Waste Water (Thames and Greater London)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:59 pm on 14th September 2011.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Deputy Leader, Liberal Democrats 3:59 pm, 14th September 2011

We are moving to slightly calmer waters as we change from a debate on European Union fiscal union to one on waste water in the Thames and Greater London. I am grateful to the Minister for his and his Department’s regular interest in these matters.

On Monday this week, David Walliams—he is probably more famous than many of those elected to Parliament—ended his swim from Gloucestershire to Westminster bridge. On the same day, Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, wrote an article in The Daily Telegraph entitled “David Walliams’s Thames swim: it will take a super-sewer to get London out of this mess”. He was referring to the fact that London has a looming waste water crisis.

We have a fantastic piece of engineering in this great city of ours. Our sewer system was designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette in the wake of what was known as the great stink of 1858. The purpose was to stop the sewage backing up into homes and streets whenever the system overflowed. It was connected to the Thames, so that excesses of waste water and sewage emptied into the river. That system was designed for a city of 4 million people. The city’s population is now approaching 8 million, and before too long it will be a conglomeration of nearer 9 million people. It is obvious to everyone that, with the best will in the world, the present system will not be sustainable. Thames Water is responsible for the system, the company is overseen by Ofwat, and the regulator is accountable to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

For some years a proposal has been on the table to build a Thames tunnel. It was the subject of consideration by the previous Government, and the scheme has been handed on to the present Government. In principle, Labour Ministers gave their blessing to a tunnel scheme; the alternative was a softer environmental mix of things, including a hope that rain water could be collected, and that there would be a more personalised collection with less sewage and so on.

The amount of sewage currently discharged into the Thames is one of many dramatic figures. That is not sewage taken to the waste disposal plants but the excess of sewage that ends up in the river. It is 39 million cubic metres a year. That may not mean much to most people, engineers apart, but it is equivalent to filling the Royal Albert hall 450 times. That is a lot of sewage. It is clearly something that nobody would wish to be in our capital city’s river.

Last weekend, I had the privilege of chairing the hugely successful Thames festival for the 10th time. The Mayor of London’s Thames festival is a reincarnation of the GLC festival, which started 15 years ago. It is held to celebrate the river, and getting on for 1 million people were there this weekend. We want the river to continue to be celebrated. We want it to be clean. We want it to be accessible, and we want people to be able to use its beaches. We want it to be used for commerce and tourism and related activities. We want to see more natural life in the river, including fish such as porpoises and dolphins. We also want to see David Walliams or the Mayor of London swimming in it—or even the hon.

Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), whose constituency is opposite mine on the north bank of the river, and me. I was once thrown in; it was not a pleasant experience, but that was soon after I was first elected 28 years ago.

I bring the matter to the House today because, in part, it is already on the Minister’s desk. Indeed, the Minister will be aware that in November last year, perfectly properly, the Government published the national policy statement for waste water. On 30 March 2011, the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published its report. It makes 19 recommendations. In essence, the Committee would like to see the draft national policy statement amended. As the Minister knows, some of the Committee’s recommendations relate specifically to Thames matters. I shall put recommendations 9 and 14 on the record, but I shall leave colleagues and others to read the other conclusions later.

Recommendation 9 states:

“Approval of the costs which can be passed on to water and sewerage company customers is rightfully a core Ofwat function under its current regulatory remit and it is hard to see the benefits to be gained from duplicating this activity within the spatial planning process. In view of the alarming increases in estimated costs, Ofwat must fully utilise its regulatory powers to scrutinise the economic case for the Thames Tunnel project and be rigorous in determining which costs should be passed on to Thames Water’s customers.”

Amen to that. Water bills are high enough and the project will not be cheap, so people will want to ensure the best cost benefit.

Recommendation 14 states:

“We recommend that the draft NPS be revised to produce a purely generic document by removing Chapters 3 and 4 on the replacement of the Deephams Sewage Treatment Works and the Thames Tunnel. Defra may wish to provide material in an annex exemplifying points made in the NPS by reference to specific schemes, but it should be made clear that it does not constitute information to which decision makers must have regard when considering project applications.”

Those are the only two Thames-specific recommendations. The others are about the process.

I shall briefly put things into context and then pose my questions. I apologise that I gave the Minister notice of my questions only recently, but they are all matters for his Department. However, I shall understand if he needs to come back on some matters. The European Union agreed in 1991 that there should be one system across Europe. Again, following the previous debate, one of the good things that has come out of the EU is that it is setting standards on such things as air and water quality. Bluntly, London has failed on both water and air. On water, the UK is on the way to being taken to court by the Commission. We are also at risk of being liable for poor air quality in London. The EU is the right place to chase such things and to ensure better quality. The Thames tunnel project was intended to ensure that we comply with statutory EU requirements. However, we have been held to be in breach of the directive, which is why the matter is going to the European Court of Justice. Judgment is expected next year.

Secondly, the Government have been consulting on secondary legislation to be made under the Planning Act 2008 that would classify proposed major sewer projects such as the Thames tunnel as nationally significant infrastructure projects. The consultation closes on 5 October. The project would go to the independent Infrastructure

Planning Commission. My colleagues and I and Conservative Members did not want that body to be independent, but when the Localism Bill becomes law it will become accountable to the Government, and the Secretary of State will be accountable to Parliament, which I welcome.

The last bit of the jigsaw is that Ministers are considering the draft national policy statement in light of the consultation responses generally, and the Select Committee’s responses in particular. We will have a final statement before too long. A waste water policy statement is coming down the track, and there will be changes to the planning law. There is also Thames Water’s plan; the company has received responses to its consultation and it will almost certainly published a revised plan in November.

Like every riverside MP, but more than most, my constituency is very much on Thames Water’s map. When the company announced its plans at the turn of the year, it featured two sites in Bermondsey. It considered Druid street, which would connect the local combined sewer overflow, known as Shad Thames pumping station, to the main tunnel. It also considered the foreshore near Butler’s Wharf and the car park at the flats in Tower Bridge road. It decided that Druid street was the preferred site. However, there was concern about that as it was the site of a children’s playground on a council estate and not the greatest of sites. I hope that Thames Water will respond positively to those views and go ahead using the Shad Thames pumping station and not the Druid street site.

By far the most controversial plan is to use the King’s Stairs Gardens as the main drilling site for south London. Some 5,274 people have signed a petition against it, and a considerable number of other people, including me, have said that it is not a good plan because it is a greenfield site and on the Thames Path.

Thames Water has responded positively to such views. It has always engaged well with the community. I pay tribute to the Save the King’s Stairs Gardens action group and to its chair Donna Spedding. The group made a substantive case about the use of greenfield sites as opposed to brownfield sites and put forward good technical arguments.

As a result, Thames Water has now co-purchased Chambers Wharf, a brownfield site slightly further upstream. As of this moment, there are two sites in the frame. Obviously, the Rotherhithe community hopes that the King’s Stairs Gardens site will come off the list as it is inappropriate. We do not know where the other sites will now be—whether it is in Southwark, Deptford or further downstream.