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Thames Tunnel

Volume 729: debated on Monday 18 July 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are the environmental benefits of the proposed Thames Tunnel.

My Lords, the Thames Tunnel proposed by Thames Water would reduce the frequency of spills of untreated waste water into the Thames from the current average of once a week during rainfall to three or four times a year, and reduce spill volumes from 39 million cubic metres annually to around 2.3 million cubic metres. This would meet the dissolved oxygen standards identified by the Thames Tideway Strategic Study and protect local ecology.

I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. I agree with him that the tunnel will help to clean up the Thames but in the process it could make a serious mess of London. One of Thames Water’s proposals is to concrete over most of Barn Elms Playing Fields and other greenfield sites and to remove spoil by road, involving some 500 trucks passing through London every day. Will the Government insist that Thames Water takes the majority of the spoil out by water down the river, because the line goes under the river? Secondly, will the Government safeguard the necessary brownfield sites, such as the Battersea power station site, to avoid the need to use greenfield sites in the construction?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for stressing the importance of the fact that it will clean up the Thames. That is very important, both in itself and in order to avoid infraction proceedings under the urban waste water directive. I note the noble Lord’s other points, which are really matters relating to planning issues. Thames Water will be consulting later this year on the route and where to put the various access points for the tunnels. After that, these are matters that should be left to the planning process rather than to Government.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the London Group had the benefit of a presentation on this project? It said that one of the important features was to allow drainage in London, as the water level is now rising so high that it is becoming a problem, particularly with the development of more basements and sub-basements.

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely correct in talking about problems of drainage. We have seen, since Bazalgette built the original sewers some 150 years ago, a vast expansion of London, a vast increase in the number of people here, and a vast increase in the number of impermeable surfaces which allow water to drain off far quicker than it did in the past, creating serious environmental problems. As part of this process we need to look at all of those factors and all appropriate solutions.

My Lords, in view of the fact that major projects such as the Thames Tideway Tunnel often fall short in delivering the environmental and community benefits expected, will the Minister consider encouraging Thames Water to establish an independent trust to provide a vehicle for ensuring that those benefits are achieved and maximised and that the tunnel project leaves a lasting legacy for London along the lines that Sir Joseph Bazalgette achieved with the original sewer project?

My Lords, that is exactly what Thames Water is proposing in the plans. That is why it wants to consult on them and why it will have to go through the planning process in due course. At the end of that planning process we hope that it will be able to produce the right tunnel, in the right place, that will produce the right benefits.

In the 1960s when we were digging the Victoria line tunnel I remember that we caused minimal disruption around London and that the spoil was carried away directly. Can the Minister tell us why this cannot happen in the case of the Thames Tunnel when there is an easy way of carrying the spoil away—by the river?

Again, it is a matter for the planning process and planning authorities to propose what conditions they think appropriate to impose on Thames Water. Since it is proposed at the moment that the tunnel should follow the river down, I would have thought it might be possible to have a lot of the access points close to the river. It should therefore be possible. However, it is not a matter for Government but for the planning process to consider using the river, rather than roads, for disposal of that spoil.

I must declare an interest in that I live by the river and am a member of the Skiff Club in Teddington and therefore a supporter of the Thames Tunnel. Does the Minister agree that the reason why greenfield sites such as Barn Elms are at risk is that they are cheaper than the brownfield alternatives and that therefore it is a Defra issue? Will the Minister consider talking to Thames Water to make sure that environmental vandalism to sites such as Barn Elms does not take place?

Obviously, we would want to encourage the use of brownfield sites, where possible, rather than greenfield sites. However, I do think that this should be a matter for the planning authorities and the planning process rather than for a diktat from Defra itself.

My Lords, Defra is currently consulting on these sorts of projects becoming national infrastructure projects and at that point the Minister would have the leverage that he currently tells us he does not have. I understand the point that he is making. However, should he not take a lead, for example, from the Mayor of London, who is very happy to interfere and to pass comment wherever he sees fit? Should he not use his influence in this case and listen to what noble Lords have said about the importance of using the river to transport spoil in order to protect our greenfield sites and to preserve the brownfield sites? A meeting would be fairly straightforward and I am sure that Thames Water would want to listen to what the noble Lord has to say.

My Lords, I would have thought that what I have said has given some idea of where Ministers in Defra stand on these matters. Again, I think that the planning process should decide the appropriate route, how it is done, where to dig the access tunnels and so on. In the end, we want the right solution for London and for the customers of Thames Water to ensure that we can get rid of that waste water and that we do not have, again and again, the kind of environmental disasters that we have seen, on a number of occasions, further up the Thames, with vast quantities of dead fish and other such things.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a waterman and lighterman. It seems to me that the Government have to take an overview of this. Leaving the matter to separate planning authorities can lead to things like the green aspects of using the river, which are dramatically less harmful to the environment, being forgotten. The Government ought to take an overview, if not pass legislation on it to make it happen. I notice that as regards the Olympics we have failed abysmally to use the river as much as was promised. That is a great failure and a loss to the nation.

My Lords, I had a sneaking suspicion that a number of noble Lords in this House, who live further west up the Thames, would want to declare an interest in how these building works are to take place. Fourteen planning authorities are affected by this and it is one of the problems that has to be dealt with overall at government level. That does not mean that Defra should make the decision; the appropriate planning process should take place. Obviously, we will feed in our views and I have given some indication of a desire to use brownfield sites where possible rather than greenfield sites. In the end, we must leave this matter to the planning process.