Should developers face tougher rules to reduce the risk of flooding in Lancashire?
The flood risk posed by new developments in Lancashire should be assessed by local authorities – not the housebuilders who stand to benefit from them.
That was the call from flooding campaigners after a report by councillors failed to recommend the change.
Lancashire County Council’s flood risk management task group did propose dozens of ways in which the region could be better prepared for flooding and reduce the likelihood of it occurring – including several directed at holding developer’s to account for the drainage of new estates.
But at a recent meeting of the authority’s external scrutiny committee where the report was presented, community members – and some councillors – said the planning system was in need of a more fundamental overhaul.
As the lead local flood authority (LLFA), Lancashire County Council provides technical advice about surface water drainage on new developments to the district and city councils which decide on planning applications.
However, the primary flood risk assessments are produced by or on behalf of the firms seeking permission to build – before being commented upon by the flood risk management team at County Hall.
Siriol Hogg, from the Churchtown flood action group in Wyre, described it as “absolutely criminal” that developers were able to play such a prominent role in the process to determine whether their own applications posed a flood risk.
“They have very knowledgeable people who do this every day – and then they’re facing the community who are trying to muster a defence against [an application].
“We’ve got 14 developments upstream of the village all draining into the rivers that flood us – and we haven’t been able to stop them.
“Nobody knows for certain where the water from those developments is going to go,” added Ms. Hogg, who was forced out of her home for over a year by flooding in 2015, only to see the property back under water eight months after she returned.
National planning policy states that development should only be permitted in areas of flood risk when certain criteria are met – including that they are “appropriately flood resistant and resilient” and that any risk can be safely managed.
But task group member David Whipp said that planning committees were repeatedly being assured that there was a “technical solution” to prevent flooding.
“The National Planning Policy Framework has a presumption in favour of development – and that’s been set up so that people can build houses even if the location is utterly inappropriate,” County Cllr Whipp warned .
Scrutiny committee member Elizabeth Oades said that a road on a new development in her Fylde East division was threatening to disappear beneath water at times and that she “can’t trust developer’s [flood risk] reports to be totally honest”.
Task group member Erica Lewis also called for housebuilders to be required to “hold and slow” the flow water as part of their plans, rather than just ensure that there is no more of it flowing any faster than previously.
The report itself made a series of recommendations – including writing to government to call for a review of the rules about sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) on new developments.
Councillors raised concern that there is no timescale for them to be adopted by the relevant authorities – and yet developers do have an automatic right for their estates to be connected to the sewer network. This privilege should also be re-examined, the report stated.
Water firm United Utilities warned that drainage is sometimes seen as “a detail to be sorted later by the developer” – but its own role was also called into question by the task group, because the company is not regarded as a statutory consultee in the planning process.
Task group chair Matthew Salter said that the rules surrounding the installation and maintenance of SuDS could be “storing up trouble” a decade down the line. But facing criticism even from some fellow task group members that the report should have been tougher, he said that the county council had to pick his battles.
“There are issues with the planning system which, if I could wave a magic wand and sort out tomorrow, I would – but that’s not within our gift. Our focus had to be on areas we could influence and change with the powers that we have here – we can’t sort everything out overnight,” County Cllr Salter said.
One recommendation, however, was directed particularly close to home – with a call for County Hall to strengthen its flood risk management team, which currently has five members of staff and comments upon 1,000 planning applications per year.
County Cllr Lewis, whose idea it was to set up the task group, agreed with that demand – but said she had been left “disappointed” by much else.
“[We needed] to raise Lancashire’s voice on the government agenda and say when we flood, it is not okay to look the other way – we need your support and you are underinvesting in flood defences.
“We need to be prepared to take a bit of risk on behalf of our residents and [where] we know there is a problem…recommend against building – and then [be] prepared to invest in defending that decision if it goes to appeal, [rather than] transferring that risk to residents,” she said.
A member of the Lower Yarrow Flood Action Group in the Chorley village of Croston was alarmed by the report’s contents in view of the influx of new housing likely in the coming years
“It was no comfort to get a report which says that the system we [will] be relying upon is pretty chaotic,” he said.
The recommendations from the task group - which reflect the views of its members rather than Lancashire County Council - will now be considered by the authority's cabinet member for technical services, Albert Atkinson. He told the committee that the county council had a good track record on flood defences, having helped secure funding for a scheme in Croston four years ago.
In a statement after the meeting, County Cllr Atkinson added: “I’m grateful for the detailed work which has been carried out by the external scrutiny committee – and we are currently working to give their recommendations our full consideration in order to respond at a future meeting.”
The Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) was approached for comment on the issues raised in the task group report.
“DIFFERENCES OF OPINION”
The Home Builders’ Federation (HBF), which represents developers, stressed that councils with planning powers have a role in assessing flood risk when they first earmark land for development – long before individual applications to build have been submitted, accompanied by the separate flood risk reports that are then required.
“A more co-ordinated approach would be the most efficient way of doing things, whereby the assessment is agreed jointly,” the HBF’s planning director, Andrew Whitaker, explained.
“This would avoid the current situation in which a report is produced by the developer at application stage and checked or re-done by the local planning authority – with differences of opinion then being debated.”
On adherence to drainage systems agreed as part of the planning process, Mr. Whitaker said such schemes were enforceable “through the courts if necessary”.
“Breach of condition or planning obligation is enforceable by the local planning authority. Of course, applications to amend the details of what has been previously agreed or to gain retrospective permission for a change are available for valid reasons.
“This actually makes the system more flexible and manageable rather than being a weakness – and any changes are subject to the same rules, requirements and scrutiny as the initial application.”
Meanwhile, water company United Utilities said that it takes “an active interest in the planning process” in spite of not being a statutory consultee.
“We make voluntary comments on applications that would have an impact on our assets and our connection charges incentivise developers to build sustainable drainage solutions,” spokesperson said.
“Flood risk is a broad and complex issue that cannot be solved simply by making water companies a statutory consultee in the planning process. We are actively lobbying the government as part of the water sector to modernise drainage legislation so that it is fit for our changing climate.”
VILLAGERS WANT FLOOD DEFENCES STRENGTHENING
When Storm Eva hit Croston and caused extensive flooding on Boxing Day 2015, the village already had a flood action group.
Years earlier, it had been advised by the Environment Agency to draw up an emergency plan because of its vulnerable location.
“We didn’t want an emergency plan, we wanted a flood protection plan,” recalls Kath Almond, chair of the Lower Yarrow Flood Action Group.
That came in the form of a £7m flood barrier system 12 months after more than 300 properties in Croston had been inundated with water.
“People don’t realise what flooding does to you – as a family, a household, a village,” Kath explains.
While the group itself is made up of five members, the whole community comes together in times of threat – manning a pump to divert water away from the village and also deploying sandbags.
While she welcomes the more certain protection brought by the new defences, they are yet to deliver complete peace of mind for residents – partially because that has been eroded by experience, but also for more practical reasons.
The system includes a floodwater storage area upstream on the River Yarrow which restricts the water flow through the village by dropping ‘penstock’ gates when levels reach a certain point.
But Kath believes that those levels need to be changed – and she says an incident back in September proves it.
“A lot of the roads flooded, as well as two houses and my own garage. You can only really test these things when you have an enormous amount of rain and our defences have been shown to need some adjustment.”
A spokesperson for the Environment Agency said: “We have been working closely with the Lower Yarrow Flood Action Group to explore additional options for increased storage capacity as part of the £7 million Croston Flood Risk Management Scheme.
“The scheme has been built on a long-standing and successful partnership between the community, the Environment Agency, the councils and United Utilities. Once investigations – that may allow the scheme to store more water – are complete, we will discuss all options with the Lower Yarrow Flood Action Group.’’
DELIVERING DRAINAGE FIRST
Paul Cobbing, chief executive of the National Flood Forum charity, said that developer’s drainage plans should be produced at the earliest outline stage of the planning process in order for them to be effective.
“You need to do the drainage first and then decide how many houses are going to go where. If you try to do it the other way, that’s one of many points at which mistakes are made.
“I think what Lancashire County Council’s task group have come out with is great – we now need the new government strategy to have the scope to deliver the changes we really need.
“Given the scale of new development and the issue of climate change, now is the time to do it,” Mr. Cobbing said.
He also praised the work of flood action groups – of which Lancashire has 40. The task group suggested that an annual conference could be convened so that they can share ideas.
“These groups have come together because there is a problem. They learn about flood risk as they go along and start to understand how they can make a difference.
“If we’re going to get changing weather patterns, we will all need to keep on adapting.”
The task group called on the government to provide "consistent guidance" on the circumstances in which resilience grants can be expected by flood victims. Payments of up £5,000 have previously been made available towards the cost of installing measures to protect properties from further flooding.
However, the cash has sometimes been dependent on a range of factors. Last week, it emerged that payments to those who suffered flooding in South Yorkshire late least year would be determined by date and the number of properties affected in a particular area.
Task group member David Whip said: "The point is that for people who are flooded - whether it’s one household or a hundred - the impact is exactly the same. So if the government are going to give £5,000 grants to reduce the impact of flooding, they ought to be able to make available consistently."
Did you know…
…you need planning permission to pave over your front garden unless the surface is permeable, porous or redirects water to a lawn or border area to drain naturally?
….you can be warned by United Utilities for flushing inappropriate material down the drain, such as wet wipes? As of last year, only one wipe passes the water industry’s “fine to flush” test which means it will not block the drains.
The Environment Agency has identified 23 "rapid catchment areas" across Lancashire to which the county's fire and rescue service deploys an engine on standby when telemetry systems indicate risk of a flood. The situation is then assessed and monitored by firefighters, who would instigate a wider response from other agencies and the fire service itself if flooding appeared likely.
Accrington---Rivers in Accrington and Oswaldtwistle
Barrowford---Pendle Water at Barrowford
Blackburn Town Centre/Wrangling---River Blakewater at Blackburn Wrangling
Burnley---River Brun at Burnley
Burnley---River Calder at Burnley Town Centre
Churchtown---River Wyre at Kirkland Bridge
Clitheroe---Mearley Brook at Clitheroe
Clitheroe---Pimlico Brook at Clitheroe
Colne---Colne Water at Cotton Tree
Croston---River Yarrow at Croston
Darwen & Blackburn---River Darwen at Darwen
Earby---Earby Beck at Earby
Edenfield---River Irwell at Stubbins
Galgate---River Conder at Galgate
Helmshore---Ogden Brook at Little Bridge
Lancaster---Burrow Beck at Lancaster
Loveclough, Crawshawbooth, Constable Lee, Reeds Holme---Limy Water at Rawtenstall
Padiham---River Calder at Padiham
Saint Michaels---River Wyre at St Michaels North
Trawden---Trawden Brook at Trawden
Waterfoot, Stacksteads, Irwell Vale, Stubbins---River Irwell at Waterfoot
Whitworth---River Spodden at Whitworth, Daniel Street