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Waste Water (Thames and Greater London)

Volume 532: debated on Wednesday 14 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.

The hon. Gentleman correctly identified two problems with the scheme. One is the choice of site and the other, as with all infrastructure projects, is the cost. As constituency Members, we will all have issues and will have to negotiate with Thames Water. Like the hon. Gentleman, I have found Thames Water to be a reasonable organisation with which to negotiate. Can we try to disaggregate this matter from the project as a whole? My local authority, which is implacably opposed to the scheme, is using those legitimate objections to object to the whole scheme. I hope that we can have a three-party endorsement today of the fact that we have to clear up the Thames. David Walliams has focused our attention on that. Every single week, my constituents see huge amounts of raw sewage going into the Thames, near to where they live. Let us try to identify and solve the problems so that we can support a scheme that really has to be carried through.

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.

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 the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (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.

Will the Minister be so kind as to include in that correspondence the other hon. Members who are here in Westminster Hall for this debate and who are interested in that particular issue?

I put it on the record that I will copy that correspondence to the hon. Members for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), who are present in Westminster Hall for this debate.

The Thames tunnel commission has been established. As I have already said, we are providing evidence to it and we will look at what it produces. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark asked about the cost of the Thames tunnel project. Obviously, that is of huge concern to everybody who pays water bills in the Thames Water area. The current estimates for the costs are being reviewed on a regular basis, as he would expect them to be. As is the case with any cost assessment, there are assumptions in those assessments, including assumptions about construction costs and the financing of the operation. I assure him that Thames Water is building a very large contingency element into its costs analysis. Along with Thames Water, we are being extremely rigorous in ensuring that all risks are being considered and that—without being Rumsfeldian—all the unknowns that we know about are assessed, to see whether we can know more than we currently do.

The most important point, however, is that there must be a credible package to put, first, to water-charge payers and, secondly, to put to investors. Without that credible package and without Government support for the project, I do not believe that we can go ahead with the scheme. As I have said, it is extremely important that there is a credible package. An impact assessment from 2007 of cost-benefit analysis is being updated, and we will make the updated version public.

My right hon. Friend asked what the rules are regarding compensation when people’s land and amenities are affected by this scheme. If he will allow me, I will include a fuller answer to that in my letter to him.

My right hon. Friend’s last question related to issues about the sites at King’s Stairs gardens and Chamber’s wharf. That is a very important question and there are other sites that other hon. Members have already raised with me and will continue to do so. I confirm to my right hon. Friend that those issues are planning issues and therefore that it is for Thames Water to take them forward. However, we are looking very closely at them and we will liaise with him and others if we feel that there is a role for Government to influence the process. We want to ensure that this enormous scheme—both its construction and its eventual operation—has as little impact as possible on his constituents and others in the Thames area.

I cannot give a fuller reply than that, but I assure my right hon. Friend that I will continue to liaise with him and other London Members, particularly riverside Members, as well as with any other hon. Members who represent constituencies in the Thames Water area, to ensure that we are working together, first, to make the value of this project understood and, secondly, to make it a success for future generations.