We strongly endorse calls by the House of Lords science and technology committee for a new approach to water supply planning in housing growth areas.
Rynd Smith, RTPI head of policy and practice said: 'A plan must be prepared now to avoid water scarcity for existing and new homes. Without such a plan we face the prospect of paying too much for water and of significant environmental damage due to the construction of unacceptable projects, the worst of both worlds. We may even lack the water to supply our basic needs in future droughts.'
Our water system is in the private sector. Water companies have been charged with making excessive profits. However, they are also charged with delivering a massive investment program to update our ageing pipes, whilst predicting and meeting future needs. If water companies are expected to do this, they must have the certainty necessary to plan their investments. They also need to have sufficient expectation of profit to finance major projects. These issues challenge us to do some long term planning. If we fail to plan effectively, or constrain the price of water too tightly, we could face a future in which there is insufficient water to meet anticipated demand in our proposed growth areas.
The RTPI has long been calling for a major infrastructure plan to help identify investment need and provide communities and investors with certainty about whether new housing can be serviced, before its location is finally decided. Part of this plan will focus on big projects, but part must focus on maintaining the health of our rivers and lakes. Critically, it must focus on reducing household water demand, recycling more of the water we use and reusing the rainfall that we currently waste by sending into the drains. Water conservation and recycling measures are already used overseas and have a potentially major role to play in the future.
London and the south east are currently in the grip of drought. Good rainfall in May has not replenished our groundwater, rivers and reservoirs. We still face the prospect of widespread water restrictions. Significant volumes of water are wasted as old pipes leaked 915 million litres of water every day last year in the Thames Water region alone. We do not recycle much of our waste water and we send most urban rainfall straight into the drains and out to sea. A further dry winter could cause water problems for millions of people already living in the south east and the situation could get worse if climate change continues to make the region dryer.
Mr Smith said: 'London is in an arid region. In terms of the water potentially available to each person, our capital can be compared with parts of Ethiopia or the Sudan. Our water supply system struggles to cope with the effects of drought when supplying the existing population. Before we decide where up to one million new homes are built in the south east, we need to know that we can meet current demand. We need to know where the water to serve future needs will come from. We also need to know that it can be obtained using economic means that do not cause unacceptable levels of environmental harm.'
The RTPI and the Environment Agency are working together to provide guidance to planners on the implementation of the European Water Framework Directive. This calls for action to ensure that the environmental quality of our rivers and groundwater remains at or returns to reasonable levels.
Pumping water from river catchments can affect the ways in which these work as natural systems and care is needed to ensure that sufficient environmental flows are retained. Pumping and desalination can use large quantities of energy and may contribute further to climate change. They can also raise the cost of water to the consumer. New reservoirs can also be expensive and take many years to plan, build and fill. Water recycling, re-use and demand management will have an important role to play in any water plan for the south east.