Q&A: Sue Illman

The president of the Landscape Institute is feeling drained by the UK’s lack of response to the latest tranche of floods...


You’ve been talking SuDS strategies for years. You must feel like you’re going over the same old ground?

The water is! The UK should know better by now. We know what we need to do to mitigate flooding – we just never seem to get on with it, and so the floods keep coming, and we have to keep dealing with the clean-up.


So what aspects of the Flood Management Act are not being implemented?

Schedule 3 would put in place a national minimum standard for what should be included in every UK SuDS strategy. There are SuDS schemes out there, but we want to it to be mandatory that all developments of more than one home have a bespoke SuDS policy. Initially it’ll probably only be for larger developments – but it’s an aspiration.


What’s wrong with drains anyway? Bazalgette was a dab hand with them.

He was good, but even he could never have anticipated the scale of future development and today’s volumes of water. He designed for a 1 in 30 year storm but we’re now designing for 1 in 100 year ones. Even 20 year old drains haven’t a hope in hell of dealing with current volumes. SuDS also brings benefits in terms of  the urban heat island, biodiversity and public health and wellbeing – no drainpipe can do that.


You have said that even Latvia and Russia are more proactive than us – maybe they just don’t have the land pressure.

Not at all. Urban intensification is a world-wide problem and we’re all in the same boat. But national standards are being dumbed down here: the government’s already said it won’t try to implement Schedule 3 by 1 April, so it’s being pushed back to 1 October. They seem to prefer bloody great pipes to a long-term, sustainable drainage strategy.


So why does the government have to stump up? Isn’t this just a planning policy issue?

Planning only affects future development and we need retrofit the country. Defra has said it will commit money to this, but we don’t know how much; by comparison it costs on average £30,000 per home for a post-flood clean-up. Greenfield sites must meet the 1 in 100 year +20% mitigation requirement, but for brownfield sites, it’s still just about ‘betterment’.  


Do you have a romantic idea of an England with its ancient waterways restored?

It might already be happening! In Yorkshire and at the Great Fen project in Cambridgeshire, they’re already stopping-up old drainage channels. The UK has by its island nature always had a relationship with water: it’s about time we returned to our traditional forms of water management and re-engaged with our history. 

Après le déluge

The Flood and Water Management Act 2010 offers national guidance for better management of flood risk. Under Section 5 of the Schedule 3, the secretary of state shall define minimum standards for the implementation of sustainable drainage governing the way it will be ‘designed, constructed, maintained and operated.’ The meeting of these minimum standards will be delegated to the local planning authority. Secretary of state Owen Paterson’s stated his intention to bring SuDS regulations ‘into force in April 2014’, subject to ‘cross Whitehall and Parliamentary approval’. Though SuDS funding is unclear and not yet part of legislation, the 2012 Autumn Statement committed £120m to April 2015 to 50 UK flood defence projects.