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Business of the House

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:37 pm on 26th March 2013.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Deputy Leader, Liberal Democrats 7:37 pm, 26th March 2013

Thirty years ago this month, I made my maiden speech. I want to make two brief introductory points, and then spend a couple of minutes on the subject on the Order Paper.

First, I want to say thank you to all the people who, for all the time that we have all been here, have looked after us so well in this place: not only the staff employed by the Palace, but the staff who work for us, without whom we could not do our job. If that is not enough and if Members have nothing better to do when the debate finishes, we are celebrating my having been here 30 years, and everyone is very welcome to come to the Attlee Suite for a drink. We are there until 9 o’clock. I want to couple with that a thanks to my head of office, George Turner, who is retiring and going to other things, having seen through the last general election and the first half of this Parliament. I am very grateful to him for his work.

Secondly, I was prompted to say something on a subject that has nothing to do with the main one: the Revenue and Customs consultation on whether tax offices should be closed or a face-to-face service should continue. I just want to make a very simple point. Many of us can use the internet and e-mail, but many constituents—not just the elderly—sometimes need to talk to somebody. I make a plea that the Government understand that, whether with careers, benefits or tax advice, doing it on the phone or via the internet is not always the answer. We must make sure that we keep face-to-face provision.

The substantive issue I want to address is the Thames tunnel proposed by Thames Water to deal with London’s sewage. I have been campaigning to clean up the Thames all my political life. Our sewers are overflowing. The wonderful Victorian sewer system cannot cope with the vast size of London and the now increasingly intermittent and heavy rain. As colleagues will know, every time it rains, water pours through the drains and gutters and floods the sewers, which overflow into the Thames. Some 83 million cubic metres of storm water, mixed with raw sewage—a horrible figure—went into the Thames last year. That hardly bears thinking about. The European Community has taken action. It is prosecuting the UK for failing to meet the terms of our waste water directive. I, like all other colleagues with riverside constituencies or in the Thames Water catchment area, have therefore questioned what the solution is.

The current solution is to pour millions of tonnes of concrete into building a super-sewer through the Thames to intercept the outflows from the sewerage system. That will be very expensive, costing an average of £80 a year for all of Thames Water’s household customers, and it will be hugely disruptive. In my constituency, for example, one site might be worked on for up to seven years. In addition, this solution deals with only one problem. It will efficiently keep sewage out of the Thames, but it will do nothing else.

Other countries across the world are doing things differently now. Places such as Detroit and Philadelphia and places in Europe started to think about building tunnels but have realised that greener alternatives may be better. Instead of building a big tunnel, Philadelphia now has small interventions: much more porous surfaces on roads, drives and car parks; and smaller sewage collection tanks across the city, rather than in a central place. People in those places believe that what they call a blue-green solution is a better solution and it allows parks to flourish, with the transformation of the city into a wholly greener environment. Such a solution also produces many more jobs at the lower skill levels more quickly than one big tunnel project does. Philadelphia and London may not be the same, but Greater Philadelphia has a huge population, just as London does.

I have had helpful engagement with colleagues from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Treasury and with the Minister for Government Policy. My plea to the Government is that we look at the blue-green experiences elsewhere. We should look at what has happened in Philadelphia and other cities. It is not too late to have an alternative to a super-sewer down the middle of the Thames. I hope that we can pursue an alternative. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will relay back to Ministers that that is very much supported by the community and that the Thames tunnel can be replaced by a greener, more sustainable and more cost-effective solution. Happy Easter to you, Mr Speaker, and do not forget the drink later, if you are thirsty.