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Second Reading and Remaining Stages

Part of Water Industry (Financial Assistance) Bill – in the House of Lords at 12:28 am on 27th March 2012.

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Photo of Lord Fowler Lord Fowler Conservative 12:28 am, 27th March 2012

My Lords, I entirely agree with all the comments made by my noble friend Lord Jenkin, particularly about the use of barge traffic and the view that we should do our utmost to preserve the interests of local communities. This Bill covers very serious issues. I am not sure that I regard 12.30 am as the right time to do a Second Reading of a Bill of this kind. It is rather ironic that the House of Commons went down hours ago yet here we are still debating in the House of Lords-but let us leave that to one side.

Clause 2 gives the Government considerable powers. As the Explanatory Memorandum makes clear, it creates a power to give financial assistance in connection with the construction of water or sewerage infrastructure. Under this clause, the Secretary of State can provide assistance in any form, including by grants, loans, guarantees and indemnities, provision of insurance and acquiring shares or securities in a body corporate. The power is discretionary and may be exercised for such reasons as the Secretary of State feels desirable. That seems to me to encompass fairly wide powers as far as the Government are concerned.

We know that this considerable power is being taken to ensure the construction of the Thames tunnel. We also know that the estimated cost of this tunnel will be more than £4 billion, although it could be substantially more than that. We know in addition that work will take six years to complete from the start of construction, which is 2016, although the bill for ratepayers will be increased even before construction begins.

We have all received, I think, a briefing paper from Thames Water setting out how it sees the advantages to be had, which in essence is that London's sewers can no longer cope with the problems, a point that the Minister made. It seems to me that Thames Water rather overstates its case when it says:

"It cannot be acceptable to allow the River Thames to be an open sewer".

That is not the position at the moment. It is also guilty of very selective quotation, such as when it tried to knock down an argument of the leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council by quoting the view of a 15 year- old youth rower. The difference is, of course, that the leader of the council is the elected leader of the community and, as such, deserves to have his views given proper weight.

Let me for the sake of this debate accept the argument that the tunnel is necessary and that the amount of money devoted to it is justified. What it does not dispose of is the argument on just how this tunnel is to be built and, in particular, where the construction points and the drive shafts will be situated. These will be massive sites. The classic case is what is now happening in south Fulham, where Thames Water has decided to put one of these sites. I declare an interest as a resident of Fulham, although I think that I am not directly affected by this.

Currently, the plan is to have the site near Wandsworth Bridge in Carnwath Road. That will bring substantial disadvantage to the people there. The site is a tiny urban wharf in the centre of a densely residential locality at the apex of a commuter traffic bottleneck, so it has about every disadvantage going. At least 180 homes directly border the site, with more than 800 residents plus a junior school for 320 children, all within a 100-metre radius. There is a business park and at least 150 full-time jobs are likely to be destroyed. It will completely kill off-this I think in many ways is most important-the imminent wharf regeneration and all new plans there. The site still is 50 per cent too small without two compulsory purchases that will have to be made.

There are substantial disadvantages, not least the development costs of up to £200 million higher than the alternative site. What was never satisfactorily explained is just why, very suddenly and without warning, this site was chosen when all the preparatory work had been carried out at another site further down the Thames at Barn Elms, which seems to have all the advantages. It is a small part of a huge available area of flat green recreational space, well away from homes and buildings. There are no houses at all within 200 metres and the site is screened from most nearby homes by a stand of tall trees. Not a single full-time job would be lost. Less than 2 per cent of the large area of ordinary, unlandscaped recreational land that is available would be taken up. It seems on the face of it that the area has every advantage for the planners to go that way, so why was this change made and what caused the change of mind? It is true that Barn Elms is green-belt land, but much of it could be put back to its original state. Everyone agrees that rectifying the changes made in south Fulham would be more difficult and certainly much more disruptive.

I agree totally with what my noble friend Lord Jenkin has said about transport. At present, it is estimated that lorry trips to the site will average 31 per day for two years, rising to 33 per day when the tunnel is being lined. When it comes to moving the plant and construction materials, the plan is to do that by road in order to reduce costs. I will simply echo what my noble friend has said. When one has the natural route of the Thames itself, advantage should be taken of it. That would be to the benefit of the local population. However, my most profound concern is the choice of the site itself. I would be grateful if the Minister could throw light on the issue in his reply.

My last word is this. The matter goes further than a local issue because it impinges on national policy. Only today we were told about the need to build houses on brownfield sites. The site in south Fulham is ideally situated to do that. It is a perfect site for social and low-cost housing, which is desperately needed in south-west London. That could be achieved, while equally it could not be achieved in Barn Elms, where permission would simply not be given. A water authority is making this choice for reasons that are unclear and obscure; we are choosing options on what could be achieved in terms of national housing policy. The Minister might therefore like to describe the planning process in this case and how the views of the local council and local residents can be overridden, although I hope that they can be taken into account. With respect, I am not sure that the Minister can walk away from this saying that it is simply a matter for the planning authorities. The whole purpose of Clause 2 of this Bill is to give authority for the spending of £4.1 billion of taxpayers' money. If national money is to be used in this way, it must be justified.

The hour is late but this is an important issue. Again, I would underline to my noble friend that it is a matter that the residents of south Fulham-I am sure that it is not the only example, but it is the one that I know-take very seriously indeed and, more than that, so does the local authority. It would be more than a pity if those views were overridden and if other planning options in the area were rejected. I hope that the Minister, even at this late hour, can give us some guidance-guidance that both my noble friend Lord Jenkin and I are asking for-and that he can give some reassurance and hope to the people of that part of London.