Waste Water (Thames and Greater London)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:19 pm on 14th September 2011.

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Photo of Richard Benyon Richard Benyon The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:19 pm, 14th September 2011

Thank you, Mrs Brooke, for calling me to speak. I am very grateful to you for your chairmanship of our proceedings this afternoon. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Simon Hughes on raising this important issue at a crucial time for this project.

I do not know any elected person from any political party who could possibly approach this project in any way that was not sceptical. We are talking about a huge sum of money, but we are also talking about a huge problem. Consequently, it is right that we rigorously check, first, that undertaking this project is the right thing to do and, secondly, that the alternatives are simply not good enough to deal with what we know is a very serious problem.

I approach this project from that perspective, and I also approach it as a constituency MP, whose constituents are paying Thames Water’s bills in the most westerly point of the Thames Water area. As is the case with many MPs in the Thames Water area, my constituents will ask me whether this project is good value for money and what it aims to achieve. I understand the concerns that have been expressed, and I respect the debate and the spirit in which the right hon. Gentleman introduced it.

We know that we face a very serious problem. It is not only a legal problem, although it is important that we respond to the European Commission’s concerns and its belief that we are not complying with the urban waste water treatment directive—we will vigorously defend ourselves against that claim. Nobody who has anything to do with the River Thames can deny that we face a problem now and that if our generation of politicians does not take action, we will leave the next generation with a possibly devastating impact on an iconic—that is a rather overused word, but it is appropriate here—river that runs through one of the most important capital cities in the world.

Therefore, the Government are taking a similar view to that of the previous Government, in that we believe that it is important that this project goes ahead and that the tunnel option is the right one. We are open about our reasons for that. I have the highest respect for Lord Selborne. He is an extraordinarily able parliamentarian and he has experience of a wide range of scientific and environmental issues. My Department is taking his commission and its inquiry seriously. We have contributed to that process, and we will certainly look at what his commission says. We want to be as open as possible, and we also want to try to make people who are sceptical about our proposal understand how we have arrived at this point, sharing with them as much information as we can.

It takes as little as 2 mm of sudden rainfall to trigger an overflow into the Thames of untreated waste water from a combined sewer. Currently, around 39 million cubic metres of waste water enter the Thames every year from London’s combined sewer overflows when storm water capacity is exceeded. That is enough to fill the Royal Albert hall 450 times. I have tried to get that image out of my head, but failed.

Those discharges occur around 50 to 60 times a year, and they have a significant environmental impact on the Thames. The drought ended in June. That was just after the Department for Environment, Food and Rural called the drought summit—the two events may have been linked—and at that time there was a combined sewage overflow spill that resulted in an appallingly large number of fish being killed. It is the habitat and environment of the river that we are concerned about. I am sure that hon. Members from all parties know that those discharges increase the likelihood of aquatic wildlife being killed and create a higher health hazard than we can imagine for people using, enjoying or living near the river. Therefore we must take action. Nobody has more respect than me for David Walliams for his extraordinary achievement, but it brought to our attention the fact that he had to take antibiotics to protect himself in case he fell ill because of the condition of the Thames, as so many other people already have.

In the few minutes that I have left, I will try to respond as quickly as I can to the specific points that my right hon. Friend made. I received a copy of them as I walked into Westminster Hall this afternoon, because I came straight from another event.

My right hon. Friend asked what the Government’s response is to the recommendations of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report of 30 March. I can assure him that we will respond to that report in full in a few weeks’ time, and I will ensure that he is apprised of that response.

My right hon. Friend also asked whether my Department will hold off on the publication of the revised national policy statement until the relevant part of the Localism Bill has been implemented. We are going through this process without prejudging what Parliament will do, on the basis that the Localism Bill as it currently stands will receive Royal Assent. It is really important that we understand that the Localism Bill will bring that crucial element of democratic accountability, and I am grateful to him for raising that point.

Parliament will consider the NPS by the end of this year. My right hon. Friend asked me whether I can confirm that there will be a debate about the NPS on the Floor of the House and, if so, whether the motion will be amendable. The NPS will be laid before Parliament for 21 days, and it is in his gift and that of any other right hon. or hon. Member to request a debate on it. I would welcome such a debate, which would be an opportunity to set out our reasons for supporting this project.

My right hon. Friend asked whether significant consequential buildings will be the subject of local planning processes. I think that he is concerned about the NPS and the planning processes being dealt with all in one when there might be specific issues in right hon. and hon. Members’ constituencies about legitimate local planning concerns. My understanding is that those cases would undergo application for development consent. I will write to him and make it absolutely clear what we are saying here, because I know that this is a matter of particular importance to right hon. and hon. Members.