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The Importance of Strategic Planning in Providing Drinking Water

By Matt Hare, Partner Carter Jonas (Cambridge)

On average, each person uses approximately 150 litres of water a day, or just over one cubic metres each week. The construction of the Government’s target of 300,000 new homes per annum would require an additional 36m cubic metre of drinking water to reach new homes each year – which if you will pardon the pun – are eyewatering numbers!

Unfortunately, even the most developed nations struggle with the paradox of being beset by too much floodwater yet having too little drinking water.

Cambridge, where I am based, has been referenced as the UK’s driest city. Cambridgeshire also has one of the fastest growing populations: of the five new towns initiated in England in the last decade, two were in Cambridgeshire and the County’s population is forecast to grow by 21.7% between 2020 and 2041.

Recently I gained planning consent on behalf of a client for a new drinking water reservoir which was partly aimed at serving the growing population of the new town of Cambourne to the west of Cambridge. The planning application was speculative and the reservoir had not been formally identified as an infrastructure requirement within the Council’s development plan. Given Cambourne’s critical role in contributing to the growth of the area, I find it remarkable that the need for upgraded drinking water infrastructure was not more clearly identified in the development plan’s growth strategy.

Scratch the surface however and it starts to appear that this was perhaps not so surprising.

In simple terms the water authorities have a statutory duty to provide drinking water to serve new development. We operate a plan-led system, so it should be relatively simple for the water authorities to identify the key growth locations within their administrative areas ahead of time and thereafter plan proactively to meet that need, right? Wrong, seemingly.

Consider firstly the number of local planning authority areas that do not have an up-to-date local plan in place: two-thirds, according to research. Then reflect upon how many of the local authority areas have a plan that is really, really out of date. Uttlesford District Council’s Development Plan was adopted in January 2005 and was once described as being painfully out of date by a planning inspector (two years ago).

Next consider the size of some of the operational areas covered by the water authorities. In many instances the areas administered extend across multiple local authority boundaries. Anglian Water, for example is responsible for an area of land that stretches between Grimsby and Basildon. Clearly efficient operation requires a robust strategic oversight of the anticipated growth pressures across the area – a significant challenge when the area includes in excess of 50 local authorities.

The challenge for water authorities is further compounded by the way in which funding for infrastructure projects is controlled by OFWAT and is reviewed only on a five-year basis. In other words, it can be difficult for the water authorities to quickly change their infrastructure planning to address significant changes in local circumstances.

Consider lastly that the country has not had a regional tier of plan making in place since 2010. Under the Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS), the job of the water authorities was arguably an easier one.

The RSSs were responsible for setting a spatial growth strategy at a regional level, enabling infrastructure investment to be more easily targeted to the areas where it would be needed.

Might it be that the reinstatement of some form of regional tier of plan-making would assist the water authorities with their unenviable job? I think so. It may also assist with another issue which, in part, lies at the door of the water authorities (albeit the other end of the drinking water issue) and that is nutrient neutrality. A coherent long term regional growth strategy would assist decisions making for strategic mitigation measures related to nutrient neutrality.

Why does this matter to us? Well, in simple terms these sorts of issues are acting as a brake in meeting social and economic needs. Infrastructure complications and delays can often lead to a delay in the delivery of badly needed housing and other land uses, and water supply capacity is increasingly an area to which concerned residents are turning when seeking to object to growth proposals. There is no simple answer, but in my view some form of regional growth strategy would help some of the increasingly beleaguered utility providers – might the Spatial Development Strategy powers introduced by the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill have any impact here?