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Serpentine Lido

Volume 477: debated on Friday 27 June 1986

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11.20 a.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether, before the Serpentine Lido was closed to the public on health grounds, any attempt was made either to aerate the northern inflow, which smells strongly of hydrogen sulphide, or to remove the dead ducks and rats currently putrefying in the water.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for drawing my attention to this matter. I have visited the northern end of the Longwater and agree that the conditions there are offensive. I have accordingly directed the staff of the royal parks to remove the debris at least once a week. But I am afraid this will not get rid of the disagreeable smell, because that is caused by the water becoming starved of oxygen when it stagnates in that corner of the lake. Various attempts to cure that have failed over the years, but we are now working on a new means of circulating the water and will shortly be using it experimentally. Even if it is perfectly successful, it will not render the untreated water fit to swim in at the lido.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that most informative and helpful Answer, delivered in the gentle spirit of the nanny state. May I ask him why people should not be allowed to bathe where they want to, subject to a suitable warning that there may be a health hazard?

My Lords, I think the noble Earl wishes to ask me why, if we switch off the chlorinating plant people should not swim in the water which would remain untreated. I am advised by the government chemist, who carries out regular sampling of the water, that swimming in contaminated water such as the unchlorinated water in the Serpentine would be, could put the swimmer at risk of contracting salmonellosis or shigellosis, which causes stomach upsets or, at worst typhoid, amoebic dysentery, poliomyelitis and infective hepatitis, as well as minor complaints such as sore throats.

My Lords, does the noble Lord appreciate what a great amenity this has been for the people of London over decades? Some of us are young enough to remember how excited we were when that great man, George Lansbury, first had the idea of opening the lido for swimming. Can the noble Lord tell me whether this is a recent event and whether it is a question of a shortage of money? The earlier this great amenity is put back into public use, the more pleased the people of London will be.

My Lords, it is the opinion of the Health and Safety Executive that the use of chlorination at the site by means of chlorine gas can never be safe or satisfactory. I was advised that the storage of six tonnes of the gas, which is highly toxic, on the site inevitably meant that there was a risk to the public if a leak should take place. Your Lordships will agree, I think, that that was not an acceptable risk.

My Lords, is my noble friend telling us that the lido will never be reopened? If so, is he aware that many of us on this side will share the regrets of the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, at the permanent elimination of what has been quite a feature of London life?

No, my Lords. I should have said that I view this matter in entirely the same light as noble Lords on both sides of the House. The tradition started by Lansbury is one which we wish to preserve, but not at the cost of possible fatalities. We are therefore examining alternative ways of doing this. I commissioned urgent work. There are two different chemical systems and I hope to have within the next month or so a report which will enable us to put in a new and safe method of disinfecting the water. I should mention that it is not all that easy, because it is not a compound. It is the whole water of the Serpentine that is potentially affected, and we must find a means of doing this which is safe to the flora and fauna, including the ducks, as well as the swimmers.

My Lords, can the noble Lord tell us how many people, if any, have died as a result of swimming in the Serpentine?

My Lords, there was one sad fatality of a child last year and one the year before. It was because of that that I called in the Health and Safety Executive to have a look at the place, and that is where the story started.

My Lords, will the Minister agree that the Serpentine Lido is not the only place where dead ducks are raised?

My Lords, if the problem is one of aeration, do the Government not have a sufficient supply of hot air that they can bubble through the Serpentine?

My Lords, I appreciate the answers which the noble Lord has given, but I do not think he answered part of my supplementary question. How recent is it that this problem has come to light, and were there any reasons why the problem was not tackled when it first arose, because the lido had continued very successfully for quite a few decades?

My Lords, I was first advised that there was a risk from chlorination in the later stages of last year. Being familiar with chlorination on a large scale in private and public practice, I asked for that risk to be evaluated. It was not until April, when it was made clear to me that even if it continued there would have to be massive emergency service arrangements in case of a leak, that it appeared to me that it was quite unacceptable to expose the public to that risk. So the actual clarification is very recent.

My Lords, the Minister did not really reply to the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, who asked him a straight question: is it the intention to keep the lido closed permanently? I want an answer to that. Secondly, is it not remarkable that in this day and age, when we can talk about sending people to the moon and do all kinds of wonderful things, we cannot clean up the lido?

My Lords, I thought that I had answered the question. I am having an early report made, and once it is made we shall get the place open as soon as we can get the kit in place. As to the order in which society puts its priorities for the use of technology, I do not think that is for my department.

My Lords, as a possible alternative, would the noble Lord consider that the River Thames is now clean enough for such recreational purposes?

My Lords, will the noble Lord, in following this up, bear in mind that by using nothing more sophisticated than the air we breathe we can purify sewage so that we can drink it?

My Lords, that is something I should prefer not to recall in your Lordships' bar.

My Lords, would it not be possible to run out all the existing water that is in the lake and fill it with fresh water?

My Lords, that would take so long that when the lake was filled the water would not be particularly fresh. We are trying to have a method of circulation and aeration, such as is now coming into effective use in St. James's Park, so that everybody can enjoy the amenity permanently.