has had a re-think about what its guidance will be on National Standards for Sustainable Drainage Systems, or maybe after April when it is half implemented and half not, we can expect to see more news about this matter.

And we'll bring it to our readers when there is more to tell.

Dated:   17 March 2014


To be notified when a new article is published, please email