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Thames Water Reservoir at Abingdon

Volume 651: debated on Wednesday 12 December 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered plans for a Thames Water reservoir at Abingdon.

I am grateful for the opportunity to appear before you, Mr Stringer, and to raise this important subject. Obviously, it is the perfect day for a Conservative MP to open a debate about digging a very large hole.

It may interest Members to learn that, for the last 20 or 25 years, there has been a proposal to build a large reservoir in my constituency. It is known as the Abingdon reservoir, which reflects the name of the constituency of my neighbour, the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran). However, it would be situated in my constituency, near the villages of Steventon, the Hanneys and Drayton. This is a very large piece of land—probably one of the largest pieces of open land in the south-east of England. There have been various thoughts about what might be built on that land, including, amazingly, an airport and a garden city. However, the reservoir has been the most enduring proposal.

I am neutral about whether the reservoir should be built. On the one hand, I am a nimby, and it would make my life a lot easier if a reservoir was not built in my constituency; on the other hand, I recognise that it is potentially a large and important piece of infrastructure for the south-east of England. One thing that I am firm about is that the reservoir should not go ahead unless the need for it has been properly examined. I was successful the last time construction of the reservoir came close to happening, in 2010. I called for a public inquiry, which we secured, and which rejected the need for a reservoir. For me, it is unarguable that there should be a second public inquiry if Thames Water, which is behind the proposal, comes up with a proposal for a reservoir.

At the moment, Thames Water is developing its statutory water resources management plan, which the regulator requires of water companies to allow them to put forward proposals that will ensure a secure water supply and protect the environment. The reservoir is being presented by Thames Water as a solution for long-term water shortages. I will rehearse some of the arguments for and against the reservoir, and then ask the Minister a number of questions.

I do not think anyone would disagree with Thames Water, or indeed other stakeholders, that there is severe pressure on water resources in the south-east. As I am sure many people in this room who are knowledgeable about this subject know, it is a great irony that we live in quite a rainy country but that we still have great pressure on water resources and do not have as much rainfall as required. Thames Water estimates that by 2045—in another quarter of a century—it will need to find an extra 350 million litres of water per day to supply the population in London and the south-east. It is working with other companies as part of the Water Resources in the South East group to look at the long-term needs of the wider region and the best options for strategic water supply. According to Thames Water, the reservoir option will improve its resilience and that of Affinity Water by creating a regional storage and transfer hub.

Thames Water bases its estimate of the extra 350 million litres a day on a population increase forecast of 2.1 million over the next 25 years, which translates into an extra 1.3 million houses, and on climate change projections—for the avoidance of doubt, I am not a climate change denier, and I accept that climate change will absolutely have an impact on water supply in the south-east. Thames Water forecasts that, by 2050, our summers may be an average of 3° hotter and 18% drier. The Environment Agency’s welcome tightening of regulatory oversight also makes it harder to extract water from rivers and underground sources.

There is perhaps a slight contradiction: on the one hand, there is great concern about a reservoir in my constituency, but on the other hand, my constituency is home to some of the chalk streams of south-east England, including Letcombe brook. I have two little-known facts for hon. Members about chalk streams. One is that 85% of the chalk streams in the world are in the south-east of England, while the other 15% are in Normandy because they are part of the same chalk ridge that was once fused together when we were members of the ice age version of the European Union. My other little-known fact is that somebody who is passionate about chalk streams is the former lead singer of the Undertones, Feargal Sharkey, whom I got to know when he was head of UK Music and I was the Culture Minister responsible for music. I spoke to Feargal this morning and he made a point that I will bring up in my conclusion: a reservoir has not been built in the south-east since 1976.

To make a wider and less reservoir-focused point, there has not been investment in water storage for some 40 years. Increases in housing and population, climate change and tighter environmental regulation will result in average daily consumption per person rising from 1,300 litres to roughly 1,400 in the next few years. I should also say that one of the arguments that came up when a reservoir was debated almost 10 years ago was the desire to see Thames Water do more to tackle leakage. London suffers from having Victorian infrastructure; we lose an enormous amount of water through leakage. I am pleased to see that Thames Water wants to reduce leakage by 15% by 2025 and 50% by 2050, but that will still not be enough to supplant the increase in demand for water.

Thames Water says that it has looked at several options, including water transfer from the River Severn; making more water available from the remaining power station at Didcot, where the coal-fired power station has been closed down; water transfer from the midlands via the Oxford canal; and a reuse scheme at the Deepham sewage works. However, it has reached the conclusion that the reservoir is the best option and that the site in my constituency is the best of the 50 sites it claims to have surveyed.

Obviously, Thames Water wants to emphasise some of the benefits that might come to my constituents, including nature conservation, new natural habitats, opportunities for recreation such as fishing and walking, and the opportunity to reduce abstraction and save our vulnerable chalk streams. It is also keen to lay to rest the accusation that it is undertaking this infrastructure scheme in order, frankly, to line its own pockets. Apparently, any reservoir would be constructed under the same financial arrangements as the Thames sewer, with a separate company and additional money on our bills for some 40 years until the construction cost has been paid off.

My constituents, particularly those local to the site, have certainly not taken Thames Water’s proposals lying down. I pay tribute to Brigadier Nick Thompson, who led the Group Against Reservoir Development in its first battle when there was a public inquiry, and to Derek Stork, who now leads GARD. Given that this is happening in my constituency, I am pleased to say that the average resident has quite a bit of ammo behind them; Derek is the former head of technology at the UK Atomic Energy Authority, so he is no slouch when it comes to looking at the issues with his colleagues.

GARD points out that filling the reservoir would take three years and cause immense damage to the local community, the landscape and archaeology. The reservoir would have walls 25 metres high and would take 30 days to drain in an emergency. Building it would be enormously disruptive to the local community and would take something like 10 years, with all the resulting lorry traffic and disruption.

My constituents have already been affected by the very serious matter of planning blight. For example, many landowners have not modernised their buildings in the past 20 or 30 years; their land is still being used mainly for farmland because the threat of a reservoir has been hanging over them. They require certainty. Last year, a constituent was unable to sell their home, and I had to bring Thames Water to the table to purchase it. Many others who live near the site find that it is having an impact on their house prices and the opportunity to sell, and some of them face negative equity.

What concerns my constituents is not just the building disruption, but whether the case has genuinely been made. They have taken on some of Thames Water’s assumptions: they think that its population forecast and usage projections per person are unrealistically high and, although they are certainly not climate change deniers, they challenge its forecast of the impact of climate change on water availability. The data shows that water availability in London has increased over the past 70 years by about 200 litres a day. My constituents are not necessarily making the case that there should never be a reservoir, but they certainly do not believe that one is needed now; in fact, they argue that if there is ever a case for one, it will not be needed until at least 2100.

Given what the right hon. Gentleman says about the degradation of the river system, especially the chalk rivers, the clock is ticking and there is an imminent crisis, as Feargal Sharkey would say. I do not want to bring the debate back to Europe, but it is 45 years since we have been in Europe and 42 years since we built a reservoir. Does the right hon. Gentleman not conclude that the clock is ticking for us to save our river system in the south of England, especially the chalk stream system?

The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point. Obviously I am focusing on the specific proposal for a reservoir, but there is a lot more to say about managing water resources in the south-east. GARD is not saying that we should not build any more infrastructure to make more water resources available; it is saying that the Severn transfer option is viable and cheaper, and there is also the possibility of the Teddington abstraction scheme. Thames Water itself acknowledges that water transfer is an option, although it argues that it is not as good an option as a reservoir. It also claims to be looking at the Teddington scheme.

I want to give other hon. Members a chance to make the points that need to be made, but I want to ask the Minister about a number of points. I would be grateful for her insight into what work the Department has done with Thames Water to assess not just its proposal for a reservoir but its overall water resources management plan. Will she assure me and my constituents that, as this journey continues, Thames Water, her Department and other stakeholders, such as the Environment Agency, will fully involve my constituents in their deliberations and consultations? I hope she will support me, my constituents and Oxfordshire County Council in calling for a public inquiry to ensure this process is conducted in an open and proper manner.

I will draw my remarks to a conclusion by making the following points. When I sat firmly on the fence about the reservoir a decade ago, I must confess that I was not entirely confident that a public inquiry would lead to the reservoir being dismissed. I was pleasantly surprised that the inquiry concluded that a reservoir was unnecessary. It is sometimes easy to dismiss local campaign groups as nimbys or as people who will find almost any way to stop any kind of development near where they live, but, as it turned out, the campaign group defeated Thames Water in a sort of David and Goliath battle with the power of its arguments. The planning inspector found that Thames Water had not made its arguments effectively. I do not think that a lot has changed since 2010 or that the alternative options have been explored fully, and they need to be.

On the point the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) made about chalk streams and the environment, I have one other element of frustration, and it is partly directed at the Minister—her post, as opposed to her personally, because she is obviously a very good friend of mine. It seems slightly odd that Thames Water, a private company, is being left, to a certain extent, to its own devices to come up with a solution to a potential water crisis in the south-east over the next 10 or 20 years. It would be much better if this whole debate were led by the Government. They should say, “This is the need over the next 25 years. This is our best guess—made on all the available expertise, in a dispassionate fashion. These are the best ways to combat water shortage. They are about not just tackling leakage and more efficient home use, with water meters and the like, but realistic infrastructure that provides the best access to water resources with the minimum disruption to communities.”

I am delighted, at what I think is still quite an early stage in this process, to have had the opportunity to raise these issues at the highest level.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) for securing this debate on an incredibly important local issue. Like him, I have had much correspondence from my constituents about it. Although the proposed reservoir lies in his constituency, my constituents— in and around south Abingdon, in particular—are understandably very interested in these proposals, and I hope to raise their concerns today.

I absolutely recognise the need to ensure a safe, secure water supply for the future, but as a local MP it is also my job to stand up and speak out on behalf of my constituents, who have justified worries about these proposals. Given the large size of the scheme, we have to make sure we take them with us if needed.

As has already been mentioned, we have been here before. In 2010, the community campaigners, led by GARD and supported by my Liberal Democrat colleagues, were successful in their campaign to the Planning Inspectorate, which determined that there was “no immediate need” for a reservoir on this scale. We have gone into the future since then, but not that far into the future. As the right hon. Gentleman asked at the end of his speech, what has changed so materially in those eight years?

I thank GARD for its longstanding campaign, hard work and tenacity. In many ways, it has brought the band back together to fight this again. I also thank Councillors Catherine and Richard Webber, who have been keeping me updated and involved in the fight.

In 2010, the project was the subject of a public inquiry, which found that Thames Water’s plan was not fit for purpose, as it had not properly evaluated the alternative options. That is critical. What has changed? The proposal is now 50% bigger. It is the size of Heathrow airport, and will hold 150 million tonnes of water. It has also been moved forward: the intention is to build it by 2037. This is not just the same campaign run again; it is a campaign looking at a proposal that is even bigger and therefore requires even more scrutiny than the first time round.

The objections in my postbag and email inbox have focused on whether there is a need for the reservoir at all, the plans themselves and—this is where the right hon. Gentleman and I are absolutely on the same page—the need for the public to have their say on the proposals. I will take each of those in turn.

On the need for the reservoir, I shall not build on the right hon. Gentleman’s speech, although I thank him for educating me about the lesser-known facts about chalk streams. I dare say I did not know that. Every day is a learning day, so I thank him very much. I am keen for this debate to be a chance to raise residents’ concerns. I will start with my colleague, Debby Hallett, councillor for Botley and Sunningwall and deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats. She said that she would like to see the priority being given to fixing leaks elsewhere in the system. She speaks to residents, and they are all concerned that the water is not even for our area.

That is echoed by another resident, who wrote to me ahead of this debate. I said in a tweet and on my Facebook group, “What do you think? We are raising this today.” She said:

“The water from the reservoir is not, in any case, for use within the area supplied by Thames Water, but is to be sold elsewhere for the profit of Thames Water. It will be paid for by the customers of Thames Water but they will not benefit from it.”

There is disquiet that the bill payers will be the ones funding the new reservoir, which will become a major asset on Thames Water’s balance sheet. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his clarification about the nature of the company that might be set up. There is concern about who will pay, at least in monetary terms, and not least for building the thing in the first place. Many questioned the need for the development at all, and put forward alternatives including installing more desalination plants along the Thames, transferring raw water from the River Severn to the Thames, reducing water consumption, and addressing leakage.

The National Infrastructure Commission’s recent “Preparing for a drier future” report states that strategic inter-regional water transfers are needed, but water companies are failing to plan for them properly. As I understand it, Thames Water has pushed back the option of a Severn-Thames transfer until 2080, which is a very, very long way away and, frankly, ignores the current problems. Instead, it says that a reservoir is cheaper than a transfer, which is counter to what the National Infrastructure Commission said. There needs to be some joined-up thinking.

On the issue of leaks, is Thames Water doing enough elsewhere in the system, and are its targets for tackling leakages ambitious enough? One of GARD’s central arguments is that Thames Water, after discussions with Ofwat, will reduce its leakage by half by 2045, and has revised its population projections. The campaigners suggest that those two actions remove the need for the reservoir in the immediate term—that was the reason why it was rejected by the 2010 inquiry. They were surprised to see the proposal re-emerge with the earlier delivery date of 2037.

My first question to the Minister is: has the Department made an assessment of Thames Water’s plans, proposals and forecasts? If not, will she commit to doing so? Have there been any independent analyses of the costs to Thames Water of rectifying leakages and saving water loss in that way? Unfortunately, residents simply do not trust Thames Water on this issue, so we need some independence in the assessments. We need an evidence base on which to build the case to the public—not just about leakages, but about the whole thing: negatives and positives.

I did not receive only negatives in my inbox; some were a little optimistic. Rachel in Abingdon wrote to me to say that she

“supports the reservoir for future generations”,

and that she does not want the decision to keep being put off, but would rather just get on with it. She also made the very good point that developers—a lot of housing development is happening in Oxfordshire at the moment—need to look at greater use of grey water for the likes of toilet flushing. Has the Minister discussed that with colleagues in the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government? As ever, cross-departmental working could help to solve the wider issues.

Rachel says that if the reservoir does go ahead,

“we need to make sure that Thames Water builds this reservoir with amenities and leisure, and not just an inaccessible reservoir.”

I completely agree with her, and it could well be a great opportunity for our area. I say that with an element of caution however, because of my experience of the £100 million Oxford flood alleviation scheme. We were promised leisure facilities such as a cycle path that would go all the way through and which, I am sorry to say, was omitted from the final plans. I therefore remain gently sceptical about some of the promises that might be made at this stage. As that is also in the Minister’s brief, will she continue to encourage Oxfordshire County Council and the Environment Agency to think again about that cycle path, which we had been promised at the outset of the plans?

That brings me to the plans and the sheer scale of the reservoir, which is going to be the size of Heathrow. If one took a map of the reservoir and overlaid it on a map of Abingdon, it covers it. That is extraordinarily large, and one of the biggest reasons why residents have raised concerns. Sharron wrote on my Facebook page to say she was concerned that this would not be a valley-type reservoir that could enhance the area and provide leisure and tourism facilities. Instead, she was worried that the design would end up like “a massive tank” and the

“tallest structure in the vale”.

We all love Didcot power station—don’t get me wrong. Big structures in our area can be a cause of love, but having said that, if the reservoir is as Sharron described, it would be a blight on what is otherwise an incredibly beautiful landscape.

The environment is equally important. Many residents who contacted me were seriously concerned about the displacement of species. As the RSPB parliamentary species champion for the skylark, it would be remiss of me not to raise concerns about the potential impact of the proposals on many bird species, including the skylark. David, who is involved with Abingdon Naturalists Society, says that he is particularly concerned about the destruction of an

“undisturbed area of countryside that presently hosts breeding curlew, lapwing, grey partridge, skylark, all of which are red listed species.”

Other terrestrial wildlife might also be eliminated.

Richard Harding, a trustee of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, says:

“It will obviously have severe consequences to the environment and communities in Oxfordshire. The loss and damages to land, resources, heritage and communities would be substantial. The proposed area of flooding is a massive, hugely significant multi-period historical and archaeological landscape—the reality of what is there has not been grasped.”

That brings me to flooding which, I hope the Minister is aware, is a major concern for residents of the area. There were huge floods in Abingdon not very long ago. Marion wrote to me to ask for a second public inquiry into the proposals. She also raised the increased risk of flooding, particularly on the south Abingdon flood-relief land. Can the Minister indicate what assessments have been carried out on how the plans might affect the flood plain? There are schemes in place, but from what I understand, they were conceived after the first reservoir had been rejected. Do they now include space for the new reservoir?

My primary concern is to make sure that residents are heard. In Oxfordshire, where there is massive development going on everywhere, there are countless examples of residents from all over feeling that their voices have not been heard, not least on the elephantine Oxford to Cambridge expressway, from which they have felt totally frozen out. That is the main reason why we feel that we need a public inquiry now. I raised that with the Department and the response that I received from the Minister’s private secretary stated that

“it would not be appropriate for the Government to direct Thames Water to carry out further consultation on its water resources management plan”

until it responds to its latest consultation.

Will the Minister, as previous Governments have done, commit to insisting on a public inquiry on what will be a massive infrastructure project for our area?

We must be clear—local Liberal Democrats and I are absolutely clear—that we will fight for people to be able to have their say. People in Oxfordshire are reasonable; they will listen to the evidence. As my constituency neighbour, the right hon. Member for Wantage, said, people simply want to know that the proposal is the only option left and that all others have been looked at. I believe that the residents of Abingdon and elsewhere would listen to evidence, but we need a public inquiry to ensure that we have all the facts to hand before we make any decisions.

I was not going to speak this afternoon; I came to listen. There is a little bit of time left so I will say a few words, but I will not take up too much of Conservative Members’ time: they obviously have urgent meetings on the Estate to get to over the next couple of hours, as their party disintegrates.

The two speeches that have been made were very thoughtful and contained nuanced arguments about the case for and concerns about the reservoir. I came to listen because, although this is primarily a local matter, it throws up a lot of issues about ways in which we can achieve new water; the supply, distribution and quality of new homes; the role of the water companies themselves; and patterns of regulation—to name but a few.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) on securing the debate. I know something about it because of my interest in chalk streams. As I understand it, Thames Water announced its new plans to start construction on the reservoir in 2025. I totally understand the local concerns that have been registered about the proposal, because it was rejected in 2010 at the public inquiry. There is a general concern that, to satisfy growth in London and the south of England—another consultation is ongoing—the Thames Water plan for the reservoir suggests a storage and distribution hub for the south-east.

Objectively, it seems clear that we need new water and new infrastructure, including reservoirs. I accept, however, that there are other suggestions for bringing new water into the stressed south-east, including transfers from Wales and the River Severn, or water re-use and desalination. There are a whole number of other proposed remedies.

One point I want to flag up that has been mentioned in the debate but which is often overlooked in the case for any new supportive water infrastructure, is the degradation of the river systems in England—specifically, of the chalk streams. As the right hon. Member for Wantage mentioned in his speech, England has a unique concentration of chalk streams—160 of the 210 that exist globally—and they are disproportionately in the south of England. Yet they are in an appalling state; no water is moving in many of them and there is no flow. More generally, I recently saw data that estimated that only 14% of the rivers across England are considered to have reached good ecological standards. At the same time, demand for water, especially through new house building in the south of England, has dramatically increased.

Those two apparently separate issues are intrinsically related. A policy failure to provide new water means that our water companies extract water from our rivers, which cannot cope and subsequently die. At the same time, excess sewage is discharged into the rivers by those same companies, further undermining their quality and sustainability. Time and again, the water companies have been fined, but they take the hit—there are notorious cases of discharge by Thames Water. In effect, they free-ride their ecological responsibilities.

The situation has to be sorted out via public policy making because, as a consequence of all this, it has been 42 years since we have built a reservoir. The right hon. Gentleman, when introducing the debate, intimated that he was moving closer to Labour’s policy on water ownership and frustrations with the current system. Responsibility lies with a number of different authorities: the Environment Agency, the National Rivers Authority, the Government and the subject of today’s debate, Thames Water.

I repeat that I do not want to stray into local planning consultations, and I respect the contributions to the debate so far, which have made powerful cases, but an overall case needs to be made on consumer demand and preserving our unique English river systems, especially in the south of England: new infrastructure is needed. That does not mean that I am in the pocket of the water companies, but consequential environmental issues are involved, and the clock is ticking. New build, or the start of the build, in 2025 is being talked about, but any cursory look at the English river system tells us that we need urgent action now.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) on securing this debate, which is a superb opportunity to talk about how the voices of local residents must be heard when addressing the genuine water crisis that the UK faces. He mentioned that we live in a damp country, and indeed we do, but according to the Environment Agency, we are actually in the lower quartile globally of available water resources per capita, which means that we need to value every drop—much more than we do at the moment.

Climate change is real and happening to us here in Britain. No single measure can tackle it, but no single measure of water policy is mitigating it. That is why we need a number of separate buckets of action, including: action on leakage, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran), to lower the amount of lost water, including the 30% lost on customers’ properties, not just on the public network; a focus on reducing per-person water usage from the national average of about 130 litres a day—some people use considerably more—and increasing grey water use, which was mentioned earlier and could contribute to that; building and supporting the construction of more water transfers; and the Severn option, which is important in this context. On that, we should focus on the use of canals as an option, instead of a big pipe, and the date that was mentioned, 2080, seems far too far away.

Other actions include a necessary look at how to build more water storage in areas of water stress. Although as a nation we have not built any new reservoirs, we have certainly provided additional water storage, sometimes using quarries and mines—nothing on the size and scale envisaged at Abingdon. Only then, at the very end of the scale, should we look at water desalinisation, which itself has a huge climate change effect.

The right hon. Member for Wantage talked about population change. When looking into the future, it is important for us to take a best guess at how many people will be using water. The latest statistics show that the south-east of England will have 4.1 million more people by 2045. To put that in a currency that we might all understand in this place, an additional 54 MPs would be required to represent that population. By 2080, that could be an extra 10 million, or 133 more MPs—heaven help us all! That will put pressure on an already water-stressed region.

With climate change, we have to recognise that we will not only have problems of water shortage at certain times of the year—we will also have problems with too much water at other times of the year. That issue was mentioned earlier in the debate.

I have to admit that I was not an expert in chalk rivers or streams before today, but I feel that I have learned an awful lot. The issue of over-abstraction from our watercourses and rivers is of importance because as our communities become more water-stressed and as the pressure to reduce per-capita consumption is applied, the temptation, sadly, is to abstract still more water from our precious river environments. We need to avoid that, to ensure that we preserve those fragile and precious natural wildlife habitats, whether of aquatic life, birds or mammals.

Before I was elected, I advised people on how to build controversial buildings, mainly skyscrapers and football stadiums. The same principle applies to reservoirs: the case must be clearly set out right from the start. To be honest, I do not think that Thames Water has put the argument for the Abingdon reservoir that well, and it needs to do better. Increasing supply, of course, has to be done alongside demand management, which also needs a conversation with water bill payers. If there is to be such huge investment, however—a carbon-intensive investment—the case must be put clearly.

The right hon. Gentleman said that it is important to be neutral in this debate, and that is how the Opposition come to it. We think, however, that a number of principles should apply in this case as we go forward, especially as the decision might well be taken out of the hands of local councillors and made at the national level through the NSIP—nationally significant infrastructure project—process. That is why genuine consultation and the voice of local people must be heard much more in the debate than perhaps it has been to date.

We need to ensure that the concerns about the new reservoir involve not only the size and scale but the construction, and the impact of that over many years, as well as the impact of many years of operation. Thames Water needs to make proposals, focused by genuine and intensive consultation. Such consultation should not just ask, “What do you think of our plans?”, but involve genuine engagement that listens to affected communities.

There is also a challenge for Government to look at what resources we need. At present, the water resource plan of each company sits as an island apart from the areas alongside. There is a clear case for joining up those plans into a national water resource plan so that we can understand the impacts, especially if we are to have more water transfer into areas of greater water stress. We need to understand the national picture.

I hope that Thames Water is listening to this carefully. If it is to make the case for the Abingdon reservoir, it needs to do so clearly, engaging local people and taking them with it. At the moment, my concern is that that conversation is not as full and as thorough as it could be.

It is a pleasure to respond to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), who secured the debate, and to the other Members who contributed.

Water is essential for everything we do. It is also essential for a healthy environment and a prosperous economy. A reliable water supply is taken for granted but, despite its reputation for rain, which has been mentioned many times, England risks water shortages, in particular in certain areas. Climate change and increasing population, especially in the drier south and east, as well as the need to protect the environment—including chalk streams—bring further challenges. A water company’s job is to take account of those factors and to provide a reliable supply of safe drinking water. The Government and the water regulator’s job is to check that they are doing that effectively.

Thames Water supplies water to about 10 million household customers and 215,000 businesses in London and across the Thames valley. Its existing plan shows a one-in-four chance over the next 25 years that large numbers of households and businesses will have water supplies cut off for extended periods because of drought. That is a lower protection than most other water companies provide. We must expect Thames Water to act on customers’ need for a more resilient supply, to manage other pressures of a growing population and changing climate, and to protect the environment that we treasure and on which we rely.

Thames Water has engaged with regulators, stakeholders and customers throughout the development of its draft water resources management plan. In February 2018, Thames Water published its draft plan for consultation, which explains how the company plans to provide a secure and sustainable supply of water for its customers for the next 80 years, from 2020 to 2100. In October and November this year, Thames Water provided a further opportunity for comment on the changes and revisions made to the draft plan as a result of the first consultation. That further consultation closed on 28 November. Thames Water sought stakeholder and customer views on its draft plan through a variety of channels, including public meetings, an online survey and written submissions.

I hope that my right hon. Friend appreciates that, as Thames Water has just completed its consultation process on the draft plan, it is now preparing its statement of response to the consultation, which the Environment Agency will assess in due course. It will provide advice to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the new year. That process is ongoing, so officials and Ministers at DEFRA have not yet had the opportunity to consider the advice from the Environment Agency. As such, the Government cannot comment on any proposals suggested through the water resources management plan process.

The Government and the water regulator issue detailed guidance to water companies that sets out the Government’s expectations that companies should: first, take a long-term strategic approach to protecting and enhancing resilient water supplies; secondly, consider every option to meet future public water supply needs; thirdly, protect and enhance our environment and act collaboratively; and, fourthly, promote efficient water use and reduce leakage.

If a water company forecasts a water supply deficit, it should appraise all the options available to it and should justify its preferred solution in its water resources management plan. The Environment Agency and Ofwat are both statutory consultees to the water resources management plans. As I mentioned, the Environment Agency will also advise the Secretary of State on the draft plan. As part of its current price review, Ofwat has set out clear measures to ensure that the proposals companies bring forward, and the costs of delivering them, are subject to appropriate scrutiny to protect customers’ interests in the long term.

In the business plan that Thames Water submitted to Ofwat, it proposed costs for work to develop the reservoir proposals further, rather than the infrastructure costs themselves. If the proposals go forward, the infrastructure costs will come forward in future plans, which will be scrutinised, possibly at the price review in 2024 if construction were to start in 2025 or 2026. In the plans as they stand, the reservoir is expected to come online for use in 2037. I hope hon. Members have been assured that there are processes in place to assess whether water company plans are robust.

Leakage and other options were mentioned. The National Infrastructure Commission estimates that by 2050, around an additional 3.5 billion litres of water per day will be required to maintain current levels of resilience to drought in England. At least a third of that—1 billion litres—needs to come from new infrastructure, and the other two thirds from water efficiency and leakage reduction. To put that in context, 3.5 billion litres per day is almost enough water to fill Wembley stadium every day. Thames Water’s proposed reservoir would provide about 300 million litres per day.

The Government recognise that to meet our future water needs, we require a twin-track approach that combines demand reduction, including leakage reduction, with long-term investment in supply infrastructure. With respect to leakage, the Government have made their view clear and the industry has responded. The water companies’ business plans are on track to meet Ofwat’s challenge to reduce leaks by at least 15% by 2025. Over the long term, the industry has committed to working to an ambitious target to reduce leaks by 50% by 2050. We will hold it to account on that.

The need for new infrastructure is set out in the draft national policy statement for water resources infrastructure, which was recently laid under the Planning Act 2008. That statement sets out that, alongside demand reduction and tackling leakage, a mix of water infrastructure schemes will be required to meet our future water supply needs, including reservoirs, water transfers, desalination and reuse. The statement applies to nationally significant infrastructure projects, and I expect that the proposed Abingdon scheme would qualify as such a project.

I assure my right hon. Friend that extensive pre-application consultation and engagement will need to be undertaken by applicants using the Planning Act 2008 regime. Members of the public can participate in the examination process by registering their interest, thus ensuring that local views can be heard. I think it is fair to say that the planning process will be different from last time, because in the past month Parliament has voted in favour of a new process for infrastructure projects that are deemed nationally significant. Consideration of a development consent order application at a public inquiry would start on the basis that the most appropriate option for meeting water supply needs had been selected through the resource management plans. As I pointed out, Ofwat will also scrutinise the proposed costs for the full project if they come forward in future plans.

Hon. Members asked whether the water would be used just for the Thames Water area. It is fair to say that Thames Water has been working with Water Resources in the South East—an alliance of the six south-east water companies—to ensure that a more collaborative approach is taken to water resources planning, and its reservoir proposals would benefit other companies in the south-east. The Government and regulators expect water companies to collaborate at a regional level with other companies and sectors to produce plans that work for that region. That allows water companies to consider the most efficient and economically, socially and environmentally beneficial solution for the whole region, allowing customers, business, society and the environment to benefit from economies of scale. We expect such collaboration to be reflected in companies’ water resources management plans.

The preferred programme that Thames Water has set out for full consultation includes water transfers. I believe considerations will be made for desalination, and there are elements of water trading, with things such as Didcot power station. I understand that Thames Water considered more than 50 sites for a new large reservoir and considered that only one of those sites was viable. As I said, other water companies may be involved. It has been brought to my attention that Affinity Water is considering and working alongside Thames Water on this matter.

On demand reduction, targets are already set for water companies. I hope hon. Members are aware that planning regulations require a target of 125 litres per day for new developments, but councils can, in planning permissions, reduce that to 110 litres per day if the development is in a water-stressed area.

On the flood alleviation scheme in Oxford, I say gently to the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) that I recognise that people would like additional cycle paths and so on, but if the costs of the scheme have gone up, it is fundamental that taxpayers’ money needs to be spent on delivering the scheme. I am conscious that there may be other opportunities to develop the additional benefits to which she referred.

The good Feargal Sharkey is a friend of many people in Parliament. He used to be chief executive of UK Music, but now pushes passionately for chalk streams, to which the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) in particular referred. He also mentioned the pollution challenges at Thames Water. He will be aware that Thames Water received a record fine after being prosecuted by the Environment Agency. This is exactly the kind of project we need to reduce the pressure on other sources of water. Although I am conscious of the scale of this reservoir, it appears at least to be a viable option. However, it needs to be considered carefully.

I appreciate that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) raised a number of issues. I hope that I have been able to cover Members’ key questions. Overall, I really hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage sees that there are transparent and robust processes in place to ensure that water companies continue to provide reliable water supplies efficiently and economically, and that any plans that are put forward will be scrutinised appropriately and decided on objectively.

I am grateful for the chance to wind up the debate. I thank the Minister for her comprehensive response to the points I made and to those made by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran), by the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), and by our guest star, the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas). I am not getting a rise out of him. That is very annoying. He is staring at me. I am being affectionate here.

This is the second time I have raised this very important issue in the House. I raised it last month in a Statutory Instrument Committee, and I will continue to raise it with Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I am glad to see that the Department has such a comprehensive overview.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered plans for a Thames Water reservoir at Abingdon.

Sitting adjourned.