Written evidence submitted by Water UK [FPS 140]
Water UK is the representative body and policy organisation for the water industry. Our vision is of a sector that provides customers and communities with world-class services and enhances the UK's quality of life.
Our sector is integral to the protection and enhancement of the UK’s rivers and seas and the habitats around them. We invest over £1 billion every year on environmental improvements, including a programme over the next five years to enhance 7,500 miles of river and to be net zero carbon by 2030. This is a vital part of ensuring the safe and sustainable supply of clean water for our customers.
The companies that we represent plan for and deliver significant infrastructure across the UK – with around £50billion due to be invested over the next five years. Having an effective planning framework is therefore essential for enabling water companies to deliver environmental improvements, support sustainable housing, and underpin a Green Recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.
We have focused this submission on the most relevant areas of interest to our sector.
1. Is the current planning system working as it should do? What changes might need to be made? Are the Government’s proposals the right approach?
The current planning system provides an imperfect safeguard for the environment and communities. There are number of areas where the planning system (and White Paper proposals) could be refined to improve delivery of high-quality sustainable homes – without sacrificing speed.
Within the government’s Planning White Paper, there are some welcome proposals, but these are limited in detail, and they need significant improvement to allow water companies to facilitate sustainable development. Below, we have set out some ideas for how to strengthen existing and proposed provisions to remove unintended consequences.
- A framework for tackling long term cross boundary issues
Water and drainage are classic ‘cross boundary’ issues. However, for water companies, the Duty to Cooperate has not been an effective mechanism for coordinating the delivery of key infrastructure, leading to less effective and more costly outcomes.
A sub-national strategic planning mechanism is of fundamental importance for managing cross-boundary issues like water resources, river water quality and flood risk, where understanding risk and potential solutions requires joint agreement and partnership-working across many councils and their partners. Such a mechanism is critical to bring together plans and programmes representing significant investment to avoid duplication, confusion and missed opportunities.
We strongly urge the replacement of the Duty to Cooperate with an effective form of policy-based strategic planning, particularly in growth areas, that meets the following principles:
As well as guiding our members’ own planning applications for infrastructure projects, Local Plans are the foundation for utilities to understand investment requirements for given areas and input into the spatial distribution of growth. They help tell us how much water and drainage supply will be needed in a given community. This is important, because in some areas it can take years to plan and deliver that capacity – particularly, for example, where treatment works need upgrading.
Within the White Paper, our members are concerned about how in practice sites annotated as growth areas (and so given automatic planning permission for the principle of development) will capture specific technical issues. To enable development, water and sewerage companies work closely with local authorities to support the creation of evidence that informs the location and timing of development. Individual sites are then able to refine the details through taking advantage of pre-planning services and discussions through the planning application process. With such significant frontloading of evidence, it is unclear how matters, such as integrated water management, connection points and infrastructure upgrades, will be assessed.
A further concerning consequence would be the reduction of information for utilities to understand the phasing and delivery rate of development.
For protected areas, there are many details to follow to understand how they will work in practice and ensure that all areas of natural capital and green infrastructure are protected. Specifically, the definition of protected areas does not consider wider issues, including the environmental and landscape value, outside of nationally designated sites, including local designations such as Local Green Spaces. Equally, our members recognise the fundamental importance of protecting natural capital and would, therefore, like to see clear reference to how they interface with nature recovery areas and networks.
As essential infrastructure providers, many of water and sewerage companies assets, including sewage treatment works, are in rural areas that could fall within protected area designations. To ensure that such infrastructure can continue to be upgraded to accommodate growth, it is important that exemptions and conditions for infrastructure in such areas are clearly set out.
In renewal areas, it is important that the planning system helps address historic and persistent problems, such as surface water flooding and inadequate drainage. In some cases, multi-sector consideration of the causes of flood risk or drainage issues could help remove constraints on wider development.
We support the principle of improving the accessibility of Local Plans by using the latest digital technology, making plans visual and maps-based. Such improvements will significantly improve transferability to infrastructure structure planning processes and demonstrating how essential infrastructure aligns to growth proposals. Prepared in such a format there will also be more opportunities for integration of investment plans by giving local authorities, developers, utility providers and other stakeholders a common platform to assess the relationship between growth and infrastructure.
A strong focus of the White Paper is improving the delivery of new homes to meet housing needs across England. The provision of enabling utilities, like water supply and sewerage, is a critical part of achieving this aim. In 2019, the Letwin Review found that while more can be done to work closer with utilities to assist the delivery of infrastructure, utilities do not in themselves impede the build out rate.
While the Local Plan site allocation process does provide an indication of what sites could come forward over a 15-year period, it is not able to provide the necessary detail. The detail lacking includes the scale and form of development, and the relevant site constraints; both of which are needed to enable upfront investment in utility infrastructure. As many planning applications do not proceed to timely development, the granting of planning consent does not provide sufficient confidence to justify investment in supporting infrastructure.
Therefore, we urge greater exploration of options to:
a) Fill the information gap between planned development and construction. While our members seek to work closely with the development sector, more can be done to provide notice to infrastructure providers that a development is due to commence, supported by information on the expected phasing and build out rates. This is important to ensure that infrastructure providers align investment to the right places at the right time.
b) Update evidence for infrastructure planning. We believe that effective infrastructure planning and consideration is not facilitated by long infrastructure lists that do not consider adaptive pathways and multi-sector solutions. Infrastructure delivery plans are at best inconsistent in terms of quality and, at worst, duplicate other plans and programmes. They are also commonly prepared to support a Local Plan and so reflect a specific moment in time, rather than be a dynamic or ‘live’ assessment of capacity and constraints. Stakeholder engagement and co-creation of our plans and programmes is now a key part of the long-term strategies on water resources and water quality – we believe that there is an opportunity to draw on such evidence to bring infrastructure closer, improve transparency and help make effective use of resources.
c) Water UK believes that any approach to large new developments in the form of urban extensions/new settlements needs to be given further careful consideration. Our key concern with the planning for new settlements does not rest with the consenting regime. We believe local authorities lack sufficient powers and resources to set up delivery vehicles which satisfactorily co-ordinate the delivery of new settlements with infrastructure especially on large sites in fragmented ownership. We would support proposals that allocated additional powers to local authorities which enabled them to set up organisations which were able to co-ordinate and secure up-front infrastructure delivery for new settlements and other large development sites.
Finally, while water and sewerage providers do not make use of the community infrastructure levy directly, the proposed removal of S106 would reduce our water companies’ ability and flexibility to secure management and maintenance of sustainable drainage on development sites. The government should consider the introduction of a clear standalone mechanism for agreeing such arrangements.
3. How can the planning system ensure that buildings are beautiful and fit for purpose?
Our priority is a planning system which is responsive to the scale of the climate change challenge. We consider this to be as important as speeding up the delivery of new housing. Therefore, the planning system needs to ensure that new buildings are built with the highest standards of water efficiency and flood risk resilience at the heart of design.
Evidence from the National Infrastructure Commission, the Committee on Climate Change, the Environment Agency, and the Public Accounts Committee, among many others, show that using less water is critical to safeguarding the environment, and supporting sustainable housing growth. Despite significant water company investment in, and encouragement to, reduce water use, average consumption per person has only reduced from 150 litres per day in 2000 to 142 litres per day today. This puts the UK behind countries such as Denmark and Belgium where daily consumption averages 115 litres per person per day. To spur real progress, it is clear that policy change is needed, alongside renewed efforts from companies and consumers.
Within the planning system, national water efficiency standards should be a floor, rather than a ceiling, on the ambition of local government and housing developers to safeguard long term water supply resilience. The Planning White Paper provides no clarity on whether local government will retain powers to set higher design standards as a mechanism to release constrained development.
Regarding the Future Homes Standard, we believe there must be a strong focus on improving resource efficiency as a whole – focusing on water as well as energy. As such, the Future Homes Standard should include:
a) The highest standards of water efficiency in new developments. As a minimum, new homes should be designed to use no more than 100 litres per person per day (l/p/d). This will enable a level playing field for developers across the country, and help achieve greater water efficiency beyond the 110l/p/d a day that is already commonplace in many areas of the country.
This should be linked to the introduction of mandatory efficiency labelling for water-using products, like dishwashers and washing machines, and a national water saving target – on which we have been waiting over a year for a government response to the consultation.
Tighter Building Regulations are a key part of addressing the long term challenges to water supply resilience. For example, an independent review by the Energy Savings Trust found that the introduction of a mandatory water label, linked to an 85 litres per day target in the Building Regulations and minimum standards, over a 25-year period, could result in:
b) Green and grey water capture and reuse, at both the property and development level. In particular, we urge policy changes to promote:
c) High quality, multi-functional, sustainable drainage systems (SuDS). Creation of green spaces through SuDS can deliver biodiversity, water quality and flood risk benefits, as well as reduce pressures on public sewers and drinking water supplies. Good quality SuDS that deliver a range of biodiversity, water quality and other benefits are still the exception, rather than the rule, in new development.
Water companies will now adopt and maintain SuDS as sewers, under the Water Industry Act 1991, should they meet the right criteria. This will help resolve the question of ongoing maintenance which has hindered the inclusion of SuDS in developments. Alongside the removal of the automatic right for developers to connect to the sewer network (enacting Schedule 3 of the Flood and Water Management Act), there is a real opportunity to ensure surface water management is natural by default.
Elsewhere, Building Regulations should also be updated to include clear processes and metrics for reporting operational performance in terms of energy and water consumption, to make it easier to monitor the effectiveness of standards.
Finally, we welcome reference within the Planning White Paper to an assessment of ‘the extent to which our [government] planning policies and processes for managing flood risk need to be strengthened along with developing a national framework of green infrastructure standards’. It is critical that any review of the planning policies and processes for managing flood risk are linked to these wider flood risk policy debate. These include the right to connect surface water to the public sewer; and a review of the non-statutory technical standards for sustainable drainage.
5. What is the best approach to ensure public engagement in the planning system? What role should modern technology and data play in this?
Within the White Paper, we welcome the commitment to make better use of digital technology, however, the proposals for planning for infrastructure and connected places miss the opportunity to support the accelerated delivery of utilities provision to support housing development. Such measures can complement the simplified planning route for housing development and ensure that supporting infrastructure can be aligned. These could include: