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Water Resources Management Plan: Teddington

Volume 737: debated on Wednesday 6 September 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered water resources plan proposals for Teddington.

It is a pleasure, Sir Christopher, to serve under your chairmanship and to lead this important debate on Thames Water’s hugely controversial plans for a water recycling scheme at Teddington in my constituency.

I am very glad to see the Minister in her place. She will know that my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) and I have repeatedly asked her, for many months now, for a meeting to discuss this scheme. Given that Thames Water’s newly revised plans have just hit the Secretary of State’s desk for approval, this debate could not have been granted at a more critical time.

Although I have a number of questions to put to the Minister, my overarching request is very simple. On behalf of the residents of Teddington, Twickenham, St Margarets and beyond, I ask Ministers to veto the Teddington water recycling proposals now, before yet more money is wasted on a project that is bad for the environment and bad for water bill payers, as well as barely scratching the surface of the problem it seeks to resolve.

It is no secret that our water system is under pressure. Both population growth and climate change are challenges that must be overcome, so I recognise and welcome the work that Thames Water has undertaken to prepare for future water shortages. However, because of the limited capacity and the potentially disastrous impact on water quality and the environment, our community believes that Thames Water has taken a damaging wrong turn in promoting a water recycling scheme at Teddington.

I thank the hon. Member, who is my constituency neighbour, for securing this debate. Does she agree that instead of yet another hugely expensive capital scheme—we still have Tideway, as well—it might be better if Thames Water focused on significantly reducing the leakage of fresh water from its pipes?

I could not agree more with the hon. Lady, my constituency neighbour, and I will make that very point in my speech.

However, I will just briefly set out what the proposal is. It is to abstract millions of litres of fresh water from the Thames in my constituency and transfer it across London to the Lea Valley reservoir during times of drought. To replace that fresh water, Thames Water plans to pump millions upon millions of litres of treated effluent from Mogden sewage treatment works into the river at Teddington. That is millions upon millions of litres of treated sewage being dumped every day—not just in times of drought, but every day—into a tranquil yet lively hotspot for fishing, boating, paddleboarding and even wild swimming.

If that was not enough, the scheme threatens to wreak havoc on the local environment before a single drop of treated sewage even enters the Thames. That is because a new pipeline will have to be drilled underground from Isleworth to Ham, which means constructing eight access shafts. Each shaft will require a sizeable construction site, with conservation areas such as Ham Lands and recreation grounds such as Moormead Park being put at risk. Residents do not want their river harmed and they do not want to see their green spaces turned to rubble.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for securing this extremely important debate. She mentioned Ham Lands, which is in my constituency of Richmond Park. It is a local nature reserve that the local community has spent decades trying to protect. It has a unique ecology; it is home to many rare plants, lichen and fungi. Yet incredibly Thames Water proposes to build up to six major construction sites on Ham Lands, each one half the size of a football pitch. The plans include the permanent—I emphasise permanent—destruction of five acres of vital wildlife habitat. In total, 24,000 people have signed a petition against the scheme. Does she agree that the community has made its views very clear and that the Government must now listen?

I thank my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for that important intervention; I could not agree with her more. Thames Water has conducted a consultation, but its response to its own consultation, published just a few days ago, makes it abundantly clear that it has not listened to public opinion or taken due regard of the impact on the very precious environment on which it is seeking to build.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on not only securing this debate but how she has conducted her campaign on behalf of her constituents, working with our hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney).

Many of my constituents in Kingston are worried about the scheme. They treasure ecology and water quality, and are really alarmed that Thames Water could think it acceptable to pump highly treated recycled water back into our wonderful Thames. They are also worried about the impact of the construction—the huge number of lorry movements that will come into Kingston during the construction phase. My hon. Friend’s campaign has my full support, and I would be grateful if she added my representations and those of my constituents to her own.

My right hon. Friend demonstrates, once again, the strength of opinion locally. Not only has Thames Water not listened to residents’ representations but its interaction and communication since the start of the process have been, frankly, woeful.

Just days ago, Thames Water published its revised water resources management plan—supposedly, as I said, in response to its public consultation. As the Minister will know, in the plan the company has drastically improved its usage reduction target to 110 litres per person per day by 2050. That is a welcome step. That reduction in demand means less pressure on new supply options such as the Teddington water recycling scheme. Yet despite public opposition and the concerns of the Environment Agency, Thames Water have kept that in its plans while scrapping more popular schemes that would have far more benefit to our economy and the environment. How can that be the right choice?

The strength of local feeling about the scheme is palpable, as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park and my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey) have pointed out—not just from local residents who live by the river, but from the thousands of river users who row, fish, swim or paddle in our part of the Thames. The Minister and Thames Water need only look at the sheer scale of the response to the public consultation. Across the whole of its catchment, Thames Water received 1,700 responses; well over a third of those referenced the Teddington scheme directly. Thames Water has chosen to ignore those, but I implore the Minister to listen.

When justifying this controversial scheme, Thames Water returned to a particular claim again and again: that Teddington is the best value option. Best value for whom? That is the question asked by many of my constituents, who remain unconvinced that answer is, as it should be, best value for our rivers, best value for the environment or best value for Thames Water’s 15 million customers.

The truth is that we have reached a point where Thames Water is running out of time to get our water system into shape and it is dangerously close to missing its drought targets. The company’s own documents refer to a “short-term planning problem” in London and it thinks it has found its quick fix in this water recycling scheme. But it is a sticking plaster. The scheme is necessary only because of decades of neglect and underinvestment by Thames Water. In the 34 years since it was established, it has delivered next to no new major water resources, aside from a multi-million-pound desalination plant that was completely out of action last year during the worst drought in decades—not a fantastic record, as I am sure the Minister will agree. That failure to plan ahead has left the company scrambling for a scheme that it can deliver in 10 years or less and it thinks it can plug the gap with water recycling.

The scheme would cost hundreds of millions of pounds of customers’ money but gain very little in terms of resilience. The proposed scheme would save only one 10th—yes, only one 10th—of the 630 million litres of water that Thames Water loses every day through leaks, as the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) pointed out. Thames Water has failed to take prompt action on those leaks over recent years.

Residents regularly see leaks in their neighbourhoods. Last month, an entire playground in Hampton Wick in my constituency was flooded with drinking water. Thames Water is haemorrhaging not just water, but public trust. That is why residents want the company to focus on the leaks and on reducing demand.

Our stretch of the Thames is often called London’s countryside for its picturesque setting, with lush natural habitats and thriving ecosystems supporting species, from bats and badgers to brown trout. Understandably, local residents are passionate about protecting it. Time and again, we have been told by Thames Water that, with tertiary treatment, the effluent that it pumps into the river at Teddington would be of the same quality as the river water itself, with negligible impact on our vibrant river environment or on swimmers, boaters and other river users’ safety.

If that were really the case, however, Thames Water would be able to transfer that highly treated effluent straight into its reservoirs, rather than into the Thames. The company has been clear that that is not an option, however. The truth is that Thames Water has made claims about the environmental impact of the scheme that it simply cannot back up, because it has not completed a full environmental assessment to say how the scheme will affect our river ecology, and nor has it completed human health impact assessments of how it might affect thousands of river users.

To quote the Environment Agency’s response to the proposal, Thames Water has so far failed to show that the Teddington scheme is “feasible or environmentally acceptable”. That is a pretty low baseline. In reality, treated sewage contains a number of chemicals beyond those that the Government have specific targets for, such as phosphorus. Treated effluent contains a host of compounds and chemicals that we have not been assured would be filtered out, including PFAS—so-called forever chemicals, which do not break down in the environment and are known to cause health complications in humans and wildlife—and pharmaceuticals. We should be working to reduce such chemicals in our rivers and streams, rather than wilfully pumping them in.

On top of that, local residents are understandably alarmed that constructing the scheme may mean tearing up beloved green spaces and areas of conservation interest to drill a new tunnel and to construct shafts. Moormead Park in St Margaret’s is a popular local green space for families, local schools and sports groups, with a busy playground and planning permission having just been granted for a much-needed new community sports pavilion. Ham Lands is a beautiful nature reserve, home to important wildlife habitats, as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park pointed out. The list of species that could be disturbed or displaced by construction is very long.

It is worth the Minister noting that none of the construction details was shared during Thames Water’s information event earlier this year. It is not just Thames Water’s sewage discharges that stink; its public engagement with our community does too. Engagement has been beyond woeful. Despite that, the public response to Thames Water’s consultation was fantastic. If Thames Water had put any value on the 1,700 responses it received, we would not need to discuss this today.

The company has chosen to scrap its proposal for a new water transfer from the River Severn to the Thames, which would have allowed it potentially to restore large stretches of the beautiful Cotswold canals. Unlike Teddington, that scheme had huge public backing. The positive response to it in the consultation was overwhelming, with people citing the huge social, environmental and economic benefits of restoring those heritage waterways.

Thames Water has thrown public opinion out with the bathwater, a luxury afforded only to companies that have a monopoly in their industry. The company cites customer research to suggest that the public prefer dumping treated effluent into the Thames to restoring heritage canals. I do not know about you, Sir Christopher, but given the findings of the actual consultation, that seems to be a surprising result.

Before I wrap up, I want to touch briefly on two technical points made by local campaigners. The first is about the Environment Agency and Surrey County Council’s River Thames scheme. Shockingly, at my first meeting with Thames Water representatives back in January, they did not even seem to know that that scheme existed, despite its clear impact on river flows at Teddington. Any proposals for water recycling at Teddington must be compatible with those vital works.

Secondly, residents have questions about capacity at the Queen Mary reservoir in London. They simply want to know what work Thames Water has done to investigate that option. Will the Minister add her voice to their calls to for a more sustainable solution?

A campaign group called Save Ham Lands and River is hosting an event in Ham in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park this Saturday to discuss the scheme and our concerns in more detail. If the Minister truly wants to hear what Thames Water customers think of the plan, there is no better opportunity to speak to local residents and river users. I hope that she will accept the invitation, but if not, my hon. Friend and I would be more than delighted to welcome her, at her earliest convenience, to Teddington and Ham to experience our bustling river community for herself. It will take her only half an hour on the tube from Westminster.

I hope that the Minister will respond to the concerns that I have highlighted. It is disappointing that she has ignored our calls for a meeting for many months. It has taken several letters, a point of order and now this debate to compel her to sit in a room with us to listen to constituents’ concerns.

Residents in Teddington, Twickenham, St Margarets and across the region do not trust Thames Water, and they do not trust regulators and the Government to hold it to account. That is precisely why Liberal Democrats nationally are calling for wholesale reform of the water industry to transform private companies such as Thames Water into public-good corporations, with value for the customer and the environment written into their DNA. It is also why locally we are standing up for residents’ concerns about the plan and calling on the Government to consider viable alternatives to the scheme, which will damage our river environment for little reward in terms of long-term resilience.

We urge the Minister and the Secretary of State to give the Teddington scheme and all Thames Water’s infrastructure plans the full and proper scrutiny they deserve to ensure that they are best value for not only stakeholders, but customers who are paying their bills today and the environment that our children will inherit tomorrow. On scrutinising the proposal, they will find that it is deeply flawed and should be stopped in its tracks now.

To quote the Minister:

“Water is a precious resource.”—[Official Report, 21 February 2023; Vol. 728, c. 133.]

We are asking the Government to show that that is not just a platitude, but at the heart of their policies. I ask the Minister to start by giving us a timeline for when the Secretary of State expects to make her decision, and by answering the various questions I have asked today.

What does she think of Thames Water’s pursuing quick fixes instead of sustainable solutions, such as restoring the Cotswold canals? Does she think that it is acceptable that Thames Water has put forward water recycling without a full environmental impact assessment? What does she think of the risks of constructing the scheme and the fact that Thames Water did not make them clear to the community from the outset? Does she believe that pumping treated effluent into the river is viable, given the current levels of sewage pollution in our waterways? Will she take up the unanswered questions of residents about both the River Thames scheme and the Queen Mary reservoir in her discussions with Thames Water? Finally, can she look local residents and their children in the eye and tell them that the scheme is worth the consequences for our river, our precious local environment and our vibrant community of river user groups?

It is a pleasure, Sir Christopher, to have you in the Chair.

I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for securing the debate and giving us the opportunity to discuss the subject and the whole issue of water supply that faces the country. I put on record an apology for the tardiness in replying to letters—I am trying to get to the bottom of exactly how that happened.

The hon. Member knows—we all know—that water is a precious and vital resource. It is needed for everything we do. It is essential for a healthy environment and a prosperous economy, but a reliable water supply is often taken for granted, as I have been discovering more and more since becoming water Minister. We have not experienced country-wide water shortages since the 1970s, although there were some significant strains on water supply in large parts of the country last year. There was drought, with that record heat and dry weather.

Climate change and a growing population, especially in the drier parts of the country, are causing real challenges for our water supply. I was glad that the hon. Member at least recognised that the system is under pressure. Water companies must take those factors into account when they plan in order to provide a reliable supply of safe drinking water, and water for all the other uses we require. It is our job as a Government to work with the water regulators to ensure that water companies do that effectively.

[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]

The Government’s plan for water identified that by 2050 about 4 billion extra litres of water a day will be needed. That is a quarter as much water as we use now. That is a significant amount and it will be achieved in many ways, which I will outline. We have a detailed plan as to how that will happen. We have to take a strategic approach to planning future water needs, work with regional water resources groups and water companies to meet the challenges of climate change, and at the same time protect and enhance the environment. I totally agree that we must not do it at the expense of the environment.

We need to preserve those iconic habitats, such as chalk streams, which the Government have worked so much to protect, particularly through the chalk stream restoration group, which I am proud to have instigated. We are driving forward a vision for chalk streams, including the reduction of unsustainable water extraction. That will be delivered by measures in our plan for water and via the landmark Environment Act 2021.

The plan for water also reflects the Government’s commitment to a twin-track approach to improving water resilience, by investing in new supply infrastructure, and reducing demand through the reduction of leaks, as was mentioned. Of course, that is an important part, but in addition we plan to increase water efficiency. Half our additional water needs can be made up by water-demand improvements. By 2050, we expect to see leakage levels halved. Thames Water met its leakage target for 2019-20 by cutting leakage by 10.7%, but it did not do so well last year because of the dry weather and the freeze-thaw. I urge the company to get on track with its targets for leakage. That is an important part of the picture. It is not the case that it is not doing it, but it has to do it in addition to all the other things.

There are targets for reducing average per capita consumption to 110 litres per person per day. At the moment, the average is 144 litres, so there is a significant way to go. Lots of water companies are already making good strides in that direction. We have implemented legally binding demand management targets through Environment Act powers, to ensure that we remain on track to meet those targets, as I am sure the hon. Member for Twickenham will know.

We must expect all water companies to act on customers’ needs for that resilient supply and to manage the water sustainably. I hope the hon. Member appreciates our collaboration with the regional water resource groups, which include Water Resources South East. I met and spent a long time talking to them about water supply over the summer, to look at what they are doing. All those groups, including Thames Water, have been consulting on their draft plans, as she pointed out. Those consultations are helping inform future decisions on the right way to secure water supplies, including for Thames Water’s 10 million customers, which is a huge number to deliver water to.

To support the robustness of water resource planning, the water regulators issued detailed guidance to the water companies on how to do that. If water companies are forecasting a water supply deficit, as we will see in the south-east, they must study the options available to them and justify their preferred solutions. I understand that the Teddington direct river abstraction was one of 2,400 options modelled by Water Resources South East to address climate change and population growth and to protect our environment.

The hon. Member for Twickenham expounded on Thames not delivering any new water resources, but it is very difficult for it to do that if objections constantly arise. I will cite the Abingdon reservoir, on which another Liberal Democrat, the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran), secured a debate in Westminster Hall. More objections were raised about that reservoir. At some point, we have to work out where we will get this new water from. That is why we have a consultation process, to which people have rightly supplied input. I agree that they need to be listened to in the summary of what goes on, but we have to get new water supplies. Many other water companies are facing this and we have proposals for a whole range of models, including recycling facilities, new reservoirs, such as the south Lincolnshire reservoir and the fens reservoirs, desalination plants, such as those that South West Water has put in, and extensions to other reservoirs. We have already seen quite a number of those coming into place, so there is a whole range of options and they are looking at them all.

The Environment Agency and Ofwat have helped to shape those regional plans. They are statutory consultees on the water resources management plans, and the Environment Agency also invited the Secretary of State, as the hon. Member for Twickenham knows, to consider the draft plans before they are finalised. It will be advising the Secretary of State later this year. The hon. Lady asked about the date. It is going through due process. It will be later this year. As she knows, the Secretary of State has a number of options to consider: to accept the plans, to change the plans or to trigger an inquiry.

I have mentioned all the new schemes and systems. Because this is so critical, £469 million was recently made available by Ofwat to properly investigate the range of potential strategic water resources options such as new reservoirs, recycling projects—the one that the hon. Lady is talking about is a recycling project, as she knows—and inter-regional water transfers. That is the work that is supported by RAPID, or the Regulators’ Alliance for Progressing Infrastructure Development. This joint team is made up of the three regulators—Ofwat, EA and the Drinking Water Inspectorate—and works with companies to develop their strategic water resources infrastructure in the best interests of water users and the environment. The environment is absolutely critical and we must ensure that it is taken into account. I am not going to give detailed comments on the hon. Lady’s particular project but obviously one of the reasons for it is to put extra water into the river to keep that flow going because we need to ensure that the environment of the river remains good. As far as I understand it, it is to be used when needed and is not a continuous use project at all.

I have a final point. Although it is meant to be a drought measure, for technical reasons, to keep the system working, what is known as a sweetener flow would have to be operational every single day, so we are talking about millions of litres of treated effluent going into the Thames every single day to keep the system going. On the Minister’s point about all projects being objected to, as I pointed out in my speech, a very popular proposal in the consultation had broad public support, but Thames Water dismissed it out of hand and is proceeding with this, which will waste bill payers’ money and have a massive impact on the environment. It is not the case that everyone is objecting to everything.

I thank the hon. Lady for that. This is long term and strategic—that is what we have to talk about now in terms of water supply. I am concerned that it keeps being described as treated effluent. She will know that, once water has gone through a treatment plant and has had the full and correct treatment, it goes back into the rivers. This will have an extra layer of treatment to ensure that it really is fresh water being returned to the river. We must be very careful about how that is interpreted.

I would be the first person to say that if this goes ahead or gets the support, it has to be permitted by the EA and strictly controlled so that there are no issues about the actual quality of the water going into the river. I agree that it is important to keep the environment going, and I hope I have demonstrated that we have a robust system to look at these projects and get the water that our country needs. The new infrastructure requirements were set out in our national policy statement for water resources infrastructure, and the statement applies to the planning consent of nationally significant infrastructure projects. The proposed Teddington district river abstraction might qualify for one of those.

As I have said, the Environment Agency will be a statutory consultee on development consent orders, and the EA will also determine any abstraction licence or environmental permit. Water quality, temperature, flow and fish protection are all things that will have to be considered. I hope that the hon. Member agrees with and understands this robust process. Obviously, we need to listen to people’s voices, but we also need to secure those resilient supplies for the future and for our water supply. We have a sound and robust system in place, with targets and our twin-track approach. We need to ensure that the right schemes go ahead. I thank the hon. Lady for her words.

Question put and agreed to.