Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Super Sewer debate at City Hall

Council Leader Stephen Greenhalgh debated the merits of the “super sewer” at the London Assembly today with, among others, Richard Aylard of Thames Water, and Andrew Whetnall of the Consumer Council for Water.

Coming after the announcement of the route of the Thames Tideway Tunnel and the likely construction sites involved, the speakers were grilled by Assembly Members of the health and public services committee. Sewage being released into the Thames being a rather obvious health threat.

In the sometimes argumentative but on the whole civilised session, highlights for me were:
  • Richard Aylard pointing out that since our sewers can no longer cope, raw sewage is pumped into the river once a week. Resulting in 39 tons of the brown stuff per year. That's a rate of one Olympic swimming pool full of it every 2 minutes. Eek.
  • Stephen Greenhalgh attacking the scheme as “gold plated” and resulting in “gargantuan” disruption and cost.
  • Stephen Greenhlagh alleging scenes of extreme violence between the genteel Secretary of State Caroline Spelman and Chief Executive of Thames Water. Hard to picture, but more on that below.
  • Thames Water revealing that, far from being influenced by our Council's campaign against the sewer, they weren't even aware of it
  • Cries of “nonsense!” from the otherwise reserved Richard Aylard at some of the scary sums being quoted by Assembly Members of the likely cost of the scheme
Richard Aylard, External Affairs Director of Thames Water (and not Chief Exec as I wrongly claimed in this post), started by outlining the way in which London's sewers have struggled and now fail to cope with London's ever growing population, noting that since the 1850s the population has roughly trebled yet the pipes to convey our waste have remained the same.

This was quite a clever move because it then gave him a platform with which to pepper the Assembly Members with some scary stats about tonnage of poo going into the river along with setting the scheme in the context of being a project of historic, not just practical, proportions. There's nothing a politician likes better than being associated with something historic. And all of the AMs duly declared their support.

On West London specifically, he noted that not only do we have more basement flats in Hammersmith than almost anywhere else but also that in the last 30 years alone roughly 20% of previously un-built on land has now been concreted over. In other words the rainfall that would have gone into the ground now takes up even more room in the sewers making flooding of people's houses and release of sewage into the river more likely.

Cllr Greenhalgh returned the serve with, in fairness, a pretty well argued case that acknowledged the fact he wasn't an expert on the figures “I'm just a local politician!” but nevertheless outlined the huge proportions of the scheme. Essentially he argued that doing nothing wasn't an option but that there must be a better way – he called for a “hybrid solution” which was basically a combination of measures to deal with the symptoms, not the cause of the problem. These include 'skimming' the detritus from the water – condoms for example, using a form of soap, and pumping oxygen into the river to keep the fish alive, using 'bubbler boats'.

Responding to Richard Aylard's pointed use of Caroline Spelman, the Secretary of State's statement that the scheme proposed by Thames Water was the “cheapest option by far”, Cllr Greenhlagh then said that the same Secretary of State had described to him pinning the Chief Exec of Thames Water to the wall, by the lapels and demanding to be assured that the costs wouldn't escalate! I can only hope that this was a metaphore.

He then went on to boisterously exchange figures with fellow Tory Tony Arbour AM, both of whom thought the scheme would inevitably escalate in cost. Presumably having peered into his crystal ball in Hammersmith Town Hall Cllr Greenhalgh confidently claimed that he could “guarantee” the cost would be millions of pounds more than Thames Water claimed.

Amongst all this sound and fury one thing did emerge on which all sides could agree, which is that we as customers are going to be paying between £60-65 extra every year for this scheme. And Cllr Greenhalgh did at least have a good point that this was occuring against a backdrop of cuts everywhere else.

Lastly, Tory AM Tony Arbour and Labour AM Murad Qureshi both picked up on the fact that the Sunday Telegraph had claimed that H&F Council's much trumpeted petiton of 2,000 people against building in Furnival Gardens had swayed Thames Water. Pravda has been trumpeting this as a glorious victory and therefore worth all of our taxes the Council spent warning people that they would be made homeless by the scheme among other things. To this Thames Water had a withering reposte – they hadn't even been aware of the petition. I suspect Pravda may run out of space before being able to report that.

You'll be able to watch the whole thing yourself here, if you're so minded. I have to say from a personal perspective, although I was studiously avoided by Mssrs Greenhlagh and Botterill at the event, presumably angry at my not toeing their line on this issue, I was quite impressed by the measured tone Cllr Greenhalgh adopted. He actually raises very valid points about the expenditure issue – just look at the Olympic budget or the Jubilee line extension for examples of public expenditure projects gone wrong. He also has a very effective style of setting his arguments out – so if he just sticks to the issues from now on and avoids any more scare tactics, he'll be doing us all a great service. Time will tell.

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