MPs on the House of Commons Environment Committee have heard evidence from the water industry, planners and Ofwat in recent weeks as part of their inquiry into flooding.
A key issue is how the increased ‘sealing’ of the soil by hard surfaces by development can be ameliorated to reduce the load from rainwater runoff on drains and sewers.
Sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS) are one of the solutions. The term includes everything from permeable paving to swales and holding ponds designed to filter runoff and allow percolation into the ground.
Although water companies have often been seen as unwilling to take on the expense, they now appear to have reached a common position. Giving evidence to the inquiry on 9 January, Water UK chiefs suggested a solution to the impasse.
Chief executive Pamela Taylor suggested that the industry might take on responsibility for parts of SUDS if it was funded to do so. However, water companies would not be able to maintain "community facilities" such as ponds. Speaking later Ms Taylor told ENDS the industry would "welcome" such a role.
The solution could be to adopt the approach used in Scotland, where councils take broad responsibility for above-ground parts of SUDS and water firms, as sewerage undertakers, maintain the underground parts. Water UK’s Phill Mills told the committee that this had been achieved by changing the legal definition of sewers.
Milton Keynes was held up as an example of where, during development of the new town, normal planning rules were by-passed to make it possible for Anglian Water to play a role in maintaining SUDS.
Water UK agreed to forward to the committee details of the kind of agreement it might accept.
The need for a solution to the issue of maintenance was stressed by Rynd Smith of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI). "If SUDS are to be more than a minor thing," he told the committee, "we need to get it sorted out by the simplest and most consistent arrangement possible."
However, Ofwat may not respond favourably to calls for more cash for firms to adopt new drainage responsibilities. Giving evidence in November, chief executive Regina Finn said water firms should bear the costs of work outside their role of supplying water.
But there was doubt among water industry witnesses whether planning authorities could insist on SUDS being a part of new developments. However, the RTPI’s Mr Smith told the committee that there was "very significant scope for support for SUDS" among planners and he believed councils should be able to require them.
Another issue for planners is the tendency for householders to pave over their front gardens to provide parking space, adding to run-off and the load on street drainage. The RTPI said it was vital not to overload the planning system with applications for small areas of hard standing but that the use of permeable paving should be encouraged and could be included in building regulations.