The way of water

1st June 2023

Water feature

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Sandra Norval

We need to embrace the spirit of the pioneers of the water sector and planning to enable new models that challenge the status quo, says Sandra Norval

Water is the essence of life. There’s a resounding cry from the public for the water industry to clean up its act. It is a broad topic, with issues ranging from storm overflows, through spills and incidents, to the impact on the development industry of water and nutrient neutrality position statements issued by Natural England. The UK government’s new Environmental Improvement Plan includes goals for clean and plentiful water and Defra’s Plan for Water sets out its commitments and actions to provide an “integrated plan for delivering clean and plentiful water”.

There is a lot to do, but we have a strong band of professionals who are passionate about driving the change that is needed, and the key stakeholders are united in a shared goal of transforming our interactions with water.

I joined the industry in 2021 to work on the growth of sewer and water networks relating to local plans, neighbourhood plans and planning applications. With a mandate to bring my sustainability experience into the role, I set about understanding how water and planning connect in the UK. It has been a fascinating progression, with a history rooted in disease control and a future that will be key to addressing water scarcity as well as the more obvious impacts on the environment.

My focus has been on the role of development, and my work with local planning authorities (LPAs), land promoters and developers has revealed the complexities of addressing water issues within the planning space. The Plan for Water recognises a need to adapt the planning system, but it’s useful to first consider how we got where we are.

Step back in time

In 1854, John Snow identified a connection between water pumps and the cholera outbreaks at the time. A simple fix – removing the handle of the pump – resolved the problem, and led to a long-term relationship between the treatment and delivery of clean, nourishing water to the masses and the design of towns and cities. A few years later, Sir Joseph Bazalgette saw the link between contamination of water from sewage and cholera, and developed London’s first sewer network, which is still in service today. The design, along with release systems to prevent flooding in times of heavy rain, was replicated across the UK, and the Victorians were happy that they had tackled the issues of the day. Cities grew and the networks grew with them, with responsibilities embedded in the Public Health Act 1875 and minimum standards set in the Housing and Town Planning Act 1909.

Public health, planning and the water sector remained intrinsically connected, with the emergence of the first Town and Country Planning Act 1947, which set out the basics of the planning system, part of a suite of social legislation, which included the creation of the National Health Service (NHS). These Acts were designed to ensure that the key systems on which society depended worked together effectively, and they were groundbreaking in their spirit and scale.

A parting of the ways

Then things started to diverge. The Water Resources Act 1963 saw water split from direct public authority control with the establishment of river authorities and water resources boards, although public authorities still held seats on the boards to retain some connection and influence.

The Water Act 1973 established water authorities independent of councils, although the water companies remained key consultees. Planning was evolving, and towns and cities were growing more rapidly, increasing the need to develop the networks for fresh and foul water.

In 1983, the foundations for privatisation were laid, reducing the local authority role further. The water authorities became private companies in 1989, taking them out of the public sector and into a space where new private investment was enabled. The divergence was complete.

As it stands, water companies are a statutory consultee for LPAs when preparing their local plans, but not for planning applications. Some LPAs retain close relationships with water companies, others don’t, and this often means there is a gap in understanding between these key sectors, leading to the public frustrations we see today.

Governance processes for LPAs and water companies have evolved. Key processes such as local plans (for LPAs) and the asset management planning process (for water companies) – which includes management plans for water resources, drainage and wastewater and surface water, along with other supporting plans – were intended to link together, but they don’t always knit closely if the relationships between LPAs and water companies aren’t strong.

The decisions of the land promoters and developers who are shaping the landscapes in which future homes are set have significant consequences for the future of water, yet the water companies often barely connect with the broader plans in their regions.

Looking ahead

In the current planning phase for the water sector, regional water resources planning has enabled a more strategic approach at landscape scale, seeking to identify how water can be transported from areas with sufficient supplies to those where they are scarce – no mean feat. This requires collaborative approaches to infrastructure development and local processes that align development with the resources available. For this to work, we need open and honest dialogue, enabled by realistic proposals and supporting relationships that unlock progress.

The range of emerging themes that the sector is being called on to tackle will need similar thinking. There is a great deal of work to be done.

But with strategic challenges of this nature come the biggest opportunities. We must ensure that we are developing a bank of water professionals with planning skills to develop multi-stakeholder proposals and challenge the status quo. The future will require creative approaches, blending nature-based solutions with grey infrastructure, understanding how we can reconnect the water cycle and adopting methods and thinking that break the boundaries we have set ourselves.

In short, we need to embrace the spirit of the pioneers of the water sector, public health and planning to come up with new models that enable genuine strategic collaboration. The moment for environmental professionals to bridge the gap between planning and water is here.

Timeline of changes to governance of the water system

Sandra Norval, FIEMA, CEnv, is future growth lead, Southern Water. All opinions are the author’s own.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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