Environment Agency’s policy of discouraging building on flood plains threatens high-density growth area

A key 6000-unit project in Ashford, Kent, could be axed because it does not comply with current thinking on building on flood plains.

The Canal District, so called because of its urban waterways, lies to the south of Ashford town centre and is in one of the government’s four housing growth areas in the South-east.

The town’s expansion is being co-ordinated by a partnership that includes Ashford and Kent councils, the Government Office for the South East and English Partnerships. The team is trying to satisfy fellow partner the Environment Agency that its vision for the area, which would involve raising the land and moving the flood plain to the east, is feasible.

The planners in the team therefore have to convince the Environment Agency to waive its policy of discouraging building on flood plains.

The agency is likely to decide whether to advise planners to accept the scheme by the end of the year.

The team is confident that the design and engineering argument it has put forward is sound. However, Dan Epstein, leader of innovation and sustainability at Ashford’s Future, said it was difficult to have to work so hard on answering these concerns while facing such uncertainty.

We don't know whether we're going to come up against a brick wall

Dan Epstein, Ashford's Future

He said: “The situation at the moment is that you are guilty until proven innocent. What some would like to happen is that, if you can prove it is technically feasible and you’ve observed Urban Design considerations, you should be able to do it. We don’t know at the moment whether we’re going to come up against a brick wall.”

Marcus Wilshere, who is chairman of campaign body Urban Design Alliance and is also involved at Ashford, said the government would need to work out a coherent policy on urban design in flood-risk areas.

He said: “The issue that has to be resolved is how to introduce the government’s ideas on urban forms into communities that have rivers and flood risks – which is quite a lot of them.”

The government is currently working on a review of planning policy guidance 25 (PPG25), which deals with flood risk. It is understood that the planning minister Keith Hill is considering a change of emphasis in the guidance so that well-designed developments in at-risk areas get an easier deal.

  • Kent council has appointed star architect Piers Gough, of architect CZWG, to act as its design champion. Gough’s role will involve liaising with developers to try and ensure quality design in the county’s housing developments.