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Reform planning rules to build more reservoirs and ensure housebuilding does not contribute to storm overflow discharges

Key recommendations: 

  • Ensure that new infrastructure projects like reservoirs deliver a biodiversity net gain in line with the Environment Act

  • Mandate minimum water efficiency standards and sustainable drainage in all new homes 

  • Make water companies statutory consultees on planning applications

Surrounded by water and notoriously rainy, the UK has not historically had much cause for concern about its water supply. But climate change is bringing hotter and drier summers with less predictable rainfall and higher drought risk. This could leave us without adequate supplies of water to irrigate our crops and meet household demand. In fact, by 2050, water availability could be reduced by 10-15%, with some rivers seeing 50%-80% less water during the summer months.

To bolster UK water security, we need to build more water storage and distribution infrastructure. Despite the increasing pressures that climate change and population growth have put on our water supply, the UK has not built a new reservoir since 1991. The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has said we need 30 new reservoirs to meet our requirements in the coming decades. 

Rutland Water demonstrates that reservoir creation can also provide beautiful, nature-rich places for local communities, and the Environment Act will ensure all new infrastructure projects like reservoirs deliver a biodiversity net gain from next year. This legal commitment to improving biodiversity in the planning system should be delivered in full. 

We can recover nature while speeding up the delivery of critical infrastructure. As with offshore wind projects, the government should ensure planning laws for nationally significant water infrastructure enable faster consent, without weakening environmental protections. In addition to capital grants, the government should fast track larger on-farm reservoirs and slurry stores built to nature-friendly design standards by updating planning guidance, to ensure that our farmers have access to the water they need to grow the food we want and can reduce the risk of polluting local waterways.  

While reservoir creation can help to boost water supplies, our homes will need to waste less water too. By 2050, we will need at least 3,300 million litres of additional water per day to meet projected demand. Some of this water deficit should come from cutting waste, including from leaky pipes and inefficient homes. The government should set minimum water efficiency standards in the Future Homes Standard for fittings such as taps, toilets, and showers, which can be strengthened over time. Greater water efficiency could deliver savings of £26 billion to consumers over the next 25 years, through lower water and energy bills.

Improving building standards can also reduce pollution from storm overflows. The rainwater collected from a single roof can collect as much as 100 houses’ worth of wastewater, but this often ends up in the combined sewer system leading to sewage spills during heavy rainfall. The government should, therefore, mandate sustainable drainage in all new properties using Schedule 3 of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 and make water companies statutory consultees on planning applications to ensure that the necessary infrastructure upgrades are able to take place.


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