New reservoirs must be forced through despite local opposition, Government told

Sir John Armitt, the Government's infrastructure tsar, has urged ministers to take stronger action to secure new reservoirs - Heathcliff O'Malley
Sir John Armitt, the Government's infrastructure tsar, has urged ministers to take stronger action to secure new reservoirs - Heathcliff O'Malley

Ministers must overrule opposition from local residents, councillors and MPs to give new reservoirs a green light by 2025, the Government’s infrastructure tsar says.

In an interview with The Telegraph, Sir John Armitt, the chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission, warned that the need for additional reservoirs was becoming increasingly urgent amid the threat of prolonged droughts.

Continuing to allow locals to veto such projects would mean that the new reservoirs Britain needs never get built, he suggested, stating: "It's a bit like people living in the Chilterns - if it was left to them HS2 wouldn't go through the Chilterns."

The last reservoir for public water supply was built in 1991, amid significant local resistance to new projects.

Thames Water, which has announced plans for a hosepipe ban because of water shortages, has spent more than 15 years trying to construct a £1 billion reservoir in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, but the county council has vowed to fight its latest attempt.

A much smaller reservoir is due to be built in Havant, Hants. Sir John's intervention comes after the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that more than half of England would be moved into drought status, as a result of the driest summer in 50 years.

He cited the Abingdon scheme as an example of a project that should be given a green light by ministers despite local opposition.

Layla Moran, the local MP and Liberal Democrat frontbencher, has said the proposed reservoir would have a "catastrophic" effect on wildlife and cause significant disruption to residents.

She called for the money to instead be spent on "eradicating sewage pollution in our rivers".

Sir John acknowledged that local residents fear such projects would cause more than a decade of "upheaval" and result in "what they've seen as being green and pleasant fields suddenly becoming a vast hole".

But he said reservoirs provided a "social benefit" to "a very large number of people", beyond those in their immediate vicinity, while "a smaller number of people are going to be inconvenienced and disappointed."

He added: "The urgency is increasing and, really, if we're going to be in a better position by 2040 to 2050, those sorts of decisions are going to be needed to be made and an agreement to go ahead certainly by 2025."

He warned that failing to act could damage the Conservatives at the polls, saying: "If you constantly fail to make sure that the basic infrastructure that everyone needs to live their lives is not being provided, then people aren't going to vote for you sooner or later."

He added: "A local politician, a local MP will clearly do what he can, one way or the other, to support his constituents and argue the case as best he can for them. That's why the decisions need to be made at the national government level, taking into account all the different factors."

In a report published four years ago the National Infrastructure Commission called for more reservoirs and warned that such schemes "must be planned well before they are needed" - saying that it takes more than a decade "from the decision to build to being able to use the water supplied."

Sir John also wants the Government to publish minimum "resilience standards", which could require firms to ensure that no household is without water for more than a specified number of days each year - with penalties for companies that fail to comply.

On Saturday thousands of homes in Surrey were left without water following "technical issues" at a treatment works.

Some reservoirs 'bound to meet resistance'

Sir John has also been pushing for more action to plug leaks, and schemes to transfer water from areas of sufficient supply to parts of the country where there are shortages.

He added: "Occasionally we may have to get to a point where despite all the objections, the Secretary of State will say, 'I've heard all the arguments and I'm willing for this to go forward, whether it's a new tunnel under the River Thames, or whether it's a new reservoir.

"Something like a reservoir on a large area in Oxfordshire, is bound to meet resistance ... For people viewing 15 years of uncertainty, upheaval, construction, noise down the road, etc, what they've seen as being green and pleasant fields suddenly becoming a vast hole ... they're unlikely to vote for that left to a free choice."

Writing in this newspaper last week, George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, urged water companies to impose further hosepipe bans in order to conserve supplies.

He pledged to "streamline the process of gaining planning permission" for new reservoirs.

But Sir John, the former chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority and former chief executive of Network Rail, suggested the Government's plan only addressed the issue in a "theoretical sense".

He said: "We're getting to the point, and I suppose this summer has brought it to the fore, where we just can't keep thinking about these things forever. Somebody needs to say right, okay, that's what we want to achieve, that's the quality of service that needs to be achieved, now, what are we going to do to deliver that?"