Government in 'turmoil' over implementing flood precaution rules


Aerial footage of flooding in the Thames Valley area on Friday

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The government is in "turmoil" over the implementation of rules to prevent housing developments making floods worse, building industry sources say.

A deal has been reached on the long-standing question of how drainage features should be maintained, but the policy remains postponed indefinitely.

One industry source told BBC News civil service cuts had left ministers "incapable" of implementing the policy.

Ministers said reducing the impact of flooding was a key priority.

As an island nation on the wrong end of a weather conveyor belt delivering storm systems across the Atlantic, huge waves and relentless rain should not surprise us.

What is unusual is how the country has been hit for so long, for so hard, and on so many fronts at the same time. Vast waves pounding the coast represent one kind of threat, the barrages of rainfall swelling the rivers inland are another.

Even now the Thames is flowing at an astonishing rate, carrying 400 tonnes of water through Surrey every single second - 10 times more than normal for the time of year and the equivalent of 10 huge articulated lorries rushing past every second.

The thousands of miles of sea and river defences have rarely been so tested. I'll be exploring how well they have performed and what more needs to be done in a BBC News special, Battered Britain, on BBC One at 19:30 GMT on 10 January.

Indefinitely postponed

A deal has been struck between the government, councils and builders in England and Wales which will make councils responsible for maintaining drainage features, such as ponds and grassy areas located to catch water running off roofs.

Councils will be able to bill owners of new homes for maintenance.

The councils argue this is fair as owners of existing homes have to have their run-off water treated by water firms through the sewerage system.

But despite the deal, which has taken four years to achieve, the government has indefinitely postponed plans to introduce the new measures from April to allow time for further talks on details.

A Home Builders Federation spokesman said: "After all the work we have done with the government, we are disappointed about the delay to set up the processes for the adoption of the [drainage systems].

"House builders are seeking certainty over the systems they will be required to install and the processes for having them approved."

All political parties describe the discussions as "extremely sensitive", while some participants have privately described extreme frustration that it is taking so long.

One home building industry spokesman, who wanted to remain anonymous, told the BBC: "The turmoil in the government is totally unbelievable. The cuts at the department are clearly a factor. This policy goes round and round - it needs to be sorted out so we can know what sort of developments to plan."

The park in Sheffield that is also a "smart drainage system"

The Flood Act of 2010 obliges builders to landscape developments so that water from roofs and driveways seeps into open ground, rather than rushing into the water system.

But detailed policy on how the features will be cared for has been paralysed, with £500m worth of spending cuts at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) causing regular reshuffles of staff, and leaving key players unable to agree on how the schemes should be built.

Technical experts say the green drainage measures should generally be cheaper than running the water into the sewers, but house builders want flexibility.

David Cameron: "We are doing everything we can"

They say if they have to create ponds on all new developments it may put up the cost of housing.

John Stewart, from the Home Builders Federation, told BBC News: "If you are forced to put in a large pond, that means you can't build homes on that, so there is a cost involved."

Builders want to be able to catch run-off water in giant underground tanks.

Technical experts say this is a poor solution compared with surface features, adding that green drainage measures are typically cheaper than carrying water away in a pipe.

Paul Shaffer from Susdrain - the community for sustainable drainage, based at the construction research institute CIRIA - said: "There are much greater benefits if you capture water on the surface.

"It's a simpler solution that's easier to maintain; you get pollutants broken down free of charge by vegetation, you get amenity value that improves people's quality of lives, you help to improve biodiversity, you also get the benefit that in heatwaves the open areas of water help to cool down the surrounding land."

Sustainable drainage features

One scheme I visited in Sheffield takes the run-off water from a housing estate, breaks up the flow through a pile of rocks and allows the water to soak away. A nearby pond designed to hold run-off water hosts ducks, a heron and dragonflies, which local people appreciate.

The row over technical standards and who pays for maintenance has delayed the rules' publication several times, and MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee have urged ministers to find a solution.

Defra planned to introduce the rules in April, but this week acknowledged the delayed deadline would be put back further.

'Lobbying furiously'

Observers have also expressed dismay that the disputes are rumbling on.

Richard Ashley, Sheffield University's professor of urban water, said: "It is ridiculous. The government is ideologically in favour of deregulation but it's supposed to be introducing this complicated piece of legislation with a demoralised department with civil servants that keep changing.

"The housebuilders are lobbying furiously behind the scenes."

Local Government Association spokesman Mike Jones told BBC News: "The developers should be able to pay for the works that are needed. They are making very healthy profits."

He added it was "appropriate" that people pay for their drainage.

A Defra spokesman said: "We are committed to introducing sustainable drainage systems (suds) to help reduce the risk of floods from new developments.

"Suds are usually cheaper to maintain than conventional drainage, and we will be consulting soon on how they will be maintained by local authorities."

He denied job losses had contributed to policy delays.

Shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle MP said it was "ridiculous" the matter had been allowed to "drag on for so long".

Meanwhile, the prime minister said on a visit to flood-hit areas in his Oxford constituency that the government was doing everything it could to help people affected by recent floods.

David Cameron also insisted the Environment Agency was "properly resourced" despite departmental cuts.

Follow roger on Twitter @rharrabin


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  • rate this

    Comment number 568.

    All I can say is the situation is typical of this country: procrastinate, pander to big business and let the hoi polloi suffer.
    For goodness sake can't the government, of whatever colour, see that we have an urgent problem and that water issues need to be tackled - either too much or too little. It isn't beyond our capabilities.
    GET IT SORTED! (If nothing else, it'll be a vote winner.)

  • rate this

    Comment number 567.

    If you dredge a river you change its shape and encourage it to carry more water more quickly. This might drain one area but is likely to make things worse downstream. It is also expensive and needs to be redone as rivers silt up again. Far better and cheaper to reduce the rate water enters the river to start with. Think pretty trees, wetlands and marshes and small built solutions at house level.

  • rate this

    Comment number 566.

    New housing estates wouldn't need ponds if the houses had decent gardens. In the new "luxury" estate near me, five bedroomed detached houses have gardens about half the area of the floorplan of the house! Yet on the other side of the main road are thousands of acres belonging to a member of the Royal family; green belt land used for nothing more than growing hay!

  • rate this

    Comment number 565.

    555.An Over Populated Planet
    7 Minutes ago
    What happens when you've run out of room and really trashed the planet ?

    Then theres nothing else to do except squat in a pair of Eric Pickles spare trousers, plenty of room for a good few billion people

  • rate this

    Comment number 564.

    555.An Over Populated Planet
    2 Minutes ago
    What happens when you've run out of room and really trashed the planet ?

    That will probably be sooner than people think! As each day passes our collective stupidity gets worse and we learn absolutely nothing!

  • rate this

    Comment number 563.

    Responsibility must be with the planers in the first place for allowing planning. THEY ARE FULLY AWARE OF THE LOCAL CONDITIONS. THE CLUE IS IN THE NAME.

  • rate this

    Comment number 562.

    554 Leodisthefirst
    I've been saying it since comment 46 - don't restrict the watercourses.
    Also don't use concrete for water channels, it makes the water flow quicker and where the river flattens out is largely where it is flooding at the moment because the water gets there too quickly and it can't drain away

  • rate this

    Comment number 561.

    Home owner & DEFRA conversation.

    My home is regularly flooded. Why?
    Global warming I'm afraid.
    What are you doing about it?
    Well, give us time, its only been a decade, or so.
    Why are you not employing forward observation & planning?
    Whats that?
    Its planning for the global warming that you defend.
    Well, we are building windmills with your money.

    My home is regularly flooded. Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 560.

    If this water was pumped abroad in a pipe it could be sold to countries that have little water.
    The result being no more flooding and a reduction on our deficit.

    Green energy might be an idea too as it would reduce the rate of climate change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 559.

    "It is starting to really stick in my craw"

    Your poor craw must be really stuck.

  • rate this

    Comment number 558.

    Aah . . That old 'reality and consequences' chestnut.

    Where the result of stupid policy is a stupid policy !

    Where privatisation of everything creates high prices and lack of choice ..

    Mass, unregulated immigration causes disharmony and jobs shortage

    And not building enough homes equals not enough houses to live in !

    Who'd have thunk it !

    Bit of a running theme, this cause and effect.

  • rate this

    Comment number 557.

    Surely the solution is prevention is better than cure. I haven't seen a dredger or river maintenance team in years. Widen the rivers where needed and either store, or get rid of it 'faster'.
    Building standards have been improved in the last two decades beyond all recognition. I don't think I can say the same about watercourse management and maintenance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 556.

    Since when have developers shown much concern over the local environment , their first concern is get the biggest return (dare I say profit) on their investment, they are not interested I the long term affect of their badly planned developments, frustrating local planners with constant appeals and when all else fails pass it to Whitehall to override local planners and environment agencies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 555.

    What happens when you've run out of room and really trashed the planet ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 554.

    542. omegaman. Dredge the rivers.... etc

    I have been saying the same but people are hooked on the themes of not building on flood plains and river defences they can see - dikes or high walls/banks.

    Those are apparently the only solutions, nothing else is worthy of consideration.

  • rate this

    Comment number 553.

    546 Jack
    Bronze Age houses weighed considerably less than modern days houses do. If you leave the bottom layer open, you need extremely good floor insulation or the house is very cold. Building houses on stilts requires a firm foundation to put the leg of the stilt on - how do you do that when you can't find the bottom?
    552 Tony B - washlands used in Fens for many years and used as skating rinks

  • rate this

    Comment number 552.

    If you Google "Basildon washlands" you'll be taken to a report on the website "Level 1 Strategic Flood Risk Assessment". This covers the artificial washlands constructed in Basildon New Town in the 1950s to 70s by the then Development Corporation in order to manage heavy runoff from the new development during periods of excessive rainfall. They work! No floods downstream.

  • rate this

    Comment number 551.

    We all agree that excess water from these sites will add to the problem which we already have. The only issue to address is the cost and who pays. At the moment we are all paying higher insurance premiums which covers claims for flooding. Surely we can find a technical solution which provides the builders with the room to build and provides a sustainable system to meet DEFRA's requirements.

  • rate this

    Comment number 550.

    Correct, If a development is at risk from a 1 in 100 year fluvial event it should not be built. Your house might be described in terms of geomorphology as a in the flood plain because that how it was historically formed, but it is possible that since the channelisation of the river, you house is no longer in the floodplain. But you would need hydraulic modelling to confirm this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 549.

    If nobody bought flood plane houses, there would be houses built on flood planes. Markets need a demand in order to survive. If you CHOOSE to live on a flood plane, you will have to deal with the consequences, and so will your neighbours, who's un-flooded houses will now become swimming pools once a year. Surprised the BBC haven't spun, 'Water Sports Boom: The Benefits of Flooding'.


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