MPs to debate planning bill to protect UK homes from surface flooding

Story taken from The Guardian


Moves to protect more households from the threats of surface flooding and sewer overload will be debated in parliament on Monday, with the government facing possible defeat in a key vote.

Surface flooding is a growing problem, with at least 20,000 sewer overflows occurring in the UK a year. It is caused by the overloading of Britain’s antiquated sewer and drainage networks, and the concreting over of large swaths of land which leaves water with nowhere to be absorbed.

With the government promising hundreds of thousands of new houses in the next few years, this problem is likely to accelerate. At present, housing developers are able to connect new homes to existing sewage and water networks without having to upgrade them, which puts new houses and nearby existing ones at the threat of overload and flooding, and the unpleasant effects that come from sewage outflows.

An amendment to the housing and planning bill, to be discussed in the Lords on Monday, would remove this right and require builders to use “sustainable drainage systems”, which can include incorporating vegetation and other features to allow water to be naturally absorbed.

The government opposes the amendment, but a cross-party group of peers may muster enough votes from rebel Tories to defeat ministers.

Baroness Parminter of the Liberal Democrats, Baroness Barbara Young of Labour and the crossbench peer Lord Krebs tabled the amendment, which also has the support of water companies and expert bodies such as the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, the Institution of Civil Engineers, the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT).

Richard Benwell, head of government affairs at the WWT, said the bill was a test of whether the government was serious about tackling flooding. “Building new homes that are naturally resilient from the outset is much more affordable than dealing with the consequences later, and can do wonders for water quality and nature,” he said.

Parminter told the Guardian: “We see this as a vitally important step in cutting down the risk of surface water flooding. [At present] there are big let-out clauses for housing developers, as they don’t have to put measures in place that would help prevent flooding, and that is putting people at risk.”

The Home Builders Federation, which represents developers, said it was not taking a definitive position on the amendment. A spokesman told the Guardian: “The industry will continue to engage with all the relevant authorities and water companies to agree surface water drainage strategies for new developments in a way that meets the proposed amendments to surface water requirements.”

Legislation to cut down surface water flooding has a long history. After the Pitt review in 2008 of the disastrous floods of 2007, the Flood and Water Management Act of 2010 made provisions for the use of sustainable drainage systems, and an end to the automatic right to connect new homes to existing sewage networks. However, these provisions were never implemented, and instead a voluntary system asking developers to follow these practices was put in place.

But water experts say this has not worked: an analysis by the Committee on Climate Change’s sub-committee on adaptation found that of 100 planning applications in areas of flood risk, less than than 15% were going to incorporate sustainable drainage measures.

While it is impossible to say how many of the tens of thousands of cases of homes every year that suffer surface water flooding are affected by newly built housing, the problem is set to increase if housebuilding picks up as the government plans. The bill overall is aimed at encouraging the construction of 300,000 new homes a year.

The Environment Agency, which publishes maps showing the risk of surface flooding across England, found that two-thirds of the 55,000 properties affected by flooding in 2007 were because drains, sewers and ditches were overwhelmed with water, and in London nearly all flooding was owing to surface water overload. A majority of the insurance claims made annually on flooding are now because of surface water.

If the UK’s new homes are built without regard to surface drainage and sewage networks, the result could be disastrous, said Parminter. “If you buy a new house, you have the right to expect that it will be built to the highest standards,” she said. “People would be shocked to find that they could be liable to flooding because of the failure [of developers] to take these basic measures.”

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