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Thames Water boss warns over capital project delays

Decisions over investment in the UK’s outdated Victorian water and wastewater systems and reservoir capacity cannot continue to be “pushed off into the long grass”, according to Thames Water chief executive Martin Baggs.

Future investment “at risk”

Speaking in the wake of the public inquiry decision in March to reject Thames Water’s proposals for a new 100M.m³ reservoir in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, in favour of a smaller resource half the size, Baggs warned that continued delays could put future investment at risk.

“People can get carried away with their theoretical models and trying to decide exactly what size of reservoir we will need,” said Baggs. “But you cannot keep pushing these things off into the long grass.”

“This industry is hugely dependent on the investors that sit behind it,” he added. “Quite frankly they have a choice − if they don’t like the balance between risk and reward they will choose to put their money somewhere else.

Decision making speed “the real frustration”

Baggs, a civil engineer and lifelong water industry expert, said that the speed of planning decision-making in the UK remained the “real frustration”, pointing out that even if a decision was taken today to build a new reservoir, it could take 15 years to deliver − “four or five to build it and 10 to get the permissions”.

London’s newest reservoir is 40 years old, he pointed out, and populations had certainly changed since then.
Key to the challenge, said Baggs, was helping the public to understand and appreciate the value of water and the scale of operations required to deliver the service. Last week’s decision that Thames will be the official provider of water services to the 2012 Olympics was, he said, part of this drive.

“Water resource planning is not just about building a new reservoir of replacing a series of pipes. It’s not just about metering or water efficiency. It’s about all of those things becoming joined up.”

Thames Water chief executive Martin Baggs

“Water is a precious commodity that is taken for granted − the whole message about making sure that it is not wasted is absolutely key,” he said. “But water resource planning as a whole is not just about building a new reservoir of replacing a series of pipes. It’s not just about metering or water efficiency. It’s about all of those things becoming joined up.”

Public awareness “essential”

The recent public consultation for the £3.6bn Thames Tunnel, he said, showed that, when the problems such as the need to stop discharging raw sewage into the River Thames are properly explained, the public will support investment.

“If you look at the amount of investment going into the water industry as a whole since privatisation it is in the order of £90bn and it is largely taken for granted,” he said. “So anything that can actually raise the public awareness of what goes on behind the scenes to prove that essential service has got to be good.”

  • A full interview with Martin Baggs will be in NCE next week

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