A new mood for spending

The summer's devastating flooding exposed the UK's ineffectual drainage and sewerage networks. Dean Stiles reports on how the public is ready to pay for improvements if positive leadership is shown.

There is growing public support for spending more on sewer and drainage infrastructure improvement, says the chairman of the Concrete Pipeline Systems Association (CPSA), Andy Goring. He has added his voice to those calling for spending on a hugely expanded drainage network as well as better co-ordination between the various agencies, local authorities and companies involved.

The floods earlier this year in Yorkshire and the Midlands have brought the drainage issue into sharp relief in what Goring calls “a wake-up call to the infrastructure community”. In response, the CPSA has produced a six-point plan for action.

“Ownership of the problem may diffuse but the government has a clear role to bring all stakeholders together to solve it,” he says, in an echo of the comments made immediately after the floods by the chief executive of the Environment Agency, Barbara Young.

She called for consultation between water companies and local authorities to create a 25-year strategic plan, “so that we can start to plan drainage systems in a way that takes account of climate changes and isn’t done in a piecemeal fashion as has happened over the last hundred years”.

And it’s the last 100 years that is the nub of the problem. The UK’s 302,000km sewerage system, with an Ofwat estimated value of £108.8B, is one of the oldest, complete, sewerage systems in the world.

But nearly half of it is more than 60 years old, and it would cost at least £200B to replace.

The CPSA questions whether sufficient money is being spent on maintenance and improvement. Between now and 2010 (AMP4) companies in England and Wales will invest more than £5B in capital for maintenance of the sewerage service and £1B to reducing sewer flooding.

In 2004, OfWat estimated expenditure for each of the two following five-year periods at around £4.5B. But the industry does not currently expect government spending to be allocated to enhancing the sewerage system, according to Barrie Clarke, director of communication at Water UK, which represents the major water utility companies.

Extra capacity

The CPSA wants the national storm and sewerage distribution network to be thoroughly surveyed and a national infrastructure investment programme undertaken.

The association wants to see “combined sewers carrying storm water and sanitary sewage to be separated as far as possible with combined sewer overflows minimised as far as possible and eliminated completely in coastal and other highly sensitive areas”.

In addition, it calls for the capacity of all new and refurbished storm drainage systems in the UK “to be at least doubled from now to allow for the higher intensity of rainfall and the need to remove run-off water much more quickly and efficiently”.

It states that, with the “new and higher house-building programme announced by the government last July it is vital that primary underground infrastructure is funded with the extra capacity to quickly take in the resulting effluent and surface water run-off, linking in of course with sustainable drainage systems schemes wherever possible”.

It is also calling for local authorities, highways agencies and other asset owners to pay more attention to gulley emptying and the clearing and improvement of run-off bottlenecks. There was much anecdotal evidence arising from the recent floods in Yorkshire, Humberside and South-west Midlands to suggest that routine gully maintenance has been declining, as has the clearing of blocked road surface water run-off areas.

The association suggests “that the Local Government Association should survey this area to see how much of a problem has accumulated”.

The interim report into flooding in Hull, carried out by Hull University, explicitly rejected blocked gullies as a major factor in Hull’s floods. But the report found that, in the 12 months prior to the flood event on June 14, only 37.6% of gullies had been cleaned and jetted.

While it seems highly unlikely that the gullies were of any overall significance as a direct cause of flooding in Hull, they may have contributed to local flood impact in specific locations, said

the report. It recommends “an integrated, city-wide gully cleaning and jetting service irrespective of council ownership…

“It should also have the ability to provide at-cost service to owners of private housing and industrial gullies to ensure floodwaters are capable of leaving the highways via the gullies at their full capacity.”

Multiple agencies

But the water companies’ remit is for main sewers rather than surface water drainage, a point Water UK’s Barrie Clarke stresses. “Major new storage has been a feature of improvements for some years, and as a result companies can point to many areas where flooding no longer occurs. This will continue. It is of course related to the industry’s remit for main sewers rather than surface water drains,” says Clarke.

This brings the discussion back to the problem of divergent responsibility for different aspects of the system. Surface water drainage involves the highways agencies as well as local authorities.

The Interim Report into Hull’s floods highlights this, noting: “The flooding in Hull has revealed the difficulties of having multiple agencies responsible for different areas of the drainage system. …this … has led to deficiencies in the planning and day-to-day management of drainage.

“We would be surprised if some of these multi-agency organisational issues were not found elsewhere in England and Wales. We feel it is vital that the Environment Agency, local authority and water company closely co-operate on operation and design.”

But, regardless of any improvement in stakeholder co-operation, there is still the need to fund the infrastructure improvement.

The government is currently ideologically unwilling to embark on large scale, state-funded infrastructure projects. Further, sewer upgrades and expansion will require Ofwat to determine increased expenditure by the water companies. This will be reflected in higher water bills – politically unpopular but perhaps more acceptable than direct state funding.

But there is still the need to fund surface-water drainage improvements and other costs that local authorities will incur, such as those for more frequent gully clearance programmes.

The association believes that recent flooding that has seen the fouling of agricultural land, recreational areas and gardens with sewage effluent has had huge impact on public thinking.

“We believe the mood to spend the necessary capital is now there. We need a positive lead by Ofwat in the 2009 price review with supportive political leadership,” says Goring.

“Together, we must alert the public and the politicians that a better drainage and sewerage network is vital to support public-health standards, housing and commercial growth as well as to deal with the higher, more concentrated rates of rainfall and run-off that we will experience from now,” he says.

It is clearly in everyone’s interests to support him.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie