Green and pleasant land threatened by planning loophole

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A pounds 4m plan to drive a water pipeline through unspoilt countryside has triggered a call to end planning privileges for former public utilities. Esther Leach looks at a new twist to an old problem.

The pipeline, between Yorker Bank reservoir, near Layburn, to the Fossdale Water Treatment Works, will carve a hole through three medieval sites of archaeological interest - earthworks associated with Fors Abbey, a watermill flood system at Nappa Hall and a medieval rabbit farm at Woodhall.

Yorkshire Dales National Park planners say former public utilities that are now private companies should no longer carry out developments without planning consent. Historically, the utilities have not needed to apply for permission for big schemes in the countryside. But planners and environmentalists argue that they should in future, because their new private status renders them answerable to shareholders before people in the community.

Clive Kirkbride, the National Parks landscape and ecology officer, said only hard negotiations with Yorkshire Water had forced a compromise over the route for a 29km pipeline through Wensleydale.

The water company says the new main is necessary to "provide strategic support to the rural community" and it has tried to reduce the impact to a minimum, but officials at the National Park are known to be unhappy with remedial works carried out after previous schemes. Mr Kirkbride said: "The former public utilities now private companies still enjoy permitted development rights when their priority is no longer the public interest but their shareholders. There has to be a conflict of interest here which could be settled if these companies were subject to planning consent."

Yorkshire Water says it is astonished by the criticism, claiming that, as the region's biggest investor in the environment, it is fully aware of its responsibilities. But George Hallas, Yorkshire Dales National Park Officer, said there was a history of similar problems. In 1996 the National Park negotiated with Yorkshire Water over the proposed route of a pipeline between Newbiggin-in-Bishopdale and Aysgarth in Wensleydale to minimise the impact. "The route was altered by the company but there was still some archaeological damage, made worse by different construction techniques and inadequate restoration.

"Introducing planning consent would prevent many of these problems, especially now that utility companies are privately owned companies with an apparent need to put profits first. The question has to be asked as to why they should continue to benefit from a more favourable planning regime not enjoyed by others in the private sector." A Yorkshire Water spokesman said consultations with the National Park began in February, 14 months before the scheduled start-day for what they describe as an essential scheme.