NIC: Investment alone will not tackle surface water flooding

Surface water flooding cannot be remedied through investment alone, the head of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has told Utility Week ahead of its report on the subject being published next month.

Chief executive James Heath said the NIC was preparing to make a series of recommendations to government to protect areas at risk of surface water flooding through a multi-sector approach.

According to the Environment Agency, over three million properties in England are at risk of surface water flooding, which occurs when heavy rainfall overwhelms drainage infrastructure or does not soak into the ground.

The scope of the NIC’s report will stretch beyond requirements for the water sector and set out recommendations for how a joined-up solution can be achieved over the coming decades without burdening costs too heavily on either public or private finances.

“The problem isn’t a lack of governance in this space, there are a lot of plans and the challenge is to coordinate them,” Heath said. “The challenge will be getting a commitment to long-term planning and what the long-term set of outcomes will look like.

“At the moment there’s no sense of what good practice looks like or what targets and investment should be across public and private sectors.”

While the report is still being finalised, Heath said it was likely to include long and short-term recommendations to government. He explained the NIC was considering proposing a long-term target for risk reduction, and a level of investment to achieve that target. While declining to put a figure on this he said it was expected to be smaller than the £56 billion figure calculated to address combined sewer overflows.

“We will hope to make recommendations on the best mix of above and below ground solutions to provide greater resilience, although this will inevitably vary by local circumstances. We are examining the potential of nature-based solutions and other ways of holding back water, particularly where they offer wider benefits than just addressing flooding – and we are looking at whether regulation sufficiently supports these approaches,” Heath explained.

On this thinking, Heath said, the NIC was aligned with Ofwat’s PR24 framework: “Ofwat is making all the right noises in its framework about incentivising nature-based solutions and we are of the same mindset.”

He warned that investment alone will not address surface water flooding unless the understanding of it, through data and modelling, and how to manage it through governance, was improved.

Recommendations are likely to suggest ways to improve the understanding of the surface water problem to determine which areas are at highest risk and prioritise action. He said there was a need for more accurate, consistent, and forward-looking risk mapping to inform interventions.

“On governance, there is a consensus from past reviews – which has been reflected in our discussions with stakeholders – that the current model is too fragmented and not as effective as it could be. While there are examples of good practice, there are also barriers to strategic planning and to delivering surface water flooding solutions at scale.”

The report is anticipated to call for more effective sharing of data and modelling between different bodies to find a clearer structure for agreeing responsibilities and where work is required.

“We’re looking at whether the different parties have the right incentives to work effectively together and what new mechanisms may be required to improve co-ordination across the multiple bodies with a role in the planning and delivery of measures to achieve an agreed reduction in risk.”

Heath called the draft Drainage and Wastewater Management Plans published in June by water companies “a useful step forward,” but they are not the single joint plans involving all responsible bodies the NIC called for in its first National Infrastructure Assessment.