The Jenkins Review – it all sounds good in theory….but

9th September 2020

I read the David Jenkins Review (“Report of a review of the arrangements for determining responsibility for surface water and drainage assets”) with a feeling of déjà vu.  I couldn’t help but compare where we were when the Pitt Review was published in 2007 and the subsequent enactment of the Flood & Water Management Act in 2010 (FWMA), to where we are now.   I suspect many drainage engineers, Local Authority SuDS and flood officers and water engineers were feeling the same. 

Given that surface water flooding has been a major issue for many years, we might ask why it’s taken so long for such an obvious problem to receive this level of attention, but better late than never we might say.  The FWMA went some way to addressing the issue, but with Schedule 3 not enforced in England, the lack of detail for sustainable drainage in the National Planning Policy and extreme storms occurring more frequently, it’s not surprising that surface water is still a major cause of flooding.  

In July 2018 Defra published the “Surface Water Management - An Action Plan” – it pointed out that over 3 million properties in England are at risk from surface flooding and recognises that this is a shared problem which requires a committed and coordinated approach.  David Jenkins’ review of the FWMA is one of the actions from this report. 

The cost of flooding 

The social and economic costs of flooding have been historically high for the UK, and the Association of British Insurers believes that annual losses from all sources could reach £1.4 billion by 2040, much of this accounted for by urban flooding.  Today, concerns are being expressed about the pressure for new (particularly residential) development, and in fact it’s been estimated that one in ten of new homes in England have been built on higher-risk flood plains since 2013, such is the shortage of available sites that might be in safer areas.

A joined-up approach  

Not only do we need to urgently address the issue of surface water flooding to existing conurbations, but we also need to keep sight of new pressures that might worsen the problem in other areas – for example, if a large new development is built, that in itself is safe from the effects of surface flooding, without a joined-up catchment-wide approach the excess runoff from that site may increase volumes in a watercourse and cause flooding of communities downstream.  This is all aboutmulti-stakeholder involvement and collaboration, and that’s one of the key messages coming out of this review report.

Is there conflict ahead?

This all sounds very hopeful, but I think that there may be emerging conflicts.  One of the accepted recommendations is ‘to support Local Planning Authorities’ in receiving and understanding the appropriate expert advice on all sources of flood risk – including surface water - so that they can make the right decisions’.  However, the proposed changes to the planning system are designed to force through quicker determinations, to give many new developments a presumption of planning approval, and also to encourage the planning process for major developments to be compressed into a thirty month timescale. 
Certainly it might be argued that the shortening of the often lengthy process of determination (years in the case of some developments) might yield benefits for achieving government targets for construction of new homes, but at the same time might there be shortcuts made at the expense of the quality and safety of future developments? 

Change for changes’ sake

Whatever changes we make, they need to be effective and not just change for changes’ sake.  The proposal to ‘update the non-statutory technical standards for sustainable drainage systems helping to provide multi-functional benefit from sustainable drainage’ is a worthwhile ambition.

Let’s face it, when it comes to offsetting the misery and damage of flooding, things seldom happen quickly, despite the good intentions of the current proposals and the improvements that might be achieved by them.  

However, there are things we can do to promote early improvements within existing urban communities, and maintenance of existing assets springs immediately to mind.  We have a historic legacy of urban drainage assets, and failure of these is a major cause of surface water flooding as they simply can’t cope with the increasing demands put upon them.  Simple improvements such as remote monitoring of urban culverts and trash screens could enable better allocation of emergency response teams during a severe event, together perhaps with increased support for property owners to achieve flood resilience to their properties.

With the Government immediately accepting 12 recommendations from this report, there could now be hope for us to work towards a more joined-up, catchment-wide collaboration between local authorities, local communities, regulators and designers to really take control and solve the problem of surface water flooding. 

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