FoI request unearths EA’s advice to Secretary of State regarding Abingdon Reservoir

GARD aerial photo montage of Abingdon Reservoir

6th June 2024

Following a Freedom of Information request, the Group Against Reservoir Development (GARD) have unearthed the Environment Agency’s advice to the Secretary of State regarding plans for the reservoir at Abingdon. Their report states that the plan should not go ahead due to “outstanding concerns regarding costs, justification and options appraisal” and points more firmly towards the need for a public inquiry.

The advice, issued in December 2023 to DEFRA Secretary of State Steve Barclay, states:

We recommend that: Thames Water is not allowed to publish its plan. The company should make further changes as set out in …… . These changes will require regulators to review them before the company’s plan is allowed to be published. We also advise that due to the public interest shown in the consultation that Defra considers whether further public scrutiny is required before the plan is published.”

In the terminology, “not being allowed to publish (a plan) equates to the plan being rejected. The Abingdon Reservoir, also known as the South-east Strategic Reservoir Option (SESRO), is not the only part of the plan about which the EA has reservations. Concerning  SESRO, amongst other criticisms, the report says Thames should: “…provide transparency and assurance on option costs, including for SESRO. The company should provide full details and a breakdown of its costing approach. This is particularly important as the revised draft plan indicates that SESRO is selected on cost grounds.

GARD made the FoI request as part of its campaign for a Public Inquiry. It issued a call to the Secretary of State for the Inquiry last December, so far without reply.

GARD Chairman, Dr Derek Stork, said:
This latest evidence shows that the Environment Agency shares many of GARD’s concerns about this unnecessary and damaging project. The costs put forward by Thames Water do not stand up to scrutiny, as we have reported several times in our published responses to consultation exercises. The EA point out that Thames Water are not even trying to reach the government’s 50% leakage reduction target by 2050 in Oxfordshire. They also state that Thames Water’s modelling of the proposed Reservoir’s robustness against long droughts is suspect. Regarding the ‘further Public Scrutiny’ mentioned, GARD and Oxfordshire campaigners believe that this is most effectively carried out by a Public Inquiry, and we call upon Steve Barclay to act now and grant the request”.

Thames Water’s evidence in favour of the reservoir is as full of holes as some of their pipes.   We believe the Environment Agency is quite right to be raising these concerns and hope the Minister will now either rule out the reservoir altogether or move quickly towards a Public Inquiry.

Professor Richard Harding, Chair, CPRE Oxfordshire

This news is followed by this week’s announcement from Thames Water of the launch of a public consultation on the ‘new design for the reservoir’, although we are as yet unsure how the new design differs from the original proposal.

CPRE will continue to scrutinise the proposals with the aim of protecting our natural landscapes for the benefit of all.