As we deal with deluge and an Atlantic weather conveyor bringing us front after front of rain in early January, it is encouraging to have some welcome news from Defra about their desire to press ahead with the implementation of Schedule 3 of the Floods & Water Management Act 2010, which covers the vitally important subject of sustainable drainage.
In the last decade or so, considerable progress has been made to improve the levels of protection from coastal and river flooding, but surface water flooding has remained as the “Achilles heel” of wider flood risk management strategy. Sustainable drainage has long been seen as the solution to dealing with excess surface water, mitigating the impact of urban development. However, it requires a grasping of the problem, which has been for some time passed from pillar to post.
The publication by Defra on 10 January 2023 of the Review into the implementation of Schedule 3 is a very welcome step, but be under no illusion that much hard work is required by all to create the policy and strategic framework for SuDS which is manageable, acceptable, and affordable. First of all, thanks must go to David Jenkins for pushing hard on the subject in his Surface Water & Drainage Review of Responsibilities of May 2020, and secondly to the Defra officers who have seen the importance of the subject, supported by many industry and professional voices around them.
Having been part of the Advisory Group for the Schedule 3 review process, it is very encouraging to see the clear recommendations coming from the report and the strong support of the Environment Minister to push through the implementation process at the earliest opportunity. Much of the “low hanging fruit” for the Programme of flood and coastal erosion risk management (FCERM) schemes has now been achieved. Like many others, ADA believes that national attention now needs to be turned to maintenance and operational interventions on our rivers and coastal defences, AND sustainable drainage. That increased attention will have significant effect on reducing not only surface water flood risk in our towns and cities and food-producing countryside, but will also allow for the often unseen effects of high groundwater levels to be dealt with too.
The review recognises that there are obstacles to overcome, not least the resources and funding to do the job properly. However, the key finding is a clear one that the oversight, management and accountability for sustainable drainage sits best within the public sector and that unitary authorities or county councils should assume the role of SuDS Approving Bodies (SAB), approving SuDS serving more than one property, adopting SuDS serving more than one property, and crucially, maintaining those adopted into the future.
That does not mean that local authorities have to do all the work alone, the review supports the idea of them working closely with internal drainage boards and other partners to deliver, manage and maintain sustainable drainage systems. The review also clearly states that “the net additional cost of all new burdens placed on local authorities is assessed and funded”. For a policy that has waited over a decade to be implemented questions inevitably remain. Where there is little or no new public money available for the foreseeable future, how might we be able to leverage other sources of funding into sustainable drainage? How can we also take advantage of bringing biodiversity gains and sustainable drainage together in ways which can show physical, social and economic benefits for all? How can we ensure adequate maintenance of these critical drainage systems?
The real weakness in the system could be the skills and expertise needed. Many of us have shouted long and hard that we are losing experience and knowledge within the flood and water management sector, with many long-serving experts taking well-earned retirement. The same number of experts coming through behind lags well behind the numbers we are losing.
SuDS will need a range of experts from within the sciences, economics and humanities skill sets but little is being done to encourage our next generations to take up these life-long careers. We need to shout loud to our schools and universities to promote and champion the concepts of sustainable water management – (note that I have purposely dropped the word drainage) – and to show, like me and many others have, how you can spend an enjoyable and fulfilling career in the subject with a sense of public duty in all that is achieved.
The way forward will require diplomacy, negotiation, technical knowhow and above all cross-bench political co-operation, and the enthusiasm, courage and willingness by all partners to crack this nut and not push it into the long grass again.
Chief Executive, ADA
10 January 2023