Aecom floats ambitious £14bn mega-canal idea to ministers

9 May 2013

North-south mega-waterway proposal put forward

DECC’s chief scientific adviser David McKay has given a positive reception to an Aecom proposal to build a visionary new canal that would help solve future problems of water supply, power transmission and sustainable transport.

McKay has distributed copies of the initial proposal – costed at £14bn for the construction element of the canal – to officials at the BIS, Defra and the Department for Transport.

Aecom’s idea is a multi-functional 24m wide canal, built with as few locks as possible, running from the Scottish borders to the London area. The firm is undertaking further studies to find the most cost-effective and beneficial route.

The canal would help to mitigate any future drought and also supply additional irrigation to the agricultural sector, by feeding Scottish water into existing waterways.

And as well as offering a sustainable alternative to road and rail freight, facilitating the movement of biomass fuel to the south, it could also carry High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) cables in special compartments, with the water providing natural cooling. 

Aecom associate director David Weight first hit on the idea two years ago after London Mayor Boris Johnson, in a Telegraph article, floated the idea of reviving Pownall’s Contour Canal scheme to address future droughts.

Proposed in 1942, this was to be a 30m wide canal network following the natural drop in height from the Borders to the Midlands, used for freight transport and water transfer.

But Weight’s insight was to realise the canal would be perfect for current needs: the ongoing creation of a HVDC cable network to connect sustainable electricity sources with consumer demand.

These include plans to lay HVDC cables in the North Sea to connect Scottish hydro power to England, as part of a wider future international network linking hydro and geothermal power from Iceland, and solar power generated in southern Spain and Africa.

“If you’re building a canal, you could have more uses — it’s perfect for HVDC transmission,” said Weight. “Scotland will have abundant power on its doorstep, so how do we get it down to England? Laying cables in the sea is hugely expensive, but a secure compartment in the canal would be far cheaper and more accessible. The water would also be used to cool the cables.”

Weight also suggested that the canal could also be harnessed for a new generation of data centres, a burgeoning source of carbon emissions. Large fibre optic cable would enable data centres to be built in the cooler Scottish border, reducing cooling loads, while still fast-linked to the south-east of England.

The proposal clearly needs both political and financial backing to progress, but Aecom believes both are possible to secure.

“We think that unlike HS2, local authorities would be queuing up to have a canal going through their area,” he said. “As for funding, we’d anticipate a multi-stakeholder approach. There are many organisations that could either save money by using the canal or extract a toll for others to use it — for instance Scottish Power, Scottish Water, the National Grid.

“And there might be a possibility of using a form of Tax Increment Financing — taxing the increase in value from properties along the route. The canal would also be perfect for associated developments, such as eco-towns — the power and water are already there.”

He adds that the “economic multiplier” of constructing a canal would be high as there is no need to import skills or equipment from abroad, as would be the case with new nuclear build.

Aecom also proposes to build the canal in phases, with the first section running from Kielder in Northumbria to Leeds, costed at £3.4bn. The second phase would reach Derby.

The plan has drawn on the firm’s expertise in water and mechanical engineering, but Weight says there is much more work to be done. “We want to get to proof of concept stage, then we’ll do a range of further studies, for example on future water demand and agricultural needs.”

At 24m wide Aecom’s proposal is similar in scale to the Rhein-Herne canal in Germany. Photograph: Raimond Spekking


What a stunningly good and simple idea. Perfect in so many ways it has to be worth getting behind.

Martin Chambers, 3 May 2013

I had not even the slightest intention of voting for Scottish independence. Until I read this presumptuous, nonsense proposal. I hope it meets with the strongest imaginable resistance as it is considerably more offensive than HS2, on a whole raft of different levels.

Kelly Tait, 3 May 2013


Matt King, 3 May 2013

Just for the record, Keilder Water is in Northumberland, England, NOT Scotland.
Otherwise, I would also have concerns over the environmental impact of the proposal, and it's interesting to note that there is only talk of things going south on the proposed waterway. What ebenfits would the North benefit realise from this scheme?

Jonathan Reid, 3 May 2013

Thanks for using my photo. Just for the records to achieve the license rules:

Photographer: Raimond Spekking
License: cc-by-sa-3.0

Raimond Spekking, 3 May 2013

How strange that this idea should come up just after I have finished reading the life of Thomas Telford, by LTC Rolt.
Telford's canals were the most advanced constructions of his day, but even the biggest, the magnificent "Caledonian" and the mighty "Gotha" have proved too small for commercial use. The 24 m proposed width for the new North-South waterway may be quickly overwhelmed by fast growing traffic, and, unless enlarged,the new canal could suffer a similar fate to its pioneering forbears, and be relegated to pleasure use.

David Miles, 3 May 2013

Yes, Jonathan, we imagine that the first stage would run from Kielder to Leeds, but for future phases, we would need more water supply, so envisage Kielder being fed from Lochs and reservoirs in the Southern Uplands. We would look at the potential to link this with pumped storage power (like Dinorwig), the most efficient and responsive way of storing electricity, which would help boost and balance the increasing but variable supply of renewable electricity.

More construction materials are taken from England to Scotland than the other way. Scotland imports more manufactured goods from England than it exports south. This includes cars.

We are looking at negotiating the route from Leeds to Manchester, either on the main route or as a spur. This section has the potential to link the Humber Port in the East with Peel Port facilities in the North West. This would be achieved by bridging the gap between the Manchester Ship Canal and the Aire and Calder Canal. This would allow for movement between the Humber and Port of Liverpool. Additionally the route could be used as a through route from Ireland to the Rhine region. With good port to port connections this route may represent considerable opportunity for container shipments.

David Weight, 4 May 2013

If London wishes to discuss trade with Welsh Water instead, it is about a quarter or a third as far to London.

Can we get real? The UK is a near-bankrupt country which keeps claiming that it can't afford even to provide poor peoples' basic needs for food, hence the rapid rise of charitable food banks, yet it keeps coming up with boondoggles.

Somehow, we have to provide 60 M people with food, warm shelter, clothing, plus life's better things, in competition with better-run and/or more resource-rich economies - to name but a few, Canada, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway & Sweden. We've burned most of our N Sea oil and gas and we don't have a viable strategy - well not a visible one - to pay for imported replacements, even if the climate change wasn't a problem.

Meanwhile, renewable electricity investment of the type still being talked about as a panacea is costly enough that it won't provide a valid alternative to fossil fuels. The cost if we did invest £ trillions in this area would simply help keep the economy depressed.

More sensible efforts would look at inter alia seriously low-cost energy investments, biological carbon sequestration and possibly electrification / renationalisation of existing railway routes. But it isn't so newsworthy, is it?

Rural energy user, 4 May 2013

I agree with Rural Energy User. Our infrastructure in the UK is beyond poor. A simple improvement to the rail system woudl be great. I cannot imagine that building a 24 m wide canal is the best means of cooling HVDC cabling.

The question as to whether water needs to be moved from Scotland to London... Interesting... Given that in Scotland 2000 people are Dying each year from COLD, perhaps the "government" will find it fitting that 2000 people a year die in London due to lack of clean water?

Christopher Reay, 5 May 2013

The US intercontinental rail-roads were funded by capturing a tiny part of the increase in land use value along the route.

The Telegraph has just documented the massive windfall from public investment coming to people - through no discernible effort on their part - who happen to live along the Crossrail route

It is completely straightforward to capture a small part of the increase in amenity value along the route and thereby fund the project.

Done right, this could be a 'Linear Eden' and part of a UK Natural Grid. Done wrong, using developer subsidies (and consultants' gravy trains) like Tax Incremental Finance it would probably be a linear Dubai.

Fortunately banks are in no fit state to fund it, but there is plenty of capital out there for direct investment - within a Linear Development Corporation - in future land rental value increases.

Chris Cook, 5 May 2013

At last a blue / green alternative Plan B for HS2 and if connections can be across the Pennines then it creates the opportunity to connect a frieght route from the Humber to the Mersey Sea2Sea (C2C) and a 'slow (but commercially viable) boat to Yorkshire' would become a great reality.

Mark Penny, 19 May 2013

All roads lead to London once again. I rather like the idea of that canal and I do pick up on most of the positives it would bring. However I can't help looking at the map and thinking that once more we have a big project proposed that is all about sucking more and more resources into London. The way population is increasing in the SE beggars any sense of rationality and that is why there are water problems. Who is doing anything about this? Surely encouraging resources Northwards and population growth up there will do more to see a more balanced and prosperous nation? But no, London wants and other regions are sucked (dry in this case). I still support that canal idea, it's good, but let's also deal properly with why the SE is running out of water and stop this insane population increase down there.

Dr MJ Smith, 14 June 2013

Good morning David Weight, please excuse this approach. I read with enormous interest the paper covering the UK Canal system. I'm leading a project to open a University Technical College in Leeds that will meet the growing demand for real skills in the low carbon technology field. UTCs are employer led both in terms of curriculum and also broadening projects. In some way, I see a link between the Canal, its proposed passage through Leeds and our school curriculum/requirement for broadening projects. A formal link would be ideal. Is it possible to talk? If not, would there be any chance of Aecom supporting the School in some way? Perhaps an articulation of the kinds of skills that would be needed for such a fantastic project?
Be good to hear from you – my email is
Jack Rickard MBE

Jack Rickard, 6 August 2013

This modernised revival of Pownall's canal idea is very interesting with huge opportunities for business and leisure.
It would transform the country and, as well as everything else, give us a 400 mile walking route and cycle path!
Start tomorrow, please.

Andrew Brown

andrew brown, 13 August 2013

This is the kind of utopia, we would all love. But how can we afford it, the establishment keeps telling us we are broke, and austerity is the only future we have. Maybe they will tax the disabled further to pay for it?

Lynne Noble, 1 May 2015

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