[Relevant documents: The Fourth Report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on the Draft National Policy Statement on Waste Water, HC 736, and the Government’s response thereto (The Government Response to Parliamentary Scrutiny of the Draft National Policy Statement for Waste Water, which was laid before this House on 9 February).]
I beg to move,
That this House takes note of and approves the National Policy Statement for Waste Water, which was laid before this House on 9 February.
The waste water national policy statement sets out Government policy for the provision of waste water infrastructure of national significance in England. It will be used from this April by the Planning Inspectorate, as the examining body, and by the Secretary of State, as the decision maker, as the primary basis for making decisions on development consent for nationally significant infrastructure projects.
Consultation on the waste water national policy statement took place between November 2010 and February 2011. At the same time, it was subject to parliamentary scrutiny. The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs undertook scrutiny for the House by holding oral hearings and taking written evidence. It published a report of its findings in April 2011, with 19 recommendations and conclusions, to which the Government responded in February 2012.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Select Committee, nobly and expertly chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), for its hard work and for its determination to get to grips with a subject area that was new to some Committee members and, at the time when I gave evidence, relatively new to me. I am grateful to the Committee for scrutinising the national policy statement in a relatively short period. I hope that it can see that its contribution has helped to refine and improve the document before the House.
The Minister is being his usual modest self in saying that he was not au fait with the subject. He is now up to his knees, if not his waist, in the subject, having dealt with the Water Industry (Financial Assistance) Bill last week and in introducing this debate. I believe that the Select Committee had some doubt about major projects being included in the NPS. For the avoidance of doubt, are the Government unshaken in their view that projects such as the Thames tunnel and Deephams sewage works should be included in the NPS? Whatever the final decision on the route and the detail, it is important to be clear—[Interruption.]
I think I got the gist of it. I will come on to cover the key points that were made by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and to explain what the waste water national policy statement is. I think that I will address the hon. Gentleman’s points, but I am happy to let him intervene again.
In laying the waste water national policy statement before the House for approval and in having this debate, we are meeting a Government commitment to mirror the new requirements of the Planning Act 2008 that will be brought into effect next month under the Localism Act 2011. Those procedures are intended to make national policy statements more democratically accountable to Parliament.
The Government are committed to making the planning system more open, transparent and fast, and to ensuring that all those who want to get involved in the process can do so, whether it relates to an application to extend a property or to a project of national significance, such as the Thames tunnel. The abolition of the Infrastructure Planning Commission brings democratic accountability back into the determination of nationally significant infrastructure projects by giving decision-making powers back to Ministers, who are answerable to Parliament. Ministers will also have regard to recommendations made by the Planning Inspectorate.
National policy statements are a key component of a more open and accountable planning system. They will set out Government policy clearly on particular types of infrastructure of national significance, having been subject in draft form to both formal consultation and parliamentary scrutiny. National policy statements provide a framework for preparing, considering and deciding development consent applications. This national policy statement is therefore primarily for planning purposes and does not claim to be a complete statement of Government policy on waste water.
Effective waste water infrastructure is vital, because without suitable treatment, the waste water we produce every day would damage the water environment and create problems for public health, water resources and wildlife. The proper collection, treatment and discharge of waste water, and the correct disposal of the resulting sludge, helps to protect, maintain and improve water quality in the UK.
The criterion that we have used in the national policy statement for the demonstration of the need for nationally significant infrastructure projects is that the projects have been included in the Environment Agency’s national environment programme. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee recommended that that issue needed to be clarified and I believe that our approach now addresses its concerns.
In addition to establishing the need for waste water infrastructure, our national policy statement sets out impacts that will be relevant for any waste water infrastructure, including details on mitigating adverse impacts. Those are issues that the Planning Inspectorate and Ministers will have to have regard to when examining and determining applications.
The national policy statement does not describe how any waste water projects of national significance should be developed. I think that this addresses in part the point made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter). How such projects are developed is up to the project promoter before they place an application for development consent, which from April this year will go to the Planning Inspectorate.
The waste water national policy statement details two proposed projects of national significance: the sewage treatment works scheme at Deephams in north-east London and the Thames tunnel. The justification for both developments and the consideration of alternatives to the Thames tunnel are fully explained in the document.
Currently, only the proposed upgrade of the Deephams sewage treatment works can be considered a potential nationally significant infrastructure project, as it meets the criteria in the Planning Act 2008 for waste water treatment facilities serving a population equivalent of 500,000 people. We will shortly lay a draft order before Parliament for its approval, to amend section 14 of that Act to enable a waste water transfer and storage project such as the Thames tunnel to be classed as a nationally significant infrastructure project.
London’s sewerage is under considerable pressure, due to a system that is close to capacity, changing land use in London and population expansion. That leads to frequent spills of untreated waste water containing sewage into the tidal reaches of the Thames, which has a negative impact on its water quality. Resolving that problem has been the subject of extensive and comprehensive studies, including the consideration of a wide range of alternative solutions, for more than a decade. As a result, the Government are satisfied that the development of the Thames tunnel, when compared with the alternatives, is the most cost-effective and timely solution to the problem of untreated sewage discharging into the River Thames. That is demonstrated in the waste water national policy statement.
One of the arguments that the Minister has just made is that the proposed tunnel is the most cost-effective way of dealing with the problems in the Thames. Can he point me to any cost-benefit analysis that has happened in the last couple of years, since the initial study was made in 2006 and since the cost of the project has risen from £1.7 billion or thereabouts to £4.1 billion?
Like my right hon. Friend, I am concerned about the cost of the project. That is why my Department has instructed Ernst and Young to advise it in detail on the cost-benefit analyses that have been carried out to date, recognising, of course, that not far off a quarter of the estimated price is a contingency. It is important that throughout the process we are open about the figures that are arrived at. These matters concern not just his constituents and those of other London Members but 144 Members whose constituents pay Thames Water bills, of whom I am one.
I can assure my right hon. Friend that, as I said in last week’s debate, Ministers remain healthily sceptical about the cost of the project. We want to ensure that it provides value for money, and I am happy to tell him that cost-benefit analysis will be an ongoing process. I assure him that the alternatives that we have examined, which may be more attractive on the face of it, such as retrofitting sustainable urban drainage systems across London or separating clean water from dirty, cannot compare favourably with the cost of the tunnel. Indeed, one of the options that I have seen would come in at somewhere between three and four times the cost of the Thames tunnel scheme. I take the matter very seriously and will be happy to keep him informed of our progress.
One concern about both the development at Deephams and the Thames tunnel is the role of Ofwat. There is concern that Ofwat’s attention may be somewhat too concentrated on the Thames tunnel, for all the good reasons that we have discussed, and that it may not give sufficient priority to Deephams. Can the Minister reassure us that that will not be allowed to happen?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that is a matter of great importance to Ofwat. It has agreed funding to progress the Deephams upgrade, which will increase treatment capacity to accommodate the expected growth. I am convinced that Ofwat is taking the project seriously, but I am happy to write to him with more details. I think it would strenuously deny that it is looking myopically at the Thames tunnel, to the exclusion of Deephams. Of course, it is perfectly in order for him to contact Ofwat, because it is the independent economic regulator of these matters.
We made statements to the House about the Thames tunnel in November 2011, accompanied by documents setting out what we believe is the irrefutable case that it is the correct scheme for our capital city. To address the hon. Gentleman’s concern, I point out that although improvements to the Deephams sewage treatment works may have received less public attention over the years, they are on a large scale. The current site covers about 30 hectares and is the ninth largest sewage treatment works in England.
The improvements are essential to ensure that environmental quality standards in the waterways into which the treatment works discharge meet European and national standards. As the developer, Thames Water, is still evaluating the site and treatment options prior to selecting a preferred option for development, the waste water national policy statement does not consider alternative options. It will be for Thames Water to justify its preferred option in its development consent application.
The national policy statement, as with planning policy documents in general, does not prescribe the use of specific technologies. That is to ensure that developers are not fettered by the Government from taking account of future technological advancements. It is up to the developer to justify in its application its preferred treatment option, including any options it has considered and ruled out.
Although the national policy statement details two potential nationally significant infrastructure projects, may I stress that we are not here to debate how those schemes may be delivered? Our purpose is to discuss whether the national policy statement fulfils its requirements under the 2008 Act, and therefore whether it is fit for purpose. Designation of this national policy statement is not the last opportunity for people to have their say on development consent applications for waste water infrastructure of national importance. Developers must consult local communities before submitting an application to the Planning Inspectorate, and people will have the chance to have their say during the examination by registering and making representations to the Planning Inspectorate.
The waste water national policy statement is critical in helping to deliver important infrastructure developments and in ensuring that the right framework is used in the consideration of development consent applications. I strongly believe that the waste water national policy statement provides robust justification for the new infrastructure proposed. I welcome the debate and look forward to responding, with the leave of the House, to the points raised in it.
I note that debates in the House on waste water are rather like the No. 159 bus that serves the House—you wait for ever for one, then two come along at once. However, I welcome this debate on the national policy statement, as well as the statement itself.
Much of the interest in the debate will be generated by specific nationally significant infrastructure projects, such as Deephams, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr Love), and the Thames tunnel. Labour supports the Thames tunnel project. In government, we foresaw the need for the tunnel and established both the commission and the enabling legislation.
London’s sewers carry both raw sewage and rain water and were designed for 4 million inhabitants. There are now 8 million inhabitants, meaning that even small amounts of rain can cause massive amounts of untreated sewage to be discharged into the Thames. That happens once a week on average, and it kills wildlife, damages the health of river users and will in time trigger significant daily fines from the European Commission. We must comply with the urban waste water treatment directive. The project tackles that by collecting the overflow in a giant tunnel bored below London and processing the waste in Beckton sewage works. That should mean that discharges occur only a few times a year, and that they are much less harmful.
Projected costs have risen, however, and time scales have begun to stretch. The Government need to show leadership and make a clear commitment to the project to ensure that the right vehicle for managing and delivering it is put in place. We remain unconvinced by alternative solutions to the problems of London’s sewage discharge, many of which, sadly, are more about local politics than about long-term planning. The consultation process is vital to ensuring that sites are placed correctly and properly integrated into the environment. MPs will rightly want to represent the views of their local communities in that process.
There are several hurdles to clear, not least the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who has an effective veto over the tunnel. The support of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs alone will be insufficient. Last week in the House, I questioned the Minister on the nature of the decision-making process. I expressed concern that the joint decision-making process was an administrative one and not a legal one, and asked for clarification. He replied:
“The Secretaries of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and for Communities and Local Government will jointly take decisions on water and waste water applications. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will take the lead on considering the Planning Inspectorate’s recommendations. My officials are due to meet his officials shortly to agree the process”.—[Official Report, 12 March 2012; Vol. 542, c. 318.]
Despite the Minister’s assurances, this evening’s debate is the last opportunity for Parliament to express its view of the appropriateness of the Thames tunnel project, so let me put it on the record that I am disappointed that the decision-making process giving the green light to the tunnel is yet to be decided, and that it will not be decided before Parliament has exhausted its scrutiny of whether the Government should be given the green light to go ahead. As we have seen recently in the internal divisions over planning reform and weekly bin collections, every time the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs goes head to head with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, it comes off worse.
In 2001, the independent Thames tideway strategic study was set up to consider the problem of London’s excessive sewage discharge and to come up with a solution. In 2005, the study concluded that improvements to existing treatment works and a tunnel to intercept the combined sewage overflows were the best solution. In 2007, we determined that it was appropriate for Thames Water to make provision for the design, construction and maintenance of such a scheme; and the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 provided for infrastructure regulation to create the framework for the tendering, designation and building of such a project.
In addition to the primary environmental benefits of the Thames tunnel, we saw it as an opportunity to create more than 4,000 direct jobs, expand apprenticeships and regenerate London. Tory-led Hammersmith and Fulham council has co-ordinated much of the opposition to the Thames tunnel plans. Most recently, it established a commission with four other councils to examine the project. Essentially, it proposed a combination of a much shorter tunnel, building more local sewage works, greater separation of foul sewage and rain water, and the installation of sustainable urban drainage.
Some of those would be welcome complementary projects, but we agree with the Government that pursuing the alternative route is a distraction that could cause far greater disruption and costs, and ultimately prove to be ineffectual. Supporters of the alternative approach would have preferred to fight the battle over whether the tunnel should be built at all, and with the commencement of the next-stage consultation, the passing of last week’s Water Industry (Financial Assistance) Bill and tonight’s national policy statement debate, attention should now be focused on getting the specifics right: route and site selection, the delivery vehicle and the finances.
I want to touch briefly on Deephams, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton. I have taken a particular interest in this project because treated effluent from Deephams discharges into Salmon’s brook, a tributary of the River Lee, whose source, as we all know, is the picturesque hamlet of Luton. Again, we accept the need for this upgrade work to go ahead. Deephams serves nearly 1 million residents and is already undergoing a £50 million programme of improvement works to deal with excess storm water inflows. Nevertheless, improving water quality and expanding capacity to meet the needs of a growing population will require further work.
The Government should express their view on whether it is better to rebuild the plant in the existing urban area, as congested as it is, than to rebuild on a new site. We know that if relocation is the preferred option, effluent will need to be moved from the existing site footprint for cleaning and then returned for discharge. I therefore welcome what I understand to be the Minister’s intention to designate Deephams as a nationally significant infrastructure project, as the Thames tunnel was late last year. That is what I understood him to say, but I am sure that he will be able to clarify when he sums up.
The process that we initiated in government of introducing national policy statements in draft form, with the intention that they be scrutinised by the relevant Select Committees and the public is, I believe, showing dividends. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh)—I note that we are increasingly in agreement on such matters—for her work chairing the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and for the recommendations of her Committee. I give the Government credit for incorporating many of those recommendations into the final document.
We completely agree with the Committee’s view that greater attention should be given to—SUDS—sustainable drainage systems as measures complementary to large infrastructure projects. In the case of the Thames tunnel, this can help to ensure that the effectiveness of the tunnel is not reduced with climate change and that we do not end up in 50 to 100 years’ time having to construct a second tunnel.
Measures to reduce the amount of water passing through drains and into the Thames can be implemented at neighbourhood or district level. We encourage councils across London not only to provide information and education on reducing water consumption through rain water harvesting and water recycling, but to lead by example. Education should focus on encouraging people to “wetrofit” their homes, with fittings such as low or dual-flush toilets, water-efficient shower heads and tap flow regulators. Introducing grey water recycling in new-build properties and renovations could allow bath and basin water to be cleaned and reused. External features for rain water harvesting should also play an essential role.
The Government have had much to say about their green deal programme at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, but little assistance is being extended to householders looking to purchase green roofs, water butts or downspouts to collect rain water that otherwise would go into our sewers, even though the advantages are obvious, with residents enjoying a notable reduction in their water bills and the sewerage system having to manage a lower volume of waste water. Over time, local authorities and the Highways Agency should replace hard, non-permeable surfaces with porous materials on pavements and public footpaths; home owners, too, should be encouraged to consider such measures. I do not underestimate the challenge that SUDS present to the status quo. Every year in London alone some 3,000 hectares of private domestic gardens are paved over—the equivalent of 2.5 Hyde parks. Such complementary measures should be part of a rolling programme, and we will return to them in the comprehensive water Bill, a draft of which the Minister promises in the forthcoming Session of Parliament.
On the wider objectives of the national policy statement, we welcome the commitment to sustainable development. Infrastructure should help us to live within strong environmental limits and to have due regard to environmental, social and economic considerations. However, may I press the Minister to clarify which definition of “sustainable development” he intends to use in this version of the national policy statement?
I wonder whether I might put to my hon. Friend the question I put to the Minister, but did not get an answer to—although perhaps the Minister, who I think agrees with the position I described, might deal with it when summing up. This is something of a hybrid NPS, because although it deals with the general principles, as my hon. Friend says, it also deals with specific projects. Is it his view—as I think it is the Minister’s—that it is appropriate to have major projects such as the Thames tunnel in addition to general principles in the NPS?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend that it is appropriate to recognise major, nationally significant infrastructure proposals in the draft of the document. It is important to note that the document will be revised over a cycle of every five or so years, and rightly so. It is also important to note that the Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs rightly proposed an additional appendix referring specifically to the two nationally significant infrastructure proposals in the document, for greater clarity and to ensure that that can be addressed appropriately by Ministers. I therefore agree with my hon. Friend’s point, and I am sure that the Minister will clarify the position in due course.
Returning to the broader themes of the policy statement, on public health and environmental improvement, we continue to support efforts to comply with the urban waste water treatment directive, and we appreciate how this is reflected in the policy statement. Improving water quality in the natural environment and meeting our international obligations are, of course, essential. In that vein, I am a little disappointed that there was not more in the water White Paper on the quality of water and waste water. We know that major projects will need to go ahead—not least the two that I have already mentioned—to achieve that objective, and I am assured that the objective in the NPS will be sufficient to ensure that those projects go ahead.
According to the waste water policy statement, reducing water consumption is another of the Government’s key objectives and a major part of their plan. We know about the benefits of reducing water consumption, and not just for water treatment. Much of England will be subject to water restrictions from 5 April, as drought conditions develop. Although we agree on the importance of the long-term reforms envisaged in the water White Paper—competition for non-household customers to drive water efficiency innovation—we are worried by the lack of deep thought on how to reduce per capita water usage.
In some parts of the advanced world, individual residents get by on just 75 litres per day, but in the UK, household water consumption has grown since the 1950s to around 150 litres per person per day. There is also still significant variation between different water companies. We therefore call for more action, including the publishing of the so-called missing chapter of the water White Paper, to ensure that water efficiency measures are taken seriously and that Government actions and programmes best reflect the guidance, so that not everyone is subject to restrictions on water use when there is enough water to go round in some regions.
On climate change mitigation and adaptation, we know that climate change will require some of our water treatment systems to take far greater volumes of waste and storm water, as well as require our water industry to reduce its emissions. By 2050, the industry—which already accounts for about 2% of our nation’s carbon footprint—will need to have contributed significantly to the 80% reduction in emissions required by the Climate Change Act 2008. At present, there is a tension between higher standards for waste water, often requiring higher levels of energy consumption, and the requirement to reduce the draw on our national grid. There is plenty of space for innovation, and a need for far more research on efficiency and devising new processes for raising standards of waste water. To help with this, we call on the Government to publish a road map, as they have with the motor industry, to sketch out a path to a low-carbon waste water industry.
The principle of the waste hierarchy should of course apply to any project under the national policy statement; the document refers to that directly. In that regard, more could be done to encourage new processes that harness the organic value of effluent. Will the Minister outline what discussions he has had with his counterparts at the Department of Energy and Climate Change and at Ofwat to ensure that the energy recovery process is maximised through the implementation of this document? We welcome this national policy statement, and we will not oppose the motion tonight.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker). I, too, welcome the debate this evening and the waste water national policy statement. In these debates, I feel as though I have died and gone to heaven when the Minister and the Opposition spokesman both say what a good piece of work the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has done. It was a privilege to carry out such a substantial body of work on the national policy statement, and we took our responsibilities seriously. I am grateful to the Committee, to those who advised us and to those who gave evidence.
I shall give the House some background information. In April 2011, the Committee published the report on our inquiry into the Department’s draft waste water national policy statement, in which we made a number of recommendations for what we viewed as the improvement of the NPS. Some time later, on 9 February this year, the Government published their response to the Committee’s report and laid a revised version of the NPS before the House. I am delighted that the Government have been able to find time for this debate tonight.
The hon. Member for Luton South mentioned the fact that we had to comply with, among other things, the European urban waste water treatment directive. May I just say, as a personal comment, that I hope that we can learn from this whole exercise—and from the essence of the Macdonald review of regulations from Europe—and that we must engage at the earliest possible stage and in the most constructive, positive manner? It will be a great step forward if we can learn from this exercise.
As the Minister said earlier, the national policy statement is critical to the new planning system. It will help developers to bring forward waste water projects of national significance without facing unnecessary delays, while ensuring that local people have an opportunity to have their say about how their communities are developed and about how the decisions are made in an accountable way by elected Ministers.
Following on from the Minister’s comments, I would be interested to know whether at this stage he has had sight of the final version of the national planning policy framework, which I understand may be revealed to the world at large later this week. Is he in a position to tell us this evening, given that this issue was raised in our evidence sessions, what the impact will be on the waste water national policy statement and the two projects falling under it?
The Minister referred to the application for planning consents. He may be interested to know that some time, regrettably, after we had taken evidence and reported, we were still receiving representations from those who had not realised that the scrutiny was taking place in the EFRA Committee. The matter of how to bring such scrutiny to the attention of the wider community is important if this were to arise again, as I understand it might if the Minister proceeds with his review. I shall return to that later.
The Committee was pleased to have the opportunity to scrutinise the draft water national policy statement last year, and we welcome the Government’s response. Although, as I alluded, it took the Department some time to publish the revised version, we were pleased that the time was used well to improve the national policy statement by incorporating many of our recommended changes. We believe that the now revised PPS broadly does a good job in setting out the framework for decision makers. Given the importance of the issue, however, we welcome the Government’s debate on it today.
Many other hon. Members will have issues to raise, particularly those whose constituencies are in the catchment area for the billing of the project, such as my hon. Friend the Minister, and perhaps also those whose constituencies lie along its route. I shall focus my remarks both on areas where the Government have incorporated our comments and on those where they did not.
The Government’s response sets out a number of areas in respect of which DEFRA has accepted the recommendations in the Committee’s report and amended the NPS consequentially. On the definition of need, I welcome the fact that in the revised NPS, the inclusion of a project in Ofwat’s asset management plan has been removed, in line with the Committee’s recommendation, as a criterion of proof of a project’s need. It was not logical to use that as a basis of proof, because its inclusion did not in itself mean that Ofwat had approved the individual plan for how it should be carried out. Indeed, Ofwat’s evidence on how it would review and consider each plan was quite compelling, so the removal of the asset management plan is a sensible approach, with retention of inclusion in the Environment Agency’s national environment plan as proof of a project’s need providing a workable criterion. I thus welcome the Minister’s comments this evening.
Some of the site-specific material in the NPS has been moved to an annexe, which is part of the document that is not to be relied on by the decision maker in reaching a decision on a project. That meets to some extent the Committee’s criticism about the inclusion of weak material on the Thames tunnel and Deephams sewage treatment works in the main NPS. In our view, the remaining site-specific sections have been improved, and the Committee welcomes these amendments because the focus of the NPS should be on establishing generic criteria that are applicable to any project falling within the threshold of a nationally significant infrastructure project set out in the Planning Act 2008, as amended.
As regards the inclusion of the Thames tunnel in the nationally significant infrastructure project planning regime, may I say that the Government have also moved to change the Planning Act definitions, as recommended by the Committee, to include sewage transfers and storage projects such as the Thames tunnel within the process for deciding applications of nationally significant infrastructure projects? We welcome that move, which is in the intended spirit of the Planning Act regime and reflects the inclusion of the Thames tunnel in the Government’s major infrastructure plans. The inclusion of sewage transfer and storage projects of a significant size, such as the Thames tunnel project, is clearly both logical and pragmatic.
Recommendation 9 deals with the approval of costs. The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr Love) mentioned the importance of keeping the costs of the Thames tunnel under scrutiny, and it is vital for Ofwat to be rigorous in scrutinising those costs, which, according to the evidence given to our Committee, are escalating. The Water Industry (Financial Assistance) Bill, which we debated last week, contains necessary provisions enabling Thames Water to ensure that it can finance the project in the most cost-effective manner, but I should welcome an assurance from the Minister about the intended use of those powers, and a reassurance for Thames Water customers that the costs will not continue to increase. It would be helpful if he also told us how Ofwat has strengthened its in-house capacity to focus on the Thames tunnel, and what advice the company is receiving on how to limit the cost of the projects referred to in the Government’s response to our report.
I am sure that Members will not be disappointed if I now turn to my personal pet subject, sustainable drainage. In recommendation 6, we
“recommend that Defra undertakes within 12 months a full assessment of the potential national impact of widespread adoption of SUDs”
—sustainable drainage systems—
“and water efficiency programmes for existing as well as new housing stock on future waste water infrastructure needs and that this be taken into account in any future revisions of the Waste Water NPS.”
I realise that there are a number of strands in DEFRA’s work on sustainable drainage, but it is disappointing that the water White Paper does not focus more on SUDS, and that more progress has not been made towards an agreement on funding for them. According to the Government’s response,
“The Planning Act allows for the partial or full review of an NPS. We aim to review the Waste Water NPS in five years time”
—perhaps the Minister will confirm that that is the case—
“or before that time should there be a significant need to do so.”
Obviously, my question is what would constitute a significant need. The Government’s response continues:
“This will take account of any changes to appropriate policy since the development of the original Waste Water NPS.”
I am not disagreeing with the Minister, but we need more information this evening.
The Government’s response also refers to schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, a large part of which has still to come into effect. They say
“We intend to implement Schedule 3 as soon as possible and dates are being explored”
—this is exciting stuff, Mr Deputy Speaker—
“in the consultation on implementation of Schedule 3 which we launched on 20 December. The Act also requires local authorities to adopt those sustainable drainage systems which serve more than one property. In the short term”
—it must be quite a short term, Mr Deputy Speaker—
“Defra will fund the maintenance of adopted sustainable drainage systems whilst we explore long-term funding options.”
Will the Minister tell us what the procedure and timetable will be for the adoption—finally—of sustainable drainage systems? The last Government could have done that before the general election, but they chose not to. We are now approaching the anniversary of that election, and I think that the House is growing impatient. I certainly am. When will we have the SUDs? They are important. The House wants to be able to establish whether the Government have explored all the alternatives.
I hope the Minister will respond—in his usual, inimitable, charming way—to the points raised. In respect of the national policy statement, if we are truly signed up to sustainable development, the environment and the needs of local communities must not be sacrificed. The Committee commends the national policy statement and is glad that the Government welcome some of its proposals. However, we are disappointed that they disagree with certain measures.
I thank the Minister for ensuring that we have this debate, especially as I had begun to lose faith that we would have an opportunity to discuss the national policy statement. Those who were present for the last debate will be unsurprised to learn that I propose to focus my remarks on the Deephams works in my constituency. I welcome the Minister’s comments on Deephams, and I want to press for a little more reassurance.
Let me give some background on Deephams. The existing infrastructure is exhausted. There has been little investment in recent years, although there is now to be an investment of £50 million, which is very welcome. Deephams is a constrained site, but that was not always the case. Many years ago, when the Lee valley was a leafy area, none of my constituents lived particularly close to Deephams, and most of them barely knew that it was there. In fact, it could be said that they did not really care, but that has changed in the last 10 years.
Housing now abuts the very edge of Deephams, and there are also adjacent industrial sites. It is now very much part of my constituency. Statutory nuisance is a major, and continuing, issue, and I have had many an argument with both constituents and Thames Water about it. Because some of my constituents now live close to the site, they are very concerned. We must address this issue.
The national policy statement attempts to provide reassurance. I was disappointed that the Select Committee’s recommendations were not followed, but I understand the reasons for that. I have now been somewhat reassured, and welcome some of the national policy statement recommendations. As the Minister said in his opening remarks, there is no longer a preferred option for redevelopment, so a range of options for Deephams can be considered. That is important. Fresh priority has also been given to design issues. That will be important in the context of Deephams, because of the constrained nature of the site. The Minister mentioned greater flexibility, too. Over the period in question, the number of people that the sludge works will serve will increase from about 800,000 to about 1 million.
The national policy statement contains comments on infrastructure. It says the infrastructure at Deephams is out of date and needs to be replaced. I want to add to what is contained in the national policy statement, and seek reassurance on two issues: the central role of Ofwat, and how we can best ensure that the fact that the site at Deephams is constrained does not prove to be an insurmountable difficulty.
First, let me tackle the issue of Ofwat. As everyone in tonight’s debate has recognised, it has a critical role to play in infrastructure investment. However, according to the Government’s water White Paper, Ofwat needs to be more competitive, less bureaucratic and much more flexible in financing infrastructure. Indeed, I understand that that will form a core part of the water Bill that will come before the House in the next Session. That new regime will not come in until after the next general election, but the need to meet EU water improvement standards means that Deephams has to be operational by 2017. So the first issue that I would like the Minister to talk about is: how we can achieve the benefits that the national policy statement mentions—innovation, flexibility and greater freedom in terms of infrastructure investment —from an unreformed Ofwat? What can we do to make sure that Ofwat is adequate for the task?
The second issue to address is the constrained nature of the Deephams site, and I wish to say three things about that. First, a higher level of water treatment must be achieved in a smaller area, as space is very limited at Deephams. Secondly, it is possible to retrofit the installation of the new facilities into the existing tanks—indeed, new technology is well suited to that retrofit capacity. Thirdly, we must minimise the statutory nuisance to adjoining residents. That is a continuing problem that will not go away, and it needs to be addressed.
We can best try to answer all three issues in relation to this site by using new technology. Using new technology will give us the additional benefit of future-proofing for likely required improvements in water quality over the extended life of the new Deephams, and it will also help to deal with further population increases—it is suggested that London’s population will increase significantly over the next 25 years—and, of course, climate change. If we are to future-proof for all three of those, technology will be very important. However, it must be tried-and-tested technology, and it must avoid the danger of being out of date even before Deephams is up and running.
May I conclude my remarks by asking the Minister to give a little further reassurance to my constituents and to the House that the role of Ofwat will enable the recommendations of the national policy statement to happen? May I also ask what role new technology will play in achieving our ambitions for Deephams? In such a constrained site, it seems to be the only solution that will be adequate for the task of making Deephams the sort of 21st century facility for which we are all hoping.
I am one of 144 Members of Parliament in the Thames Water area directly affected by the issue of the Thames tunnel, and I hope that both the Minister and the hon. Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) will forgive me if I restrict my comments to the area that is close to my heart.
It is good to have consensus at times in politics and to be able to discuss issues in a measured way. One of the difficulties with the Thames tunnel is that there will be one hell of an outcry from many Thames Water customers in the years to come when they recognise the sheer cost implied by what is being put into place through this national policy statement for waste water, as it affects not only the London area, but the Thames Water area. Those living in the centre of London will see the tunnel being constructed, as I am sure it will be in the years to come, and will recognise that that does not come entirely cost free. I suspect that Thames Water customers in the Oxfordshires and Gloucestershires of this world will put a lot more pressure on. It is, therefore, all the more important that I use this opportunity to put certain concerns about this policy statement on the record, although I do not wish to break away too far from elements of the happy consensus that we have seen tonight.
I think we all acknowledge that if the Thames tunnel goes ahead, as I confidently predict it will, it will be a nationally significant infrastructure project. It is therefore sensible to make it one in the formal sense, both in relation to the Planning Act and, as the framework suggests is needed with such projects, with the sort of national policy statement we are debating tonight. I agree with other Members that although this debate has been relatively short, this opportunity to debate such a crucial issue is welcome. The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs certainly thought so when it examined this draft national policy statement last year, as we gathered from my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) earlier.
The Committee also signalled some concerns about the way that the document appeared to pre-empt elements of the planning process. The waste water NPS is the key document against which the planning application for the Thames tunnel will be judged. For that reason, the Committee said that it should be “a purely generic document” to prevent the justification for the Thames tunnel project from being removed from scrutiny. It also warned that although reference to specific schemes could be put in an annex to the national policy statement,
“it should be made clear that it does not constitute information to which decision makers must have regard when considering project applications.”
I fear that the Government have rejected that element of the advice. Instead, the NPS makes it clear, on page 21, that the tunnel is the “only option” and that what would be left to the Planning Inspectorate would merely be the “specific design and route”. In its response to the Select Committee report, DEFRA said the Government want to provide a “degree of certainty” to Thames Water. I do not think there is any doubt that they have been able to achieve that result.
Let us be quite clear about what the national policy statement means in practice. It means there will be no independent analysis of the very case for a tunnel. The document we are debating removes the case for the tunnel from the planning process. I think the Minister will argue that that is reasonable because the arguments have already been heard in detail—perhaps privately in his office and the offices of his predecessors—that the evidence is overwhelming and that the final NPS makes an unarguable case. If that were true, he would have a point, but the NPS is far from entirely convincing, not least because there are a number of things that one would never learn just from reading the document. In my brief contribution tonight I shall list the ones that seem the most significant, and I join the Select Committee in asking whether there really is no need for an independent assessment.
First, the tunnel will not collect 39 million tonnes of sewage. Like Thames Water, the NPS mentions 39 million cubic metres of discharge into the Thames each year. It then states that the Thames tunnel is the preferred way to address this issue. The casual reader of the document will assume that the tunnel collects 39 million tonnes of discharge, but that figure will be more than halved without the tunnel being built. The construction of the Lee tunnel and the upgrades to the sewage treatment works will prevent 21 million tonnes from entering the tidal Thames, and improvements to Mogden sewage treatment works will tackle several million more upstream.
Rather than celebrating the huge strides already being made to clean up the Thames—I am not entirely complacent about that; there should be huge strides and we should always be looking to improve the quality of water in the Thames—the NPS makes only oblique references and never entirely quantifies them in the way that I have tried to do tonight. It is worth repeating that the amount of sewage entering the Thames will fall dramatically without the Thames tunnel project. Only 18 million tonnes of discharge will be addressed by the tunnel, by no means all of which would be stopped as there would still be three large discharge events in an average year.
Unlike the publicity we have seen from Thames Water the NPS does at least describe the discharges as a mixture of “untreated sewage and rain water”, but it does not explain that the rain water accounts for more than 95% of the total. That somewhat disingenuous use of statistics has understandably misled countless members of the public and even Members of this House. In last week’s debate on the Water Industry (Financial Assistance) Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr Offord) talked about tackling the
“39 million tonnes of effluent”—[Official Report, 14 March 2012; Vol. 542, c. 306.]
but the reality is that there are just 18 million tonnes of discharge, of which not even 1 million tonnes are effluent. Any discharge of sewage is regrettable but we should deal in facts.
When the Committee put questions on the national policy statement to the Department, we asked particularly about the potential impact of SUDS and other rainfall harvesting. If, as my hon. Friend says, we are talking about mostly rainfall, that impact would be quite substantial.
I accept that there would be an impact, but the use of the word “effluent” in relation to the 39 million cubic metres gives the public and many Members of this House a somewhat misleading impression of the sheer urgency of the need to undertake the project at this time.
It has been asserted that the river has been getting better and will continue to do so, and there is no doubt about that, but a feature of debates on the Water Industry (Financial Assistance) Bill last week and less recently was the number of hon. Members who suggested that the Thames had been getting worse, and will continue to get worse without the tunnel. The hon. Members for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) and for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) made that statement in part. That claim is not supported by the facts, as regards the immediate future; it is also probably not entirely true as regards the past and present.
I note that the Environment Agency’s website no longer hosts a press release that it issued only 17 months ago, but at that time, it went so far as to describe the Thames as
“the beauty queen of the planet’s waterways.”
That perhaps goes a little too far, even for those who have no desire whatever for a Thames tunnel-type project, but what prompted the comment was real enough: the sustained and continuing improvement of the Thames, which saw it win the international Theiss river prize for outstanding achievement in river management and restoration.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned my contribution last week. Surely there is irrefutable evidence that in the past few years, there have been significant discharges into the Thames, which have damaged the water quality. There is no getting away from that. I welcome all the improvements, including upstream, but the solution has to be a combination of rainwater harvesting, better treatment and, eventually, a Thames tunnel. It will not make the river perfect, but if we do not do all those things, the river quality will continue to deteriorate. That is not what he, I, or anyone in London wants.
I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point, but there is the issue of the sheer cost of the proposal, and whether we need to go for what is seen as being the only game in town, and take up the Thames Water proposal that we spend £4.1 billion—already a significant increase on the figure originally presented for this project.
It is worth saying that population growth and climate change will not reverse the improvements that have already taken place. Given that a 60% reduction in discharges is on the way, it would take something much more significant to reverse the trend. The NPS identifies two potential factors—population growth and climate change—but neither seems of any great magnitude in relation to this issue. New housing developments are already being built with SUDS and mitigation designed in, and retrofitting will slowly improve the existing housing stock. Moreover, the NPS says that more than 1 billion litres per day of sewage need in England can be saved through water efficiency, but then bizarrely ignores how that can help offset the projected changes in London’s population.
Climate change is cited as producing more “extreme rainfall events” like those of August 2004; that may have an impact, as was discussed in the exchange with the hon. Member for Islington North. That discharge of eight years ago caused the death of many thousands of fish, yet on page 18, the NPS admits that the fish deaths were caused by the Mogden sewage treatment works, which of course have nothing to do with the tunnel, and are already being upgraded. Thames Water was quoted last week as claiming that climate change will produce less rainfall and more droughts, and will require more reservoirs to be constructed, which implies less in the way of combined sewage overflow overall.
Fish kills are already being addressed. Mogden, which is well upstream of the Hammersmith pumping station, is thought to be responsible for both major fish kills mentioned in the policy statement. The other occurred last summer, near Kew. It is reasonable to suppose that the number of fish kills will be significantly lower in future without the Thames tunnel, and before possible alternatives to the tunnel are considered. Thames Water claims that the Lee tunnel will not benefit the higher reaches of the river, but Mogden demonstrates that the whole of the tidal Thames is set to get cleaner.
The tunnel will not significantly alter the appearance of the river. The natural turbidity of the Thames means that the water will never be clear. In fact, an Economics for the Environment Consultancy review of the tideway project options concluded that
“little aesthetic change in the water is to be expected”
from a tunnel. This was endorsed by the Health Protection Agency’s study in 2007, which reported:
“Shortly after discharge, floating matter disseminates relatively quickly, so the plug of sewage effluent moves unnoticed with the ebb and flood of the tide.”
No one is suggesting that sewage discharge does not matter, but it is a fact that for most people it passes unobserved. The findings of the study for the Thames tunnel make one particular and unsourced claim in the NPS seem somewhat dubious when it refers to
“large quantities of offensive solid material being…deposited on the foreshore”,
whereas the published evidence does not.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith made rather unfair sport of the views of Professor Chris Binnie in the exchange that we had last Wednesday. I shall discuss those views in a moment. Professor Binnie is an expert on water and designed the original Thames tunnel scheme, so his conclusion that only 10% of litter is sewage-derived should be heeded. It follows that if the tunnel can reduce litter deposits by some 10%, 90% of the visible rubbish that swills about the river will remain, whatever happens to the combined sewer overflows. The idea that the appearance of our improving river is causing an international
“reputational risk to the UK”
seems a little far-fetched, and I suspect that a 10% reduction along the lines that I have set out would do little to help.
The health benefits are real, but limited. Again, there must be a balance, given the cost of the project. Recreational users of the Thames would undoubtedly benefit from the tunnel, if not quite as much as is sometimes thought. For example, although gastric infection in rowers runs at 13 cases per thousand rowers per year, that is far lower than the rate in the general population, which is 190 cases per thousand. Likewise, the actor David Walliams’s swim is much touted, but he fell ill long before reaching the tidal stretches of the River Thames.
The Environment Agency has too little regard for the cost. The NPS highlights the curious role that has been given to the Environment Agency, whose sole concern is the environmental impact of the tunnel, with no attempt to weigh that impact against the rising cost. Apparently, the Government
“considers that the need…will have been demonstrated if the Environment Agency has concluded that the project is necessary for environmental reasons”.
That is almost a blank cheque for what constitutes environmental necessity. The agency is understandably fond of large-scale projects. Despite the claim to a purely environmental rationale, however, when pressed on the justification for a £4 billion tunnel in a climate of austerity, when discharges will more than halve anyway, both the Environment Agency and Thames Water hide behind legal arguments about the European directive.
The directive overrides many of the environmental assessments. The NPS admits that
“the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive is the initial driver for the Thames Tunnel.”
In practice, compliance rather than the environment is both the root cause and the benchmark, as this stifles concerns about value. Terms such as “unacceptable” and “necessary” are used ambiguously in both the NPS and Thames Water’s literature. They appear to make an environmental judgment but, under challenge, a legal interpretation is always offered, with dark mutterings about infraction proceedings.
No one has asked the EU. The apparent failure of any of the three parties behind this scheme to approach the Commission is staggering, particularly on the part of the Environment Agency and DEFRA. Without reference to the Commission, DEFRA has disregarded the urban waste water treatment directive’s principle of using the best technical knowledge not entailing excessive cost, and stipulated that only a collection device for combined sewer overflows meets the requirement
“to limit pollution from sewer overflows”.
It seems that the Environment Agency applies its zeal to say no discharges are acceptable, irrespective of cost. That is fine if we factor that into our thinking about that body, but the worry is that DEFRA takes that on board and then applies gold-plating by saying that no discharges are permissible under the directive, and Thames Water applies for a project to which the answer can no longer be no. The huge cost is relevant, not just for all of us who are Thames Water users, but for legal reasons. It was the legal position that prompted Professor Binnie’s reassessment of the need for the tunnel that he had initially recommended, given the work that is already under way and the lessons that have been learned from in-river bubbler systems in the seven years since he chaired the Thames tideway strategic study. His examination of the directive has led him to believe that a tunnel is unnecessary.
What Professor Binnie revealed at the meeting chaired by the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), which I think was misreported in the exchanges we heard last week, was the detail of his discussions with DEFRA’s lawyers. His view was that the increased cost of the tunnel has made it disproportionate in the sense of the directive, as exemplified by the Whitburn infraction proceedings. However, the senior DEFRA lawyer stuck relentlessly to the Department’s interpretation. I was not at the meeting, but I understand that Professor Binnie said that on legal matters he felt that ultimately he had to defer to those who ought to know. His understandable reluctance to challenge civil servants is not always shared by the rest of us, and nor should it be.
In my view, the cost-benefit analysis is deeply flawed, and there is no better example of flawed DEFRA analysis than the series of cost-benefit analyses that have accompanied the Thames tunnel project. When the cost was initially touted as £1.7 billion, the benefits were judged to be worth around £1.7 billion. Now that the cost has risen to £4.1 billion, with the Lee tunnel and sewage treatment works upgrades already under way, hey presto, the benefits have been judged to have risen to around £4.1 billion. It is either a near miracle of fortuitous recalculation or, as those of us inclined to be more sceptical might think, a somewhat cynical sleight of hand. I think that Professor Binnie is in no doubt about this non-legal point. Using Treasury green book rules and standard, quality-adjusted life year metrics, he calculated the health benefits of the tunnel to be about £2 billion. The NPS means that no independent examination of DEFRA’s figures will take place.
There are no net economic benefits. The economic case for the tunnel on the basis of job creation is starting to be talked up, and I understand that a report on that by Thames Water is imminent. The Minister described the estimated 4,200 jobs only last Wednesday as
“a big win for London”.—[Official Report, 14 March 2012; Vol. 542, c. 330.]
Unlike other infrastructure projects, however, the tunnel will do relatively little for the economy once it is complete. Even the boring machines are being bought from Germany —as we speak, the same applies to Crossrail. Although the temporary creation of construction jobs will have some benefit, it would be considerably cheaper to pay 4,000 people an MP’s salary for the duration of the project, and considerably better value to build something else, whether in London or not. I am afraid that the lasting economic impact of the tunnel will be the £80 a year reduction in the disposable income of each and every Thames Water customer for decades to come.
I fear that the poorest will be hardest hit, and this is the debate we will be having in this House in four or five years’ time. We will be talking about those bills, and Thames Water customers will be in the position South West Water customers were in last week when we debated the Water Industry (Financial Assistance) Bill. Sewerage bills are regressive. We have only just debated the pernicious effect of such bills in the south-west, and the rising cost of energy is a cause of great concern across the House. It is not good enough for Thames Water to defend this simply by saying that water bills will rise only towards the average. Together, London and the wider Thames Water sewerage area already have the highest living costs in the country and the pinch will be felt.
There are alternatives, depending on the question. Bubblers are dismissed by the NPS as they are
“not considered to be a sustainable or complete solution in the long-term.”
Of course, the tunnel is not a complete solution, as there would still be discharges—no one disputes that for one minute. The notion of sustainability in the NPS leans heavily on the assumptions about population growth and climate change to which I have already referred. The Cardiff harbour system shows that new options have emerged since the tunnel was first mooted almost a decade ago, including the real-time monitoring of dissolved oxygen levels. I accept that an in-river system is not perfect and would not go as far as the Thames tunnel, but it would cost a fraction of the £4.1 billion price tag now in place. Were it not for the momentum already behind the building of the tunnel and the closed institutional ranks to which I have referred, I think that such a system would be considered, and perhaps it still should be.
The NPS states, somewhat grandly:
“It is inappropriate to ‘do nothing”’
about sewage discharges, but we are not “doing nothing”; we are more than halving the problem. The phrase is redolent of the so-called politician’s fallacy: “We must do something; this is something; therefore, let’s get on and do it.” When civil servants insist once again that the gold-plated option is the only way to meet our obligations under a European directive, we are entitled—obliged, in my view—to be sceptical. When the result could allow a single utility company to profit while the rest of us are hit in the pocket, we can contemplate stronger emotions. The project cries out for proper independent scrutiny, yet the NPS prevents, I fear, any assessment through the planning process of the case for the tunnel.
I have no doubt that there is a problem with sewage discharge in the Thames. More than £1 billion is already being spent to reduce it dramatically, but the Thames tunnel will cost in excess of £4 billion, and the question is whether it represents good value for money.
I am sure that we in this House will return to this issue, but I fear that we will do so on the back of huge increases in water bills for all our constituents, and we will only wish that we had alerted ourselves to the issues now, rather than doing so, as I suspect we will, in many years to come.
I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate, but I am conscious that it must finish at 10 pm and that the Minister will want a few minutes to respond to the points made, so I will ensure that he has that opportunity.
I endorse much of what my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) just said. I have taken an interest in this issue throughout my time as a Member of Parliament. The story began many years ago when a European Commission directive on urban waste water treatment focused attention on the fact that the Thames was non-compliant. It set a deadline for compliance: 31 December 2000. That deadline was clearly not met. The directive required that sewage—domestic, industrial and rain water run-off—should be collected and conveyed to plants for secondary treatment, and that overflows should be reduced and measures taken to limit the pollution of the tidal Thames and of the River Lee from sewage outflows.
The other directive to which colleagues have referred is the water framework directive. Compliance with the urban waste water directive is a precondition of compliance with the water framework directive, so there is external pressure on the UK. Just as with air pollution, unless we meet the directives’ requirements, we will be liable for fines resulting from action taken in the European courts. I have never doubted that—to use the shorthand cliché that my hon. Friend just used—something needed to be done, and I have always taken the view that the presumption should be that the tunnel is the best way forward. In the evidence I submitted to Thames Water’s first consultation, I said exactly that, in my answer to the second question:
“Like the government, I work from the presumption that the tunnel project is the best way forward, but I am aware that there are still arguments that it would be better to seek Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems and I would request Thames Water to carry out a final assessment of the alternatives to a tunnel before proceeding with the tunnel option. Constituents of mine are also concerned that alternatives should be considered one last time in case they provide an environmentally preferable option.”
By that stage, the draft national policy statement had been produced, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, for her work and that of her Committee, on which she has reported this evening. I remind the House of what the Committee, in paragraphs 63 to 66 in particular but starting in paragraph 62, wrote. In paragraph 63, the hon. Lady and her Committee make it clear that
“other witnesses considered the needs case as set out in the draft NPS to be overstated”.
Those other witnesses included the Greater London authority which, the report reminds us,
“rejected the Government’s assertion that failure to adopt the NPS would result in failure by the UK Government to meet obligations in the UWWTD”.
The report states:
“The GLA argued that not having an NPS did not mean that ‘poor decisions will be made, it just means that decisions will not have a single source of policy advice to follow’.”
Paragraph 64 begins:
“Witnesses also had reservations as to the adequacy of the draft NPS’s sections on alternatives to constructing new infrastructure”,
and London Councils’ evidence is then cited. Paragraph 65 is clear:
“The brief sections in the NPS on the replacement of the Deephams Sewage Treatment Works and the Thames Tunnel are not sufficient to prove the need for these large-scale projects, in particular the multi-billion pound Thames Tunnel project which will have impacts over a period of years on the lives and livelihoods of people living and working locally. Nor do the sections on the alternative approaches sufficiently address all of the potential options for achieving desired outcomes such as improved water quality.”
In effect, in March last year, the Select Committee said, “Slow down, be careful, remember that the evidence isn’t all in one direction.”
In paragraph 66, the Committee recommended that
“Defra include in any justification of new waste water infrastructure projects full explanation as to how they will help to meet national and European environmental requirements. The Department should also provide more detail on the potential alternative methods of achieving environmental outcomes, such as improved water quality, which new infrastructure is designed to achieve.”
The Government read that, took heed of that, and revised the structure of their policy statement. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster pointed out, the two specific projects—Deephams and the Thames tunnel—were taken into the annexe, while leaving a rewritten section, notably in chapter 2. However, they did not change the presumption that in looking at the policy we are limited in our ability to raise questions about whether the Thames tunnel as it is currently proposed is the right option for London.
I want not only to make the obvious points that my constituents have made to me, and that my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour has made on behalf of his constituents and others, but to suggest a way forward that tries to square the circle and help us to get off a hook that we might otherwise find ourselves on. As I have said recently in debates on this issue in other contexts, since the first round of consultations, the arguments for a review have grown, first, because the cost has grown. The Minister has been very straightforward with the House, as he should be, in saying that he is sceptical about the cost. I am glad about that. An increase from between £1 billion and £2 billion to over £4 billion is considerable, given that the bills of water rate payers will be added to in order to pay for it.
Secondly, various other commentators, including Professor Binnie, have questioned the cost-benefit analysis mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster. Whatever one thinks about its progeny, the Thames tunnel commission, on behalf of the boroughs of mixed political hue that commissioned it, made some strong points about looking at the alternative. My concern now is how we manage to reconcile those concerns with the Minister’s desire to make sure that space is given for the project to move forward. I am conscious that there is still a bit more procedural work to do in this place. Following the Localism Act 2011, we have to transfer the responsibility for major sewerage projects so that they are national infrastructure projects—I do not disagree that that should be the case—and then there is the planning process.
I would like to suggest a possible way forward. It could be argued that the reviews by Ofwat, the Selborne commission, Thames Water and others are inevitably coloured by the views of those who commissioned them—clearly, the Selborne commission must have behind it the interests of the six boroughs. I do not ask the Minister to give a definitive answer on this tonight but merely to reflect on what he has heard from around the Chamber. Before Thames Water draws up its final plans or submits any planning application, there is time in the coming months for a review panel of people who do not have a vested interest to do some urgent work and then report to those with a direct interest—Government, Parliament, the Greater London authority with its new Mayor and Assembly, and London Councils. The second consultation has just ended; I, like others, have given my evidence. We have not heard Thames Water’s response to that. There is an opportunity for a range of people to contribute before the last round of consultation by Thames Water is concluded.
There are other people who can look in from outside. The United Nations has an environmental programme office that looks at big projects around the world. The European Commission has an Environment Directorate-General. The Environment Agency clearly has a continuing interest. Of course, the Greater London authority has an interest. The Local Government Association is neutral politically, as is London Councils. The Consumer Council for Water and political parties might want to have an input. The National Audit Office might wish to have an input, because there is a major financial question about value for money—that is probably the biggest question behind all the concerns.
I will not seek to divide the House tonight. There is clearly consensus between Opposition and Government Front Benchers that the national policy statement should be approved. That follows the position of Labour Ministers who held the portfolio and it is the position of my hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues. However, we should not go automatically from approving the statement to pressing a green button that sends us through a set of procedures whereby we cannot consider any of the factors again.
To conclude, I will put on the record the questions that I think need to be answered. I will literally list them. First, there are serious questions about what the environmental objectives are that the tunnel will achieve. Clearing up the river is fine as a general statement, but we need a bit more scientific analysis. Secondly, my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster asked why the argument appears to be about the huge amount of discharge—39 million tonnes—when that is not the correct figure any more, for reasons that we know about, and when most of the discharge is water, not sewage. That question needs to be addressed. Furthermore, of the rubbish that goes into the Thames, 90% is general litter and only 10% is sewage. Thirdly, there is a question whether the most sustainable way of dealing with drainage and sewerage in London is the largest of the tunnel options, which is a concrete tunnel. That would see us literally flushing perfectly good rain water down the drain. Lastly, I share my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour’s view that when the cost of the tunnel has nearly tripled from £1.7 billion to £4.1 billion, it is bizarre that the cost-benefit analysis seems to suggest that there will still be the same relative benefit.
I hope that the Minister hears our concerns. He has offered always to engage with those of us with a direct interest and whose constituents are greatly concerned. I hope that he will collaborate with those of us who want to ensure that, over the next few months, the questions are answered objectively and are given to Thames Water, the Government and the regulator before any final decisions for planning or public policy purposes are implemented. I accept that we have to cross this threshold tonight, and I will not prevent that. However, we need to know where we are going. Over the next six months, there is a huge amount of work to be done. I think that colleagues from all parts of the House and people outside the House would value that collaboration, and I hope that we can all agree that it should happen.
With the leave of the House, I will respond to the points raised in the debate. I apologise if my response is hurried and does not deal with points in the order in which they were raised.
Important points have been raised in this debate. I concede that this is a serious matter, particularly the Thames tunnel element of it. I share many of the concerns expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field). I repeat my earlier assurance to them: I do not enter this matter with blind disregard to the impact that it will have on their constituents and mine, including in the construction phase. Many hon. Members who have spoken on previous occasions are rightly concerned about the impact of the project and its construction. I assure hon. Members that I remain willing to be engaged. Let us not pretend that this is the last occasion on which this scheme or other such schemes will be debated in the House. There will be opportunities to raise these issues in the House and I remain willing to be held accountable.
Essentially, those of us in government are all laymen, unless we are lucky enough to have a specific engineering skill. I do not have banking experience or engineering experience of large projects, so I seek to get it. I am gifted with a good team supporting me in the Department, but I can assure Members that these schemes, particularly the Thames tideway, are rightly matters of concern not just to my Department but right across Government, and to agencies such as the Environment Agency and Ofwat.
Recommendation 9 in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s report was very important. It suggested a serious look at how Ofwat saw the Thames tunnel. The Government’s response, which I will not repeat, set out clearly that Ofwat accepted without reservation the Committee’s recommendation that it must make full use of 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 customers.”
I know that Ofwat would want me to continue to provide assurances about that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster commented on the risk of infraction of the urban waste water treatment directive. I remind the House that the UK is already in the European Court of Justice with respect to the combined sewer outflows into the Thames, so far from there being a risk of gold-plating, there is a risk that the Court will find that we are doing too little. We await its judgment later this year, but I would be surprised if it came to the conclusion that the Thames tunnel was not required.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark mentioned cost-benefit analysis. There was an analysis in December 2011 to support the ministerial statement, and it took account of the increased costs of the project. As I said earlier, I assure him that we are examining the matter rigorously with advice from Ernst and Young and others, and will continue to do so. We will reassure the House of our assessment from time to time. As I said, Ministers will remain sceptical about the cost of the project, and we will drill down to ensure that we deal with it as well as possible.
The hon. Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) spoke in support of what the Government are seeking to do, and he made a number of points. He mentioned the definition of sustainable development. On page 9 of the Government’s framework document, in paragraph 2.2.3, the Government’s key policy objectives are set out, and a definition is given of sustainable development in relation to the national policy statement. We will also shortly publish the national planning policy framework, which my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) mentioned. That, too, will set out the Government’s definition, moving forward from that of the Brundtland commission. The Environmental Audit Committee has done some work on the development of that definition, and I hope that there is general agreement about it throughout the House.
The hon. Member for Luton South mentioned the green deal, which of course has a blue element—hot water. I entirely share his ambition that the Government should examine the success that I am sure there will be in the green deal and see whether we can retrofit water-saving measures into households. There is a whole range of ways to do that. I refer him to our green infrastructure partnership, which is overseeing the retrofitting of large sustainable drainage systems into developments and which we hope will be a real success. He also made a point about energy recovery, and my noble Friend Lord Taylor is liaising with the Department of Energy and Climate Change on that important matter.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton, the Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, mentioned the cost of the Thames tunnel and also talked about the consultation on the national policy statement. It lasted 14 weeks and was considered to be within the scope of the Planning Act 2008, and stakeholders were contacted. I am sure the House will continue to consider better ways of consulting people. When consultations have passed, we always discover that some stakeholders and groups feel that they have not been involved. We must seek to do better, and I know that the House will continue to work on that, including through the Select Committee process.
My hon. Friend and other hon. Members asked why we are not establishing a red line on costs for the Thames tunnel project. As I have said, we are working across Government, with Ofwat, Infrastructure UK and Thames Water, to ensure that the Thames tunnel represents proper value for money, that the engineering costs of the tunnel are minimised, and that the project is delivered efficiently, with a structure and financing mechanism that delivers value for money for those who will pay for it.
My hon. Friend also raised the question of SUDS, which was no surprise to me or any other hon. Member—it is an important point. The Government’s intention is to implement the SUDS measures as soon as possible. Implementation dates are being explored in the consultation. Our initial proposal is to commence in October 2012, and during consultation we are seeking feedback on the feasibility of that date for those affected, including developers and local authorities. During the consultation period, officials have been working on a series of additional consultation events, including workshops around the country for local authorities on their capacity to deliver the SUDS requirements.
The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr Love) raises, with his usual vigour, his concerns for his constituents. There is not time to go into them in detail, but I assure him that I will meet him and his constituents to ensure that we address the points he raises. Thames Water recognises that the odour at Deephams is a key issue for local stakeholders and is working with the Environment Agency, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Ofwat and local authorities. It can mitigate the problem to a degree. Options include covering and controlling odorous air from primary treatment plants.
The national policy statement requires all waste water treatment infrastructure projects of national significance examined by the Planning Inspectorate to include an appropriate odour impact assessment as part of the environmental statement. The applicant should assess that potential, so I hope the hon. Gentleman’s constituents will be living in a slightly more favourable environment in future.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster asked how much pollution is in our river at the moment. We must produce more evidence to satisfy him, but the fact is that there are 50 to 60 overflows from combined sewage overflows every year. That is set to increase. An element of that is being dealt with by the Lee Valley project, but another 18 million tonnes is flowing through our river, in one of the most important cities in the world. Yes, we require caution on cost, but we also require a resolute approach to deal with that.
Discharge events are increasing, and we know that only 2 mm of rain results in a combined sewage overflow. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that that will not change the colour of our river. Londoners and any visitor to this great city will stand on our bridges and see no demonstrable change in the colour of the river, but most people recognise that a bubbler system, which has worked well in Cardiff harbour, which is of course a lagoon rather than a tidal river, will not resolve the problem. Professor Binnie, who has been prayed in aid on all sides of the argument, seems to have come down on the same side that the Government reluctantly came down on, and concluded that the scheme should go ahead. He was right to do so.
I apologise to hon. Members if I have not been able to answer all their points, but this important debate is ongoing, and I commend the statement to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House takes note of and approves the National Policy Statement for Waste Water, which was laid before this House on 9 February.