26 February 2024

Nimby Watch: Abingdon’s aquatic Nimbys


In a new series, CapX is celebrating the way our planning system tries its very best to save the country from affordable housing or decent infrastructure. This week, the case of Abingdon’s reservoir…

Where? A slice of Oxfordshire, just southeast of Abingdon.

What’s there now? Almost nothing: Google Maps suggests the presence of a flight school, but mostly we’re talking about open farmland.

What are we trying to build there? A reservoir.

Oh! Not housing? Not unless you’re a fish: it turns out there are other things we need if we want to stay alive, and we aren’t building those because of the planning system either. Thames Water first proposed a reservoir on this site back in 1996, and again ten years later. The original plan was that it would cover 4 square miles, be half the volume of Lake Windermere and supply water for millions. In 2011, though, then Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman blocked it on the advice of the planning inspectorate, on the grounds there was ‘no immediate need’. Which makes sense, because obviously massive reservoirs are something you can whip up in a trice the minute you need one.

Good for her, can’t go chucking away a limited resource like ‘fields’ just because some Londoners might one day fancy a shower. It’s not the only limited resource, alas. In 2019 – the year, coincidentally, the reservoir was supposed to be finished – Environment Agency boss Sir James Bevan gave a cheerful speech explaining that England’s demand for water was rising (thanks to population growth), its supply of water was falling (thanks to climate change), and that sometime around 2044 the two lines would cross and we wouldn’t have enough water any more. He described this graph as the ‘jaws of death’, which is not a sentence one ever wants to hear in public policy discussions, really.

Ah. So why isn’t our privatised water industry doing anything about this? Far be it from me to defend a bunch of companies that seem more worried about shareholders than leaking pipes or sewage in our rivers – others may have their own view – but they have been trying. There are 14 major infrastructure schemes on the table to address the problem, of which the Abingdon reservoir is the largest. But they are often held up but a combination of political disinterest and ‘small groups of very vocal locals.

Abingdon has had several such groups. In 2011 something called the Vale Reservoir Group assured reporters it wasn’t Nimbyism, merely a campaign for proper compensation – ‘They can have our backyard but they have to pay for it. They can’t expect us to put up with 12 years of building work and heavy traffic and disruption for free’ – which seems fair enough. Even then, though, the CPRE, the countryside charity, was complaining that the reservoir would have ‘a massive and largely detrimental effect’ and demanding to know why we couldn’t all just use less water.

We can’t just go around blighting the countryside with lakes willy nilly, can we. Today’s opponents, who seem much less open to the idea of being bought off, would agree with you – the fact a reservoir would be a site for wildlife and watersports, and might even be considered scenic, is forgotten. Phrases like ‘a megavoir the size of Gatwick Airport’ and a ‘great big sink’ abound. The chairman of fantastically named GARD – Group Against Reservoir Development, which is also, judging from its website, firmly opposed to graphic design – thinks a better solution would be ‘transfers’, building pipelines and so forth to bring in water from other regions like the Severn Valley. This would just spread Nimbyism about and would do nothing to sort the whole ‘jaws of death’ problem.

At any rate, even though Britain has not built a major reservoir since 1991, and even though the Planning Act 2008 gives national government the power to define something as a ‘nationally significant infrastructure project’, it’s done no such thing, and one can’t help suspect that fierce local opposition is why. The local Lib Dem MP Layla Moran opposes the project. So does Oxfordshire County Council, whose climate change spokesperson, the Green Pete Sudbury, has said, ‘The water industry has utterly failed to convince people in Oxfordshire’. Because the people of Oxfordshire are unconvinced, the rest of us may run out of water.

Okay, but Thames Water is a terrible company, and there are a lot of leaks. Yes but is that a good reason not to build reservoirs, really? Because water privatisation has maybe not gone brilliantly, we’re just going to accept water shortages, stop watering gardens, criminalise baths and fling ourselves into the jaws of death?

I need a drink after that. Well you can’t have one.

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Jonn Elledge is a journalist and author.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.