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The Water Resources Board: England and Wales' venture into national water resources planning, 1964-1973

Christine S. McCulloch
School of Geography and Environment, University of Oxford, UK

ABSTRACT: An era of technocratic national planning of water resources is examined against the views of a leading liberal economist and critics, both contemporary and retrospective. Post Second World War Labour Governments in Britain failed to nationalise either land or water. As late as 1965, the idea of public ownership of all water supplies appeared in the Labour Party manifesto and a short-lived Ministry of Land and Natural Resources, 1964-1966, had amongst its duties the development of plans for reorganising the water supply industry under full public ownership. However, instead of pursuing such a politically dangerous takeover of the industry, in July 1964, a Water Resources Board (WRB), a special interest group dominated by engineers, was set up to advise on the development of water resources. In its first Annual Report (1965) WRB claimed its role as "the master planner of the water resources of England and Wales". The WRB had a great deal of influence and justified its national planning role by promoting large-scale supply schemes such as interbasin transfers of water, large reservoirs and regulated rivers. Feasibility studies were even carried out for building innovative, large storage reservoirs in tidal estuaries. Less progress was made on demand reduction. Yet the seeds of WRB'€™s demise were contained in its restricted terms of reference. The lack of any remit over water quality was a fatal handicap. Quantity and quality needed to be considered together. Privatisation of the water industry in 1989 led to a shift from national strategic planning by engineers to attempts to strengthen economic instruments to fit supply more closely to demand. Engineers have now been usurped as leaders in water resources management by economists and accountants. Yet climate change may demand a return to national strategic planning of engineered water supply, with greater democratic input.