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The people problem

By Ruth Slavid
There is a wealth of data and technical information available on dealing with flooding, not to mention some excellent case studies from around the world. But if we are to make progress we will need to deal with the structure of organisations and government commitment to funding.

Many people are suspicious of the government’s interest in privatisation, which seems to be driven by budgetary concerns and ideology. Witness for example, the decision announced in March to make every school an academy. So when a representative of a water company suggests that they should be given more responsibility – in fact that they should take full responsibility for drainage – many of us will have an instant horrified reaction.

This, though, is what Brian Smith, drainage strategy manager at Yorkshire Water, believes and his argument is cogent. If we are to have water-sensitive design, then he believes that the water authorities may be the best people to deliver it.

Through Brian Smith and others, this is an area that Yorkshire Water has looked at seriously. This is evidenced by the fact that he contributed to the production of a paper with engineering giant AECOM entitled ‘Visioning a water-sensitive Yorkshire’. According to AECOM, this ‘has been produced to share the vision with a wider audience and to outline water sensitive design elements that Yorkshire could adopt to enhance water conservation, management of runoff and water quality. It also reaffirms the commitment by key stakeholders to continue to collaborate and place WSUD at the centre of water management strategies’.

Brian Smith and a colleague also produced a paper in 2014 entitled ‘Evaluating the benefits and risks of water sensitive urban design in the Yorkshire region’. This paper ‘identified opportunities for integrating wastewater networks using dynamic optimally controlled systems to deliver increased water supply security, river quality and environmental improvements.

‘The three streams of the urban water cycle – potable water, wastewater and storm water, are intricately linked. Different technologies and strategies apply to each stream with several strategies applying to one or more.

‘Opportunities and risks associated with different types of measures which potentially could be applied were linked to relevant parts of the water cycle, demonstrating how multiple policy drivers and life cycle thinking could influence policy integration.

‘The study concluded that there were double the number of positives to negatives, with significant opportunity to enhance the benefits of managing water systems and land use in a more coordinated way.’

A lot of what the water companies have to deal with is beyond their control at present. For instance, between 30 and 70 per cent of the flow into compound storage systems comes from highway drainage. There should, Brian believes, be ‘a single responsible body for drainage including SuDS and highways’. Water companies, he argues, ‘have a good understanding of strategic planning, We can raise equity and do finance. We are ideally placed. There would of course need to be of lot of decisions and some changes in legislation.’

Many might feel that this would be an excellent idea – provided that somebody like Brian Smith was in charge. What is not at doubt is that something needs to be done. And it is hard to see how. Richard Ashley, emeritus professor in the department of civil and structural engineering at the University of Sheffield, certainly believes this.’ ‘The main issue is that it is not taken seriously, he says.

He has been contributing to investigations of reports on flooding since the end of the 1990s, most notable of which have been the Foresight Future Flooding report published at the start of 2004, and the report by Michael Pitt in 2007.

Despite evidently being valued for his engineering expertise, the problems that Richard sees are organisational. In particular there is a lack of will on the part of governments, largely he thinks because the issues fall beyond their five-year remit. Dealing with flooding means spending money now to receive possible benefits (because of course you might be lucky and there might not be a flood) in the future.

He has seen some changes in attitude, because at least the Environment Agency has begun to address urban drainage – previously seen as outside its remit and the responsibility of individual householders. Now, Richard says, there is an understanding that flooding from backed up drainage can be as serious as river flooding.

There are people around the world who are making a better attempt to integrate their approaches. Richard cites Australia and the Netherlands, but neither he says are getting it entirely right. Nevertheless there are lessons to learn, particularly in terms of ‘sweating assets’ in using new infrastructure projects to help with water management as well.

And we need to think about this financially he says. ‘All landscape is valuable. All space is valuable. Being hard-nosed we can put natural capital and ecosystems services values on this. I resisted for years but gave in. The numbers are rubbish but decision makers only listen to money.’

So can things get better? The Landscape Institute certainly believes that they can. In March it issued its response to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee inquiry into future flood prevention. Among the points it made were:

'At present funding arrangements are too disjointed, dealing with flood risk and river and floodplain restoration as if they are for different purposes. A more integrated approach to catchment planning and development would lead to better value for capital investment, for instance through the appraisal and design of multi-benefit schemes which provide year round benefits rather than single use structures which create long-term liabilities. To achieve this will require greater use of landscape planning and design skills and improved cooperation between the various stakeholders involved...

‘Achieving this multifunctional and coordinated approach to land use requires a much better balance of the professional skills related to land use, green infrastructure, landscape planning and landscape design as well as traditional water management skills such as water engineering...

‘The role of upland management in controlling the flow of water downstream in key locations should not be underestimated. These areas are not densely populated and tend to receive high levels of rainfall. Slowing and controlling the release of water will help reduce problems at source. Examples of where positive results have already been achieved are in both Wales and Yorkshire where peat bogs have been allowed to re-establish through the stopping-up of drainage ditches, thereby preventing downstream flooding, improving the colour of the water extracted for drinking, providing a substantial carbon sink, and re-establishing peatland habitat. It should be noted that these cheap and effective measures have provided substantial financial benefits for water companies who have funded these works...

‘Management that exacerbates flooding includes over-stocking, conversion of grassland to arable crops, plough lines that encourage runoff, removal of hedgerows, copses or trees, loss of soil, and soil compaction. At the same time, too many aquifers and watercourses are being polluted through the migration of applied chemicals including nitrates. A new contract with the farming industry is needed to both manage water and to secure water quality and water supply through public intervention systems...

‘It is clear that Government must offer its full support for SuDS in all new development and that it is now imperative that Schedule 3 of the Flood and Water Management Act (2010) is implemented in full. New development should also include the redevelopment of brownfield land, as many of these sites are substantial, and would otherwise fall within the original criteria of “major development”. The requirement just for an agreed level of “betterment” is both insufficient, and misses a significant opportunity to improve water management within the urban environment. It is clear from CIRIA’s newly published SuDS manual that “difficult” sites, such as brownfield land and contaminated land, are equally capable of utilising SuDS, if designed appropriately, and many brownfield sites are not contaminated. Therefore the same standards must apply.’

Better technical knowledge is always welcome, but in terms of dealing with flooding it is clear that it is the organisational and funding problems that need sorting out. Could there finally be an impetus to do this? Let’s hope so.

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