Friday, 17 September 2010

Leader's Column: Stephen Greenhalgh

My view: the super-sewer

Earlier this week I was invited to attend a London Assembly hearing about Thames Water’s plans for the Tideway Tunnel or super-sewer as it has become known. This is a major infrastructure project for London, comparable to Crossrail or the tube upgrade, and comes with a colossal £3.6 billion price-tag. Thames Water is currently consulting on three options for this huge tunnel that is designed to stop some sewage flowing into the river when it rains heavily and avoid a fine from the EU under their Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive.

Despite the fact that Thames Water’s current proposal is shorter than the previous Government’s preference its estimated cost is an eye-watering £3.6 billion – double the original estimate. Thames Water customers will have to find this money with bills expected to rise by an extra £65 per year. Some residents – especially on modest or fixed-incomes – will be driven into water poverty.

Many people are starting to question whether the benefits of the super sewer are in proportion to the large costs. The public health benefits will be relatively minimal. There is no risk to drinking water from sewage overflow into the Thames. The risks are from digesting river water with a survey of rowers finding 18 people suffering a short illness, that may have been caused by sewage in the Thames, over a 15 month period. Spending nearly £4 billion to prevent a handful of people contracting a minor illness would be a questionable use of public money at anytime but during the tightest public spending round in a generation it is extravagant.

The tunnel will do little to increase the capacity of the local sewerage network where, during storm conditions, basements suffer from sewer flooding. The major public health issue here is the direct discharge of raw sewage into residents’ homes. Thames Water should be focusing their limited resources on the Counters Creek Flood Alleviation scheme which will help to solve this problem. The environmental benefits will also be small. The Thames is ‘one of the cleanest metropolitan rivers in the world’, according to the GLA, and in the last 20 years more than 120 species of fish have been recorded.

The construction of the tunnel will require three main shafts to be dug with 22 construction sites needed across the capital in total – including four in or around our borough. In H&F, Hammersmith Embankment was originally earmarked for new houses and offices on a prime riverside site and two-years ago the council spent £2 million revitalising Frank Banfield Park across the road – which it is now one of the borough’s elite Green Flag parks. Hammersmith Embankment is now likely to become a noisy building site for eight years potentially adding to traffic problems on local roads especially Fulham Palace Road.

In 2006 the Government-appointed engineering consultants, Jacobs Babtie, recommended a shorter tunnel that could be built for around £900 million and be far less disruptive. The Babtie option is more cost effective with a shorter delivery time and without the need for so many construction sites. A range of other alternatives were also discarded too quickly without thorough investigation of their overall benefits in terms of cost, delivery time, disruption, as well as the social and environmental impacts. Other options include rainfall and storm water harvesting; selective separation of rain and foul water and covered treatment works to deal with storm water locally without the need for a long distance transfer. Hammersmith & Fulham Council’s preferred option is a hybrid scheme which would combine the diversion of run-off rain water, a shorter tunnel and clean up operations after storm flows have entered the river.

Thames Water’s current proposal is not flexible. The limited benefits are not proportionate to the large and escalating costs, especially during an age of austerity. There are alternatives that can make the Thames even cleaner with less disruption to Londoners and without the huge environmental, social and economic costs.

Cllr Stephen Greenhalgh

H&F Council Leader
Thames Water’s 14-week public consultation lasts until 22 December 2010 with a series of exhibitions being held over the autumn. Have your say at or view the plans yourself on Monday 11 and Tuesday 12 October at Linden House, Upper Mall, Hammersmith, W6 9TA between 10.30am–8:00pm.

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