River Thames

– in the House of Lords at 1:43 pm on 23rd February 2000.

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Photo of Lord Greenway Lord Greenway Crossbench 1:43 pm, 23rd February 2000

rose to call attention to the future use of the River Thames for both commercial and leisure purposes; and to move for Papers.

My Lords, perhaps I may say at the outset that, as two noble Lords who were due to speak have scratched, I hope the House will indulge me if I stray a little over my 15-minute allotment.

The Thames has played a pivotal role in London's history from the earliest times. It is a river steeped in history and it has provided not only an easy means of transport but also a vital link with the trade routes of the world. London's greatness was built on trade, and for many years that trade flowed both outwards and inwards through what was the largest port and dock system in the world.

Sadly, the world has moved on since then, and the shipping revolution of the 1960s--of which containerisation is the most widely recognised aspect--moved traffic downstream, nearer to the sea, allowing such ports as Felixstowe and the rebuilt ports on the near Continent to develop.

My reasons for introducing this debate are twofold. First, with the election of London's new mayor only a few months away, the more publicity we can bring to matters fluvial the better. Some of us failed to get a separate river strategy included in the Greater London Authority Act; however, the new mayor, whoever he or she may be, will be free to bring forward a separate strategy for the Thames. Failing that, the mayor will have a duty to,

"the desirability of promoting and encouraging the use of the River Thames safely".

My second reason is to give the House an opportunity to discuss matters relating to the Thames more fully than was possible during the passage of the GLA Bill. Anyone who has travelled down the Thames recently--and I did so just before Christmas--can have no doubt that it is not being used to its full potential and as such is something of a wasted asset. Although my Motion mentions commerce and leisure activities in particular, these inevitably include other factors such as safety and transport. In addition, I am sure that your Lordships will raise other topics of interest as the debate progresses.

I turn first to commercial matters. London is still a large port and we still have the enclosed dock system at Tilbury, now run privately by Forth Ports, with its adjacent riverside grain and container terminals. The container terminal, jointly operated by Forth Ports, Associated British Ports and P&O, is just embarking on the construction of a second berth. The Port of London Authority lost a large slice of its revenue last year when Shell decided to close its Shellhaven oil refinery. However, the recent announcement that Shell has chosen P&O Ports, a subsidiary of our leading shipping company, as its preferred partner to develop the site, with a new container port and roll-on/roll-off facility, is indeed welcome; nevertheless, that is still several years ahead. Incidentally, there are still several very viable roll-on/roll-off terminals on the Thames, the nearest to central London being situated at Deptford. I am sure that we shall hear more about the Port of London Authority from the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox. On behalf of all of us, perhaps I may congratulate the noble Baroness on her recent elevation to the position of first lady vice-chairman of that august body.

One of the fastest growing and most successful areas of shipping today is cruising. London and the River Thames are no strangers to this form of leisure activity and small cruise ships have visited the Pool of London for many years. Only some five years ago, Tilbury international cruise terminal attracted some 70 cruise calls, many by large passenger ships. Unfortunately, that time coincided with the decision by the port of Dover, faced with a potential loss of traffic from the Channel Tunnel, to diversify into cruising, as a result attracting most of Tilbury's business. The bulk of the traffic has never returned. There is a scheme to build a new cruise terminal at Greenwich as part of the Deptford Creek development. However, lack of funding is causing problems and I think it will be several years before anything happens. It is worth mentioning that the average size of cruise ships visiting northern Europe in the summer months is growing and the turning circle just opposite the Millennium Dome is a potentially limiting factor.

Waste disposal has been a commercial success story so far as the Thames is concerned. For 15 years or so, a large proportion of London's waste has been quietly and efficiently taken down-river by barge to landfill sites at Rainham and Mucking in Essex. I had the opportunity a few years ago to look at the Rainham operation run by Cleanaway and did the trip back up-river to Westminster with an empty barge train. It was a most illuminating experience. Three years ago, Westminster council contracted to move a large proportion of its tonnage away from the river in order to make use of spare capacity in the Bermondsey incinerator. However, the opening hours did not match the times required by the council and much of the waste material proved too bulky to pass through the grates. The result was that, in several stages, more than 100,000 tonnes of waste per year has been returned to river disposal. In total, more than 800,000 tonnes--over 20 per cent--of London's rubbish is moved by river every year, equating to over 100,000 lorry movements. I submit that that is a very proper use of the Thames.

Concerns exist as to future landfill capacity, but two years ago Cleanaway attained planning permission for an extra 15 million cubic metres at Rainham, which will give the site at least another 10 years' operation. That will buy a modicum of time for new waste disposal technology to be found in the interim.

As things stand, the other operator, Cory Environmental, which transports even larger quantities of waste down-river--something like 600,000 tonnes a year--from the western riverside, the City of London and Tower Hamlets, will be forced to close down its site at Mucking in October 2002. That was the deadline set originally by the GLC. Cory has tried to extend it, so far without success, but after two public inquiries Essex County Council is adamant that it does not want any more of London's rubbish. Cory has been unable so far to obtain planning permission for an incinerator sited down-river. I believe that a realistic, co-ordinated and sustainable waste strategy is needed urgently if London is to resolve its impending waste crisis. But that approach needs to address the transport and treatment of London's waste, including making the best use of strategic assets like the River Thames.

The one area of commercial activity on which I have not yet touched, but which I regard as most important, is transport. Some 100 years ago London County Council introduced its so-called penny ferries--small paddle steamers--which turned out to be a commercial failure. Since then many other schemes have been tried: the river buses built for the Festival of Britain, Russian hydrofoils, and, more recently, fast catamarans. All have failed in spite of some hefty subsidies and that has left a rather bad taste in the mouth.

More recently, wash has been cited as a problem. Some years ago I took one of the fast catamaran ferries to Docklands. The craft reached its full potential speed for only about three minutes. When I asked what was the point of having a fast craft to make that trip I was told that there was a barge here and something else there and the catamaran had to slow down. Some of us recall when the Thames was commercially busy and permanently rough. No one then made a fuss about wash. There has been a good deal of design work carried out recently in Australia to develop fast low-wash catamarans.

New services to the Dome, which has one of the newest piers on the river, are just beginning to start up. We all hope that they will be successful. But if we are ever to achieve a real breakthrough in river transport we must be bold, which is not (I hasten to add) something that those who govern us are particularly good at. The new mayor should be a person who is capable of making bold decisions, and I believe that people would respect him or her more for being so. We have heard much talk of integrated transport policies, but where does the river lie in all this? To create a really effective ferry service requires boldness, commitment and, above all, money. Those three matters usually induce wobbly knees in any government.

Perhaps I may be permitted to put forward a bold suggestion of my own. I should like to see a large part of the peninsular on which the Dome stands levelled and turned into a giant car park. It is ideally placed at the entrance to the Blackwall tunnel and the start of the main trunk road to Kent (A2). Combined with a fast and regular ferry service with integrated ticketing to central London, and taking only 10 to 15 minutes, it would help to reduce the present horrendous traffic levels in the Blackheath, Lewisham and the Old Kent Road areas. Anyone who has recently travelled down the river cannot have failed to notice the mushrooming housing developments, which in turn mean more potential commuters.

A huge park-and-ride scheme would benefit all--commuters, shoppers and theatre-goers alike--and go some way towards reducing traffic level. In time the scheme could be extended to other areas of the river. When this debate finishes, I shall drive to Gravesend to see friends. That journey can take up to two hours in rush hour. How I wish I could do it by river in less than an hour!

Another possible future potential is the water taxi. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, has scratched because I believe that he intended to say something about that. Many noble Lords may have seen the film "Shakespeare in Love" which contained an amusing incident involving a rowing water taxi. Only last night the Lord Mayor, in addressing the Parliamentary Maritime Group, apologised for not arriving by river. He would have found such a facility extremely useful.

For the future well-being of the Thames both commerce and leisure must co-exist. I do not agree with those who wish to see all commercial traffic banned from the river. However, it cannot be denied that one of the reasons the river is now much cleaner than it used to be--a fact that we all appreciate--is that the level of up-river commercial activity has fallen off dramatically.

I turn now to leisure matters. The upper reaches of the Thames have always been used for boating leisure activities. It is important to stress how much business--boat-building and repair yards, marinas and sailing and rowing clubs--is involved. Traditionally, not many leisure activities occurred on the lower reaches because the river was simply too busy for small craft. However, new uses are being found, for example water sports are now being pursued in the old Royal Docks. Only recently a new boathouse, the largest in Europe with a capacity to house 98 rowing eights, was opened in the Royal Albert Dock.

Some of your lordships will recall that happy day some 10 years ago (perhaps longer) when both Houses took part, with great gusto and a lot of laughs, in a rowing regatta just outside this House. I remind noble Lords that every June your Lordships' yacht club challenges the House of Commons yacht club to a race on the Thames from Westminster Boating Base near Dolphin Square. That does much to encourage young people to take an interest in boating.

Undoubtedly the main leisure activity involving tourism is the use of pleasure boats. There used to be a motley collection of old up-river launches and retired ferries, but in the past few years considerable sums of money--something of the order of £25 million--have been spent on upgrading the fleet. We now have a modern and efficient fleet of vessels, many of them stable catamarans. Interestingly, they now have a year-round capability which hitherto was missing.

Tourism and leisure have already made a substantial contribution to the life of the river and its economy. The Thames Passenger Services Federation believes that with government support this activity has the potential to double. During the passage of the GLA Bill I raised the fears of some operators about the regulation of river tourist traffic by the new London River Services, an offshoot of London Transport. I refer in particular to the continued recognition of agreements made with the Port of London Authority when it held responsibility for piers. The Minister, none other than the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, himself, gave an assurance that he would look into this matter. Recent evidence that LRS is now considering tourism services more fully is a welcome move in the right direction, and it is to be hoped that that can be built upon.

To enable all forms of river leisure activity to be carried out it is vitally important that proper access to the river be maintained. Piers and landing slips must be preserved. With so much property development going on there has been a tendency for access to be lost. I readily pay tribute to the work being done in this area and to the promotion of ferry services by the Cross-River Partnership, an influential body which includes the Corporation of London, London Transport and the PLA among others.

I said at the outset that safety considerations were an integral part of the future well-being of the Thames. Your Lordships will be aware that only last week, acting on the recommendations of Lord Justice Clarke, who carried out an exhaustive and highly commendable report into river safety in a very short time, the Deputy Prime Minister announced a public inquiry into the loss of the excursion ship "Marchioness". I do not wish to comment in any way on that unfortunate incident. However, I should like to raise one or two broader points regarding river safety arising out of Lord Justice Clarke's inquiry. Her Majesty's Government acted with commendable alacrity in immediately indicating their acceptance of the 44 recommendations in the Clarke report. I believe that 10 have already been implemented. The action plan published last week includes a consultation paper on alcohol consumption afloat and the funding of a formal safety assessment on search-and-rescue facilities on the Thames and the provision of experimental life-saving equipment at various Thames-side locations. That is all very laudable.

I do not believe that anyone would disagree with a ban on drinking by the skippers and crew of passenger craft. However, I urge the Government to think very carefully before they impose a blanket ban on private craft. Drinking on private boats is not a major problem and individual offenders are few and far between. The police have a hard enough time enforcing drink-drive laws on land and I do not see how, even with the help of the PLA in the case of the Thames, they could begin effectively to police such a matter on the river or in coastal waters. And with an election not too far ahead now, I think that the Government would be unwise to upset the 9 million or so people who go boating every year.

On the search and rescue question, I urge caution before setting up any separate organisation for the Thames. I think that a proper look at what equipment already exists and an effective means of co-ordinating that equipment in response to accidents is the most sensible way to proceed. I do not think that present traffic levels warrant such an organisation, although we all hope that traffic levels will grow in the future. Perhaps a permanent SAR committee such as the one that covers coastal waters would be one way to proceed initially.

One advantage of the new focus on safety is that the responsibility for safety on the Thames, which in the past has been a somewhat grey area between the Port of London Authority and the police, will at last be resolved. The PLA has made considerable improvements to navigational safety over the past few years, including updating the Thames Navigation Service at Gravesend. But it lacks funds for safety. Funding is another aspect adversely affecting the rive police, now part of the Metropolitan Police Force based at Wapping. Its workforce has been drastically cut; it is down now to 89 officers compared with 200 when the "Marchioness" incident occurred 10 years ago. It has just had to lose two of its elderly launches. Nevertheless, it still has a reasonable and viable fleet. River police are highly trained in all nautical aspects and it would be a tragedy to lose them at a time when river traffic may well be starting to increase. The London Fire Brigade also took delivery last year of two fast response craft which can be used for safety purposes.

There are many other topics which I could mention: the Thames walkways; the difficulties of planning with many riparian boroughs involved; and the environment comes into the question but I know that the topic will be covered later. One thing is certain. It is the main reason why some of us sought a Thames strategy in the first place. So many disparate bodies and interests are involved that there badly needs to be a central co-ordinator--a headbanger if you like--to bring some sort of order out of potential chaos. I believe that the new mayor should be that person and I fervently hope that he or she will take that task firmly to heart. Perhaps the fact that Mr Dobson took a cruise on the river immediately after winning his party's nomination recently was a good omen.

I look forward to hearing the contributions of other noble Lords and the response of the Minister. The Thames is one of London's greatest assets. It is a spectacular asset and one which I think we should all like to see returned to its rightful place as a bustling highway for both commercial and leisure activities. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

Photo of Baroness Wilcox Baroness Wilcox Conservative 2:02 pm, 23rd February 2000

My Lords, perhaps I may first declare an interest. I am the vice chairman of the Port Of London Authority, and have been a member of that authority for six years. I am grateful, therefore, to the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, for introducing this debate on the future use of the Thames for commercial and leisure purposes. It gives me the opportunity to share a little of what I have learnt over the past few years. I know the river quite well, physically, because I have walked its 186-mile path in its entirety. I thoroughly recommend that to your Lordships. The path is now completely open and it is a very nice walk, especially during the winter months.

Our great metropolitan capital owes its very existence to the River Thames. London's foundations were laid not far from this House near London Bridge where the Romans linked access to the banks through the marshes to a ford across the river.

In modern transport parlance, London was Britain's first intermodal cargo facility when goods were transferred from water to land and vice versa. From these small beginnings, the great port integrated totally with the capital itself and grew to a peak of 61 millions tonnes of movements in 1964 to become the United Kingdom's largest port. Today, London is still home to a great and efficient modern port, with more than 50 million tonnes of cargo passing through each year. That may not be obvious from where we are situated here today, but if noble Lords visit Tilbury, Dartford or Purfleet further down the river, they will see what I mean.

As cargo ships have grown in size, they have moved down river away from the Pool of London and the old enclosed docks, so that most Londoners no longer experience the workings of the port in their daily lives. The port still thrives, but the recent decision, as we heard, to close the oil refinery at Shell Haven has created the opportunity for a huge expansion in container handling facilities on the Thames--the most exciting prospect to emerge for many years.

The prosperity of London as an economic community historically has depended on the Port of London. It is still a great wealth creator, providing employment for 37,000 people in port-related activities, and adding £2.7 billion in gross value to the economy of the capital and the south-east of England. With its modern road and rail links to the rest of the nation, the port surely is a national asset, not merely a regional one.

The PLA has played, and continues to play, a leading role world-wide in technological innovation and the advancement of the global ports industry. Despite the tragic 1989 "Marchioness" disaster, there is a good safety record on our river, as was indicated in Lord Justice Clarke's report into safety on the Thames published last December. However, it is obvious that we must be vigilant and do all we can to ensure that such a disaster never happens again.

It is often overlooked that more than 95 per cent of the materials and goods entering or leaving this country travel by sea, the mode of transport least damaging to the environment. There are approximately 90 United Kingdom sea ports handling cargo, of which 38 are regarded as major. London regularly handles in excess of 50 million tonnes of cargo, and accounts for 12.4 per cent of all non-oil goods shipped through the UK ports.

I turn now to the aspect of the Thames which is perhaps most familiar to your Lordships. The Thames is the lung from which London draws its breath. That was not always so, as this place will have recorded one and a half centuries ago. It is the backdrop for a significant part of our tourism industry that provided London with £9 billion of visitor spend in 1998, a truly important element of London's economy.

The disposal of the domestic waste created by that industry and by the population of London in general is one of the key issues that will face the mayor on election. The noble Lord, Lord Greenway, has already alluded to the fact that the Thames plays its part in relieving the capital of this problem by enabling 800,000 tonnes of waste to be transported quietly and cleanly by barge to disposal sites down-river each year. It will be clear to noble Lords what a beneficial effect that has on reducing lorry miles on London's roads. It is vital that at least as much of London's waste continues to move by water in the future.

Today we are considering the future of the busiest inland waterway in the UK. Recent investment in commercial jetties, piers, passenger craft and riverside cargo terminals, and cargo handling equipment has amounted to several hundreds of millions of pounds. The will to make the most of this natural asset has never been in doubt. On the other hand, too many property developments encroaching on the port environment with riverside apartments and offices could pose a threat to the river community, its commerce and its very existence. I believe that a balance needs to be struck between landside private enjoyment and the commercial, passenger and leisure uses of the river.

The key to the future lies in the application of the policy implemented by a previous Secretary of State, John Gummer, who initiated the protection of strategic wharves in the upper part of the tidal Thames between the Thames Barrier and Teddington Lock. That ensures that proper consideration is given to safeguard port land for the greater long-term good of London and the south-east before any redevelopment proposal of vacant riverside sites is permitted.

We must not let this vital issue be pushed to one side by short-term expediency. The riparian authorities are well aware of their responsibilities and must stand up to the pressures exerted on them so that the working Thames continues to operate for their ultimate benefit.

The industrial image of the river is the very one that has been its heart for centuries. Let us give the modern port industry on the Thames the ability to live and to work in harmony with its neighbours, based on the concept of sustainable development to help to make London a great place in which to live and work. I believe that a strategic approach must take into consideration the hopes and expectations of future generations of Londoners and Thames' users. I also believe that using the Thames for freight transport is the key to removing much of the burden from our congested roads. I urge your Lordships to lend support to the greater use of the Thames for cargo and passenger transportation and to give encouragement to the river-based commercial enterprises to develop and flourish.

A separate strategy for the Thames by the mayor of London would touch the very heart of our great city and I am delighted to use this opportunity to support the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, in his call for that.

Photo of Lord Watson of Richmond Lord Watson of Richmond Liberal Democrat 2:10 pm, 23rd February 2000

My Lords, I, too, begin by declaring an interest--or, more precisely, two. I am chairman of the Father Thames Trust, a charity founded in 1996 largely as a result of the extraordinary tenacity and vision of its secretary, Robert Staton. That vision and the remit of the charity is,

"to help realise the potential of the Thames through conservation, restoration and the enhancement of its natural resources and noteworthy buildings".

The second best specific interest, but one strongly felt, is that since the 1960s I have had the great fortune and privilege to live next to the Thames at Richmond and, from the front of my house, to observe its changing moods and endlessly fascinating scene. Sometimes its mood is solemn and dangerous. It has an ability to shimmer; hence the name "Sheen". Sometimes it has an almost Mediterranean aspect and sometimes it is astonishingly calm. One of my bolder neighbours in Richmond, the writer and broadcaster Bamber Gascoigne, is known to swim regularly from the Richmond bank to the Twickenham bank. He is oddly reminiscent of Chairman Mao going down the Yangtze and almost as dangerous. However, he is one of the many individuals whose enthusiasm has had a great deal to do with the renaissance of the Thames. We must remember that he has, in his own parlance, helped to give the River Thames its starter for 10!

During the 1960s, the river was dead or dying. It certainly looked a non-starter in terms of a commercial future. There was an enormous question mark hanging over the future of the docks and, in terms of leisure, its potential had not been fully understood. It was a very polluted river. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, referred to the odours of the Thames which used to penetrate this House and another place. It is not malodorous in that way, but the 17th century "Water poet", John Taylor, described the Thames as "a toad brown river" and bewailed the fact that,

"as a monument to our disgraces, the river's too foul in many places".

Today, there are more than 100 species of fish in the Thames and not just Bamber Gascoigne but other less brave souls can swim in it with great pleasure and at no great risk.

I used to keep a boat on the river called "The Floating Voter". I named it in hope that the floating voters of Richmond would support me, which they never did in large enough numbers, to get into the other place. However, I am pleased to say that since then the floating voters around the Thames have increasingly become enthusiastic about the river and have supported it. In the case of my charity, the Father Thames Trust, that is the key to the amount of money we have been able to raise to advance access to the river, to monitor it and to educate people to an enthusiasm and realisation of its value.

Another important date in the renaissance of the river was 1994 when the Thames landscape strategy produced its 100 year environmental plan for large stretches. That has won tremendous support. Certainly, on my stretch of the river there has been the active participation of many boroughs, including Kingston. It is interesting to remember that during the 1960s, when so much development was taking place in Kingston, it almost forgot that it was "on-Thames" and turned its back on the river. Now there is great emphasis on reaccess to the river and understanding what it can do for the town.

The key of understanding what the river can give us in London is of huge importance. After all, what would London be without the river? It is almost impossible to imagine the character and personality of London without the river. Cities in continental Europe--for example, Brussels--which decided to put their rivers underground lost character, personality and definition in immeasurable terms.

I want to draw attention to two key future aspects, one of which has been mentioned. Although the process appears to be increasingly painful and in some cases unedifying, we are eventually to have an elected mayor of London. Of course, I accept my own party's candidate and our processes of democracy have been without criticism. When in place, the mayor must surely grasp the strategic importance of the river to London as a whole in transport and in leisure. It is a great new opportunity. The mayoralty is, in a sense, a new platform for London.

The second point relates to the Millennium Dome. It is astonishing and a great pity that somehow in the construction of the Dome and its themes, the most obvious, which stem from its very location--namely, Old Father Thames and Old Father Time--were not brought together into something which would have given a theme not only to its strangely themeless launch but also to its future success.

It is strange because, after all, the construction of the Dome has revitalised a derelict part of the river. That is a great gain for London and for the river. However, when one emerges from the Underground station to visit the Dome there is no view of the river. You cannot see the river. What, instead, you see, and then smell, with increasing impact, is McDonalds. You would not know that you were on the river because you are immediately funnelled into the great tent and disappear inside. Yet, within yards of the Millennium Dome is the tide and time of the nation. I hope that even now it is not too late for the Belgian from Euro Disney to grasp the real potential and benefit of the Thames to the Dome and to make much, much more of it.

In the river, we have London's greatest natural asset, its greatest open space and an extraordinary inheritance. Before the debate, I was reminded of the lines that the Rhine is water and the Mississippi is muddy water, but the Thames is liquid history. In the past, a great deal of that history was rather too physically present in the river. However, the fact is that the River Thames links our past, present and future in this great city. I am hopeful that, in the years to come, that asset will be increasingly realised, that people's enthusiasm for it will grow, that its usefulness will be multiplied and that its future will become assured.

Photo of Lord St John of Bletso Lord St John of Bletso Crossbench 2:19 pm, 23rd February 2000

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Greenway for having introduced this debate. The noble Lord comes from a distinguished background. As chairman of the Marine Society, he is well qualified to speak on this subject. It is also appropriate that today's debate is taking place almost a year after my noble kinsman Lord Luke introduced a similar debate in this House which raised many issues, many of which have been taken up over the past year.

Government initiatives to promote greater use of the Thames, both for leisure and commercial purposes, especially in the run-up to the opening of the Millennium Dome, have expedited much-needed attention to making better use of the Thames. Common concerns expressed by those who contributed to the debate of my noble kinsman Lord Luke were that there were inadequate points of entry on to the river and the need to upgrade the many piers which, over the years, had fallen into disrepair. Because the internal traffic on the Thames had declined by 43 per cent between 1987 and 1997, it was generally felt that the river had been an under-utilised resource and that the Thames was one of London's great wasted assets.

At the time, many recommendations were made as to how to maximise use of the Thames. I was therefore heartened by the speech last year of the Minister for London, Nick Raynsford, at the launch of the new river express service to the Millennium Dome, when he said that, this year, the river would regain its rightful role at the heart of London's transport system.

London First, the business organisation which promotes London for international investors, has been championing for several years the cause for greater use of the river, in particular through the upgrading of piers and the need for more services. Clearly, for businesses to succeed in London, there needs to be the most efficient transport system possible, matched with quality of life. Both those needs can be promoted by greater use of the river.

The noble Lord, Lord Greenway, referred to the Cross River Partnership, which has been responsible for raising much of the necessary funds for the upgrading of several of the most important piers, which are now being managed by London River Services. Certainly, the Thames 2000 initiative has already been successful in revitalising river passenger services, especially to the Dome.

The new and refurbished piers at Waterloo for the millennium wheel--the London Eye--Embankment Pier, Blackfriars and the Tower of London have been a major boost to handling the increased leisure traffic. However, there has been some criticism of the manner in which London River Services have managed the service, in particular as regards the new piers and over the granting of exclusive rights for the three key routes. That has effectively resulted in the stifling of competition and has naturally annoyed other operators who wish to take traffic on those specific routes.

One problem the new Thames river-boat services will inevitably face is how to make those ventures a commercial success. Many others have tried and failed to operate river-boat services over the years. In the main, this has been due to the expense of maintaining vessels on such a swift-flowing river. However, despite this drawback, it is essential that those who provide such services on the river are given the flexibility to choose the routes they want to operate and not to be restricted by London River Services.

The noble Lord, Lord Watson of Richmond, spoke with great passion about the stretch of the river close to his home. I understand from recent research that the Thames is now the cleanest metropolitan river in Europe, with 115 species of fish. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, referred to the Thames Path, which she has often enjoyed. I am sure that that enjoyment has been shared by many ramblers as well as cyclists. Furthermore, just as the extended Jubilee Line has sparked a property boom along the south side of the Thames, so too should the Central London "Hopper" service boost values of schemes overlooking or close to the new piers.

A number of new piers are in the process of being constructed by private contractors, including the Vauxhall Cross pier. I am sure that several Peers who have been buying private residences close to the Vauxhall Cross pier will benefit from the new structure. There are also the new Battersea and Chelsea Harbour piers. Unfortunately, for some time the developers of the Tate Gallery pier have been unsuccessful in trying to raise money for the proposed pier on Millbank. However, it is hoped that those funds will be forthcoming in the foreseeable future.

Many peers have spoken of the election of the new London mayor. That postholder, along with the GLA, will take on responsibility for strategic planning matters, many of which will obviously focus on the Thames. The consultation paper on the London mayor's planning role published in January this year gives clear guidelines to the key objectives for the spatial development strategy, which include promoting and encouraging greater use of the river.

When I last spoke on this subject, I based many of my arguments on the previous government's paper on strategic planning guidance for the Thames, published in February 1997. It is heartening that many of the concerns raised in that excellent report have now been addressed by the regeneration plans for the Thames. I hope that the Minister, when responding to today's debate, can give us further assurances of the measures to be taken to ensure that the Thames regains its rightful role at the heart of London's transport system.

Photo of Lord Selsdon Lord Selsdon Conservative 2:28 pm, 23rd February 2000

My Lords, last week there was a full moon. A few weeks ago there was an extremely big full moon, closer to the earth than ever before. Noble Lords will know that it is always best to plant peas and beans when the moon is rising and carrots and potatoes when the moon is falling. Perhaps noble Lords are wondering what the moon has to do with this debate. However, your Lordships will know that most of the speakers on this side of the House--my noble friend Lady Wilcox, my noble friend Lord Beaumont of Whitley and myself--are the only water signs speaking today. We are all Scorpios.

The relationship between the moon and water is most interesting, not only as regards vegetables, but in the days when, if one needed a strong mast for a ship, the wood would be cut from a tree only when the sap was rising, along with the moon. Of course, noble Lords will know that water is magnetic and we are made up in the main of water, as are the peas.

I was sitting in my bath one day, rather like Archimedes when he suddenly discovered specific gravity which could determine the level of gold in Hiero's crown. He said, "Eureka!". I said, "It's the moon that's the problem with the Thames". I wondered why I had said that. Then, as Masefield said, I thought of,

"the great street paved with water".

Of course, that was not said by John Burns, who was a great liberal. However, at that time he was having an argument with, I believe, an American about the Mississippi, which he called "liquid history". The Thames is, of course, liquid history.

But why is this great street not used? The answer is in the moon and the tides. The speed of the tides of seven knots or more and the moving up and down cause problems. The problems for the future of the Thames lie in the transport infrastructure. As your Lordships will know, I have been fortunate enough to be elected here. Therefore, I speak with some authority on this particular subject. Jane Austen said:

"The Baronets will not set the Thames on fire but there is not much harm in it".

I am a Baronet and I wish to do no harm. Disraeli said,

"She will set the Thames on fire".

Yet, Trollope said,

"Dr Netherspoon (or Netherbend) will never set the Thames on fire".

I believe that the Government tried to set the Thames on fire at the millennium but it did not work. One can set the world alight but one cannot set the Thames on fire.

There is a slight misunderstanding over the term "setting the Thames on fire". If the Thames was an original sieve that was used to sift grain and was made out of horse hair, a hard worker could sieve very quickly and the Temes would smoulder and burn. Most people cannot set the Thames on fire, which means that they are pretty useless.

Approximately 20 years ago I had a rather useless job. First, I was appointed by Peter Shore chairman of the Greater London and South-East Council for Sport and Recreation. I was responsible for sport and recreation in all of London, Surrey, Sussex and Kent. Because I was a Scorpio--a water sign--I liked the Thames and that was my undoing. I went to the GLC with my committee as we were eligible for grants. We set up "Thames Day"--a task force that was never disbanded. Thames Day was great fun. We blocked off the bridges with some difficulty--the PLA was not terribly pleased about that at the time as my noble friend Lady Wilcox was not there. We had speedboats which ran up and down, hitting bits of wood. We had fireworks and good fun. We had to negotiate with the lightermen who wanted some money upfront because we were a government quango (although I had tried to make it autonomous). In the end, they agreed to co-operate with us.

My own history and failures are considerable. My father, who liked motor racing and, sadly, died young, was a special constable who used to drive a speedboat up and down the Thames. He used to box and wrestle for charity in the Isle of Dogs. Rather like the Front Bench opposite, it was considered to be a good thing to punch up a hereditary Peer. He always used to lose. He was called the "White Eagle"--a dying breed. His six years of great pleasure led to my involvement in trying to create fun on the Thames, in London and everywhere. We have 85 active sports. However, the problem was the moon. I shall give an example.

Together with my noble friend Lord Geddes and a few others, I believed that I might make a fortune carrying out developments on the Thames. We built a hotel at Chelsea Harbour, which cost approximately £40 million. My only association with it is that I believe that my name appears somewhere on a napkin. However, the Gulf War occurred and we had no infrastructure because the river boats which were then being set up went to the places that people wanted to go but did not come from the places where they lived. Therefore, they were a disaster. I tried to help many of them to avoid going bust but it was a hopeless situation.

I bought a boat which I named "White Eagle" after my father. I used to pretend that I was a captain and my son was then appointed. With the help of the lightermen, we were fully trained. For two years we drove up and down the Thames. We would drive people to the Tower of London and tell them to board the Light Railway (which of course was not finished), go to Docklands to see what was happening there, go to Mudchute to see where the Great Eastern was built by Brunel, then go under the Brunel tunnel to Greenwich. We would pick them up by boat on the way back. The problem was that the Port of London Authority sometimes did not like us to park there. We had several problems because there is no speed limit on the Thames as far as Wandsworth Bridge and we could go flat out. One of our friends said that there was no difficulty about wash as long as one listened to the complaints. Many people tried to complain and to obtain grants or support or possibly sue because of the wash.

I loved that river. I shall give some examples of what could be achieved with some funds or a grant. We liked fishing but one could not fish in the Thames. My friend at that time, Sir Tufton Beamish, offered £100 to the first person to catch a salmon. Not long afterwards, he lost the £100. There were two Henry VIII graving docks near Greenwich which the council were intending to fill in. My team, who were quite bright and young, said, "Let's turn one of them into a fishing paradise. We'll put little poles around the numbers and stock it full of fish". We did so and people fished there 24 hours a day.

Next, he said that there was nowhere in London where one could gain a certificate for sub-aqua diving. A certain depth was required and the swimming pools were not deep enough. Therefore, we took the other graving dock and turned it into a sub-aqua training school. Not a great deal of money was involved. Then, the canoeists asked, "Can we go along on the top while the divers are underneath?" Those are examples of small ventures which created tremendous fun. As I was reporting to the noble Lord, Lord Shore, at that time, he has the credit for my failures!

Then, I was asked whether I would become involved in Docklands. We were building a hotel there which became a disaster. The boat which we ran also became a disaster, mainly due to the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, who, as Commodore of the House of Lords Yacht Club, suggested one day that "White Eagle" should be the guardship for the race between the Commons and the Lords. I believe that there was a rail strike and the Minister for Transport in another place was on one of the sailing teams. The cameras wanted to photograph him in a sailing boat while the race was taking place, and people were queuing to walk over the bridges.

My son was captain on that particular day, and the Thames is very shallow outside your Lordships' House. We were pushed by the cameras to move forwards and backwards and we hit a subterranean rock, or something similar, and one propeller broke. A plastic bag entered the air or water intake of the other engine, which then stopped. My son, who had been trained by the lightermen and was 18 years-old, was becoming slightly nervous. We hit something else, and a noble Baroness--who is not in her place, thank goodness, and whose name I shall not mention--was cannoned forward, knocked someone else over and the coffee was spilt. Then, unfortunately, another noble Baroness, who had said that she was a great sailor, suffered from what one might call "mal de Thames" and the heads were blocked. We then had to get the boat, with hardly any support, all the way to Tufts Boatyard. It cost me a fortune. Of course, I said that I would never do it again. Next year we shall go on ship once more.

I believe that such things should be fun. However, the problem throughout is infrastructure. It is very frightening to cope with the tides on that great highway at night. One can see how disaster can so easily occur. There is a problem with the height of the bridges. A lighterman knows how to go under a bridge, and it cost me quite a large number of drinks to be told how. It is very simple. One stands on the highest part of one's boat and, when one can see the underneath of the bridge, one can go under it perfectly safely. However, it is important to stand in the right way. To go under with the Thames travelling at perhaps six or seven knots, one's speed must be faster than that in order to maintain steerage-way. It is a difficult exercise.

That is one of the worries. If we are to get the Thames to come alive again, we must have infrastructure. That costs money. Your Lordships may remember that 20 years ago there was a plan to build a dome at Greenwich. It was to be for sport and recreational activities. If I look back at what has happened on the Boston waterfronts in America and right around the world, it is clear that most people produce a plan. They realise that it is a long-term exercise and that there must be a plan for the infrastructure. We made some fairly disastrous mistakes with Docklands because the infrastructure was not in place. As a result, the private sector fails, loses money and reputations collapse. The same could be said of that wonderful airport, City Airport. To begin with, it could not accommodate jets until the whispering jet came in, but there was no way of getting to it, it took hours to get there, and the contractors and developers found that they were losing money. That airport is a good airport and was a good idea. However, the only viable means of reaching it was the river, and because there were not enough Peers, as there are not in your Lordships' House today, we found that no water transport operation, however bright and enthusiastic the individuals were, could pay its way. It may be that there needs to be subsidy.

The GLC at that time was extraordinarily helpful and supportive. The PLA later came round to realising that its future did not lie solely in ports but in other areas of activity. The future of the Thames lies in leisure and the creation of an environment that makes life friendly. Over-development causes problems. There should not be any encroachment on it. A master plan should be drawn up by the new authority and discussed as soon as possible. Without the infrastructure, the moon will win and we will fail.

As I see my noble friend Lord Colwyn sitting beside me here, I recall one happy moment when my wife was organising a walk down Gabriel's Walk for all those people who had had hip replacements and had to walk a mile. It was pouring with rain, but my noble friend stood on Gabriel's Walk and, like the Angel Gabriel blowing his horn, led this gang of people down there almost like the Pied Piper.

I have had such fun on the river. I know it reasonably well. I went on a guide's course. I know why Lambeth Bridge is called Lambeth Bridge. Even my mother's ashes are sunk somewhere in the Thames between Westminster and Lambeth. She was the first lady to become Lord Mayor of Westminster. As I am about to sit down, I try to think who I can end with. It is 400 years since Spenser said,

"Sweet Thames, run swiftly, till I end my song".

Photo of Lord Beaumont of Whitley Lord Beaumont of Whitley Green

My Lords, Thomas Fuller, almost as long ago as the quotation which the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, has just recited to us, said:

"London oweth its greatness under God's divine providence to the well conditioned River of Thames".

From time to time it has not necessarily been well conditioned, although there have been other periods when it has been, as we have heard this afternoon. Under God's divine providence, as Thomas Fuller said, it will, we hope, be well conditioned again.

We are extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, for initiating this debate, in which we have heard a very considerable number of interesting speeches, not to mention the very entertaining speech of the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon.

It is quite clear that following last night's events and the good will of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, which we understand will be devoted to finding a solution to the problems of the mayoral election, my party now hopes to be quite well represented on the new authority. It is therefore very important that such an authority and the candidates for mayor should have a real policy as to what should happen to the Thames. This is a very important centrepiece for the future of London.

My party's candidate, Darren Johnson, has veered away from our usual concentration on green matters to suggest that we should have a "bluebelt" zone around the Thames, the equivalent of a greenbelt, to prevent inappropriate development. The Thames is an important resource for Londoners and ought to be given proper priority in the planning process. The area around the Thames cannot simply be regarded as another brownfield site. We need to have a clear strategy to protect the river, its foreshore and its hinterland. Such a strategy would involve the promotion of public access for pedestrians and cyclists.

It is also very important, as was said by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, that we should be able to be by the Thames; that we should be able to see it; that it should not be covered in; and that it should not have walls built around it so that we cannot be by it. Efforts to promote Thames walks are very important, as is public access for pedestrians and cyclists. Wildlife corridors, green space along the river, and a lot of the most important biodiversity of this whole area, which has been tended by nature authorities both under the old GLC and, more recently, under the continuing authorities, have been respected and preserved in order to ensure that any development on the Thames that is easy on the eye is sustainable and non-polluting.

We must also have a policy for promoting river-related activities, such as sailing, educational opportunities and walking. Many of your Lordships will remember the speeches made in your Lordships' House by Lord St Davids about the boys' clubs that he ran, which provided education and entertainment for numerous children who otherwise would have been rather starved of those things.

We need suitable river transport. I was very interested in the idea of the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, that we should use the site of the Dome as a massive park-and-ride facility, the ride being provided by boats on the Thames. That is very important. We must find a way of using the Thames for passenger traffic. There should be a stable company able to make certain that it can cover its costs and make a reasonable profit in order to continue producing that kind of service for the people of London. In addition, of course, we must protect the river from pollution; for example, pollution from radioactive discharges from the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment. We must look after our river.

Henry James said:

"Few European cities have a finer river than the Thames, but none certainly has expended more ingenuity in producing an ugly river-front".

That situation has improved slightly in recent years. I hope that it will improve to an even greater extent in the future. The whole look of the Thames and the waterfronts along the,

"five miles up and seven down", as Kipling described the beat of the Thames in front of London Town, should be protected, should be made fruitful, should be kept free from ugliness, and should remain,

"A thing of beauty [and] a joy for ever".

It was from Westminster Bridge that William Wordsworth celebrated his great view. We must strive for the kind of celebration of the Thames that the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, has so entertainingly given us this afternoon. There must be a real dedication to its use and enjoyment.

Photo of Baroness Thomas of Walliswood Baroness Thomas of Walliswood Liberal Democrat 2:50 pm, 23rd February 2000

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, for initiating this debate because not only has it brought before your Lordships' House a subject of enormous importance in itself but it has attracted also a number of diverse and interesting speeches. First, I must apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, for rising to speak when I did. I was told that he had been obliged to scratch from the debate. I am delighted that he has not done so, and I had no wish to be rude to him.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, I find the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, for the use of the land surrounding the Dome as an interchange facility to be extremely profitable and interesting. I hope that the Minister will be able to comment on that.

The noble Lord, Lord Greenway, reminded us of the efforts which we made during the passage of the GLA Bill. I was glad to hear that the problems in relation to the provision of tourism services on the Thames are on their way to being solved. I hope that that is true because in a sensible and well-ordered world there should not be a conflict between the use of the Thames for tourism and for transport.

Many noble Lords have referred to the history of the river and its importance for the purposes of transport. We have all seen films and read history books about the way in which the Thames connected the great palaces and castles which lie along its banks, from Windsor and Richmond to Westminster and the Tower, to mention only the most obvious ones. Of course, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Strand was not a road cut off from the river. On the contrary, it was on the riverbank and along it were the great town palaces of the nobles seeking to live as close as they could to the very place where we are today. They too used the river as a means of communication with their country houses further along.

We know from paintings and some of us know from earlier experience how busy the river used to be. The gains that we have made in terms of the cleanliness of the river should not be lost but we need to recapture some of that sense of "busyness" at the heart of our great city.

I have not come here primed with beautiful quotations but I may be one of the first people who set off for her first diplomatic post--at least, it was my husband's post, not mine--accompanied only by my few-weeks old baby, from Tilbury to Leningrad. We all returned in the same way from Leningrad to Tilbury, this time in the cabin which the then President Khrushchev had used for his famous trip to America where he beat his shoe on the table.

As a little girl, I lived near here, in St George's Square and later in Warwick Square. So my origins as a Londoner come from being very close indeed to the river. Subsequently, I had the great pleasure--as did my noble friend, which is where we met--of living in Richmond, although my stretch of the river was really at Kew rather than at Richmond itself.

Many activities still take place on or near the river--rowing, walking, cycling, tourism, transport, fishing, birdwatching and swimming. My noble friend referred to our mutual friend, Bamber Gascoigne, swimming in the river. I was interested to hear about that. I knew him in the days when he wrote an annual letter to the local paper complaining about dog turds on Richmond Green. He may still be doing that. That is also a very useful activity.

We need to support the initiative of Mr Prescott, which I hope will be carried forward, for a joint approach to how the river should be used and in particular how its transport activity should be increased. The noble Lord, Lord Greenway, gave an extremely detailed account of the cargo potential of the river, particularly in relation to waste disposal. If I remember correctly, that is to be the responsibility of the mayor. I am keen, as other noble Lords have expressed themselves to be, that use of the river for the movement of waste should be maintained and, if possible, increased because nothing is more disagreeable than the movement of heavy waste lorries through built-up areas. Movement along the Thames is cleaner and quieter than it can ever be along roads. When planning is being considered for future disposal sites along the banks of Thames, including any future incineration, I hope that those responsible will bear in mind the need to be able to access those sites from the river.

The Prescott initiative was important because it brought together so many different organisations in the public and private sectors. But it was not the first such initiative. The Thames Path--the walking fraternity's great benefit from the Thames--was also the result of initiatives taken many years ago and maintained over many years by a large number of local authorities. It is to their credit that they have overcome most of the difficulties which stood in their way to build that great walking facility all the way from Lechlade to the Thames Barrier. Sustrans has a similar, although not identical, initiative as regards cycling. Those are two initiatives which must be continued and encouraged by whichever local or regional authority is in charge of the river.

In the past two or three years, the initiative seems to have been fairly successful with regard to transport between this part of London--for the sake of argument, Westminster--down-river as far as the Dome. But we have heard less about transport up-river from Westminster. As other noble Lords have said, the increase of building of residential properties in particular and offices along the river gives some justification for hoping that those new transport systems will be profitable, as previous efforts have not been.

But that is almost as true in the upper reaches of the Thames--let us say, as far as Richmond--as it is lower down. The noble Lord, Lord St John, was right to say, in his wise words, that there is need for more investment, particularly in the upstream part of the river, for floating jetties to take on board the tidal problems to which the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, referred in his extraordinarily amusing, entertaining and profound speech which everyone enjoyed. The growth and sensitive use for transport purposes of the river upstream will become a major matter of importance for those in charge of the river.

I am committed to using the river as a transport route, going back to its original use. Nevertheless, that has certain downsides. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, mentioned the importance of the natural life, bird life, vegetable life, and so on, up and down the river. Much of that has increased over recent years. A new bird facility which has just been opened by the RSBP is of great value to Londoners and to the birds given sanctuary there. They can rest on their migrations and, of course, we are given great pleasure when we watch them.

It seems to me that the trick is to enable the growth of transport without transferring to the river all the disadvantages and disbenefits we suffer from road transport. That brings me to the question of standards in general and safety standards in particular. As the years go by, cars are obliged to become greener and greener, as are aeroplanes. Currently, what regulations apply to boats and ships? I have no idea, and I ask that in the true spirit of inquiry. I hope someone has thought about that point. If we are to increase the number of boats on the river--as is desirable--we must ensure that the river does not become steadily dirtier from the extra boats using it. We also want to ensure that they do not emit fumes that are bad for wildlife.

A second aspect to which I hope the Minister will feel able to respond is that of safety. The noble Lord, Lord Greenway, gave us a comprehensive account of the Clarke report and its various recommendations. He also mentioned the existing river services: the police and the London Fire Brigade. In terms of search and rescue, it is upon those two existing organisations that we ought to build the ability to deal with accidents. Those two organisations know the river well in all its intricacies and throughout its length.

However, can the Minister say whether the current situation with regard to the setting of safety standards is all that it should be? In view of the fact that the "Marchioness" inquiry will soon start, I hope that the Government will commit themselves to responding favourably to any recommendations that may come out of that inquiry in terms of standards of safety that should be maintained on the river.

This has been a fascinating debate and on a number of occasions reference has been made to the role of the mayor. I continue to regret that we failed to make the mayor responsible for a strategy for the River Thames. However, it is plain from today's debate that no matter what the Greater London Authority Act may say, the mayor will find herself or himself involved in the creation of such a strategy.

Photo of Lord Luke Lord Luke Conservative 3:02 pm, 23rd February 2000

My Lords, first, I want to add my thanks to those of other noble Lords, and thank the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, for initiating this diverse, amusing but also serious debate, thereby giving us the opportunity to return once again to the subject of the great river which runs so close by and yet never, to my mind, seems to be given the attention that it deserves.

I was grateful to my noble kinsman Lord St John of Bletso for reminding me that just a year ago I initiated a debate on this subject. Many things have changed but, like the Thames itself, many things are exactly the same, although I do not remember a helicopter flying overhead during that debate!

I was interested to hear that my noble friend Lady Wilcox has walked the length of the river path. One hundred and eighty-nine miles seems an awfully long way. If any noble Lord has recently taken a boat trip along the river, particularly down-stream, it must have become apparent rapidly what a hotchpotch there is on both banks, particularly the south bank. New buildings lie next to derelict buildings; there are new piers, old piers, refurbished piers, decrepit jetties, the Woolwich Arsenal, the Bankside Tate, the Globe, the Wheel, the Dome, the Barrier, new blocks of flats and the Canada Tower. The aspects of the banks of the river change almost as much as the river changes colour.

In those circumstances, a cohesive approach to riparian development is not really possible unless everything is pulled down and we start again from scratch. As the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, said, that does not mean that the new mayor should not have a close strategic look at the river. I hope that he or she will, although, like the noble Baroness, I believe it is a great pity that the Act does not suggest that.

As has been said by several noble Lords, the river should be used as much as possible, not least to take traffic off the roads. The most obvious example of that, as the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, mentioned, is the use of the river for waste disposal. Cory Environmental, to which I am grateful for information, has operated on the river, one way or another, for over 100 years. Currently that company transports over 600,000 tonnes of municipal waste per annum down the river to Mucking in Essex. It is marvellous, is it not, that waste should go to Mucking? That saves over 100,000 lorry journeys through London. One tug, towing four barges, takes the equivalent of 100 container lorries. Currently, Cory, as has been said, is looking for new sites for use from 2002 when Mucking will be full. Will the Minister look at the problems and perhaps persuade local authorities to be positive in helping to find suitable and, in terms of the overall strategy of moving waste on the river, vital new sites?

The other relatively new development on the commercial side, as has been mentioned, is the prospect of P & O joining with Shell UK to develop a possible new deepwater roll-on/roll-off facility for containers at the Shellhaven site in Essex. We heard about that from the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, and from my noble friend Lady Wilcox. Provided the necessary dredging and other necessary activities are carried out, the Port of London could be capable of taking the same size container ships as Felixstowe, Thamesport and Southampton. That would reduce the millions of road miles that are presently covered transporting goods from coastal ports into the United Kingdom's largest market of London and the south-east.

As the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, and other noble Lords have said, there is continuing concern by tourism and leisure operators on the Thames about the attitude of London River Services towards them. However, this morning I received a fax from the Thames Passenger Services Federation, stating that it has perceived a greater level of understanding of its problems from the LRS in recent weeks and that it is most appreciative of the support that it has received from the Minister, Mr Hill, and from the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. Nevertheless, the federation still believes that much needs to be done and it wants LRS to focus even more closely on the needs of tourism. I understand that recently, the LRS has joined the London Tourist Board, so that organisation will be left in no doubt as to the priority of tourist concerns.

I ask the Minister to continue to give close attention to this matter, bearing in mind the vital part that tourism in London, and in particular on the Thames, plays in regard to the balance of payments. I believe that there is a good chance that twice as many tourists as at present visit the Thames (some 2 million) could be attracted and sustained, provided that the vital interests of the tourist industry are supported right down the line.

I am delighted, together with my noble kinsman Lord St John of Bletso, that more piers are being built and others refurbished in line with the intentions of my right honourable friend John Gummer in his report on the Thames three years ago. Nevertheless, I suggest that a new review may be necessary as there are not enough piers in the right places; that is, close to where there are bus stops by the Thames or within easy walking distance of appropriate Tube stations. Given that, the LRS should ensure close liaison with all transport bodies to establish transport up and down the river, which will benefit the travelling public without impinging on the tourist companies' activities. That will require understanding, co-operation and, above all, good will on all sides.

I return to my opening theme and repeat what I have said in your Lordships' House on so many occasions. The Thames is there almost, as it were, at our elbow--quiet, flowing and stress-free. I want to see much greater use of it by people. I want it to be safer, as I am sure we all do. In spite of the moon, Old Father Thames keeps rolling along, just do not let us forget it!

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions 3:11 pm, 23rd February 2000

My Lords, this has been a fascinating debate and I am sure we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, for raising this subject. Not many noble Lords have as great an experience of the River Thames as the noble Lord; nevertheless, we have heard of those experiences and our hopes for the future for this great river.

I join other noble Lords in saying that the Thames has played an important role in my life. I cannot be quite as lyrical as the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon. I have lived in London most of my life and have worked out that I have actually lived in nine of the riparian boroughs under the present structure, most of the time within (admittedly ambitious) spitting distance of the river itself. When in London I still do. The river is an important part of all our lives.

I have lived at the same end of the river as the noble Lord, Lord Watson; on the other side of the river at Isleworth and, as a boy, have even swum in the river. I have seen the river get cleaner, dirtier and then cleaner again at that end. At its other end, I have lived in Greenwich and seen its industrial boom disappear in the early 1970s to be replaced by what is now the millennium peninsula and, we hope, a new era.

So the Thames changes all the time. The buildings beside the Thames change, as do its uses. It is one of London's greatest assets and perhaps, in recent decades, it has been under-used. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, I have seen the river busier as well as dirtier; I hope that we shall see it both busier and cleaner in the future.

The Government recognise the enormous potential of the river and its enormous importance to London. That is why, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, mentioned, John Prescott launched the Thames 2000 initiative. We are working in partnership with many other players to encourage the full use of the river as a transport artery for commercial and leisure purposes. That is why we gave such wide-ranging powers and duties to the new mayor of London to promote transport on the river. We referred to that in some detail during the debates on what became the Greater London Authority Act. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, and others were right to say that the role of the mayor will be extremely important in this instance.

I am not sure whether I heard the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, aright when he suggested that the mayor might be a "headbanger"; but any of the announced candidates will have to address responsibly, strategically and comprehensively the role of the Thames in their plans.

The project, Thames 2000, consists essentially of three elements: first, the improvement of the infrastructure. As the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, said, there are deficiencies in that regard. When I travel on or beside the Thames, it is a great pleasure for me to see progress being made on the building of the new piers and the contributions from the Millennium Commission, the Government through the Single Regeneration Budget, and the private sector amount to a total of £18 million going into piers. The new piers at the Tower, Blackfriars and at the London Eye are already in operation. We shall see new piers at Westminster and Millbank. Of course, in this House the reference to "creating new piers" is always slightly ambiguous, but the prospect of "upgrading old Peers" is even more alarming! However, we are engaged in upgrading the infrastructure and it is an important part of our approach to the regeneration of London.

It is not just London in the GLA sense; it is London more widely. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, indicated her interest not only in the upper reaches and tidal Thames, where she has walked, but also in the estuarial ports in her other capacity. We need to see the Thames as a whole in that respect.

In relation to river transport, in which the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, was particularly interested, we are indeed seeing the Millennium Dome as a powerful catalyst for a lasting legacy of improved river services. The first dedicated Dome river service began on 1st January and the legacy services will run in due time. Indeed, we already have one legacy service operating in embryonic form.

The role of London River Services in this debate and in the debate on the GLA Bill has been controversial. It is a wholly-owned subsidiary of London Transport and has key responsibilities in this area. When the LRS goes to the mayor's Transport for London set-up next year, we shall see river travel as a fully functioning part of London's integrated transport system. The role of the LRS in relation to other operators and potential operators can be a delicate one. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Luke, indicated, although some of the anxieties expressed a few months ago have perhaps been ameliorated, they are not entirely absent and we need to make sure that the LRS works in conjunction with the other operators in developing new services and preserving the infrastructure. I have every confidence that the LRS is aware of the Government's views and that it takes a positive view towards development of tourism on the Thames. The undertakings which my colleagues Nick Raynsford and Keith Hill gave and the positive response from LRS confirmed its understanding of that position. I feel that we are now in a more healthy relationship with everybody concerned in that regard.

It is important that the LRS and others develop new services, as the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, said, and LRS is carrying out a systematic evaluation of all proposed service changes. We need to develop that evaluation. I can assure the noble Lords, Lord St John and Lord Luke, that consideration of the need to build up new services and to have regard to the effects on existing services are part of that assessment. Inevitably, London River Services' decisions will not always meet with universal agreement. However, it has a role as the body which balances all the considerations. As such, it will play a major part in our developing integrated transport policy. But it is important that in this area we have innovation, new entrants and new uses of the Thames as both a tourist and a transport facility.

The noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, spoke at length not only of the attractions of the Thames, but also of the nitty gritty in relation to developing infrastructure as well as fun on the Thames. We fully agree. The provision of new infrastructure by the Government and our partners in local authorities and in the private sector--the Millennium Commission and so forth--is a key part of our strategy and of Thames 2000 which the mayor will take on. As I said, we have already seen a significant increase in the number of pier and jetty infrastructures and the improvement of those already in being.

The noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, also referred to the hopper-style service that helps to integrate transport on the Thames with other aspects of transport. The Central London Fast Ferry was introduced in the summer of last year as an experiment. It is intended that the full legacy services will come into play after this phase of the Dome is completed when all new piers will be open and boats will be diverted from the Dome service into other services. In the meantime, although the new timetable introduced last month is for the winter, it forms the basis for developing further services on the Thames.

Some noble Lords referred back to the halcyon days of the Tudor taxi service and the Riverbus. I, too, have a photograph of myself with my father on the Riverbus, which I believe dates back to 1950, or thereabouts. As several noble Lords said, there have been attempts to operate commercial services, which have not entirely worked. It is to be hoped that we are in a new era. The Thames 2000 services stand to benefit considerably from the new infrastructure work. We hope that the new competitive tenders that are coming in will mean that better services are available on the Thames.

It is sometimes suggested that there is contradiction between the tourist services and the transport services. We need to have a facility on the Thames that provides for both. Indeed, that will be one of the great responsibilities for the mayor and for Transport for London, in conjunction with other operators, in the future. As the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, said, the mayor will need to be bold. He will also need to ensure that the transport facility of the Thames does not interfere or cross over too much with the tourist and the community use of the Thames.

A number of bold suggestions have been made during the course of today's debate, including proposals on how we should use the Millennium peninsula as a giant park-and-ride operation. The noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Greenway, and others, made suggestions as to how we could use the Dome area. Clearly, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, said, the river is an important part of the setting of the Dome. We need to look at the way in which we can integrate the river, both in transport to and from the Dome, and in the setting of the Dome more generally. I understanding that the New Millennium Experience Company will take note of these matters, as well as what the noble Lord said.

There is something in the suggestion about a park-and-ride scheme. The New Millennium Experience Company looked at that particular proposition. However, it is not necessarily in the right place here in relation to park-and-ride schemes as regards keeping traffic out of London, because traffic will already have had to come through a fair amount of south-east London to reach the millennium peninsula. Nevertheless, there are possibilities in this area, especially as we develop new sites in the Thames Gateway further down-stream for another out-of-town park and ride. I am not at all sure whether the London Borough of Greenwich would be entirely in favour of what is proposed. However, there is some scope for using that site creatively.

Many points were raised during the debate, including the need not so much for river use, but for London's community to have access to the riverside. When I am in London over the weekend, I very much enjoy walking along the banks of the River Thames; indeed, I have done so all my life. It is very important that public access to the river is addressed in the development prospects for the Thames-side. That is why the environs need to be enhanced by the provision of facilities for walking and cycling both to and along the Thames.

The scheme of the Countryside Commission to create a continuous Thames path through London is pretty well advanced now. The Government's Strategic Planning Guidance for the River Thames requires that developments along the river frontage should incorporate a riverside walkway. These are shown as gaps in the Thames path proposals. That used to be the policy under the GLC, and it needs to be the policy again.

As regards cycling to which the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, and the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, referred, Sustrans and the local authorities in London are developing proposals to establish a full Thames cycle path to form part of the National Cycle Network. Again, we shall encourage and support that initiative. Access to the riverside for recreation and education is also important. The local authorities and the Port of London Authority are co-operating in that respect.

I turn now to the commercial aspect. Many speakers referred to the transport of waste and to use of the river for commercial purposes. The Government are fully committed to using the Thames, and other waterways where they can contribute, as a sustainable mode of transportation. Our current strategic planning guidance for the Thames, which the mayor will take on, requires local authorities to adopt policies to encourage freight transport on the river and to identify and protect suitable sites for loading and unloading freight. Clearly, the biggest area for that is Docklands and a number of very promising developments are taking place both there and elsewhere within the estuary of the Thames.

Allied to this, the Secretary of State has issued directions protecting 32 riverside wharf sites from the area beyond the Thames Barrier from redevelopment for other uses. Therefore, they could also be used for commercial or transport purposes. In the context of a strong development pressure, which inevitably exists on the Thames-side, that is to ensure that we keep those wharves to enable the transhipment of freight, including waste and aggregates. The transport of waste, in particular, is a major potential and actual use, as noble Lords have said. Indeed, some 20 per cent of London's waste is already transported by barge to disposal facilities down-stream.

As the noble Lord, Lord Luke, said, we need to consider those facilities most carefully. They save many thousands of heavy lorry movements per year. We are considering how we can develop that facility and we regret decisions that moved in the opposite direction. We also believe that there is a positive environment for using the river in the transportation of waste. That fits in very well with the role that we have given to the mayor. We hope that he will develop that strategy, as well as others, which will apply to Thames waste management. That will be pursued in relation to the Thames, as is the case elsewhere.

Several noble Lords said, "Well, if the mayor has to take on all these functions in relation to the Thames, why do we not have a separate strategy for the Thames?" Indeed, the mayor will be taking on the Thames 2000 initiative and other existing strategic guidance for the Thames. He also has the option of developing a comprehensive strategy for the Thames. However, we need to ensure that the Thames is an integrated part of our other strategies; for example, the spatial development strategy, and the general development strategy, as well as the waste and transport strategies. Therefore, we do not wish to block off the Thames from its central role in relation to those other strategies.

Whether we are talking about transport, tourism or, indeed, commercial use, safety on the Thames is most important. A number of references were made this afternoon to the inquiry chaired by Lord Justice Clarke, with its remit to look at safety standards on the river. As the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, said, the report made 44 recommendations--10 of which have already been implemented--all of which have, in principle, been accepted by the Government. Those recommendations should make a major contribution towards safety on the Thames and thereby ensure that tragedies like the "Marchioness" do not recur.

Further consultation was among those recommendations, including consultation on the consumption of alcohol on the Thames, which I am sure everyone recognises as being important in relation to passenger and commercial boats. However, we also recognise the wider issues to which the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, referred regarding the boating fraternity as a whole. So consultation is taking place on alcohol and boat use. The closing date for submissions is 31st March, if anyone is interested.

The noble Lord, Lord Greenway, and other speakers, also referred to the question of which authority should take on the statutory responsibilities for search and rescue on the Thames. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, also mentioned that issue. We are looking into the matter. It seems that we need to consider this most seriously. Lord Justice Clarke recommended that we need to ensure adequate search and rescue facilities and suggested that the duty should fall to the Secretary of State. Clearly, the Secretary of State will need to delegate those powers. We are currently considering what is the appropriate body to which those powers could be delegated. Lord Justice Clarke favoured the PLA. We need to take a decision on whether that is appropriate. I cannot give a definitive response on that matter at this point, but we have it under active consideration.

This has been a fascinating debate. I thank all noble Lords who have participated in it. A whole range of aspects of London life have been covered. We have made substantial progress on the infrastructure; we are beginning to make progress on the services, and the stage is set for a boom in river services. I believe that London as a whole will benefit from that.

I am not sure that I have given an adequate response to the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, and the point about the moon. However, other noble Lords may feel that I have not adequately covered the points that they made. I shall read Hansard and write to them if that is the case. Again, I thank everyone who has contributed to the debate. I thank in particular the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, for initiating the debate.

Photo of Lord Greenway Lord Greenway Crossbench 3:30 pm, 23rd February 2000

My Lords, I am most grateful to all who have taken part in the debate and, indeed, to the Minister for his comprehensive response.

When I tabled this debate, I hoped that the wide knowledge of your Lordships would extend the debate somewhat beyond my slightly narrow confines of commerce and leisure, and I have not been disappointed. All contributors to the debate have touched on different areas of the Thames and have been most interesting. I thank particularly the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, for his witty and informative contribution.

The noble Lord, Lord Watson of Richmond, said that one cannot see the Thames when one emerges from the Jubilee Line at the Dome. I have always thought that most of the developers who operated along the Thames in the past have tended to turn their backs on the river, which to my mind has been a great shame. It is surprising how few restaurants along the Thames look on to the river.

When talking about the Dome, I did not mean to suggest that it should be flattened and made into a carpark. The Dome is an extraordinary building. I have no doubt that in time a suitable use will be found for it which will last for many years. The Dome could still be very much an integral part of what I proposed.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, asked a question about emissions which I do not think that the Minister answered. The noble Baroness will be interested to hear that the International Maritime Organisation has done a lot of work into emissions from larger ships, but I am not certain how far that work has progressed with regard to smaller river craft, although I am sure that someone in Brussels has been doing something about that! However, when I look back, it strikes me that the old, smoky coal burners that used to run up and down the river in huge numbers did not have a huge effect on the birds on Rainham Marshes.

The Minister was supportive and, indeed, positive in most of his comments, which I welcome. It was a pleasure to see him at the London Boat Show last month. It is always pleasing to see Ministers take an interest in boating matters.

We shall no doubt return to safety issues. Safety is a weighty matter. No pun is intended when I say that Lord Justice Clarke's submissions are too heavy for me to have carried in this afternoon. Safety is important and deserves a separate debate at some stage. Once again, I thank all noble Lords and noble Baronesses who took part in the debate. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.