River Thames

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:11 pm on 23rd February 2000.

Alert me about debates like this

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.