08Oct 2012

Communities and surface water management… is it a no brainer?

Owen Davies, Sustainability Engineer, Lambeth Council


There is a distinct divide between who provides flood defence and who benefits and it is apparent that this divide should or does not need to be questioned it’s a basic formula which works “if it aint broke don’t fix it” the providers know best and the beneficiaries.


There is a clear move from Government to move away from a prescriptive Nanny State where all are spoon fed and told what is best for them, toward “Big Society” where all are responsible for their own actions. The question has to be what works best Big Government or Big Society? Does flood defence fall within Big Government?


So what I am saying? Big Society should take over and let the beneficiaries’ just get on with it and those who shout loudest will be protected? No, there is still the need, role and responsibility of Big Government and that needs to remain given the importance of a strategic role which beneficiaries would not have sight of.


What needs to be realised is that the beneficiaries’ (often the community) actually have an important and as valuable role to play which will deliver real measurable benefits in flood defence, alleviation and mitigation, in essence they are providers and we also need them to be more resilient.


How can we unlock this vast wealth of resource? Are we not just going to end up with the same old people doing the same old thing? Is one community going to benefit over another? The questions are endless and are with out doubt well rehearsed, with the same old answers and same old outcomes – the provider knows best so let the provider carry on telling the beneficiary what they need to do and when. Yet out of Government comes the messages of Big Society and “Nudge” so how can beneficiaries make decisions and take actions which deliver flood risk management with added benefits, such as biodiversity, green infrastructure, climate change adaptation?



Paved front gardens

It is well documented that in London we have lost the equivalent of seven Hyde Parks to impermeable surfaces, DCLG issued revised guidance surrounding permitted development rights for paving front gardens, this came into force 1st October 2008. So has this concrete monster been halted in it’s steps, have we as Big Government stopped this creep (or more realistically march) of the impermeable surface, are these gardens now having permeable surfaces incorporated into their design, are areas of garden being maintained? If you ask yourself honestly the answer will be no and it is more than likely that the concrete monster is advancing at the same rate of knots as pre October 2008. The real issue with this change was always who was going to enforce and ultimately how do you force residents and businesses to do what you say whilst hiding behind legislation?


Public highway

The public highway is the domain of the Highway Engineer, they know best don’t they? If it’s a road it’s directly drained, there are services underneath it, and there are things which are placed on it and above it. It is a functional asset which gets goods, people and services from A-B. We can’t have water on it as that will affect it’s function and if water stays in the structure of the highway well that will just destroy the asset, wont it?



Well that’s it then really, a pretty useless blog which just reaffirms the status-quo, why we are here and that the providers are right, so off we go, nothing more to discuss ……or is there?


Lets look at these three topic areas again maybe from the angle of a resident or the communities we’re working with?


Paved front gardens

“I really like to park my car on my front garden, though all that concrete is a little bland it would be nice to have a little flower bed, a little kerb appeal, or a space where I could grow some tomatoes in the summer as the garden is south facing. Though I don’t have the time and how am I going to get the materials I need and I’m going to need some heavy duty equipment to do that, oh and I’ll have to get rid of the rubbish. You know what I’ll leave it” – is there a role here for the provider to offer a service, can we not through term maintenance contractors offer the ability to help, possibly remove the rubbish?, provide tools?, expertise?


This has been done in the USA and Canada, and just started in London, front gardens can be Depaved all residents need is a little help and support, by organising a workshop to show residents what to look for and how best to undertake the work together they can De-pave their front gardens, as providers we need to support them, with tools, expertise, materials and waste disposal. This approach allows residents and the community to take control of their environment without the provider telling what and how it also makes the street look a little nicer whilst reducing surface water run off and providing the necessary links to green infrastructure delivery, climate change adaptation and potentially better quality of life.


Public highway

“That Mrs Smith from number 23 is at it again, she’s been digging up that grass verge and planting winter flowering pansies, did you not speak to her and tell her she can’t do it?”  this is sometimes a familiar conversation within highways departments so why are we so adverse to residents planting tree pits and forgotten pieces of highway, is it really that bad? Yes there is a Health & Safety issue and yes there could be issues surrounding utilities. Though if we ask Mrs Smith and her neighbours and other residents what and why they would like to plant these areas we might find out that they just want it to look nice, is that a bad thing? Can we not help them? Can we not possibly change profiles and create areas they can look after which we know to be safe and actually reduce surface water run off and as a plus make the public highway a space to actually be enjoyed? Is that such a bad thing?


Final conclusion

All of these options have been done in the real world with positive benefits and ultimately ownership by individuals and communities who have gained a greater understanding of flooding and what can be done to protect against it and also provide solutions to reduce the risk, after all this is what we are trying to achieve isn’t it?


We generally have to consult on schemes, or if we are undertaking a property level scheme why can’t we incorporate these wider beneficial actions when we are discussing flooding? In Lambeth with Sustrans we are engaging a community about the possibility of introducing rain gardens in the highway, though we want to look at wider issues and introduce discussions surrounding water efficiency, Depaving, food production, climate change adaptation, green roofs on extensions or sheds, disconnecting drain pipes etc, yet in reality this is really a road safety scheme, so much more can be discussed and delivered for very little (additional) cost.


Is it that difficult to ask the question “how can we help?” and not “This is what you have to do?”

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