SuDS in the City: The ticking time-bomb threatening SuDS

A Fresh Water Future describes how better water management requires a spatially relevant approach, involving all the relevant actors in a way that empowers them to be engaged and to act. While this is a fine aim, SuDS champion Jo Bradley debates whether we can ever achieve it?

Stormwater Shepherd's Jo Bradley presented with the Susdrain ‘Established Professional’ Of The Year Award

When we talk to people about SuDS, they generally think that they are a good idea; they can see that SuDS deliver effective drainage whilst also creating an attractive feature. And the National Planning Policy Framework says that SuDS are cool and we should include them if we can. The benefits of SuDS are so obvious, their inclusion in all developments should go without saying. Shouldn’t it? After all, we’ve been ‘doing’ SuDS for 25 years. I think we need to examine the broken lines of communication.

SuDS Education

But the benefits of SuDS are perhaps only obvious to those of us who are familiar with them. Other, less familiar people and groups see only the changes that they bring and that makes them nervous. What about pollen allergies? What about mosquitos? Will children fall in or hurt themselves? Will rats live in the undergrowth? Where will I park? These are genuine concerns that people have and we must listen to them and accommodate them. Sometime we SuDS ‘people’ are guilty of assuming that everyone will love SuDS and want them near their homes. We know how brilliant they are so how could anyone possibly prefer piped drainage? But we must listen to the concerns and take them seriously, instead of dismissing them out-of-hand and forging ahead with our SuDS delivery anyway. These local people can be forgiven for having these concerns. After all, they may never have heard of SuDS before.

But then there are professional people in local authorities, and Elected Members who don’t ‘get’ SuDS either. Highway teams that won’t accept them; maintenance teams that won’t maintain them; committee members who don’t like them and planning teams that won’t permit them.

Then there are the financial concerns. Some people believe that SuDS are always more expensive. They think that the maintenance costs more and that lack of a tangible asset makes finance more difficult to secure. They worry about future replacement costs and long-term problems associated with the vegetation.

A single retro-fit SuDS scheme might be of interest to several council departments, local residents, ecologists, design-engineers, bus companies, downstream flood-affected communities, nearby shop owners, cycling groups and more. Theoretically, all those people should come together to consider the SuDS scheme and to suggest ways to make it work for them. Or should they? Remember that old adage that a camel is a horse designed by a committee? If we want to design the best SuDS, then we should let the professional SuDS designers get on with it, without input from those who know nothing about SuDS. We don’t ask local residents how to design and install piped drainage systems.

SuDS on the screen?

So now we’re stuck between two choices. Do we listen to everyone who has an opinion and do our best to win them round to a good SuDS design? Or do we apply robust regulations that allow us to install SuDS wherever we see fit? That would be the quicker solution, that’s for sure. But maybe the best thing is to communicate the benefits of SuDS to everyone, so that we all become familiar with the concept before it knocks on our own door. Couldn’t we work with the BBC to have retrofit SuDS in Albert square? And get Paul Shaffer on the One Show? We need everyone to understand why it is better to have vegetative SuDS devices around our towns and cities so that local residents are crying out for their own SuDS and home-buyers are asking the developer to put the SuDS near their home. We need everyone to be fighting for SuDS instead of against them. If we can achieve that, then we can make a real difference.

It is clear that we are still not getting SuDS right on some developments!

Let's talk about SuDS

But is it enough? Will it work if members of the public want it enough? There is still a real risk that local legislature will allow SuDS to fall between the cracks. Already under financial pressure, local authorities are getting a lot of grief on social media at the moment for inconsistent messages about nature recovery and habitat protection. Authorities are alleged to have allowed the destruction of precious habitats whilst promoting habitat creation they have done elsewhere. Local plans include the construction of warehouses on precious meadows whilst Biodiversity Action Plans trumpet opportunities to protect those same meadows and the species that rely on them.

So how do we get everyone to talk to one another so that we can all make sensible decisions? Or are we doomed by the drive for financial growth at all costs, that rides rough-shod over our plans for habitat creation and protection? Is it the drive for housebuilding that is holding up Schedule 3? Are phosphorus credit values of £75,000 per kilogram diverting all habitat creation funding to new wetlands in nutrient sensitive locations? Does the looming General Election affect the decisions of local committees and decision-makers so that they prefer to do what the local people ask for?

Too much SuDS noise

We need to share the benefits of SuDS more widely, to communicate honestly with everyone and to be ready to listen. Sometimes SuDS may not be the answer and we have to accept that. Sometimes off-setting to create a meaningful habitat for wildlife is better. Sometimes sub-surface storage allows a development to be viable. So we need to get better at listening too, and be ready to be wrong sometimes. But we do need to carry on fighting hard to get all the other planning, highways and drainage professionals to include good SuDS in all their schemes. We have to be more panoptic, but no less ferocious in our pursuit of SuDS.

Frankly I don’t know how we fix this. There is a cacophony of ‘noise’ in the modern world from social media. Too many people have too much to say and there are too many conflicting opinions to consider. So perhaps the best solution is to go back to basics and to ask what the environment wants? Perhaps the ecologists should have the loudest voices. For every SuDS retrofit, for every new development and for every infrastructure scheme, lets ask the ecologists how to do the best for local species, and for species that we want to attract to the local area. As climate change bites, and we start to recognise our place as just another species on the planet, the biodiversity ‘pillar’ of SuDS must expand to take its rightful place as equal to the other three pillars.

Jo Bradley is UK Director of Operations at Stormwater Shepherds

This story is published in the Spring 2024 issue of The Environment magazine.

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