David Weeks has a sweeping view from his home above Keswick in north-west England’s Lake District national park: from the fells of Latrigg and Skiddaw down to the shimmering lake Derwentwater — but it is interrupted by four giant blue valves set in concrete outside his kitchen window.
The valves are part of a £300m project by water company United Utilities to lay 100km of pipeline to supply coastal towns after it was forced to stop extraction from the river Ehen.
The river is home to protected species, including the freshwater pearl mussel, and UU says the Environment Agency, a government body, will withdraw the abstraction licence for the area in 2022.
Such disruption could become commonplace across rural England as utility companies seek alternative water sources as weather patterns change. Southern England is at risk of regular droughts by 2040, according to the National Audit Office, and companies will need to cut by more than 3 per cent the amount they extract from rivers and lakes to maintain water catchments and support wildlife.
Water trading — moving water from wet areas to drier areas — is an increasingly appealing solution.
Ofwat, the regulator, recommended in 2015 that utilities do it more often as a means of easing water shortages more cheaply than, for example, building reservoirs. Last year it established a £469m fund to encourage the industry, made up of privatised water companies covering distinct regional areas, to work together.
Anglian Water, for example, which provides water to 6m customers in the east of England, is seeking to use the fund to build a new reservoir in south Lincolnshire to take pressure off other parts of its network and allow it to make transfers to Affinity Water, which supplies parts of Essex and Hertfordshire.
It already pumps around 50m litres to Affinity Water every day and is building a 500km pipeline to move water more freely around its own region.
UU, the company for north-west England, began work in 2017 on a project to move water from the Thirlmere reservoir in the Lake District through more than 100km of new and replacement underground pipes to Workington and Whitehaven on the west coast. There will also be new water treatment works, pumping stations and underground service reservoirs.
But farmers who make a precarious living while obeying tight restrictions on maintaining the landscape said the pipeline was costing them money, although UU has promised full compensation at the end of the project in 2022.
While the work has gone smoothly in some areas, dozens of farmers and residents are facing disruption.
“They said it would take two to three months and it has been two to three years,” Weeks said, as he trudged round his sodden field, which is now home to a large fenced off pit allowing access to the pipes.
The pit fills with water so regularly that UU put two rubber rescue rings on the fence in case anyone falls in. But the 82-year-old retired shop manager is more concerned that his daughter cannot graze her sheep there and has had to rent another pasture.
John Langcake, who rents a farm on the shores of Bassenthwaite lake near Keswick, said the planning authorities and UU had not listened to residents like him.
The pipe, which is routed to allow the water to flow by gravity, cuts through the middle of his fields. “Imagine your office had a partition down the middle and you had to climb out the window to get from one side to the other,” he said. Everything takes longer.
Twice weekly newsletter
Energy is the world’s indispensable business and Energy Source is its newsletter. Every Tuesday and Thursday, direct to your inbox, Energy Source brings you essential news, forward-thinking analysis and insider intelligence. Sign up here.
With land temporarily out of action, he has had to reduce his herd of sheep from 600 to 500 and buy feed when normally he would grow his own.
Langcake also has an unsightly work site in one field, featuring concrete rubble and a green electricity control kiosk, which will eventually be clad in local stone and slate. “They promised 12-18 months and it has been more than two years,” he said.
Dairy farmer Ian Bowness, whose land is also being used, said any farmer leaving rubble lying about would be told to clean it up quickly for the benefit of the 20m tourists who visit the area each year. As chairman of the National Farmers Union for Cumbria he has seen contractors leave gates open, dump rubbish and swamp grassland because they have not restored drains adequately.
“This is the worst disruption I have experienced. No one seems able to stand up to them.” With the government planning £100bn of infrastructure works over the next four years, including the HS2 rail line, other parts of the country will soon face similar problems, he said.
The national park authority said that it had taken a “proactive approach” with regular inspections of possible planning breaches. “Where necessary, we have made it clear that this was not acceptable . . . and ensured that the necessary requirements were met,” it said.
The Environment Agency said there was a risk of silt from the works entering the River Derwent and Bassenthwaite lake but restoration work had reduced that. “We take all reports of environmental damage extremely seriously and will investigate any claims reported to us,” it added. It has served UU contractors with warning letters over some incidents.
UU said it had also pumped £52m into the local economy and created 250 jobs, adding that more than £1m had been donated to fund local projects and plant trees.
John Hilton, project director at UU, said the company had “liaised closely with more than 250 landowners and made dozens of interim payments to cover for losses while land is unavailable”.
“We are carrying out interim reinstatement which allows ongoing access to the pipeline while work continues. But we can reassure local landowners the final reinstatement works will be completed to a very high standard.”