Independent review of surface water and drainage assets designations

In October 2019, Defra commissioned an independent review of the arrangements for determining responsibility for surface water and drainage assets. Jennifer Grist, Principal Analyst and Anna Beasley, Technical Director examine the findings of this recently published review, and the implications for surface water management assets and sustainable drainage systems (SuDS).

In response to Action 16 in Defra’s Surface Water Management Action Plan (2018), David Jenkins, chair of the Wessex Regional Flood and Coastal Committee (RFCC) has reviewed arrangements for determining responsibility of surface water and drainage assets and recommended improvements so these are more straightforward for property owners and others. The findings of this Review were  published on 26 August 2020.

The review goes much further than simply reviewing asset responsibility. David inevitably found that the issues of surface water management are inextricably linked, and it is very difficult to examine one aspect in isolation. His review involved a lot of consultation with practitioners and it is comforting to see it captured the challenges we face when managing surface water. But do the recommendations in the review offer practical solutions to the day to day problems we face in practice? We set out the following observations on the respective issues addressed in the review:

Drainage for new developments

Drainage for new developments

The question of how maintenance of new Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) can be secured in the long-term as has long been debated. Practitioners questioned by David strongly voiced their opinions that the present system is failing due to the inadequacy of appropriate standards for design, construction or maintenance of SuDS.

From our experience we consider it is critical to make appropriate provision and firm commitments to the long-term maintenance and adoption of new assets. Whilst we welcome the recommendations of strengthening the wording of the National Planning Policy Framework and ensuring drainage is considered at an early stage, the potential success will be heavily reliant on the application of effective planning policy and practice. Our concern is that the radical change required to achieve this has not been given the requisite level of emphasis in the review.

In our experience what is needed is an approach that conceptually mirrors that already accepted for river and sea flooding – to deliver a strategic front-end approach. An emerging concept that should be explored is described in the National Infrastructure Commission’s (NIC) publication “Anticipate, React, Recover – Resilient Infrastructure Systems (May 2020). The advantage offered by this new approach is that it is conceived to make infrastructure resilient to future challenges, which is the fundamental requirement for successful management of surface water systems.

In conjunction with enhanced focus on planning, the review recommends Defra reconsider the case for bringing Schedule 3 into effect. This is a more fundamental measure that we consider will be effective and are aligned with the overwhelming opinions of the professionals collated as part of the review.

Meanwhile promoting and celebrating innovation and good practice in design has been happening for many years through organisations such as Susdrain (and of course should continue). While much progress has been made, sadly the mindset of those reluctant to implement good SuDS cannot be changed by sheer force of enthusiasm. There is no shortage of very good guidance and exemplars, but little evidence that is has been supported with the level of actual commitment required to achieve the desired outcomes.

Existing drainage assetsCulvert

The management of surface water involves a number of risk management authorities (RMA) – this can make understanding who is responsible for a single asset confusing for the public and even for professionals and the RMAs themselves. The review concludes that creating a new single drainage authority is not the most pragmatic approach – and that improving effective partnerships between RMAs would be in the public interest. However, better partnership working is something that has been an aspiration since the Pitt Review in 2007.  So, what new ideas does David’s review have that would herald a change to the existing status quo? We would observe that:

  • There would be considerable merit in recognising that RFCCs provide a good vehicle to foster partnering relationships, as this is already part of their function. We consider that making better use of existing networks and expertise is the most efficient way to continue to work, particularly in the short term.
  • The principle advantage offered by enhancing the influence of RFCCs is their appreciation of the relative priorities of all parties involved. Accordingly, we welcome David’s recommendation that RFCCs should always include representatives of WaSCs.

An RFCC which can be understanding and appreciative of the position of all the RMAs is well placed to moderate and monitor partnership activities. We have found that delivery of surface water management actions (e.g. from SWMP and Section 19 investigations) can fail because there is no single organisation monitoring the implementation of the Action Plan. Therefore, an independent body such as the RFCC which can hold organisations accountable is a helpful mechanism to get things done.

The review also tackles the historically tricky issue of the designation and maintenance of watercourses, particularly those in culverts. David has highlighted that designation of a structure under Section 30 and Schedule 1 of the FWMA does not trigger a duty of maintenance and that often a riparian owner is unaware of their responsibilities for maintenance. There is no magic bullet for solving this issue, as reflected in David’s recommendations. It should be recognised that:

  • David has recommended an update to riparian owner guidance. We feel that for this to be useful, it needs to be properly disseminated to riparian owners. However, it does not solve the problem that in some instances, maintenance would be better coordinated by an RMA and that perhaps further examination should be made on the reasonable obligations of a competent authority.
  • There is inconsistency in the scope, quality and resolution of data contained in Asset Registers (as required under Section 21 of the FWMA) between LLFAs. David has recommended that the Environment Agency develop national guidance to secure a common approach to recording, inspection and maintenance of assets. We welcome this as an opportunity to get the most from existing legislation. We hope that this guidance will instruct LLFA’s to work with the other RMAs to share asset location data, identify riparian owners and disseminate guidance to them, and use this data as a basis for an Asset Management Plan. Such a plan could identify if maintenance of assets by RMAs, rather than riparian owners, is in the public interest.

Funding and resourcing of surface water flood risk management

The review highlights that capital funding from the government for flood risk management schemes does not necessarily favour local surface water risk schemes which may not ‘stack up’ under the current funding model, due to the smaller number of properties they protect and lower flood damages incurred compared with fluvial flooding. In our experience, cost-benefit analysis nearly always favours property level resilience measures for surface water, but these measures may not necessarily be the best or fairest solution for the community and might not be aligned with the NIC’s approach to resilience.

We would observe that there is much evidence that improving the management of surface water systems can offer multiple benefits, with respect to hydraulic loadings on combined sewer systems, reduction in storm overflows, improved performance of highways and transit systems.  The mitigation in urban areas involving greenspaces and blue green infrastructure also offers benefits in recreation, place making, ecology and reduce urban heat island effects. Properly accounting for the potential economic benefits that accrue from schemes that deliver multiple outcomes should be common practice.

The lack of funding for RMAs, particularly local authorities, for the day-to-day activities of surface water risk management, is a key limitation for the implementation of any recommendations. The review finds the majority of LLFAs have only one or two staff for a unitary borough or county authority. For some LLFAs we support, this limits them to covering their minimum statutory duties only, despite a desire amongst most to go above and beyond this to make their communities safer from flooding. There are many instances where this is a false economy.

The ability to implement the recommendations of this review requires time, money and true partnership working; and will be held back in under-resourced local authorities and in circumstances where the commercial and business objectives of RMAs are not aligned.

Burntisland Storage Pond, 2004

Want to know more?

Email our authors Anna Beasley and Jennifer Grist for more information.

You can read full independent report here –  Surface water and drainage: review of responsibilities.

You can find DEFRA’s response to the report here.

Read our recent blog for more information about the National Infrastructure Commission’s (NIC) publication “Anticipate, React, Recover – Resilient Infrastructure Systems (May 2020).

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