Housing and Planning Bill - Report (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 25th April 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Deputy Chairman of Committees 6:00 pm, 25th April 2016

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone has signed the amendment but is unable to speak to it. She has given me the grave responsibility of supporting it in her name. She is such an expert on the environment, including sustainable drainage, that I would be taking a risk if I went into the technical detail, so I shall confine myself to a few more general statements.

We have 5.2 million homes at risk of flooding, according to the commission of inquiry into flood resilience, published in March last year. Clearly, policy needs to shift the focus away from flood defence towards flood resilience. That is the case for sustainable drainage.

We heard evidence in the Select Committee on the Built Environment on flood risk. The committee was sitting just at the point when there was so much flood damage across the UK. All the evidence emphasised the fact that the provision of sustainable drainage systems was of key importance to future urban water management. Essentially, SuDS are designed to mimic natural drainage systems, such as green roofs, ponds, wetlands and underground storage. They provide an alternative to drainage of surface water through pipes to watercourses, which increases flood risk.

The Government’s decision not to implement Schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, which would have established a separate approval regime, is rather perverse and was strongly criticised. The construction industry, no less, told the committee that the decision had created voids in policy, uncertainty in planning policy interpretation, the abandonment of the concept of draining as critical infrastructure, no structure for the adoption and maintenance of SuDS, as we have already heard, and no measures to address flood resilience at a local scale. This is very strong language from a responsible, professional body.

Amendment 119A comes with a whole raft of professional and expert support. A range of authoritative environmental bodies have supported the intention of the amendment. Those bodies have pointed out, for example, that SuDS can be installed and maintained at a low cost and are cheaper than maintaining conventional drainage. We have good ecological and economic arguments for SuDS.

The problem is that those same bodies have emphasised that the presumption in planning that SuDS should be included in new developments is not working. Those bodies agree, too, that the decision not to implement Schedule 3 has created uncertainty of interpretation over what is acceptable. It has made drainage simply a factor in the planning mix rather than critical infrastructure, partially implemented in places and of variable quality. It is that distinction between the status and guarantee of SuDS as infrastructure and a planning choice that is weakening and debilitating the policy. That seems to be what is happening. In short, the Government have designed a system through using the planning guidelines adopted instead of the legislation, which is almost bound to lead to low take-up and low quality, so increasing flood risks. There is collateral damage as well in terms of habitats and human life.

This also gives the developers an upper hand. If they suggest that there are practical or economic barriers, few local authorities can answer back. There is not the same level of expertise to challenge this. As we have heard, only England is being so short-sighted. The devolved Administrations have indeed taken more proactive steps to implement sustainable drainage. So, we have an opportunity for catch-up. I do not believe that it is enough at this point to say that it is good enough to wait and see. Many more homes and developments could benefit if we act now, and that is what we should do. I hope that the Minister will feel able to accept Amendment 119A.