SuDS in Scandinavia
Graham Fairhurst, Independent Consultant and Chair Susdrain Project Steering Group
Part of my career has been spent working in Norway in connection with planning and major development projects. Naturally this has brought me into close contact with environmental and sustainability issues. Through contacts I have made, I have also had the opportunity to look at some examples of what is happening in connection with SuDS in Denmark and Sweden. In this note, it is these three countries I am referring to when I use the term: Scandinavia.
Obviously, within a short blog, a comprehensive or definitive picture cannot be given. This note is therefore a personal reflection and is intended to provide a comparator to the situation of SuDS in the UK and particularly England. At the time I first considered writing a blog there was clarity in UK that we should have national standards and a mandated adoption process with SuDS approving and adopting bodies. As we know, this is no longer the case and the intention is that SuDS be implemented through the planning process. In some respects this takes us closer to the position in parts of Scandinavia. In reality we have probably started further up a snowy slope and have slid downhill past the Scandinavians.
The profile of environmental matters is quite high generally in Scandinavia, but the reality can be somewhat different. As in UK, policy work in Scandinavia tends to be reasonably good, but can be subject to watering down through local politics and expediencies. As a lot of Scandinavian cities are coastal and at sea level, on major rivers and sometimes surrounded by steep mountainous catchments, they are vulnerable to climate change. This is appreciated as a serious issue for planning to address and there is some good practice around ‘blue/green development’. However, the picture is patchy.
Moving specifically onto SuDS: The first thing to say is that SuDS work. They work in the extremely wet climate of western Norway and in the extremely cold winters of central parts of Scandinavia, and they work on a wide range of soil types.
SuDS have been employed for many years in Scandinavia for draining main roads promoted and maintained by the equivalents of Highways England. Swales, basins and balancing ponds are normal on all new road projects and they all seem to work well. The under-drained swale instead of a grass verge is an almost universal feature on roads outside of highly urbanised areas. Trees, lampposts and traffic signs are often planted in swales. They all seem to thrive.
For SuDS in developments, local authorities are the major players. The planning policy and planning regulation roles are used to secure the use of SuDS and local councils generally will adopt SuDS in the same way as they adopt roads, foul sewers and surface water sewers. Councils are financed for the maintenance of SuDS through the normal drainage charges to households and businesses. Significantly, these bills are presented by councils as utility bills (sometimes also including septic tank emptying and chimney sweeping). They are itemised and are not merged within the general council taxation. The government requires all these utility type services to be provided purely on a cost recovery basis and they are benchmarked between councils.
The maintenance aspects are not seen as onerous and are integrated with landscape maintenance, grass cutting, litter picking etc.
However, in Norway, there are no national standards as such for SuDS. Normally there will be a design requirement to achieve greenfield run-off from sites on previously un-developed land and for betterment in run-off from re-used sites. However, the standards and detail requirements can vary from one council to the next and there is no real evidence of a water quality standard and little use of source control. Therefore balancing ponds and receiving waters downstream of developed areas are often murky (but less so than if SuDS were not used).
The distinction between SuDS and surface water sewers and watercourses is often unclear. Watercourses become integrated into SuDS schemes. Surface water sewers flow into SuDS and SuDS flow into surface water sewers. Since councils deal with all of these, the distinctions matter little.
It is fair to say that there is a lack of enthusiasm for SuDS from some developers and knowledge of SuDS amongst consultants is still very variable. Councils therefore can meet opposition to the use of SuDS. There are therefore still a lot of surface water sewers built in new developments which end up in a balancing pond before connection to the receiving watercourse. Integration of SuDS into the development is also very variable and many balancing ponds are built with steep or vertical stone-lined sides and then provided with a chain link fence around them.
There is a culture in Scandinavia for some aspects of local infrastructure to be maintained by residents through voluntary inputs and/or a local charge. This might include landscaped areas and play areas. In a number of places, local SuDS are managed within this culture by residents and not therefore not adopted by the council. There tends to be more source control and better integration of SuDS into the landscaping in such areas. These areas are invariably seen as public realm. This form of management would not be seen as robust and generally not used beyond the ‘cul-de-sac or couple of blocks of flats’ scale.
Probably the most common type of source control to be seen are grassed roofs and these are often integrated into high density developments which may be terraced on sloping sites and where the grass roof (e.g. over a parking cellar) forms communal amenity space.
What can the UK learn from this picture?
- Perhaps that a clear funding stream directly linking the assets to the maintenance organisation (council) is highly desirable. It is a big incentive to adoption, and provides accountability and security for good quality long-term maintenance. The funding of local authorities for managing SuDS has amazingly been an unresolved ongoing issue for SuDS in the UK. The absence of a robust funding stream linking those who benefit from infrastructure to those who maintain it and where those who adopt infrastructure know they will get paid properly for doing so is an ongoing issue. For some reason the cost of maintaining SuDS is seen as a burden in the UK whereas the costs associated with foul drainage, surface water sewerage, mobile phones, electricity and lots of other services, perhaps even car tax, are not. Scandinavians are OK about paying for all services they receive from providers, so long as everyone is paying on an equitable basis.
- National standards are probably a good idea. It must be hard work for developers and consultants in Norway working with the numerous local authorities with different, and perhaps sometimes undocumented, approaches to SuDS. The wide variation in approaches does not really help build capacity in consultants or secure consistently good design. There must be risk of SuDS in England entering this sort of vagueness and worse.
- Without some expression of ‘rights and duties’ between the various stakeholders in water in the UK, we could encounter problems and variable practice at the interfaces of SuDS and surface water sewers and watercourses.
- Strong direction from local policy planning is probably a good idea. In Norway, policy planning tends to be rather undetailed and is often ignored, or treated with flexibility. This means that an awful lot of detail to do with SuDS, highways, building types, building heights, density, landscaping has to be brokered through the actual planning applications. These can take years to get approved. (Policy plans are in fact more detailed in connection with car parking standards than for SuDS!) For the SuDS position as now directed within England, it would seem essential for all local plans to express clear and reasonably detailed policies on SuDS. This will certainly be to the benefit of developers, ensuring consistency of treatment and more effective process through the planning application itself. An issue here would seem to be that of where the role of LLFA fits into the picture. It would probably be helpful if this role had a strong focus on input into planning policy, perhaps more so that checking detail within actual planning applications. This would help provide more quality and consistency of approach.
- A key issue is going to be building up knowledge and skills around SuDS in local authority planners. In Scandinavia the knowledge is generally in place, partly because of accountability. They understand they are safeguarding not just the community in ensuring robust SuDS solutions, but also the council itself – as it will be picking up the maintenance.
The picture around SuDS in Scandinavia is not one which ‘SuDS enthusiasts’ could describe as ‘SuDS heaven’, but there are certainly some aspects that can be learnt from. Too often with study trips overseas, one tends to look solely at the technical aspects. This note highlights that there is probably more to be learned from the cultural, policy and financial aspects than from looking at how water flows through the SuDS features themselves.