Councils keep consenting to flood plain building

Local councils’ record of heeding Environment Agency advice on flood risk has dipped this year after steady improvements. Compliance with latest planning guidance on flooding is patchy in some cases.

The number of developments approved against Environment Agency advice on flood risk has risen, latest figures show.

The Agency’s annual report on development and flood risk reveals that between April 2007 and March 2008, 124 planning applications were approved in England in spite of its objections, or where planning conditions only partially mitigated concerns. These included 543 homes.

The figures reveal that performance is declining following several years of improvements. The number of applications approved against advice stood at 323 in 2003/04 and this had consistently declined, reaching 110 in 2006/07.

Sixteen of the applications were for major developments. They include 240 homes, a primary school, offices, apartments, a business park and a ferry terminal. This rose from 13 last year.

Six of these schemes were planned for areas in flood zone three - the highest probability of river or coastal flooding, two were in flood zone two, and eight were in flood zone one, where development may cause flooding elsewhere.

The number of planning applications which the Agency objected to also rose, from 4,750 in 2006/07 to an all time high of 6,232 in 2007/08. However, virtually all of these objections were removed after negotiation with developers and local authorities led to modified plans. Only a third of objections were not resolved by negotiation, compared to over half the previous year.

The study revealed awareness of PPS25, the government’s policy on land-use planning and flood risk, was patchy. Only eight adopted local development frameworks, which set out local planning policies, included references to the need for developers to provide flood risk assessments (FRAs) with planning applications.

The Agency said this was "disappointingly low". It cited the lack of a satisfactory FRA as the reason for 67% of its objections. More local planning authorities and applicants are aware of PPS25, as there were fewer who failed to supply an FRA at all.

But the proportion of FRAs judged to be unsatisfactory rose from less than 1% in 2003/04 to 36% in 2007/08.

Sir Michael Pitt, author of the review of the 2007 floods, told the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs select committee this month that local councils approving development against Agency advice was one of only two areas where he thought more progress needed to be made.

Andrew Coleman, environmental assessment manager at the Agency, said the rise in major developments going ahead contrary to its advice was disappointing. In half of these cases, local planning authorities said they doubted the "veracity or reasonableness" of the Agency’s advice.

Some councils thought the Agency was being overcautious in asking for an FRA, despite the PPS25 requiring one to be prepared for all developments in flood zones two and three, and all those on sites over one hectare in flood zone one.

This reaction from local councils was quite common where no FRA accompanied the application, he said. "Hopefully in the future, councils won’t register the application without an FRA," he said.

Vanessa Goodchild-Bradley, policy consultant at the Local Government Association, said the creation of better local partnerships to implement the Pitt Review would mean these kinds of disagreements do not happen in the future.

The Agency’s report also highlighted that sequential tests, used to consider whether other sites with a lower flood risk are available, also appear to be causing confusion among both council planners and developers. Many of the Agency’s initial objections were due to these not being carried out properly.

Three per cent of its objections raised concerns over the potential increased risk of flooding from surface water run-off from new development.

The Agency called for stronger recognition of the fact that all development has the potential to cause flooding elsewhere. Two-thirds of the 2007 floods were caused by surface water flooding.

A separate report for Wales is being prepared. Agency figures indicate that councils are taking its advice on board more consistently than previously.

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