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Emerging Regional Water Resources Plans - Ten Observations from Blueprint for Water

Ali Morse, Chair of Blueprint for Water and Water Policy Manager at The Wildlife Trusts, Nathan Richardson, Head of Policy at Waterwise, and James Overington, Water Policy Officer at Salmon & Trout Conservation, share Blueprint for Water's top 10 observations on the draft Regional Water Resources Plans.

February 2022

Last year, the Blueprint for Water coalition published our ‘Top 10 Asks’ of the emerging Regional Water Resources Plans, and shared these with the five regional water resources groups preparing them. (Read our previous Blueprint blog for a speedy reminder on who the regional water resources groups are, and why the regional water resources plans are so important).

With the first iteration of the plans now published, Blueprint has been reviewing how they tackle these challenges. Here are our 10 key observations:

  1. A more joined-up approach - It is evident the new requirement for regional plans has led to much more collaboration between wholesale water companies. The regional groups are also engaging more widely with other water users and stakeholders to better understand their needs and to explore where they can play a part in the solutions; for example through nature based solutions. A great example is Water Resources East (WRE) which has over 180 multi-sector members whilst Water Resources South East (WRSE) has identified over 200 potential nature based solutions. We shouldn't underestimate the scale and potential value of this change in approach to water resource management.
  2. Putting the environment first - The regional groups generally do seem to be identifying and baking into the plans the future water needs of the environment. This is crucial if we are to avoid the mistakes of the past where over abstraction and subsequent environmental damage took place and is taking decades to address. We want to see the future needs of the environment met first and then solutions can be found to meet the needs of other water users. As the plans develop we need to be vigilant on this. We need to understand the implications for the environment where plans propose alternative scenarios such as the “central” environmental destination scenario in WRSE’s emerging plan or the Regional Scenario approach in Water Resources North which appears to meet the future needs of all other sectors first and, where they cannot be met, considers trade-off on the needs of the environment.
  3. Delivering more biodiversity net gain - all the emerging plans refer to delivering biodiversity net gain where new infrastructure is proposed. The Environment Act requires at least 10%; we called for Regional Groups to show leadership by committing to at least 20% biodiversity net gain, in recognition of the sector’s reliance upon a healthy water environment. Several of the plans do commit to try to deliver beyond the 10% legal requirement, including Water Resources West (WRW) and Water Resources North (WReN). Others include it as an objective or metric to help decide preferred solutions (WRSE). However, West Country Water Resources (WCWR) includes scoring of schemes that deliver less than the statutory 10%, hopefully as a screening mechanism rather than implying they may be selected?
  4. Using water wisely - The plans are generally ambitious on demand management, with nearly two thirds of the 4 billion litres a day deficit earmarked to come through leakage reduction and water efficiency. That said, it is odd - given the scale of their deficit - that the WRE plan seems to be the least ambitious on demand management. Delivering on demand management will need adequate funding and crucially more supportive government policy - see here. So it is good to see a number of the plans such as WRSE’s making it very clear where delivery relies on more supportive government policy on things like new housing standards, and efficiency labelling of water using products.
  5. A good read - Water resource planning can be a very technical, dry subject (pardon the pun). So it is great to see the efforts made by the groups (particularly WRSE and WRE) to publish documents that are engaging,easy to read and understand. We were also delighted to see West Country Water Resources (WCWR) and Water Resources West (WRW) benchmarking their emerging plans with our 10 Blueprint for Water Asks.
  6. It's a plan, not a strategy - some of the plans such as WRE are strong on assessing future needs but much more vague when it comes to setting out the solutions…what is needed when and by who both on the supply side and demand reduction side. This may be a function of where each group is in its thinking on solutions, as the emerging WRSE and WCWR plans are much clearer on what they think needs to be done. We would expect this to be addressed in the next iteration of the plans.
  7. Getting down to business - Around 25% of public water supplies are used outside the home in businesses, schools, hospitals, etc. Yet, with the exception of WCWR, the plans say very little about how this water is used and whether these “non-household” users can be part of the demand reduction solution. We need to see this gap addressed in the next iteration of the plans and more evidence of collaboration with the water retailers who sell water to non-household customers in England.
  8. We need shared commitment - The future water needs of non-public water supplies sectors, like energy and agriculture, are really significant in some regions such as WRE and WRW. Therefore, we want to see more evidence that these sectors are also committing to carefully manage their future demand….in a similar way to the twin track commitments required for public water supplies. The WRW emerging plan includes a useful table (table 4) which sets out possible options for other sectors and this could be enhanced and adopted across all the plans.
  9. Adapting to change – Our future is one of a changing climate, so as well mitigating climate change (i.e. reducing carbon emissions), it’s crucial that the plans also allow for adapting to change – increasing the resilience of supplies, and of the environment that provides them. WCWR tackle this well, looking at abstraction reduction in vulnerable catchments, boosting the efficacy of demand management measures through the use of ‘smart tech’, and recommending increasing connectivity and water storage for other abstractors to improve cross-sector resilience. Others’ plans are more vague when it comes to targets, timeframes, and how the resilience of the measures envisaged will be assured.
  10. Water neutral development - We believe that the regional plans should be less passive when it comes to considering how to accommodate future large scale water- hungry development in areas that are already seriously water stressed. For example, WRE and WRSE should be calling for the huge OxCam Arc development to be water neutral if it goes ahead, so it doesn't add to the existing problem. This already happens with flood risk, so why not water demand!

In summary, we are pleased with the efforts and approach of the regional groups to date, but it is clear there are a few important areas where more needs to be done as the five draft plans are updated and published for formal consultation this autumn.

The emerging Regional Water Resources Plans can be found here:

Ali Morse is Water Policy Manager at The Wildlife Trusts, and Chair of Blueprint for Water. Nathan Richardson is Head of Policy at Waterwise. James Overington is Water Policy Officer at Salmon & Trout Conservation. 

Follow: @WildlifeTrusts, @Waterwise and @SalmonTroutCons.

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.