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Waterways: Thames River Bank

Volume 701: debated on Tuesday 29 April 2008

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest in that I live on the river bank in Chiswick.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will take steps to discourage the Port of London Authority from felling riverside trees between Putney and Kew.

My Lords, the Port of London is a trust port acting within its own local legislation. The port authority has a duty to ensure the safety of navigation on the River Thames. Recently, this has involved felling riverside trees. This is not a matter for government intervention. The port authority consulted locally and adapted its plans before starting work. It will consult further as part of a structured tree management programme, including compensation planting.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I am glad to hear that the PLA is going to consult further, but would it not have been better if it had consulted much more widely before felling half the trees on a particularly beautiful stretch of the river bank at Hammersmith? Will he do his best as Minister responsible for the environment to ensure that in future the PLA gives full priority to the needs of the environment when making its plans?

My Lords, I think that the Port of London Authority has a profound environmental obligation, and I understand exactly what the noble and learned Lord says about the importance and value of consultation. Consultation was conducted last autumn involving the local authority, Richmond Borough Council, the Environment Agency and local groups, but of course I shall remind the PLA of its obligations.

My Lords, as strong and conflicting opinions have been expressed about the PLA’s recent activities and the PLA has a very difficult task in reconciling the need to preserve its structures and protect river users with its environmental duties under the Harbours Act 1964 and the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994, does the Minister agree that it is desirable that no further work should be undertaken on the tree-felling programme before an environmental impact assessment and the promised tree survey have both been completed and made available to the public for widespread consultation?

My Lords, the PLA has to make a judgment, as it is its responsibility, as to its environmental approach here. I do not think that we should necessarily assume that it is bad for the environment that an element of felling or pruning takes place. We have to consider the impact of unseeded tree growth on the retaining walls and the subsequent effect not only on cyclists and pedestrians using the towpath but on those who use the rivers, such as rowers.

My Lords, I declare an old interest as the deputy chairman of the Port of London Authority. One has to remember that closing in a river such as our Thames is a very dangerous thing to do. Over the years we have closed it in more and more. The “rebuts” to which the noble Lord referred are a very important part of efforts to keep us safe from flooding. Although it is nice to have a view, does the Minister agree with me that we must be careful not to flood London?

My Lords, I, too, declare an interest as a long-term resident of Kew. Is the Minister also aware that the PLA is allowing a proliferation of residential houseboats to moor along this stretch of the river without planning permission, all of which are discharging untreated sewage into the Thames? Will he please bring this to the attention of the Port of London Authority and make it aware of its environmental responsibilities?

My Lords, given that the noble Baroness is a local resident with great experience of this part of London, I take her remarks at face value. It would be negligent indeed of me not to point this matter out to the PLA.

My Lords, surely this is not just a matter for the PLA. The local authority has the right, the duty and the authorisation to put tree preservation orders on trees that are of value to the community. If the local authority can put a preservation order on a yew tree in my small garden, surely it can do something to protect the Thames river bank.

My Lords, I do not know whether I have direct responsibility for tree preservation orders. However, if I had, I would probably put one on the noble Lord’s yew tree. Tree preservation orders are generally the responsibility of the local authority, and the PLA has to its credit been in detailed consultation with Richmond borough council. That has to be right.

My Lords, I also declare an interest as chairman of the trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. If there had been a long-term management plan for the towpath, agreed by all interested parties, would it not have been much easier to manage this on a sensible basis and not to have to take draconian action every few years simply because of neglect of timely management measures?

My Lords, I think it has to be accepted that there was a bit of an issue here. The maintenance programme may have fallen behind, which is possibly why the PLA began the pilot. The PLA is now properly addressing the issue. It should be supported in this because it will over time improve the quality of the managed environment.