In recent decades, a creeping problem of water scarcity has developed. Left unaddressed, by 2040 England will not have enough water to meet demand, with the situation in London and the South East particularly acute (Salvidge, 2020).
Apart from the effects on households, agriculture and industry, over-abstraction of rivers threatens biodiverse habitats, particularly England’s distinctive chalk streams. Recent reports from the National Infrastructure Commission and official Climate Change Risk Assessment have served to highlight the nature of the risks and reinforced the need for a multi-faceted response.
In terms of the policy response, the UK’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has overall oversight of the industry and provides direction to regulators and companies to secure long-term resilience of water supply in England. Since privatisation (in 1989), 32 water companies have been privately owned but regulated by a range of agencies, including the Water Services Regulation Authority (Ofwat). Ofwat regulates the services water companies provide, with consumer value for money and ensuring resilience as key objectives in assessing Water Resource Management Plans. The Environment Agency (EA) regulates water resources as they relate to the environment. Its remit includes regulation of abstraction: the process of taking water from ground or surface water bodies including rivers. Since 2008, the Agency has overseen Restoring Sustainable Abstraction Programme.