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Tackling flooding is essential for rural communities facing climate change

Flooding is a wrecking ball for at-risk communities. It causes economic havoc, ruins family homes and businesses, poses further challenges for farmers, and damages our environment. The challenge is not going to get any easier to solve. Climate change will bring more and heavier rainfall, further increasing the risk and severity of floods. To help shield communities like my Witney constituency in West Oxfordshire against flooding, we need to ensure that new homes do not make the problem worse.

One in six English properties and almost a third of businesses are at risk of flooding. Flood damage costs the UK £1.3 billion a year on average. Farmers’ fields can be submerged under water, ruining crops, removing space for livestock, and reducing their income. This could get worse if we do not reduce the risks of climate change. Projections show winters will become wetter, and there will be heavier summer downpours. We are already experiencing higher winter rainfall on average according to the Met Office: the five wettest winters on record have occurred since 1990. My constituents know full well the misery that winter flooding can cause. Residents of Witney and its surrounding villages know that Christmas can be ruined by flooding as heavy rainfall leads to large volumes of surface water running off our streets. Recent reports have identified our overreliance on highway drainage systems as a key factor for flooding. Surface water runoff into highway drains also causes river pollution from storm overflow discharges. When sewers are overwhelmed by rainfall, wastewater is too often released into our rivers through storm overflows to prevent sewage from backing up into people’s homes and businesses. Water firms should have been investing to end the use of storm overflows, but many have been far too slow. For the six years since my election, I have monitored Thames Water’s conduct and campaigned for change. Their use of local storm overflows over recent Christmas periods has been particularly disappointing. Sewage discharges are occurring far too frequently locally. This is completely unacceptable and I have told the CEO as much both in writing and in person. This routine use of storm overflows must cease. Sewage pollution and flooding are two major environmental challenges that this Conservative Government has been working hard to resolve. Defra’s Sewage Discharge Reduction Plan, which will mobilise £56 billion of private capital over the next 25 years to end the environmental harm from storm overflows, is a clear example of bold action being taken to resolve this issue. But more can be done. The Conservative Environment Network’s (CEN) water manifesto, which I proudly signed at the end of last year, suggests six policy goals to clean up our rivers and improve flood management. One policy that can mitigate both pollution and flooding is requiring sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) in new developments. This can be implemented using Schedule 3 of the Flood Water Management Act 2010, so it does not require new legislation. Regulations could also be used to remove the automatic right to connect new homes to existing drainage instead of SuDs. This would require developers to work with water companies to ensure that, when new homes are built, they come with the water infrastructure to support them, rather than become a burden on a system that may already be overstretched. I am delighted that ministers announced this week that they will use this mechanism to ensure all new homes have SuDs. In essence, these systems reintroduce permeable surfaces to absorb rainfall and features such as ponds and wetlands to store more water. These features mimic natural drainage, slowing the flow of surface water into sewers to ease the pressure during heavy downpours. It reduces the risk of flooding and storm overflow discharges. Vegetation and soil can also remove pollutants from stormwater before it reaches our precious rivers. For places like West Oxfordshire, which rely too much on highway drainage to remove surface water, introducing SuDS to new developments could help mitigate future flooding events and improve local water quality. This is critical to reduce the risks from climate change to our homes and businesses and protect our rivers for local wildlife and residents. Nature recovery, climate resilience, and house building are not mutually exclusive ambitions. SuDS is the perfect example of how we can achieve these objectives together. Experts predict they will cut the costs of flooding for businesses by over £900 million and save households over £2.3 billion. They also provide many benefits, such as more habitat for wildlife to help the government reach its legal target to halt species decline.

Flooding and pollution in England are issues we face year after year. While upgrading drainage and sewage infrastructure to manage heavier rainfall is part of the solution, it can only go so far in solving the problem. We need to ensure our built environment can absorb and store more water in the face of climate change, using nature-based solutions wherever possible to improve biodiversity and make our towns and cities more attractive. That’s why I encourage ConservativeHome readers to engage in the Government’s consultation and help ensure that SuDs become a requirement in new development.


First published by ConservativeHome. Robert Courts MP (Witney) is a member of the Conservative Environment Network.

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