Biggest industrial construction project ever proposed in the Peak District

  • Contributor information: CNP

As Westminster considers new laws that would require water companies and regulators to take action for National Parks, our Chief Executive Rose O’Neill explores deeply concerning proposals that show why change is desperately needed.

In the heart of the Peak District National Park, we follow the river Derwent up to its headwaters.  The valley sides jut up around us, tall peaks, topped with a dark swathe of moorland. As we walk, we meet hikers, cyclists, a woman towelling off after a dip in the river, where it slides over dark slabs of gritstone before plunging into a deep pool. Its tranquillity is enhanced by the sound of bird song, siskin hidden among the trees, sand martins darting over the stream.

But we are not here to enjoy this last remaining wilderness. I’m here with Friends of the Peak District (CPRE Peak District & South Yorkshire) because of proposals that could see this landscape at the centre of the biggest industrial construction project ever seen in a National Park.

Lake District

The headwaters of the River Derwent in the Peak District: a wild swimming spot and one of the only rivers in England in good ecological health – at risk of obliteration as part of the biggest construction project ever proposed in the National Park.

Severn Trent Water, working with Yorkshire Water, has tabled various options as part of ‘new large scale strategic water supply options’ and these include a proposal for major construction of a new reservoir on the upper Derwent (above the reservoirs constructed at Ladybower and Howden before the National Park was first protected in 1951).

While the companies are at a “very early stage” there are serious questions to be answered. Not least on the environmental and landscape impacts of construction of this size within a National Park.

Major construction: destruction of landscape

This is a de-wilding project on an enormous scale: destruction of landscape; obliteration of one of the few rivers in England that is in good ecological health; destruction of ancient woodland and tens of thousands of newly planted trees, and; damage to protected nature sites including the Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Area of Conservation. This would be a major construction project with thousands of tonnes of concrete and heavy plant machinery in one of the most inaccessible and remote parts of the country. Imagining a project of this scale would require new roads built across the wilderness before construction could even begin. The carbon costs would be huge. Water regulator Ofwat, thus far had deemed “poor progress” in considering the environmental risks and has asked for a proper assessment.

There are also questions about public access: this a hugely popular part of the National Park, with thousands of visitors – most of which are not allowed to access the water in the current reservoirs at all. If plans go ahead, it could result in miles of rights of way and open access land closed off completely for years and years.

There are valid questions about whether the reservoir is needed anyway – and who for. According to Ofwat, the two water companies lost 679 million litres in leaks every day last year, enough to supply 4.5 million people. But plans to halve leakage and fit every household with a water meter have been kicked back until after any new reservoir would come online[1]. There are concerns that the water need is not for the local area but would be sold off to the highest bidder and pumped across the country, again at huge carbon and environmental cost.

And there are questions about money and about power. This is a multi-million pound construction project to create significant financial assets for two companies which collectively had profits of over £1 billion last year[2].  Last week the Peak District National Park Authority Board agreed an “Objection” to the reservoir, deeming it to be “catastrophic” to the landscape. But the framing as nationally significant water resources infrastructure would bypass them: the normal planning process run by the National Park Authority does not apply. In any case, the Park Authority is struggling to meet the demand for planning work and is currently consulting on major cuts to its workforce and closing visitor centres in order to plug budget holes (including Fairholmes centre where we started our walk).

Public bodies and water companies must further the purposes of the National Parks

The water company plans did consider the risks of construction in a National Park – but only as far as the “additional planning restrictions likely to apply”.  What has not been considered is that the Peak District National Park was designated to conserve and enhance natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage and promote opportunities for public understanding and enjoyment. These purposes and the significance of the Park as national natural infrastructure has not been considered, as far as we can tell. This is why we are campaigning to place new duties on all public bodies, including Ofwat and water companies, to further the National Park purposes to require them to think about and act for the National Parks.

As we stood high up on the hillside, 85m up from the valley floor, we looked down on all we could lose. It was staggering. From here, the tops of the moors did not seem so high.  My colleague asked “If you lose the peaks by filling the valleys with concrete, is it even the Peak District any more?

Looking down on the woody cloughs in the upper Derwent Valley: all of this could be concreted over if plans for a new reservoir proceed.

[1] Severn Trent’s draft Water Resource Management Plan is based on “our commitments to halve leakage by 2045 and to roll out a universal household metering programme by 2035” STdWRMP24-Main-Narrative.pdf ( Yorkshire Water’s draft WRMP assumes optant only metering with 89% uptake by 2085 and to halve leakage by 2050.

[2] Severn Trent profit before interest and tax in year to March 2022 was £508.3m and Yorkshire Water’s was £581.3m.