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South East Strategic Reservoir Option

Volume 710: debated on Wednesday 16 March 2022

I will call Layla Moran to move the motion, and I will then call the Minister to respond. As is the convention for a 30-minute debate, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the proposed South East Strategic Reservoir Option.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I am very grateful to be able to bring back to the House the issue of what is actually called the Abingdon reservoir, in common parlance. At the outset, I thank all the local campaigners who have been fighting alongside me on this issue, including Derek Stork and all the members of the Group Against Reservoir Development, Councillors Sally Povolotsky and Richard Webber, and local campaigner Richard Benwell. I also thank Thames Water and Sarah Bentley, whose team have engaged with my office on this issue on a number of occasions.

The last time I was here in Westminster Hall to speak about this issue was in December 2018, in a debate called by the former Member for Wantage, the now Lord Vaizey. Three and a half years later, here we are again. In fact, many campaigners are telling me that the campaign already feels like groundhog day, because the proposed Abingdon reservoir has been looming on the horizon for the people of South Oxfordshire for the best part of 25 years. In 2010, community campaigners were successful, as the Planning Inspectorate determined that there was “no immediate need” for a reservoir of this scale. In 2018, following the Westminster Hall debate, we defeated the monstrous project again. This debate is especially timely, because the public consultation on the regional plan put together by Water Resources South East closed on Monday. It is fair to say that the proposal has mobilised the community, with one constituent writing to me to say that

“these plans are frankly scary and have prompted me to try and take some action.”

It is important to make it clear that I fully accept that continuing to meet rising water demand is of utmost importance. Those in the industry refer to the point at which demand outweighs supply as “the jaws of death”, and I have no desire to find out what that means. They are warning, however, that we are on this path and that something needs to happen—on that, let us agree. Climate change means there is a reduction in water supply, and population growth will continue to increase demand. There is clearly a gap in supply and a growing need for drought resilience. I therefore understand the drive to plan for the worst but hope for the best.

Water Resources South East, which is an alliance of six water companies in the south-east of England, has a proposal to fill the gap: the Abingdon reservoir. For those who may be less familiar with the project, let me paint a picture. The Abingdon reservoir is a fully bunded—that means walled—raw water storage reservoir in the upper Thames catchment area. It is near the villages of Drayton, Steventon and The Hanneys, but it also affects Garford, Frilford and Marcham. During periods of high flow, water would be taken out of the Thames and pumped into the reservoir. When flow in the Thames is low and the water is required in London and the rest of the south-east, water would be released to the Thames in order to be taken out further downstream.

It sounds good, but it is worth noting that this not just a reservoir. It is a mega-reservoir. It would be the largest walled reservoir in the UK and hold 150 megatonnes of water, with a footprint of seven square kilometres—that is ever so slightly smaller than Abingdon itself. The entire city of Swindon—by which I mean every person, car and house—weighs five times less than the water that would be contained in the reservoir. Its concrete walls would be between 15 and 25 metres high—equivalent to three double-decker buses stacked on top of one another—and all of this would be built on a floodplain in the River Thames, in an area that was heavily affected by flooding in 2007.

It is understandable that my constituents are concerned, first, about the disruption that will be caused by eight to 10 years of construction and, secondly, about all the local infrastructure that will be put under water. Local people may draw a comparison between this reservoir and the Farmoor reservoir. The Farmoor reservoir’s walls are only 1 metre to 2 metres high and it is about a third of the size. People can sail on Farmoor; we certainly will not be able to sail on this one, and nor is it going to be a nature reserve. This reservoir will cost the taxpayer billions of pounds and will have a huge environmental impact. In my view and that of the campaigners, it is imperative that Water Resources South East does due diligence and reassures the public, at this early stage, that the proposal is absolutely necessary. That reassurance is wholly lacking at the moment.

My constituents are challenging some key assumptions. A cornerstone of the argument for the reservoir is population growth. WRSE predicts a population increase of 4 million by 2060. The Office for National Statistics puts the figure at 1.13 million, less than a third of that prediction. Water companies have pointed to growth in the Oxford to Cambridge corridor as a factor in their need to create extra resources, but the Oxford-Cambridge Arc appears to have been scrapped. Which number is it? Overestimating population growth has a huge impact on planning for future water demand. The WRSE estimate overstates the required water output by 150 million litres a day.

The case for an infrastructure project of this size should have no holes, but one appears to be leaking already, and it is not the only issue. If the project were to go ahead, the impact on the environment would be monumental. The submission to the Regulators Alliance for Progressing Infrastructure Development—RAPID—claims that the reservoir would have a moderate adverse environmental impact but that the plan would increase biodiversity by 10%. How can the report make such claims, when the initial environmental impact assessment scoping studies will not be carried out until gate three? We have just passed gate one. That will be in spring 2023, with construction due to begin in 2025.

An initial background environmental impact assessment was conducted by Thames Water. When it was released—under pressure—it was almost entirely redacted. That is simply not good enough. Campaign groups have raised concerns that there will be a total loss of habitat and biodiversity. The size and depth of the reservoir will be unsuitable for nesting waterfowl, and it is highly unlikely that species pushed out during construction will ever return. The project will also have the largest construction carbon footprint of any strategic water project, which we know from Thames Water’s own figures. Thames Water has refused to give any breakdown of the figures in the gate one review.

If the requirement for the project seems in doubt, and the consequences for the local area are so catastrophic, but we accept that there is a problem, it is fair to ask whether there are alternatives. The short answer is yes. The reservoir is one of many strategic resource options open to water companies. There are the Severn Thames transfer, Grand Union Canal transfer and London effluent reuse schemes, desalination schemes and, of course, important leakage reduction measures and water demand reduction.

In its submission to the regulator, to which Thames Water contributed, companies argued that the proposal to link the Severn Thames transfer scheme to the Abingdon reservoir via a pipeline would have “no material…benefit”, but in conversations with my office, Thames Water has said that the Severn Thames transfer depends on the reservoir, as the River Thames does not have the storage capacity for the additional water. Both things cannot be true at the same time. What are they telling us? Why is what they are telling us different to what they have submitted?

Local campaign groups further argue that the Thames does not in fact store the water transferred from the Severn, but that the water simply flows down the river and then gets extracted elsewhere. There is no point in supplying the water from the Severn and pumping it to the Abingdon reservoir, because it can be extracted and stored locally, where it is needed. The common misconception about all these schemes is that they will be supplying large amounts of water all time. That is not true: for the majority of the year, neither scheme would supply more than a trickle flow to keep the pipes clean. When there is a likelihood of shortages, developing schemes will be called on to put water into the Thames, and even then, it will not necessarily be at the maximum rate. The point is that the two schemes are, to a large extent, interchangeable. The Severn Thames transfer is, however, more flexible and more adaptable. It will be delivered earlier at a lower cost and a lower construction carbon footprint. It takes up less land and leaves workings underground, not threatening surrounding villages.

As the justification for the reservoir looks flawed and there appears to be a better alternative, we have to ask how we have ended up debating this proposal yet again. One answer lies in the make-up of Water Resource South East, which is a body of six water companies—that is, six organisations interested in maximising their profits. Thames Water pay-outs in dividends to shareholders of parent companies amounted to £57 billion between 1991 and 2019, nearly half the sum it has spent on maintaining and improving the country’s pipes and treatment plants over that period. With Thames Water’s record of pumping sewage into our rivers and failing to fix leakage problems, how are customers expected to trust it to deliver this new infrastructure project? Water companies in the south-east of England appear to have free rein to implement these plans and projects, with little public scrutiny or engagement. Moreover, they are operating under a veil of secrecy, with one quango being under a non-disclosure agreement to another for a scheme that uses public money. That is surely not right, and when an organisation is permitted to operate in this way, it is unsurprising that an element of group-think pervades it.

However, there is another model. Water Resource East has board members not just from the water companies, but from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, local councils and the Rivers Trust. Engaging local stakeholders at all levels of the organisation is the way to maximise local engagement and improve planning, rather than box-ticking exercises and cursory public consultations.

My constituents’ feeling on this issue runs deep, and it is a campaign that some have been fighting for nearly a lifetime. I therefore urge the Minister to thoroughly interrogate the proposal for this reservoir, especially as the Secretary of State has sign-off for the regional plan in spring 2023. I ask her to look again at the population estimates, ensure sufficient environmental impact analysis, reconsider the structure of Water Resource South East, and make it clear to Thames Water through a written warning that releasing wholly redacted environmental studies is simply unacceptable. As the plan for the reservoir progresses to gate two, £29.8 million of taxpayers’ money has been committed to further feasibility studies. We have been here before, and millions of pounds and copious amounts of time were spent fighting it. All I ask is that before we go around this merry-go-round again, we pause, reflect, properly consult, and make sure every available option is considered fully and transparently.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) on securing the debate. I realise that she had a similar debate in the past; I was not Environment Minister then, but I have looked at the transcript—it was in 2019, wasn’t it?

I think we are all agreed that water is the most basic, yet vital, resource. It is needed for everything we do and is essential for a healthy environment and a prosperous economy. A reliable water supply should not be taken for granted. I say that because we have not experienced significant shortages of water countrywide since the 1970s, although in April 2012, following two dry winters and just weeks before the London Olympics, water availability in the south-east was reaching record lows. We only avoided significant shortages thanks to a very wet summer in 2012, which highlights how important our water supply is. We have to consider not only a growing population but the effects of climate change, especially in drier parts of the country where it is causing increasing challenges to our water supply. Water companies have to take account of those factors in their future planning in order to provide a reliable and sustainable supply of drinking water. It is our job in Government to work with the water regulators to ensure that the water companies do their job effectively.

The Environment Agency’s national framework for water resources, published in 2020, identified that between 2025 and 2050 about 3 billion to 4 billion extra litres of water a day will be needed for the public water supply—that might surprise a lot of people. We must therefore take a strategic approach to future water needs and work with regional groups and water companies to take account of climate change while protecting the environment. We want to preserve our iconic valleys and water bodies such as chalk streams. Indeed, we welcomed the Catchment Based Approach’s chalk stream strategy, published in October 2021.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has worked closely with our chalk stream restoration group on its development and to drive forward a future vision for chalk streams. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon engaged with any of that, but some of her neighbours did, and a lot of people, myself included, want to re-establish and restore our amazing chalk streams. That includes having to reduce unsustainable water abstraction from chalk streams and aquifers. We have measures in the landmark Environment Act 2021 to do just that.

The EA’s national framework also reflects the Government’s commitment to a twin-track approach to improving water resilience by investing in new supply infrastructure where necessary. Leakage will be tackled by our water companies as they crack down on water wastage. Up to two thirds of our additional water needs can be made up by water demand improvement. By 2050, we expect to see leakage levels halved and average per capita consumption at 110 litres per person—more than 30 litres less than we currently use in our homes. We are consulting on legally binding demand management targets under our new powers in the Environment Act. The issue is so critical that we are looking at it from every angle.

We must expect all water companies, including Thames Water and Affinity Water, to act on customers’ needs for a resilient water supply, as well as to manage the pressures. I hope that the hon. Member will appreciate that collaborative regional water resources groups, including Water Resources East, which she mentioned, have been consulting on their emerging plans—that consultation closed yesterday—and will publicly consult again to improve them. That will be used to inform water companies’ draft statutory water resources management plans, which will require further public consultation at the end of the year. There will be opportunities for her to feed into that.

I gave Water Resources East as the example of best practice because it has the councils, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Rivers Trust sitting on the board, as opposed to their being simply consultees. Does the Minister agree that that is a better model? Local accountability feeds into the plans at the highest level, as opposed to in the Water Resources South East model, which does not include any local democracy whatsoever.

The hon. Lady makes a valid point. We expect water companies to work with their local authorities. She touched on the point about population in her speech. That is where working with the local authority on its local growth plans is valuable, because the local authority will be aware of what new housing there will be and how the population will expand in its area. On those grounds, water companies need to plan for sustainable growth, which is very important.

There will be an opportunity to feed into the management plans. The reservoir would be in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston), so I urge him to get involved. He was vociferous about the need for transparency in the process, as is the hon. Lady. He stresses the importance of making sure that there is a need for the reservoir. He would have spoken in the debate, but he has covid, so we wish him well. Perhaps he is at home listening.

The consultations will help inform future decisions on the right way to secure water supplies, including for Thames Water’s 10 million and Affinity Water’s 3.6 million customers. To support the robustness of water resources planning, as well as the national framework, the water regulators issue detailed guidance to water companies on their water resources plans. If water companies forecast a water supply deficit—as we will see in the south-east—they should study all the available options fully to justify the preferred solutions in their plans.

The Environment Agency and Ofwat have both helped to shape the regional plans and are statutory consultees on the water resources management plans. The EA’s national framework sets out that regional groups must be strategic in planning their water needs. There needs to be more effective collaboration between water companies to manage the supply and demand, the resilience and, indeed, the environment, all of which have been clearly flagged. The Environment Agency also advises the Secretary of State on the draft plan before it can be finalised following consultation, so there is a set and clear process.

Water companies are also using the £469 million made available by Ofwat in this price review period properly to investigate a range of potential strategic water resources options, such as new reservoirs, big reservoirs, small on-farm reservoirs—which we potentially need more of—water recycling projects and inter-regional water transfers. The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon criticised the use of money for investigation, but I would argue that it is critical to know that the right projects are being focused on.

As the hon. Lady mentioned, the work is supported by RAPID, or the Regulators’ Alliance for Progressing Infrastructure Development, a joint team made up of the three water regulators: Ofwat, the EA and the Drinking Water Inspectorate. It is working with industry on the development of strategic water resources infrastructure that is in the best interests of water users and the environment to inform water company plans. She is absolutely right that a range of schemes are being very closely looked at. It is possible that a combination of these big national infrastructure projects will be needed, and options such as the Severn-Thames transfer and the reservoir are not necessarily mutually exclusive. All of that will come out through the consultations, the investigation and the data.

Recently, I went to visit an enormous pipe that goes from the Humber, where there is a lot of water, right down to Essex. That pipe is one example of the huge water transfer projects necessary because of the critical water situation in the east of the country. The planning for that huge project was put in place some years ago, so that the investment could be made and the project could get under way. I am sure that the hon. Member will not disagree that such projects will be necessary in the future.

I agree with the hon. Lady that we need robust plans and transparency but we do have a system to enable that. The need for new infrastructure is, again, set out in the draft national policy statement for water resources infrastructure under the Planning Act 2008. The statement applies to nationally significant infrastructure projects, and I would expect the proposed reservoir scheme to qualify as one such project. I can assure her that extensive pre-application consultation and engagement must be undertaken by applicants using the Planning Act 2008.

The Minister mentioned transparency, but there is a real issue with the redacted environmental impact assessment. I say “redacted”, but the document is gobbledegook and I cannot make head or tail of it. The water company would get much further if it took a much more constructive approach to local campaigners, so that they could be reassured that their numbers were right. Does the Minister agree that the company ought to release the unredacted paper so that we can look at it?

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, but I did hear her at the beginning of her speech praising her relationship with Thames Water, so she could use that relationship to urge it to do just that. We are still consulting and there is a long way to go in the process.

I want to touch on a couple of points about the carbon impact. The hon. Lady obviously made a good point when she said that if the project went ahead it would be huge, but regional groups and water companies have to show how their overall contribution to the sector’s 2030 net zero commitment would line up, and how it would line up with the Government’s targets and our net zero commitment. All our big infrastructure projects have to take those things into consideration.

Similarly, on the environmental impact, the water companies will have to continue to develop their proposals and their evidence surrounding any kind of footprint on the environment and habitats, and on the requirements for biodiversity net gain. As nature recovery Minister, I would certainly want everything possible to be done in any scheme that came forward to add to the sum total of our nature recovery.

I hope that the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage, who potentially is joining us from his sick bed, see that there is a robust process in place, which is critical. The other critical thing is that we must provide the nation with a reliable source of water. The solutions that are finally selected must go through the right due process and we must know that they are the right system for the right purposes.

I thank the hon. Lady for introducing the debate, and I thank you, too, Mr Bone.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.