On 25 June 2008 Sir Michael Pitt’s report ‘Learning lessons from the 2007 floods’ was published, one year on from the flooding that devastated parts of the UK. Commissioned by the government in the immediate aftermath of the floods, the report is described as ‘one of the widest ranging policy reviews ever carried out in the UK’.

The report begins by underlining just how severe an event the summer 2007 flooding was. The wettest summer since records began, combined with extreme levels of rainfall compressed into relatively short periods of time, resulted in the flooding of some 55,000 properties. Around 7,000 people were rescued from the flood waters by the emergency services, and 13 people lost their lives. There was the largest loss of essential services since World War II, with almost half a million people without mains water or electricity. Transport networks failed, a dam breach was narrowly averted and emergency facilities were put out of action. The insurance industry expects to pay out over £3 billion. According to the report, the floods ranked as the most expensive in the world in 2007.

Whilst it is not clear whether the events were a direct result of climate change, the report stresses that such events are expected to become more frequent, and the scale of the flooding threat worsen. It calls for urgent and fundamental changes to the way in which the country is adapting to this risk, and makes 92 recommendations for achieving this.

The report describes development control as ‘a central part of the process of managing flood risk, by avoiding development in risk areas where possible and, where such building does take place, by ensuring that risk is reduced both to the development itself and for those living nearby.’ It broadly endorses government policy on development control on the floodplain as set out in planning policy statement 25 (PPS 25), combined with the powers introduced to allow the Secretary of State to call in planning applications where the Environment Agency challenges a proposed development in a flood risk area.

The report recommends that:

  • there should be a presumption against building in high flood risk areas, in accordance with PPS25, including giving consideration to all sources of flood risk, and ensuring that developers make a full contribution to the costs both of building and maintaining any necessary defences (recommendation 7);
  • the operation and effectiveness of PPS25 and the Environment Agency’s powers to challenge development should be kept under review and strengthened if and when necessary (recommendation 8);
  • householders should no longer be able to lay impermeable surfaces as of right on front gardens and the Government should consult on extending this to back gardens and business premises (recommendation 9);
  • the automatic right to connect surface water drainage of new developments to the sewerage system should be removed (recommendation 10);
  • building regulations should be revised to ensure that all new or refurbished buildings in high floodrisk areas are flood resistant or resilient (recommendation 11);
  • all local authorities should extend eligibility for home improvement grants and loans to include flood resistance and resilience products for properties in high flood-risk areas (recommendation 12).

The report recognises that it is not feasible to impose a blanket ban on development of the floodplain – around 11% of cent of new homes in England have been built in flood hazard areas since 2000 – but states that ‘any individual who buys a newly-built property should have a reasonable expectation that the property will not be prone to flooding and if, exceptionally, the property is built on the floodplain, the flood risk should be mitigated as far as possible’.

The report concludes that PPS 25 supports this expectation, provided that it is properly applied. The implication is that more can be done to mitigate the effects of flooding, and that a more vigorous application of existing planning policy is needed.

This provides the subtext to the publication on 12 June 2008 of a practice guide to PPS 25. The guide sets out in quite some detail how the policies of PPS 25 (such as the ‘sequential test’ for directing development away from flood risk areas) are to be applied. The accompanying DCLG press release reveals that in essence the practice guide gives Councils five clear steps for maximising the planning rules to better manage flood risks in their area:

  • identify what the flood risks are including river/sea breaches, inadequate drainage and surface water run off or sewer problems;
  • avoid risk by prioritising non-flood areas first for new development;
  • critically assess whether the need for a new development outweighs flood risk, including following Environment Agency advice;
  • control flooding using sustainable drainage and good design; and
  • ensure all new buildings that have to be in areas that might flood are resilient and safe.

The practice guide provides a number of case studies where local authorities have successfully planned their communities with flood risk in mind. Announcing the launch of the practice guide, Planning Minister Caroline Flint stated that Councils now have ‘no excuse for failing to protect their communities’.

In February 2008 the Government’s new water strategy, ‘Future Water’, stated that householders will no longer be able to lay impermeable surfaces in front gardens as of right. The amendments to the permitted development rights under the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995 which came into force on 1 October 2008 have now implemented this proposal. Going forward it is to be expected that more of Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendations will permeate emerging Government policy on flooding.