The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) recently published its Second National Infrastructure Assessment. It stated that well designed and effectively delivered economic infrastructure, such as water resource or waste systems, have a key role to play in meeting the government’s goal of improving the environment over coming decades, as set out in its 25 Year Environment Plan.
A well-functioning planning system for large infrastructure projects is crucial to rapidly deliver the infrastructure needed to address population growth and climate change, whilst improving the environment and stimulating economic growth.
The report stated that around nine new nationally significant water resource projects need to be approved before 2030 to prepare for anticipated water scarcity. In short, we need to act now to stop our taps running dry.
As a society, we cannot afford to keep putting off crucial decisions. By working together we can fix the problems of today and build the infrastructure we need for tomorrow. Nowhere is that more needed than in water. In the UK, not a single reservoir has been completed since 1991. The longer we defer decisions, the greater the risk of severe annual water restrictions disrupting local communities and businesses, similar to what we saw in 2022 where temperatures soared to 40C in some parts of the country.
Parliamentarians have, correctly, argued that leakage must be tackled with vigour. However, even if water companies achieved their leakage targets, the country will still need more reservoir capacity as our population grows and the climate heats up. The UK is experiencing more frequent heatwaves and droughts, particularly in London and the South East. Population growth also brings added pressure: more than 19 million people currently live in the south and east of England, and this is forecast to grow by four million. If we do nothing, we forecast a shortfall of over 1 billion litres per day by 2050.
In August, England’s water companies submitted their 25-year plans to the Environment Secretary for approval, to secure supplies in their areas. Thames Water included a proposal to build a reservoir near Abingdon in Oxfordshire. This is an ambitious project of nationwide significance. It would ensure water security for almost 15 million customers of water companies across the South East and protect vulnerable rivers and chalk streams by reducing the amount of water abstracted from groundwater. The project would take at least 15 years to complete, so inaction is not an option.
The social and economic impact of future water shortages are too grave to contemplate – we estimate the cost of severe drought to London’s economy alone could be as much as £500 million a day.
The reservoir would bring significant social and economic benefits, invigorating the regional economy. The project could be delivered through a similar mechanism to the Thames Tideway Tunnel, notably it would not require public funding.
This country has become adept at deferring tough decisions on infrastructure.
Water companies, communities and the Government must work together to develop and approve plans, to enable safe drinking water for future generations. A swift decision from the Secretary of State will enable us to take the first step on that journey.
We must make bold decisions and act now
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