United Utilities are creating a 60 mile scar, 130 feet wide, through the Lake District. And the National Park gave them permission.

Joe Saxton shares his personal outrage and disappointment with the construction of a new United Utilities pipeline through the Lake District.
Joe Saxton

Lake District United Utilities damage

Looking across the Derwent valley with the pipeline route in white dots

As I write this I can hear the buzz of chainsaws in the spring sunshine [mid to late March]. Just across the road the team from United Utilities is cutting down 40 feet swathes of hedgerow to make way for their new pipeline. It’s a £300 million pipeline to connect Thirlmere reservoir to the West Coast of Cumbria. Two 900m pipes are going to be dug in a vast trench to a new water treatment works near Cockermouth leaving a 130 foot scar behind it. In total along the pipeline nearly 8 miles of hedgerows are being removed, and 48 acres of woodland including nearly 10 acres of ancient woodland, destroyed.

It is, at best, a puzzling project. Why would a profit-driven company spend nearly a fifth of its annual revenue of £1.7 billion to supply water to just 150,000 households out of the 3 million that it serves. Not least when there is already a river that follows the same route as the pipeline. The reason apparently is to protect the freshwater mussels in Ennerdale. So the solution for protecting nature in Ennerdale is to destroy it elsewhere in the Lake District National Park.

As a result of the impending pipeline a 300 year old ‘burr oak’ has already been felled on its route.  The tree surgeons who did the work described it as ‘the most valuable tree in the entire United Kingdom’. United Utilities say it wasn’t their work, but the tree is right on the pipeline route. The stories of wildlife destruction to make way for the pipeline don’t end there., One farmer told me that the United Utilities wanted to fell trees and hedgerows ‘just in case’ the pipeline went one way or another on his land. At a tense meeting with United Utilities in the spring, local farmers were venting their frustration about the impact on grazing, their land and their livelihoods.

Lake District United Utilities Damage Burr Oak

The felled Burr oak with dog for scale!
 

The Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 says that nesting birds shouldn’t be intentionally disturbed between March 1st and end of July. Farmers are no longer allowed to trim and cut hedgerows between March and August or they lose their farm subsidies. So United Utilities are doing something no farmer is allowed to do when they cut out hedgerows in March (with a special licence they assure me). One rule for the big company another for the local farmer.

The lack of visible concern of the National Park Authority is just as inexplicable. Another magnificent oak tree was saved from the chainsaw, but not by the Park Authority, but the swift action of locals who spotted the X mark on the tree, and persuaded United Utilities to tweak the pipeline route. The National Park has been great at their paperwork: over 100 documents on their website about the pipeline. Park documentation said ‘the proposals have sought to avoid tree and woodland loss where-ever possible’. It’s hard to agree on the evidence so far.



Oak saved by locals in Lake District
The massive old oak saved by locals - not by the National Park
 

Projects of this size in National Parks require the proposer to demonstrate ‘that there is no practical alternative’. Yet United Utilities proposal said it had identified ‘three feasible options’. Let me just re-emphasise this point. United Utilities should only be able to build a pipeline of this size in a National Park, if there is no alternative, but United Utilities identified two feasible alternatives. One was to go on sourcing water locally in West Cumbria. The Woodland Trust along with local residents and parish councils opposed the scheme. While the Park Authority gave permission to the Pipeline they refused permission for a local householder to turn an existing outhouse into a holiday let. One rule for the big company, another for the small householder it seems.

I wish I could tell you that United Utilities are compensating the Park Authority handsomely to explain why the Park gave permission, since this is a project that brings minimal benefit to the Park. Yet the Park will receive just over £250,000 in compensation to plant new trees. Less than 0.1% of the cost of the pipeline. The pipeline contractors are from Northern Ireland so it seems unlikely that any jobs will be created in the Park. Indeed just £52 million of the £300 million is being spent in Cumbria, let alone in the Park, itself according to planning documents.

It’s not just the Park that will suffer. It’s the local economy too. The pipeline is going directly under Keswick, under the river Greta and across the A66 (the biggest east/west main road in the Park). There will be 400,000 cubic metres waste material to be disposed of. That’s about 40,000 extra lorry journeys on Lake District roads. Roads will be blocked for months on end. Local Businesses will be affected. Tourism will be disrupted.

What profit-making company spends £300 million to reach the same number of customers as before? So why is United Utilities doing it? I have yet to meet a single local resident who believes that freshwater mussels in Ennerdale is anything but a smoke screen. Most believe that the pipeline is to prepare for the proposed nuclear power station at Moorside, next to Sellafield. Why United Utilities don’t want to tell anybody that is a mystery.

Whatever their motives, it is the Lake District and its wildlife, residents and tourists that are the victims. The National Park seem happy that destroyed ancient woodland is replaced with new plantations. But nothing can replace 300 year old trees, ancient woodlands, or the decades old hedgerows that are being removed. It’s like pretending that a new housing estate makes up for the destruction of an ancient castle, or a stately home. The visible scars will be permanent: the pipeline will have over 200 structures left above ground along its route, some as big as 20 feet by 10 feet slabs of concrete.

Nothing will bring back the likely lost revenue for businesses (still recovering after the floods of 2009 and 2015) that five years of pipeline building will inflict. Who will want to visit the Northern Part of the Lake District around Keswick when it is clogged with pipeline traffic and road works? And for those who thought that National Park status would protect wildlife, nature and the Lake District from major developments, you’d better think again. The floods of 2015 were a natural disaster due to freak levels of rainfall. The pipeline is a self-inflicted, wholly avoidable, disaster. And those who should be protecting the Park have given permission.

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