A GOVERNMENT expert has said plans for a reservoir in southern Oxfordshire should be given "the green light" to tackle future droughts, despite fierce opposition from villagers living near the proposed site.

The chairman of the UK's National Infrastructure Commission Sir John Armitt said Thames Water's £1 billion reservoir plans for countryside near Abingdon should go ahead because of the threat of more frequent and prolonged droughts.

Thames Water has spent more than 15 years on plans for an Abingdon reservoir, which would cover 6.7 square- kilometres of farmland between Steventon, East Hanney and Drayton. The water company says it could help provide more than 100 million litres of water each day. However, villagers have condemned the plans and Vale of White Horse District Council dubbed the scheme "environmentally disastrous".

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The water company has instead been told to save water by fixing its leaks.

Sir John's calls for more water storage comes after the Government's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs declared an official drought in parts of south-western, southern and central England as temperatures rose in the recent heatwave. It has officially been declared the driest first half-year since 1976.

Speaking to The Sunday Telegraph, Sir John said ministers should be able to overrule opposition from residents, councillors and MPs so give new reservoirs projects across the UK approval by 2025.

The last reservoir to have been built for public water supply was Carsington Water, in Derbyshire, built in 1991.

Sir John said that while a small number of people might be "inconvenienced and disappointed," reservoirs provided a "social benefit to a very large number of people" beyond those in their immediate vicinity.

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The Environment Agency has declared that most reservoirs in the country are running low.

As temperatures reached highs of 33°C last week, people in Northend, near Watlington, were forced to rely on deliveries of bottled and tanker water after a "technical fault" at Stokenchurch reservoir caused it to dry up.

It follows a week-long heatwave in July which saw the UK temperature hitting 40°C for the first time.

Abingdon MP Layla Moran said the plans would have a "catastrophic" effect on wildlife and cause disruption to residents.

She said: “What people need in Oxfordshire right now is a fix... and fast. Thames Water loses a quarter of all their water to leaks and continues to pump sewage into our rivers. Their current plan is like building a bath with no plug in it.

“I have asked the Environment Minister, Thames Water and Ofwat to be open about this scheme and alternatives. Until they do that millions of taxpayer pounds are being handed over to a company that this week alone has been responsible for both a drought in Northend and flooded streets in Islington.

“Even if they had started on the Abingdon Reservoir 10 years ago, it would still only be half built. We need solutions that will come on stream on a much shorter timescale.”

Villagers have said the building of the reservoir would be "destructive" and when finished would be an "eyesore". Campaigners from Group Against Abingdon Reservoir (GAAR) says the reservoir would destroy habitats.

Derek Stork, group chairman, said the reservoir was a “bad idea” and that a water transfer scheme – in which surplus water could be transported to areas in need – was a better idea.

He said: “The reservoir would cause damage to our local environment. Water transfers are a more secure way of getting the water back that we need.”

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A report by the National Infrastructure Commission, published four years ago, saw the agency call for more reservoirs to be built.

In light of the recent heatwaves, Sir John said these projects needed to be "forced through".

A Thames Water spokesperson said: “Water resources in the South East are under severe pressure due to population growth, impact of climate change and the need to protect and preserve sensitive watercourses.

“As custodians of the environment, we take our responsibility to protect and enhance it extremely seriously while also ensuring our customers have a secure and sustainable water supply now and for future generations.

“To do both we, and water companies across the country, must invest in new water sources so are exploring a range of schemes, several of which will be required if we’re to address the imminent water crisis.

“We recognise current concerns about the local impact of a potential large-scale infrastructure project and want to continue our ongoing dialogue with the council and wider community to address these; alongside discussing the long term benefits a new development could bring including job and skill creation, recreational opportunities and improved biodiversity and flood defences to the local community.”

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This story was written by Gee Harland. She joined the team in 2022 as a senior multimedia reporter.

Gee covers Wallingford, Wantage and Didcot.

Get in touch with her by emailing: Gee.harland@newsquest.co.uk

Follow her on Twitter @Geeharland

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