England’s privatised water companies, grabbing the headlines for all the wrong reasons this year after excessive dumping of raw sewage into rivers and the sea, have little to boast about on World Environment Day.
So it comes as no surprise that Anglian Water’s plan to build a giant £2 billion bunded reservoir on farmland near the prosperous village of Heckington in South Lincolnshire is being scrutinised and contested more closely than ever.
Solar parks on the rise
And, as if that wasn’t enough, local communities in the area – more renowned for its big skies and giant monoculture farms – are facing an onslaught of solar energy parks, any number of which are planned or already developed.
The latest big solar project announced – hard on the heels of Ecotricity’s plan for Heckington Fen, east of Sleaford – is Beacon Fen Energy Park, earmarked for two locations adjacent to the villages of Heckington and Helpringham.
Low Carbon, the London-based company behind the new development, held initial public consultations this spring and says its double-sited energy park could power more than 190,000 homes and generate an estimated 600MW of electricity annually.
Its proposal piggybacks Ecotricity’s plan for a solar park on land a few miles down the road which has been billed in initial publicity as capable of powering the equivalent of over 100,000 homes.
The Ecotricity plan is the closest to fruition and could be delivering to the National Grid by 2027, according to the Stroud-based company which is headed by prominent eco campaigner Dale Vince.
A growing appetite for solar parks in South Lincolnshire prompted one senior councillor for the county to warn recently against the area becoming a ‘dumping ground’ for energy production.
“We are under attack from applications and there are even more coming down the track,” Councillor Colin Davie, the executive for economic development, environment and planning, told Lincolnshire County Council colleagues. “We will play our role in terms of the national picture but we’re not to become a dumping ground for south of England energy demands.”
A giant reservoir
On the other side of the resources coin, Anglian Water’s ambition for a giant reservoir on prime Lincolnshire farmland continues to work its way through statutory public consultation and evaluation phases.
The plan includes ‘walls’ of up to 25 metres – more or less matching the height of Heckington village’s historic eight-sailed windmill – and mirrors a similar proposal for a bunded reservoir by Thames Water near Abingdon in Oxfordshire, which has also attracted the wrath of local residents.
Apart from totally transforming the local landscape, much of which is barely above sea level, the five square kilometre South Lincs Reservoir is a highly contentious issue for families and farmers who stand to lose their homes and businesses.
Alex Plant, Director of Strategy & Regulation for Anglian Water, admitted: “the reality is stark for the east of England” when it comes to future water supplies. “Getting these projects underway now means the chances of our taps running dry in the future are significantly reduced,” he says. “Without action we will face a water deficit of millions of litres a day within the next five years – let alone 25 years.”
Anglian Water anticipates the reservoir would supply around 100 million litres of water per day throughout the year. In comparison, the utility company is estimated to lose around 182 million litres of water per day across its network, an equivalent leakage of approximately 16-18 percent when compared to the amount of water running through its pipes each day.
Les Parker, a member of the nearby Sleaford Climate Action Network (SCAN), says Anglian Water needs to demonstrate it has done all it can to reduce demand and thereby the need for additional storage. “This means not just minimising leaks but also ensuring users, and particularly large industrial users, reduce demand by being more efficient with the water we have,” he added.
Local residents who attended public meetings last autumn expressed varying degrees of unease and were unhappy about the ‘borrowed’ illustrations from Rutland Water which disingenuously stretched the imagination by suggesting something more akin to a water-based leisure attraction.
Anglian Water staff have since admitted the use of such imagery was misleading as the reservoir is intended to be functional rather than offering recreational facilities like others in different parts of the country.
Because the reservoir’s bunded banks will dominate the largely flat area of low-lying Lincolnshire landscape for miles in each direction across, Anglian Water has since asserted the embankments would be designed to “reflect the character of the existing landscape”.
If approved, full-scale construction could start within seven years but the reservoir would not supply water until the end of the 2030s.
Clash of interests
But all is not smooth sailing after it became apparent that both the Anglian Water reservoir plan and Beacon Fen Energy Park proposal overlap and partly require the same land.
Low Carbon Director James Hartley-Bond admits it is a potential sticking point but appears in no mood to back down. He told me:
“We began our site search for the energy park prior to becoming aware of Anglian Water’s proposals and our agreements with landowners were already well advanced when Anglian Water notified the same landowners of its intentions for the reservoir.
“Both projects remain at early stages and we intend to continue with our Beacon Fen Energy Park plan. Of course, we are in contact with Anglian Water and will continue to discuss how the proposals interact with each other moving forward.”
For its part, Anglian Water informed me it was aware the Beacon Fen project overlaps with its proposed reservoir and has been in touch with Low Carbon to “assess what this means for the project”.
If the reservoir project goes ahead, organic farmer Hannah Thorogood is one of those who would stand to lose her family home and 100-acre farm which, after more than a decade of development, is now a leading example of regenerative farming and permaculture with herds of rare breed Lincolnshire Red cows, sheep, turkeys and hens.
For the past 18 months, she has challenged Anglian Water on its plans, echoing the views of many local residents, some of whom are more reticent to speak out in public. It almost goes without saying that she would much prefer a solar park on her doorstep.
“There is so much more to this than meets the eye and the massive construction and land moving effort will leave a huge carbon footprint,” she explains.
“The looming reservoir is now a backdrop to every decision we make, especially those of us who are working the land, and the consequences of such a massive project in the area run very deep. The uncertainty this has delivered is also affecting people’s mental health.”
Despite the public consultations to date, Hannah has a growing sense that many people across the area are even now not fully aware of the proposal’s true extent or understand the huge impact on the locality such a new reservoir will have, especially the near decade-long period of disruption and earth moving during its construction.
“It’s difficult to trust what they announce,” she says of Anglian Water. “They tell us they have the environment, local people and businesses at heart but that is not a credible argument for the siting of a reservoir here.”