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Ministers consider north-south water supply canal

Aecom proposal could bring water supplies from Scotland to thirsty South East.

Division over the merits of a UK water grid resurfaced this week after consultant Aecom revealed that the government was considering its radical proposal for a £14bn canal from the Southern Uplands of Scotland to London.

Aecom’s ambitious proposal is currently on the desks of ministers at a host of government departments.

These include the Treasury, Department for Transport and Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs after being passed on by the government’s chief scientific advisor David MacKay.

MacKay has asked his colleagues to respond to the proposal which Aecom sustainability consultant David Weight believes is the best way to transfer water from Scotland where it is in abundance to the South East of England where it is most needed.

He said he hoped the ambitious project will be funded by utility companies and other stakeholders, including local authorities who could raise funds from property owners and businesses benefiting from having the canal nearby. He said he was now seeking funding to further develop the idea.

“The problem is funding the work to get to a point where we have enough information to allow people to invest,” said Weight.


“We hope it will build up its own momentum.”

The outline proposal lists six principal economic benefits arising from building the canal.

As well as transporting water it could be a route for electricity and telecommunications cables, and for district heating. It could also help tourism and regeneration.

Weight said the proposal would be “relatively economic” as the chosen route follows a contour that runs from the Scottish Borders to the South East.

The route was originally proposed in the 1940s as the Pownall Grand Tour canal.

Aecom’s report says water would not need to be pumped along the canal, but says a “few locks” would be needed to facilitate level changes, for crossings and to help manage water levels.

The Civil Engineering Contractors Association (Ceca) said the proposal may have value.

“There needs to be a feasibility study to consider the options for a water grid,” said Ceca external affairs director Alisdair Reisner. “We would be supportive of any effort to create efficient infrastructure assets.”

The ICE disagreed. “We have said that we do not support the construction of a national water grid or long distance transfers of water,” said ICE water panel chair Michael Norton.

“We are promoting two things: that water companies should have more interconnections and that there should be more storage of water,” he added.
Norton added that it could prove difficult to secure funding for the canal scheme from so many stakeholders.

Readers' comments (9)

  • If the route of the canal is as shown on the thumbnail map included in the article how does the water move over the Pennines, Birmingham plateau, Cotrswolds etc without some mechanical assistance or is the proposl to tunnel under these high points?

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  • In ages gone by people settled and worked where there were abundant natural resources. If the South East does not have enough water then the long term plan should surely be to redistribute the population, or at least do something to reduce the rate of population increase in the South East. Similar arguments could apply for housing and transport.

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  • I have been involved with the construction of such a canal on a smaller scale and have also walked some of the British canals.
    It is suggested that this canal would have a built in gradient. However this would mean that the flow couldn't be controlled, it would be constant and failure to maintain the flow would result in the upper end emptying. Thus a number of control locks would be required, at full flow these could be free flow while at minimal flow they'd need to be operated. If the canal is about 4m deep it would be possible to lower the depth by 2m depending on the maximum depth of any barges. Thus these locks could be located at the distance appropriate to that fall at full flow.
    Another aspect is the difference in construction techniques between the 18th C and the present day. This would allow much straighter canals than in those days as modern earth moving equipment would make considerable earth moving economic whereas in the 18th C the manual techniques limited earth moving to as short a distance as possible which basically consisted of digging one side to build a bank on the other.

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  • Readers following-up this story - with regard to the mid-20thC proposal - on the internet will draw a blank. That's because the project was in fact proposed as the 'Grand Contour Canal' - so named because it was intended to follow the 300ft contour (actually 310ft). There's an interesting article on it in Wkipedia, but for canal and engineering history anoraks like myself, there's a huge body of information on this in the archives of public bodies.

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  • The similarities with the Grand Countour Canal [GCC] project are in fact superficial. Water transfer seen only as a secondary function; in fact the whole point of the contour canal is to reduce water throughput. Restoration of the Llangollen Canal 50 years ago was justified because it was modified to provide water transfer from the Dee to reservoirs near Nantwich; those navigating the canal encounter a stiff flow even when boat traffic is light and the imposition of a hydraulic gradient (through modification of lock by-weirs) on what was originally a level canal results is very noticeable at the end of long pounds. A hydraulic gradient of say 1:10000 could result in a fall from 300ft AOD in Northumberland to sea level at the Thames. Moreover significant outflows at major conurbations would require the canal section to progressively reduce as it progressed southwards - or steepen further. At this point in the train of reasoning, I'm beginning to wonder whether this Aecom proposal is of the same ilk as the proposal, some years ago, reviving the early 19thC proposal for a ship canal from the Eden to the Tyne. You don't remember that?. Surely straightforward tunneled/piped technology, as associated with Thirlmere, Elan and Kielder, would be more hydraulically and cost efficient and less environmentally damaging. Clearly, piped transfer would rule out any secondory usage for navigation, but the additional costs and impacts that would arise from providing for navigation are surely unjustifiable, not least when we already have a very extensive leisure network, and inland commercial navigation in the UK has - despite repeated attempts to stimulate it - proved to be intrinsically uneconomic.

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  • This wouldn't be the same David Weight who so heavily promoted the surf reef at Bournemouth would it?? I'm surprised the NCE is giving this proposal any credit.

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  • A major issue that appears to be overlooked by those suggesting tunnel or pipeline transfers is that in this case they would not be required for much of the time. What happens to the water that is left in the system when transfers are not required? If raw water is left stationary in the system, even for a short time, it would become de-oxygenated and unusable but then the Environment Agency would not permit it to be discharged into rivers or estuaries. Before this occurred, the system would have to be emptied which, in the case of tunnel sections, would require extensive pumping and washout arrangements. Who would control this over the long length of the system bearing in mind that any organisation managing it would have little to do for much of the time and could not justify a sufficient workforce?
    This problem was encountered in the early stages of operation of the Ely Ouse to Essex Scheme in the 1970's but the scale of that was minute compared to what is now being suggested.

    Rod Armstrong

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  • Thanks for comments, particularly Archie. The canal would loosely follow Pownall’s route along the 310 foot contour, but drop across it a bit, in order to help the flow from North to South. Pumping would not be required, but there would need to be a few locks and balancing basin / reservoirs to help manage water levels. We hope that this may serve another purpose as flood relief in some areas.

    Jonathan, - Not as much as 300 feet drop I think! I take the distance from Kielder reservoir to NW London, plus allowance for weaving to stay close to contour, as about 500klm. If the hydraulic gradient were 1 in 10,000 as you say, the drop will be 500 x 1000 (metres) x 3.28 (to feet) / 10,000 gradient = 168 feet. Plenty of scope!

    The term “impacts” has negative connotations, but canals are great for nature, leisure, transportation, walking, cycling etc. (I had a very positive response from Sustrans on these last aspects). Also, try checking out the prices of properties by canals. People love them!

    Also, routing HVDC cables in canals would save billions compared with putting in the sea.

    David Weight.

    P.S. I had absolutely nothing to do with the flawed construction of the reef at Bournemouth. The deployment of multi-purpose reefs, was my idea, dating back to 1994, and is still valid. At least the rock reef at Borth, which I also instigated, is working OK.

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  • Would the project also offer a potential solution to another major problem - energy storage? Intermittency is a major obstacle to reliance on renewable energy. To some extent this can be mitigated by the introduction of "intelligent" appliances, but large-scale energy storage could be of even greater assistance. Could this be achieved by pumped storage at various points in the contour canal, both mainly downwards but perhaps also upwards in hillier areas? For the former, a maximum fall of less than 300 feet would be only a fraction of that at Dinorwic, but the available volumes of water would be commensurately greater. Could the resulting agitation of the water help to overcome the de-oxygenation problem?

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