Lake or mistake? The row over water firms, drought and Abingdon’s new super-reservoir
It will be like a giant flan case full of water dumped on a marsh, says Julie Mabberley. She is discussing the plan to put a 150bn-litre reservoir, spanning almost two miles across, to the south-west of Abingdon in Oxfordshire.
Mabberley, a management consultant and local campaigner with 1,000 people on her list of anti-reservoir sympathisers, believes the 25-metre-high walls needed to keep in the huge volume of water would be too close to hundreds of homes built near the site to be safe.
Her doubts, and those of other campaigners, about the feasibility and safety of the £1.4bn reservoir feed into an unresolved debate over the need for extra water storage in the south and east of England.
Britain’s water companies are grabbing the headlines after spilling vast amounts of raw sewage near beaches and into rivers. But the other problem bubbling away is the need for them to provide more water, especially in the east and south-east, where natural stores in underground aquifers are being sucked dry. After more than three decades of privatisation, debate is raging about the ownership of water companies, the extraction of huge sums in dividends, and how vast and vital upgrades to infrastructure are funded as the climate changes.
Emergencies and extremes are expected to become more frequent now that the country is increasingly becoming used to flash floods and droughts, where once showers, drizzle and the occasional burst of sun were more common.
The Abingdon reservoir is the cornerstone of plans to build a resilient network of water sources – ones that can be easily deployed when shortages hit. Yet local residents and politicians say they remain confused by it. What was going to provide Oxfordshire with a degree of drought resistance when it was put forward in 2010 became a solution for London in 2019. Then Thames, Affinity and Southern, the three water companies that plan to build the reservoir, said its water would be piped south to Portsmouth.
Oxfordshire county council’s climate change spokesperson, Pete Sudbury, sums up the local mood. “The water industry has utterly failed to convince people in Oxfordshire, who have no wish to see this vast reservoir imposed on them,” he says.
Water companies, local residents, council officers and the water regulator remain at loggerheads despite a public consultation that ended in March. By this autumn, a report prepared for the water regulator, Ofwat, is expected to recommend Abingdon reservoir be included in an overarching plan to keep water flowing to the taps of 19 million people in the south-east.
At this stage more studies are being carried out to test the reservoir’s impact and no conclusion has been reached. However, campaigners fear the project will gather momentum before a new 50-year water resources management plan, which all water companies are expected to publish in 2024, and that analysis of the scheme’s flaws will be pushed aside.
Lack of investment
Historically, the south-east has far fewer reservoirs than the north, mainly because the lack of clay in the region – broadly, the area below a line between the River Exe in the south-west and the Norfolk coast – limits the places new reservoirs can be constructed. Investment-shy water companies are cited as another barrier to building a new generation of infrastructure.
Thérèse Coffey is the latest environment secretary trying to get the companies to secure new sources of water. She oversees an arm’s-length agency known as Rapid – the Regulators’ Alliance for Progressing Infrastructure Development. Made up of Ofwat, the Environment Agency (EA) and the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI), Rapid has dictated terms to regional groups of previously autonomous private water companies since it was created in 2019. The group of companies that covers the south-east region – including Thames, Affinity and Southern – is called Water Resources South East (WRSE).
Since it was privatised in 1989 the industry has hitherto failed to construct a single reservoir, but now three could be built in the south-east over the next 15 years. They will be part of £14bn worth of investment to revamp treatment works, mend leaky pipes and transfer water around the country to resolve increasingly frequent shortages.
At the heart of the plan are water transfers – diverting river flows from those with a lot to those with little. They make up a significant slice of the investment along with fixing leaks. Reservoirs account for only 7%, but are considered a crucial backup by WRSE, and the Abingdon reservoir is the largest.
Critics of water transfers, including the environmentalist George Monbiot, argue that they are an exercise in robbing parts of the west and north of England to benefit a profligate south-east.
That is not view of the Abingdon protesters, who say the installation of pipe networks between one catchment and another to cope with shortages – in this case from the Severn to the Thames – is better than having a mass of untreated water locked up in a reservoir based on a flawed design.
Derek Stork, the chair of the Group Against Reservoir Development (Gard), says: “Usually, it pays to learn lessons from history. Water transfer schemes are not in any way a radical or new idea.
“Anyone familiar with Roman aqueducts, or the cities of the ancient Persian empire, will be familiar with the concept. They have, moreover, been what has been happening in England since Victorian times, when the north Wales reservoirs were built to supply Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester.
“Nobody thinks twice about having an electricity grid and a national gas grid. We should be planning a sensible water grid too.”
A long-running saga
Stork battled against a plan for a 100bn-litre reservoir in 2010, arguing that the Thames was already struggling to fill adjacent reservoirs before a drought period and the same would be the case in Abingdon, making it an almost useless addition to the “grid”.
The planning inspector agreed that Thames Water, which was acting alone at the time, had not made the case and told the company to come back with a more modest and less disruptive proposal that was more adaptable to changing needs.
Now, Stork is coming to grips with a welter of detailed supporting documents put forward by WRSE in favour of a larger 150bn-litre lake.
Most of the water, in the latest version of the scheme, will sit above ground after engineers found that the rare patch of clay soil which drew them to this corner of Oxfordshire is too shallow to dig down as far as 25 metres.
That will leave most of the water weighing heavily on a patch of farmland that is already criss-crossed with small rivers, all of which are prone to flooding.
Stork, a former head of technology at the Atomic Energy Authority and a nuclear fusion expert, disputes the safety of the scheme when the area is already a flood risk, while others in the campaign group argue that the proposal skates over the environmental impact.
Roger Turnbull, a parish councillor and retired planning officer, claims the population growth forecasts used by the water companies to justify the reservoir are out of date. “They are using old forecasts. For instance, the plan for London was for another 800,000 people over the next 10 years. Now it is 300,000. And yet Thames Water has not adjusted its forecasts.”
Andy Cooke, a Liberal Democrat district councillor and military IT specialist, wants WRSE to champion more immediate solutions to the drought problem. “If you want to cover population growth, if you want abstraction reduction, if you want drought resilience, why go first and foremost for something that most of the population won’t see in their lifetime?” he says.
Simon Thomas, who manages a farm that would lose 800-1,000 hectares of land if the plan goes through, considers the wetland habitats that he has helped create to be among the main losses, along with the birds that live there and the lines of riverbank trees that skirt the site.
“We created a wetland mosaic with differing depths of water, which encourages different species,” he says. “Whether it survives is an open question because it falls into the area designated for flood alleviation and we don’t know how they are going to manage that.”
Are planning rules to blame?
Labour and Conservative politicians regularly cite excessively strict planning rules for holding up major infrastructure projects.
Housing schemes, renewable energy installations and new road and rail projects are regularly abandoned after objections at the planning stage. Water schemes are no exception.
To help ministers push ahead, the National Infrastructure Commission, which has grown in stature under its boss, Sir John Armitt, is becoming an unofficial arbiter of good development. Its report on the water industry – which estimated the UK needed new supplies equivalent to the water consumed by more than 9 million people by the mid-2030s – was behind the creation of Rapid and WRSE. Unsurprisingly, the commission is in favour of the Abingdon reservoir as an essential building block of future water resilience.
Planning rules have nothing to do with the reservoir’s travails so far, say campaigners, unless WRSE is referring to rules that force it to make a coherent and transparent argument.
Catriona Riddell, a planning expert and former head of planning at the now defunct South East England Regional Assembly, says the reservoir needs to be part of regional plan to make headway. She says politicians who blame planning laws should reflect on the scrapping of regional planning bodies more than a decade ago.
Only a regional infrastructure plan can convince local people affected by huge diggers on their doorstep that the project fits with other climate-friendly infrastructure in their area and that the national interest is at stake, she says.
Janice Morphet, a visiting lecturer at University College London’s Bartlett School of Planning, says only a national plan setting out the UK’s needs over the next 50 years will bring local politicians on board when they are under pressure from campaign groups to block developments in their backyard.
Katherine Foxhall, a local Green party activist, agrees that a national and regional plan will help put the reservoir in context. She says Oxfordshire county council is under pressure to support several infrastructure projects in addition to the HS2 rail line that carves its way through the county. One of the country’s largest solar farms is planned to go ahead from 2025.
“There is a lot of big infrastructure coming into Oxfordshire and there are strategic reasons why that is,” she says. “But what Thames Water have yet to do – and they have had 20-odd years – is make a convincing case based on evidence.”
A failure to persuade
South Oxfordshire district council has objected to the plan partly because it will prevent councillors meeting their targets on carbon emissions. Two years of archaeological, wildlife, and geological surveys, followed by a 10-year building programme, as well as the two years needed to fill the reservoir with water, would mean the council could not claim to be carbon neutral within the next 15 years.
Sudbury at Oxfordshire county council would personally back a smaller reservoir, but because there is not one on offer, has sided with Gard. “The regulators are the people really getting this wrong. They have been asleep at the wheel for over 30 years and are now determined to make up for it by overdoing everything,” he says.
WRSE says the lower population forecasts have been taken on board in the proposals, but that the range from high to low – from 5 million extra people to just 420,000 – still means the larger version of the Abingdon reservoir is needed.
It is more cost-effective to build big, limiting the impact on customers’ bills, WRSE says.
The disruption of digging up such a large area will be difficult to mitigate, but Thames Water says all the technical and safety concerns raised by Gard and local councils can be overcome. Protesters may believe such a large body of water will equate to the power of a nuclear bomb if the worst happens, but the company says it will use the latest techniques and best engineers to make sure the site is safe.
There is also a likelihood that residents in nearby towns and villages will come to appreciate the reservoir as an activity hub for water sports in decades to come, it argues.
Thames Water says: “We’re still in the very early stages of consultation and design. We will always work closely with customers and local communities to consult with them on our proposed plans, listening and responding to their feedback.”
Foxhall echoes many local campaigners when she says: “I find it impossible to trust Thames Water. They tell us they have the environment at heart and people at heart, but that is not a credible argument telling us why the reservoir needs to be here.”
Richard Harding, the chair of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) in Oxfordshire, is only concerned that the water companies are too committed to a flawed project.
“Don’t think we are a bunch of nimbys? We are not,” he says. “If we need a reservoir after all the tests are done, then we’ll go for it.”