Policy Papers

The reservoirs that weren’t: lessons for contemporary infrastructure planning

Katy Roelich , James Stark , Alice Owen |

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Executive Summary

  • Providing infrastructure – such as transport networks or water supply – is a major contemporary challenge involving complex decision making.
  • Similar challenges in delivering large scale infrastructure – in this case water supply – are evidenced in archival material relating to Leeds Corporation 1901-1914.
  • While the City of Leeds proposed six large reservoirs in catchments to the north of the city in 1901, only one of these reservoirs was eventually built. The following policy lessons are illustrated from this historical case.
  • The project failed to engage with the conflicting needs of citizens and stakeholders, which should be a key component of contemporary infrastructure transformation.
  • Finance mechanisms can have significant effects on the delivery of these needs and the cost of finance should be adequately accounted for in project costs.
  • The mode of project delivery needs to reflect the uncertainty associated with the drivers of projects and the more adaptive and iterative is the project design and scope for its development, the more likely it is to be successful.
  • There are marked parallels with the way in which PFI contracts have been recently used to achieve short-term political acceptability for infrastructure projects but at the price of significantly raising the longer-term costs of such projects.


When planning major infrastructure projects in the UK, such as roads, rail or water/sewage works, engineers, architects, planners, and politicians, often assert that the difficulty of such projects is a recent phenomenon. Most contemporary commentary suggests that the Victorian approach, which delivered much of the infrastructure still in use today, appeared to enable development in a way that we now seem incapable of doing. But is this really the case?

The issues of desirability, feasibility, and implementation are, critically, relevant to many of the most high-profile and controversial infrastructure projects currently being undertaken, such as Crossrail, Thames Tideway, HS2 and, in view, the third Heathrow runway. Managing complex stakeholder relationships, negotiating environmental and existing infrastructural challenges, and delivering value-for-money remain controversial aspects of these projects. How might we look to the past to inform future decision-making and the management of these complex and often competing interests and concerns?

The development of sanitary infrastructure in the Victorian period has been much studied. We have recently explored a previously uncatalogued, unexamined archive of the development of water infrastructure serving the city of Leeds – a major industrialising centre in provincial Victorian Britain – held at the Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills. The archival records, particularly rich in the period from around 1880-1920, include a wide range of materials related to the development of both water supply and waste water treatment infrastructure that supported the city of Leeds. Previous interrogation of the archive identified a map of a reservoir that did not exist. This turned out to be one of a series of reservoirs that were proposed by Leeds Corporation, approved by Parliament, but never built. The archive also includes records of the debate over the original proposals in Parliament, including detailed information about the petitioners to those proposals, which gives insight about who objected and on what grounds. There is also a very detailed record of debates about land values as part of a process of arbitration determining compensation and full reports from engineers providing updates on progress of works outlined in the original proposal. Once it became clear that the reservoir works would not be complete by the original deadline of 1911, two additional Acts of Parliament extended the construction period, outlining details of some of the reasons for delays. These formal reports are complemented by a large scrapbook containing a range of newspaper articles spanning the period 1901 to 1914, including letters from the public, which reflect public perceptions of, and engagement with, the process of developing the reservoirs.

Collectively, this material reveals that although the Leeds Corporation applied to Parliament to build six new reservoirs in 1901, all at some distance north of the city near Ripon, only one of these was ever built. This provides a powerful case study indicating multiple reasons why planned infrastructure projects did or did not proceed; many of those reasons have strong resonance with the present.

History of water supply in Leeds

Rapidly-expanding, rapidly-industrialising urban centres create pressing needs for expanded sanitary infrastructure. Nineteenth-century Leeds was such a place. The population of this important provincial manufacturing and commercial centre grew from around 180,000 in 1831 to 500,000 by the turn of the twentieth century. Added to the problems of housing, healthcare and other social issues, was that of supplying fresh water and associated sewerage facilities to the town’s burgeoning workforce and industrial premises. An expanding number of residents was just one of the concerns faced by local authorities. The Leeds Improvement Acts of the early nineteenth century sought to remedy the water supply situation, but by 1860 fresh water being pumped from the River Wharfe had become too polluted for domestic use. This was, somewhat ironically, due in part to the poor provision of sewerage and drainage, which had led many citizens of Leeds to dump untreated waste into the Wharfe’s tributaries. 

Concerned about the possibility of mass epidemics of enteric fever, typhoid and, principally, cholera, the local authorities determined that the natural supply of fresh drinking water to Leeds was no longer sufficient. There was universal agreement across the political and social spectrum from the early nineteenth century that Leeds’ water supply was woefully inadequate for a town of such commercial importance, and concerns about water scarcity were strongly linked to anxieties that economic growth might be curtailed. Nevertheless, disagreements over cost, environmental impact and the uncertain outcomes of ambitious plans to maximise the provision of clean water periodically met with stiff resistance. In 1867 the Town Council passed the Leeds Waterworks Act. This piece of legislation provided for the building of three major reservoirs north of the town at Lindley Wood, Swinsty and Fewston. Seven filter beds were also installed at Weetwood, and active pumping of water from these sources began in 1880 with the completion of the Headingley North Lane Pumping Station.

In parallel to Leeds’ growth and development of major water facilities, other corporations throughout Yorkshire were also developing reservoirs, often attempting to draw water from overlapping geographies. Notably, Bradford Corporation built several reservoirs in the Wharfe and Nidd catchments, which were close to Leeds. This left the Leeds Corporation with no alternative, they believed, but to develop new reservoirs a considerable distance from the city, occasionally encroaching on land which might equally supply other towns, such as Harrogate, and leading to inter-authority rivalry in the completion of significant works.

In urban centres during this critical phase of development in the late nineteenth century, water infrastructure was under the ownership and control of local Water Corporations, which were associated with local authorities. Corporations would draft Bills outlining major investments, which were debated in parliament, representing a high degree of national oversight of local and regional investments. Petitions from groups and individuals affected by projects included in a Bill were heard in Parliament.

This model of decision-making differs from water infrastructure in England and Wales today, which is divided into twelve regional water and wastewater companies under the ownership of private companies (with the exception of Welsh Water, which is a single-purpose company run for the benefit of customers). Investment in England and Wales is regulated by Ofwat, the Water Services Regulation Authority, but this is principally economic regulation and it does not undergo the same parliamentary scrutiny as the plans submitted under municipal ownership in the Victorian period. Some major transport infrastructure projects, such as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and Cross Rail, do have their own Acts of Parliament but stakeholder engagement is managed through a separate process of planning approval.

The Leeds Corporation Water Act 1901

In 1901, following much-publicised water shortages in 1899 which affected both Leeds and neighbouring Bradford, the Leeds Corporation submitted a Bill to Parliament which provided for the construction of twenty-five interlinked projects, including six reservoirs (Carlesmoor, Colsterdale, Healey, Laverton, Leighton and Skelden), and ancillary works to enable transfer of water a significant distance from Lower Wensleydale to the city of Leeds. It is important to note the extent of the powers conferred on the Corporation in this Act; they were empowered to undertake any works necessary “upon any lands for the time being belonging to them” including an extensive list of water-related items “cuts, channels, catchwaters, aqueducts…” but also “bridges, roads, approaches, telegraphic and telephonic apparatus…” as long as they did not contravene the “exclusive privilege” of the Postmaster General. (The “exclusive privilege” of the Postmaster General was codified in the Post Office (Management) Act 1837, which stipulated their exclusive right to collect, convey and deliver letters, a right which had the potential to be infringed by expanding technologies of communication such as the telegraph and telephone.)

It was recognised that the works would affect local landowners (the Corporation did not own all of the land) and as such “the corporation shall pay compensation to the owners of and other persons interested in any lands in respect of which bye-laws shall be made under the provisions of this section who shall be injuriously affected by the restrictions imposed by such bye-laws and such compensation shall be settled in default of agreement by arbitration in accordance with the provisions of the Arbitration Act 1889”

The 1901 Act set out a very ambitious set of proposals and the initial requirement was to complete this work in ten years, by 1911. In reality, none of the works were completed in this period and only one of the reservoirs (Leighton) was ever completed, significantly delayed, in 1925. The aqueduct that was supposed to support all six reservoirs was also constructed, at great cost. 

Explaining the reservoirs that weren’t

The archives contain a great deal of material that helps to explain why only one out of six reservoirs was successfully delivered (albeit fifteen years later than planned), with many themes which resonate with contemporary infrastructure planning. These include: the drivers of the project – of water scarcity and economic growth – were poorly evidenced and over-stated. The objections of stakeholders were poorly understood and managed, and the power relations that made some stakeholders more influential than others were not acknowledged by the Corporation. There was competition between urban centres for water, as its inadequacy was perceived a constraint on economic growth. The finance used to support the scheme increased not only the cost but also the risk of the project. Technical feasibility was not fully explored before project approvals. The proposed work was too ambitious and there was no alternative plan. The result was a significant waste of public finance and major loss of stakeholder goodwill. These characteristics are remarkably similar to high profile infrastructure failures today, such as Crossrail and the Sheffield-Rotherham Tram-Train; we argue that there is much to learn from a historical case such as this. In this section we discuss these characteristics in more detail, before then discussing lessons for contemporary infrastructure planning and delivery.

Poor understanding of drivers: The proposed works were founded on a discourse of scarcity and economic growth and the interaction between these two drivers seem to have created a real sense of urgency. Initially, the local press supported this narrative, with multiple reports highlighting the fact that “Our present water supply will fall short by the year 1907. It is estimated that by that year the town will have so increased that ….Unless we take steps to meet that demand, we shall be in the midst of a water famine”. However, as time progressed and the threatened water shortages failed to materialise (despite progress on the reservoirs halting), support for the scarcity narrative diminished. “The drought has not troubled Leeds seriously—there is at present something over sixty days' supply in the city’s reservoirs, but this has been due at least in part to incidental circumstances. For one thing, the city [population] has not progressed to the extent that one might have fairly anticipated, while the leakages have been reduced enormously owing to stricter supervision”.

Stakeholder management: The significant power of landowners, notably titled landowners of large country estates, caused two reservoirs to be abandoned almost immediately (Healey and Skelden) and significantly delayed another two (Colsterdale and Leighton). Some landowners were also parliamentarians, and the permitting process was a parliamentary one. The Marquis of Ripon appears to have been directly responsible for the abandonment of Skelden reservoir on the grounds that it posed a serious threat to his property at Fountains Abbey.

The relationship with the Bradford industrialist Samuel Lister, Lord Masham, appears to have been particularly troublesome. A petition from Masham and his son, Samuel Cunliffe Lister stated that “the proposed three large reservoirs aforesaid, namely, the Colsterdale Reservoir, the Leighton Reservoir, and the Healey Reservoir are all places on the Swinton Estate, and the latter one, with an embankment about 100 feet high close to the mansion house of the estate, both being an obstruction to the view and a source of danger” and considered that the project and subsidiary works would “practically ruin the residential and sporting value of the Swinton estate...”. Masham was compensated for loss associated with the reservoirs that progressed after the 1901 hearing (Leighton and Costerdale). However, there were extended proceedings to agree this compensation and a significant breakdown in the relationship between Masham and the corporation: “In order to suit Lord Masham’s convenience, and take out works away to a distance of 3.5 miles from his house, we gave up that [Healey] reservoir, and we said: - We will be content with the two higher reservoirs, which are a long way off; and we are to get nothing for that”.

Competition between urban centres: Leeds Corporation was in competition with the Corporations (analogous to today’s Councils and local authorities) of several other urban and rural centres for water, with many settlements seeking to exploit the resources of the same catchment. There was no mechanism to coordinate development within a catchment, which often covered the jurisdiction of multiple Medical Officers of Health and other sanitary officials, or to trade off different development priorities. Most notably, Harrogate Corporation proposed, and had approved, an Act in 1901 to develop a reservoir at Roundhill, upstream of Leighton Reservoir. Harrogate objected that Leighton might therefore interfere with their project at Roundhill but “[did] not desire that Parliament should reject the proposed Leighton Reservoir of the Corporation of Leeds provided it can be made without interfering with the construction of the reservoir [Roundhill] “. 

However, both Harrogate and Leeds proposed separate railways to access the construction sites (which cannot have been more than fifteen miles apart), and the dispute about development of these access railways caused significant delay and received a lot of negative press coverage. As one correspondent noted: “As a Leeds ratepayer and a resident in Harrogate, where I find I have to expend a rather considerable yearly sum of Leeds earned money, it appears to me that the action of the Harrogate Corporation in determining to oppose the Corporation of Leeds in the construction of its standard gauge railway for waterworks purposes approaches to the verge of criminality”.

York Corporation and Waterworks Company put forward a strong petition stating that they “object to the invasion by the Corporation of the water resources of the Upper Ure, upon which your Petitioners and the inhabitants of York and the Ure Valley largely depend for their water supplies”.

Project finance: Financing the project was subject to significant criticism from the outset. Three railway companies, the North Eastern Railway Company, the London and North Western Railway Company and the Great Northern Railway Company all objected at the 1901 hearing, citing the inadequacy of the finance mechanisms used to fund the reservoirs.

Scrutiny of the finances increased substantially in the media as it became apparent that only a fraction of the works would be delivered but at great cost to the rate payer. The cost of compensation paid to landowners for reservoirs that were not built also received criticism.  

The finance mechanisms also received criticism because they had further increased the risk and cost of the works. “Then, instead of paying the interest and sinking fund charges out of revenue and rates, they added the former to the debt and deferred the repayment of the latter for ten years, [by] the expiration of which time the repayments (as a matter of course) are doubled.” There are parallels here to modern procurement (for example Private Finance Initiatives) which aim to reduce the initial perceived cost of projects, in order to secure political support. This approach postponed repayments into the more distant future, but at the price of an increased cost to the overall project.

Technical feasibility: Extraordinary as it seems now, in an era where extensive design trials and tests must be undertaken before a project is permitted or can be financed, one of the reservoirs approved by parliament – Colsterdale – was not built simply because when the engineers drilled the first borehole in the area where the beautiful hand coloured maps showed a dam was required, they found the geological condition unsuitable to support the scale of structure that the design required. Yet, now-redundant sighting towers to enable detailed technical surveying of the site had already been built at some cost.

Over-ambition: The five reservoirs that were not constructed remained consigned to the archives because the proposed works were too ambitious and there was no alternative plan. Perhaps it is not surprising that such a large project was proposed: the location of the reservoirs required that extensive supporting infrastructure was constructed to transport water to Leeds and the cost of that infrastructure would only have made sense if it transported a significant volume of water. Nevertheless, developing a project that was only viable if several reservoirs were built, with significant challenges associated with their development, presents a timely opportunity to reflect on how we might avoid similar situations arising in the future.

Lessons for contemporary infrastructure planning

There are many lessons for contemporary infrastructure planning from this analysis, despite the substantial difference in context in which decisions are made today.

The drivers of any project need to be clearly, and more transparently, articulated with evidence of how infrastructure meets the needs of those it purports to serve. Evidence is never a completely neutral or objective body of data, and evidence presented in support of infrastructure development must be examined critically. The economic productivity associated with HS2 is a good example here – it has been suggested that the benefit of HS2 by 2037 could be £15bn pa. However, the report that justified this figure (prepared by HS2 Ltd.) contained very opaque (and some argue highly flawed) analysis of the relationship between the increased connectivity that HS2 would offer and the uplift in productivity that would result. This makes this often-cited benefit of £15bn highly questionable.   

The way in which benefits might be assessed is also rarely neutral. In our historic case, water supply to support the development of an industrial city was privileged over water supply for neighbouring towns, although the value of the landscape of the sporting estates was esteemed even higher. Contemporary projects face similar challenges balancing economic, social and environmental costs and benefits. Economic impacts have more established methods for quantification and are in themselves more quantifiable and so often take precedence over the less-tangible social, cultural and environmental impacts. This can mean that socio-cultural and environmental costs are under-represented or even ignored at an initiating stage but can subsequently emerge as sources of great – even overwhelming – opposition.

Because of the contested nature of evidence, particularly where the benefits of development are concerned, transparency about project financing of infrastructure is important, particularly in relation to public money. It is essential that value for money is demonstrated, but that value is assessed in terms of value to society, not just abstract financial value.

The form of finance used to deliver projects can have a significant impact on the project’s overall cost, and the value for money that principally public investment is able to deliver.  A contentious contemporary example of this is the use of public-private partnerships and particularly the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) to fund and finance infrastructure projects. PFI was initially seen as a way to fund public infrastructure off-balance sheet without contributing to national debt. However, PFI has resulted in ongoing costs to the institutions commissioning the infrastructure assets, overall costs have been high to mitigate private sector risks, and contracts have been inflexible giving the contracting authorities little control of the final project. There is strong alignment between the underlying purpose of PFI, to reduce political opposition, and the finance mechanism adopted in our historical case. In both cases, the focus on overcoming political opposition through adopting alternative finance mechanisms served to increase the cost of the overall project. The cost of such finance (and its effect on the total project cost) should be taken into account as well as the material cost of the project.  

The multi-faceted costs and benefits of infrastructure projects lead to the importance of acknowledging, understanding and working with a range of perspectives and values in developing major infrastructure. Engagement with the interests of stakeholders, including all those who have a ‘stake’ in the project, whether the impacts upon them are positive or negative, should be more effective.  Open engagement, as a genuinely dialogic process rather than the somewhat artificial and pro-forma, statutory forms of consultation that have become common practice as part of complying with planning processes, ensure that projects provide a positive, or at least an acceptable, impact on existing interests and concerns. While landholders are the main stakeholder evidenced in our late-Victorian example, the newspaper archive demonstrates that public mood and perception, then as now, play an important role in project acceptability.

Many infrastructure sectors do not sit neatly into one scale of governance (for example national government or local authorities), therefore co-ordination is required across scales and within scale to manage infrastructure systems effectively. This was shown to be severely lacking in our historical example. Today the increasing trend to devolve power and finances to city regions and combined authorities is providing a new scale of governance for infrastructure. This could strengthen the link between infrastructure development and local priorities and result in better engagement of those affected by infrastructure. However, there is concern that this might encourage competition between neighbouring regions, rather than encouraging the collaboration necessary to make more effective use of resources.

While the need to gather extensive data before obtaining planning permission for infrastructure developments, for example through “strategic environmental assessments” or “environmental impact assessments” is often portrayed as excessive, the example here shows clearly that failure to do this kind of technical exploratory work risks project failure altogether.

Developing large projects that will be delivered over long periods of time carries significant risks, should the conditions and assumptions underpinning the project change. An alternative is to design projects which can be developed incrementally and iteratively, allowing for gradual expansion as uncertainties in drivers are assessed. For some projects, this might be impossible (e.g. investment in significant linear transport infrastructure such as rapid transit systems where future demand is uncertain). However, flexibility could still be embedded in the operational phase, for example, by track sharing and flexible routing while demand develops.


Examining a key episode in the history of the development of water infrastructure for Leeds around the turn of the twentieth century has provided a wealth of insights of relevance to contemporary policy and decision making. First, it challenged the long-standing notion that the late-Victorian approach to infrastructure development was infallible. Second, it provided specific and practical recommendations to improve the quality of our current approach to infrastructure decision making. Despite significant differences in the context of decision making, we still argue that these recommendations can improve the outcomes of decision making in terms of making more effective use of resources to better address the needs of citizens and the economy. Understanding the often-conflicting needs of citizens and stakeholder groups, and the real drivers of projects should be a crucial part of infrastructure transformation. A better understanding of how finance affects the delivery of these needs and total cost of the project is also essential. The governance of infrastructure should be carefully considered to ensure co-ordination and collaboration across and within different scales of government to ensure most effective use of resources. The mode of delivery of projects should be addressed to accommodate the significant uncertainty associated with the needs and drivers of projects.  

We gratefully acknowledge funding from the Leeds Cultural Institute/Leeds Museums and Galleries Cross Disciplinary Innovation Fund. We are also very grateful for the support of the Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills, particularly John McGoldrick and Errin Hussey. Thanks go to Amy Solomons for her diligent cataloguing and analysis of the archive resource.

Further Reading

Hennock, P. (1973) Fit and Proper Persons: Ideal and Reality in Nineteenth-century Urban Government. London: Edward Arnold

HM Treasury (2015) Valuing infrastructure spend: supplementary guidance to the Green Book

National Audit Office (2018) PFI and PF2, HC 718 Session 2017–2019

Offer, A (2018) Patient and impatient capital: time horizons as market boundaries. University of Oxford Discussion Papers in Economic and Social History. No 165

Overmans, H. (2013) HS2 Regional Economic Impact: Garbage in ...? Centre for Economic Performance Blog Post, 12 September 2013

Ritvo, J. (2009) The Dawn of Green: Manchester, Thirlmere, and Modern Environmentalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Roelich, K. and Giesekam J. (2019) Decision making under uncertainty in climate change mitigation: introducing multiple actor motivations, agency and influence. Climate Policy. 19(2), pp. 175-188

Sellers, D. (1997) Hidden Beneath our Feet: The Story of Sewerage in Leeds. Leeds City Council.


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