EFRA Call for Evidence
Written evidence submitted by United Utilities (FLO0064)
United Utilities is responsible for water and wastewater services for 7 million customers in the North West of England. Under the Flood and Water Management Act, 2010, the company is a Flood Risk Management Authority and responsible for managing the risk of flooding from its network of sewers, reservoirs and other assets. As a Risk Management Authority, we strive to work in collaboration with other agencies to tackle flood risk management as a North West partnership and we welcome the opportunity to respond to this call for evidence.
Flood and coastal risk management is the responsibility of multiple agencies, of which water companies are one. The drainage network is interconnected and Flood Risk Management Authorities (RMAs) strive to work in collaboration to tackle these issues as often flooding in an area impacts all agencies.
The Regional Flood and Coastal Committee (RFCC) in the North West is an positive collaboration of drainage authorities and has enabled the development of effective relationships between agencies and good examples of collaborative and partnership working.
Flood risk management is directed through the Flood and Water Management Act, 2010 which lists the flooding responsibilities of each organisation. This drives investment for each RMA and prioritises their areas of focus. Despite best endeavours to address flood risk holistically this can result in a disparate approach to flood risk management. As an example, the Environment Agency will focus on reducing flood risk from the rivers and sea and commonly a solution may be to increase the height of flood defences along a river bank. In doing this there can be an increased risk of surface water flooding and sewer flooding where combined sewer overflows become river locked. This risk is not always considered as part of the project solution scope and so the resulting consequences are for the water company to resolve. The recent changes to the Environment Agency project appraisal process, using the partnership funding calculator, does now consider the impact on other infrastructure and so starts to positively address this issue, but more could be done.
Water companies are currently developing their Drainage and Wastewater Management Plans (DWMPs). This framework was developed in recognition that drainage and flood management is a shared responsibility and that collaboration is key to its success. Drainage assets are owned by multiple organisations and so water companies must develop these plans in partnership with these other RMAs. The concept of having one drainage and wastewater plan for an area will help facilitate holistic flood risk management, however currently other RMAs do not have a statutory duty to co-operate with the development of these plans. This may lead to a lack of information in the plan about other sources of surface water flooding and limit the development of holistic efficient solutions.
Although we are largely supportive of the Draft Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management (FCERM) Strategy published by the EA last year, there was a significant omission as the strategy did not reference the development of DWMPs. All risk management authorities should consider each other’s plans and build their strategies in order to achieve holistic flood risk management, so that all sources of flood risk and responsibility are aligned. In the North West we are working closely with the EA to plan together for the DWMPs and the Flood Risk Management Plans (FRMPs) with the aim to review how the River Basin Management Plans and Water Resources Management Plans can also be incorporated and provide one water management plan for the region.
To achieve effective sustainable flood risk management in England, which takes into account the increasing pressures of climate change and population growth, legislation must be developed so that organisations are supported to consider all sources of flood risk for integrated planning rather than continuing to focus on core responsibilities under the Flood and Water Management Act.
In the North West, we have experienced many large scale flooding incidents over the last five years; December 2015, June 2016, September 2016, November 2017, July 2019, November 2019 and February 2020. We work closely with our partners during these incidents to respond and recover in the best way possible. We also support the EA and LLFA at post incident customer drop in events, S19 report development and post incident investigation work. Each incident provides new experiences and learning, but there are a few repeated issues which we would like to call out.
In the North West are experiencing more extreme weather events as a result of climate change. The recent months are a prime example of this; we had the wettest February on record which caused widespread flooding nationally, followed by a period of prolonged dry weather which we continue to experience. Historically flooding in our region has primarily been fluvial or coastal, however we are increasingly seeing more intense rainfall events which result in significant surface water flooding (pluvial) which is harder to predict.
Managing water at source has never been more important, we can no longer focus on hard engineering solutions alone to tackle flooding. Instead we must work in collaboration to implement sustainable and natural solutions which have a wider catchment benefit. This is not just by focussing on large individual projects, but also projects which target smaller interventions but over a wider area.
Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) are able to attenuate surface water flows allowing rainwater to be absorbed by the ground rather than flowing directly into drainage systems which often end up in the combined sewer system. From April this year, Water Companies under the Sewerage Sector Design and Construction Guidance can adopt SuDS features which come under the meaning of a sewer (not all SuDS features are eligible for adoption). This is a step in the right direction and will promote wider implementation of SuDS systems. However Water Companies are not the only organisations who can adopt SuDS. Highways Authorities can also adopt SuDS where they accept highway drainage and are not limited by the same legislation that Water Companies are. We have found great reluctance from Highways Authorities to adopt or even implement SuDS as often this increases their amount of public open space and maintenance responsibilities. Highway Authorities often refuse to allow their drainage systems to drain into SuDs even where others will be responsible for the future maintenance of that feature.
We have also found, that highway drainage maintenance activity has been scaled back over many years making surface ponding a common occurrence in light rainfall. Many Highway Authorities do not have sufficient equipment or resource levels to respond reactively to reported incidents on highways and the drains/culverts beneath. All of the these incidents can lead to surface water overland flows occurring that inundate sewers and other drainage systems causing or contributing to flooding. In order to address the above United Utilities would like to see the following:
• Ring fenced funding for HA’s to properly inventory all culverts and associated flood risk assets
• Ring fenced funding for HA’s to implement effective cyclic maintenance regimes for culverts and associated flood risk assets
• Creation/designation of a regulatory body to monitor and control the flood risk management performance of HA’s
• Creation of nationwide converged recording and reporting against comparable data metrics such as; asset type/numbers/length, cyclic PPM completion rates, blockages to flow, flooding incidents due to HA assets, number of customers reporting/impacted by flooding from HA assets etc.
Riparian owned culverts and watercourses also need national attention to raise awareness of their significance in flood risk management. Riparian owners are not necessarily aware of their responsibilities or the importance of regular maintenance of their systems, particularly if the effects of poor maintenance do not impact them individually. We and our partner flood RMA’s regularly see and feel the effects of poorly maintained private systems as often all of our drainage systems interact in some way. We have recent examples of where collapsed or blocked culverts and watercourses restrict the free outfall from our sewer network, and where culverts have collapsed underneath the public sewer causing the sewer to also collapse as well as undermining a gas main. LLFA’s have statutory obligations under the Flood and Water Management Act and enforcement powers to ensure the maintenance of watercourses, however where this is needed to improve a situation, LLFA’s are reluctant to progress as they do not have the finances to pursue. There also appears to be no proactive inspection of watercourses by LLFA’s, funding and resource levels again being cited as the largest challenge. This is not unique to the North West and more needs to be done nationally to target the improvement of these private drainage systems.
There remains much disparity between housing development and flood risk. S106 (Water Industry Act 1991) provides an absolute right of connection to a public sewer. Even where a new connection is likely to have detrimental impacts such a sewer flooding or increased CSO spill, Water and Sewerage Companies (WaSC) have no rights to refuse the connection. Similarly S115 (Water Industry Act 1991) allows for highway drainage to be connected to a public sewer and states that a WaSC should not “unreasonably” refuse such discharges. Consequently highway drainage in older combined sewered areas, such as the North West, predominantly drain to combined sewer networks. Where old highways are refurbished or modified in some way there never appears to be any consideration given to reconfiguring the drainage and managing the run off in a more sustainable way.
The right to connect is not the only cause of increasing surface water discharges to sewers. Failures in the application and enforcement of planning policy and guidance are, in our opinion, equally worthy of review. It is unfortunate that these two aspects then further combine with poor maintenance of watercourses, a reluctance on the part of Lead Local Flood Authorities to use enforcement powers under S25 (Land Drainage Act 1991) and sub-optimal maintenance of highway drains and gulleys. All these factors along with sewer capacity challenges form the urban flooding picture that we see too often today.
Local planning authorities (LPA) and lead local flood authorities (LLFA) are empowered to ensure that surface water from new developments is drained in the most sustainable way possible. Unfortunately however this ambition is not always realised due to a number of pressure factors such as; cost viability of development, resource levels (staff), staff capability, limited SuDS and drainage expertise, the need for new homes, political influencing and developer profit.
The National Planning Policy Framework requires that developers must consider the most sustainable drainage route for surface water run-off generated by their works. Application of the SuDS hierarchy is key to achieving this, yet commonly many LPA’s are unwilling/unable to exert strong influence on developers in this regard. Often this can result in surface water flows being connected to the combined sewer network leaving water and sewerage companies with capacity challenges and increased sewer flood risk.
Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) details the Surface Water Hierarchy of drainage options in order of priority (1. to ground, 2. to a surface water body, 3. to a surface water sewer or highway drain etc., 4. to a combined sewer). Application of this is key to reducing these impacts and we encourage local planning and flood risk management authorities to apply this consistently for all new developments prior to any drainage design being approved
The proposed drainage solution for development should be as high in the hierarchy as possible, with discharging to a combined sewer being the last resort. Enforcing planning regulations on paving over green space would also prevent future risk.
At United Utilities we believe that there is an urgent need to ensure optimal surface water management on new developments. We believe this could be supported through a host of activities and approaches. Namely;
• National activity supported by MHCLG to promote better understanding of SuDS and surface water management amongst LPA and LFFA staff, this will serve create opportunities to influence the provision of low impact drainage solutions on new developments.
• Creation of a clear and transparent national framework that ensures planning discussions relating to the drainage of a site take place ahead of any land transaction. This will ensure that developers are fully aware of sustainable drainage requirements of a site and can factor into their commercial considerations before making a land purchase.
• Ministry led influencing of developers, architects and drainage design consultants through professional and trade bodies to ensure that sufficient focus is applied to the source control of surface water. Such activity would serve to avoid a binary approach to surface water drainage (commonly the only current consideration given by some is whether or not a site can drain by infiltrating surface water to the subsoil, if it cannot than connection to combined sewers usually takes place).
• National promotion of a holistic drainage approach to large scale development sites, likely to be developed in phases by a range of developers. By working within a mandated framework the LPA, LLFA’s and WaSC’s could ensure drainage strategies are developed for the whole site. This would ensure an integrated approach is adopted for sustainable surface water drainage, including source control to minimise the number of pumping stations and discharge points required.
• A mechanism to ensure that LPA’s apply planning regulations consistently, meaning that effective surface water management is applied to all new developments where possible.
As part of Ofwat’s price review process, we ensure that we have a high level of customer engagement and use the findings to underpin our strategic decision making process. We complete extensive customer research to evidence that our investment programmes are supported by our customers and meet their needs. As well as our customers, we also similarly work with our stakeholders to go through a similar process and incorporate their needs into our business plan. Similarly, for the development of DWMPs, there is a requirement to engage with customers and stakeholders to ensure that the plans are built in collaboration. This is of great importance for the DWMPs as the plans will be publically available and were specifically designed with co-creation in mind.
The Water Industry is experienced in involving customers and stakeholders in the decision making process and so can share experiences on how best to involve communities in flood risk management. It is important that communities are involved in flood risk management as the decisions made impact their daily lives in such a significant way. However, it is important to involve communities at the right time and to the right level as flood risk management is such a broad and emotive topic. Through experience, communities do not feel they are involved enough in decision making when it comes to flood risk management so there is more than needs to be done.
There is significant potential for natural flood management measures on agricultural land, especially in the upland catchments. Taking a catchment management approach and slowing the flow of water in the uplands of a catchment is a sustainable way of managing flood risk and the impact of climate change. However, often there are few funding mechanisms available to incentivise land owners to sacrifice their land for the benefit of flood risk management.
Through the development of ELMs and the Environment and Agriculture Bills we should consider at how land managers and farmers can be incentivised to implement natural flood management measures on their land. Annual budgetary provision to recompense land owners irrespective of sacrificial flooding is problematic given the erratic frequency and nature of those flood events. We would recommend centralised annual land ‘rental’ for the use of land for natural flood management and land sacrifice as this may be way forward in this regard.
As stated previously, the Water Industry Act 1991 (WIA91) provides the right to connect to a public sewer. Any lack of available sewer capacity or heightened flood risk resulting from a connection cannot be used as grounds for refusal. Inappropriate connection of foul flows to surface water systems or vice versa are grounds on which a connection application can be refused. However there are a number of documented cases where developers have cited existing surface water discharges to foul sewers and so consequently developments have been allowed to connect surface water into these de facto “combined systems”. Furthermore the Water Industry Act makes no provision for a WaSC to stipulate legally binding flow rate restriction limits in respect of any new connection to the sewer network.
United Utilities believes that there is an urgent need to review the provisions and limitations of WIA91 with a view to:
• Removal of the right to connect SW to existing public sewers under S106.
• Allow WaSC’s to impose legally binding discharge rate restrictions to new connections made under S106.
Town & Country Planning issues
SuDS on New Developments (planning)
The National Planning Policy Framework requires that developers must consider the most sustainable drainage route for surface water run-off generated by their works. Application of the SuDS hierarchy is key to achieving this yet commonly many LPA’s are unwilling/unable to exert strong influence on developers in this regard. Often this can result in surface water flows being connected to combined sewer network leaving water and sewerage companies with capacity challenges and increased sewer flood risk legacy, sometimes even when there was a more suitable alternative discharge route for those flows.
Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) details the Surface Water Hierarchy of drainage options in order of priority (1. to ground, 2. to a surface water body, 3. to a surface water sewer or highway drain etc., 4. to a combined sewer) Application of this is key to reducing these impacts and we encourage local planning and flood risk management authorities to apply this consistently for all new developments prior to any drainage design being approved
The discharge from a development should be as high in the hierarchy as possible, with discharging to a combined sewer being an absolute last resort. Enforcing planning regulations on paving over green space would also prevent future risk.
There is an urgent need to ensure optimal surface water management on new developments. We believe this could be supported through a range of activities and approaches. Namely;
• National activity supported by MHCLG to promote better understanding of SuDS and SW management amongst LPA and LFFA staff, this will serve create opportunities to influence the provision of low impact drainage solutions on new developments etc.
• Creation of a national clear and transparent framework that ensures planning discussion relating to drainage of a site takes place ahead of any land transaction. This will ensure developers are fully aware of sustainable drainage requirements of a site and can factor into their commercial considerations before making a land purchase.
• Ministry led influencing of developers, architects and drainage design consultants through professional and trade bodies to ensure that enough focus is applied to source control of surface water. Such activity would serve to avoid a binary approach to SW drainage (commonly the only current consideration given by some is whether or not a site can drain by infiltrating SW to the subsoil, if it cannot than connection to combined sewers usually takes place).
• National promotion of a holistic approach to large scale development sites likely to be developed in phases by a range of developers. By working within a mandated framework LPA and LLFA’s WaSC’s could ensure drainage strategies are developed for the whole site which ensue an integrated approach is adopted for sustainable surface water drainage , source control minimising the number of pumping stations required, number of discharge points etc.
• Ensuring that LPA’s apply planning regulations applied consistently, meaning that effective surface water management is applied to all new developments where possible.
Permitted development rules
Town and country planning permitted development rules intended to place restrictions to prevent increases of surface water run-off into sewers and other drainage systems, are seldom applied. These permitted development rules require that paving over proposals for permeable areas >5m2 must utilise permeable or previous material. Currently we are not aware of any Local Planning Authority (LPA) in the North West that promotes these rules or, equally importantly, takes enforcement action for non-compliance. Consequently as customers pave over their front gardens the surface water run off to our sewers increase.
There is an urgent need to reinforce the application of rules relating to paving over driveways. Furthermore LPA’s should be mandated to publicise permitted development rules requiring submission of applications from property owners where more than 5m2 of permeable area is converted to impermeable. We also call for LPA’s to be mandated to take enforcement action where paving works are carried out without planning permission.
S106 Planning obligations
Planning obligations, also known as Section 106 agreements (based on that section of The 1990 Town & Country Planning Act [T&CPA]) are private agreements made between local authorities and developers and can be attached to a planning permission to make acceptable development which would otherwise be unacceptable in planning.
In the North West it is common that LPA policy relating to S106 does not extend to matters relating to managing flood risk. When specifically asked if S106 can be used to manage the sewer flood risk (increase capacity) some LPA’s state that they would require a specific policy signed off by their scrutiny committee in support of such an approach and that it is unlikely to be approved. This type of response is indicative of the fact that where SW from a development cannot be managed sustainably, LPA’s see the consequential sewer capacity/flood risk as being the WaSC’s to address. Typically LPA’s do have policies for using S106 to fund recreational requirements. Recreational installations can be utilised to accommodate open water SuDS features, which may be incorporated, to address sewer capacity issues created by a development. We have promoted this type of approach to some LPA’s only to be told that such application would be too tenuous and that the Local Authority would be unable to finance regular grounds maintenance to budgetary constraints.
We believe that PLA’s should be encouraged, nationally, to incorporate flood risk management aspects into S106 planning obligations.
Planning permission and planning conditions
We have learned that LPA’s are particularly risk averse to refusing planning applications on drainage grounds as they fear developers will win on appeal. LPA’s are additionally fearful of having appeal costs awarded against them by the Planning Inspectorate.
When considering drainage matters relating to a planning application LPA’s are unable require developers to connect to SW that are not immediately outside a development. Where SW sewers exist close to but not immediately outside a site, developers often cite that to provide a connection to a nearby sewer causes their project to become financially unviable. Developers often exert pressure on LPA’s by reminding them of targets to build new homes and planning restrictions that delay or prevent construction will be politically unpalatable.
LPA’s are able to set planning conditions on an application for a range of measures including drainage matters. Often, however LPA’s rarely have sufficient resources to set, police or enforce planning conditions relating to the drainage aspects of a development.
In order to address the above there is a pressing need for a review of all planning aspects relating to drainage that will result in the following:
• Greater focus is given to flood risk management in when considering appeals on aspects relating to sustainable drainage of new development.
• The right to connect surface water to public sewers under S106 (WIA91) is repealed and greater powers are given to LPA’s to require the connection of SW from developments to sewers or watercourses, where infiltration drainage is not possible, within 100m of the boundary of a development.
• In the future, LPA’s will be resourced and trained to allow for the setting and policing of drainage related planning conditions and that where non-compliance is identified, enforcement action is taken.
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