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

The current estimate for the Thames tunnel scheme is pretty enormous. It is £3.6 billion and is likely to go up rather than down. Thames Water says that the alternative would cost £13 billion and take 30 years. When I responded to the consultation, I said that the evidence seemed to be in favour of the Thames Water plan, subject to getting the sites right, but I wanted final reassurance. I made my response formally at the turn of the year.

I also put in a short response to the private commission that was set up by some interested local authorities and chaired by Lord Selborne. The commission has argued that we must have a totally different direction. I am not persuaded by that. The Thames tunnel is the best direction. The previous Government came to that view and the present Government have held to it. Unless something comes up in the latest process, we need to go ahead with the Thames tunnel scheme, but the site must be right. My experience is that engineers are reasonable people who will look at a better option if it is put to them. They are also quite flexible. The private commission is having its hearings and it is about to produce its report. I hope, therefore, that we can arrive at a common position.

My questions to the Minister are partly procedural as well as substantive. Will the Government respond specifically to all the recommendations in the Select Committee report? If they cannot do it now, when will they do it? If the concerns that have been expressed by colleagues across the House and in the Select Committee are taken into account, will the Minister accept that that will lead to a change in the draft policy statement?

Will the Department delay bringing the debate on the policy to the House until the Localism Bill has been enacted and implemented and the Infrastructure Planning Commission has been set up? I want to ensure that if the Thames tunnel is subject to an overarching planning approval, the decision is a democratically accountable one. Will the Minister give us the earliest date when Parliament might be able to have the national policy statement back? When the policy comes back, can he assure us that there will be a debate on the Floor of each House so that colleagues in London and the whole of the Thames estuary can make a contribution to the debate? This is a big debate and we want to ensure that it is given adequate time and that it is not something that is pushed through on the nod or in half an hour.

It is clearly logical to have one overarching planning approval for the scheme, but if there are any sites on which there is a significant building there should be extra planning processes to ensure that everything is done in the right way. For example, if the King’s Stairs Gardens site or the Wharf site in Bermondsey are chosen, people will want to know that the new building will not be too tall, too big, too wide or too ugly and they will also want to have their say. The subsidiary buildings should not be rubber-stamped through either. Will the Minister pass on that concern to his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local

Government? We want an extra consultation process about the detail or extra planning requirement.

Whatever our views about the Selborne commission, will the Minister tell us that the Department will consider the report and respond to it before the final draft of the national policy statement is published? Will he give us the Government’s final assessment of the cost of the project and will he give us an assurance that council tax payers, local councils and the Government will not have to pick up the tab? Obviously, people understand that this is a Thames Water project and that it will not be cheap. People will want to know not just what the cost is overall but that their bills will not go up in other places as well. It would be helpful if the Minister could show us the departmental cost-benefit analysis.

Will the Minister tell us whether there is any compensation available to people whose land, properties or amenities are affected? If they suddenly have a great treatment works or a shaft put in front of their window for seven years, what compensation will they receive? If Thames Water identifies new sites, people in my constituency and elsewhere would be grateful if the sites that are no longer in the firing line or are no longer being considered are dropped off the list so that they know they are no longer under threat.

I end by paying tribute not just to the Save the King’s Stairs Gardens group but the Save Your Riverside group. All these people are highly intelligent and reasonable in what they are asking for and I hope that I have reflected that here. This is a huge issue for many of our constituencies in London and we would be grateful for as much information about the scheme as the Minister can share with us.