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Thames Tunnel

Volume 717: debated on Monday 1 March 2010


My right honourable friend the Secretary of State (Hilary Benn) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

The building of the Thames tunnel is vital for the future health of Londoners and for the environment and reputation of our capital city. I would like to inform the House that I am minded to direct applications for the tunnel to the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) under Section 35 of the Planning Act 2008 because I believe that this is likely to be the most appropriate and effective way of reaching a decision on this unique and complex project.

Around 32 million cubic metres of untreated sewage and rainwater pollute the River Thames tideway every year from combined sewer overflows (CSOs) when stormwater capacity is exceeded. A CSO is a feature of a combined system, introduced for the purpose of relieving the system of flows in excess of a selected rate, the excess flow being discharged to a local receiving water. A combined system is a system that takes in both rainwater and sewage. The discharges occur, on average, once a week and have a significant environmental impact on the river. These discharges can increase the likelihood of fish kills, create a higher health hazard for users of the river and damage the aesthetic appeal of the Thames. Following the Thames tideway strategic study the Government identified the tunnel, which will intercept around 30 million cubic metres of the average annual discharge, as the best solution to protect the River Thames and to ensure that the capital has a sewerage system able to cope with the impact of population growth, more intense rainfall patterns and the reduction of green space available to soak up rainfall.

I believe the project to be of national significance and I am minded to direct it to the IPC for the following reasons:

it is essential to meet the ecological water quality objectives of a major river;

it is essential to reduce the risk to human health and prevent negative aesthetic impacts;

the unsatisfactory intermittent discharges cause reputational risk to the UK, detracting from the appeal of the river in the nation’s capital, which is otherwise a great asset to residents and visitors alike;

the unique scale and complexity of development will lead to an equally large and complex planning process and the Government have a clear interest in ensuring that the planning process goes as smoothly as possible, to ensure that there are not significant delays in addressing the problems caused by these sewage overflows, while ensuring the process is transparent and that all interested points of view are given a proper opportunity to be heard; and

these improvement works are needed to enable us to continue to meet our obligations under the urban waste water treatment directive. The urgency of the works is increased by the infraction proceedings being pursued against the UK by the European Commission for an alleged breach of the directive.

I believe that a Section 35 direction is likely to offer the most efficient route for a decision on development of the Thames Tunnel. The announcement that I am minded to direct the project to the IPC will allow Defra to work with the directly affected London boroughs, Thames Water and other London stakeholders to discuss what a Section 35 direction is likely to involve. It will also allow us to include consideration of the Thames tunnel in the national policy statement for waste water.

The ongoing input of local planning authorities and local stakeholders will be vital. Under the Planning Act, scheme promoters have a duty to consult, and local authorities can make representations if they think promoters have not adequately consulted with local authorities on how they carry out their consultation with local communities. This can result in an application not being accepted as valid by the IPC. Local authorities will also be invited to submit local impact reports as part of the IPC’s consideration of applications.

A final decision on whether to direct the project to the IPC will not be made until after planning applications are submitted under the Town and Country Planning Act. I do not expect Thames Water to submit these applications before the autumn of 2011.

Further information on the Thames Tunnel and Defra’s involvement is available on Defra’s website at http://defraweb/environment /quality/water/waterquality/ sewage/overflows/index.htm.