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Commission to probe multi-billion pound super sewer

Plans for a London-wide ‘super-sewer’ that is set to add £10 a month for life to the bills of 14 million Thames Water customers will be probed by an independent commission it was announced today.

A team of internationally renowned experts, led by Lord Selborne, will examine the case for the massive 20-mile long sewer – which will be larger than the Channel Tunnel if it is built.

Thames Water claim the tunnel is needed to avoid EU fines and clean up the River Thames but growing numbers of residents, councils and MPs are questioning whether the super sewer, which is also known as the Thames Tunnel, is the best solution.

The Thames Tunnel Commission was launched this morning ahead of a meeting between the Environment Minister, Richard Benyon MP, and the Leaders of the 14 riverside London boroughs that will be affected
by the scheme.

Thames Water’s Chief Executive, Martin Baggs, recently revealed that the sewer’s £3.6billion price tag – initially costing customers an extra £65 per year for life – was based on 2008 figures and ‘will inevitably increase’. The admission comes despite Caroline Spelman MP, Secretary of State for the Department of Environment, demanding that ‘not a penny extra be spent’.

Lord Selborne said:

“I welcome the opportunity to pose the questions that millions of water bill payers are starting to ask. The key question is whether this multi-billion pound project is the best solution to making the Thames cleaner or whether there are sensible alternatives that are cheaper, greener and less disruptive.”

Arguments against the super sewer have so far focused on localised issues about which neighbourhoods will be blighted by the 24 hour-a-day construction works e.g. Carnwath Road, Fulham and King Stairs Gardens, Southwark. But questions are being asked about:

  • The large and escalating price of the scheme will cost all 14 million Thames Water customers from Essex to Gloucestershire an extra £10 a month for life. 25% of water bill customers in England will see their bills rise by a fifth.
  • The threat to homes, schools and businesses around construction sites.
  • The sewer will not fix the problem, Thames Water has acknowledged that some sewage will still be discharged into the Thames, on average four times a year, and it will do nothing to prevent homes and basements from flooding.
  • Other major cities have similar combined sewer systems but have not chosen a single concrete tunnel solution.
  • There are greener alternatives to clean-up the river like sustainable urban drainage (SUDS) and collection of rainwater.

The Commission, which also includes representatives from the Consumer Council for Water, respected engineers and the US-based National Resources Defense Council, is sponsored by H&F Council with the
support of other London boroughs with the support of other London boroughs, including Southwark, Richmond and the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea.

H&F Council Leader Cllr Stephen Greenhalgh said:

“At a time when our public services are under intense pressure, Londoners cannot afford to effectively write a blank cheque for this scheme without proper scrutiny, accountability and debate.

“Doing nothing is not an option, but we need to consider the possibility that there are better alternatives. On a recent trip to Chicago I heard how very few world cities are approaching it in this way – many realise that a tunnel-only option is not the best solution.

“I am concerned that our approach seems to be one where Thames Water customers are being asked to foot the bill for a European edict where the main beneficiaries will be shareholders from an Australian finance group which owns the utility company.”

 “It remains my view that an alternative hybrid scheme, involving a shorter tunnel, diversion of run-off rainwater and sustainable drainage as well as improved river water treatment should be revisited as a matter of urgency. These solutions would be far less expensive, far less disruptive and much more beneficial to the environment. We need proper Government-led scrutiny – we cannot leave this decision to Thames Water which is after all a monopoly and has a vested interest.”

The EFRA Select Committee also recently agreed that Thames Water has not properly evaluated alternatives. The pressure has finally led to Thames Water to consider alternatives as part of phase two of their consultation which is set to start in September.

Cllr Lord True, Leader London Borough of Richmond, said:

"The case for the Thames Tunnel has not been properly made. It is time for Thames Water to rethink and deliver a scheme that secures greater value for money and less disruption to Londoners. With the country still plunging into debt at £16 million an hour, inflation too high and utility bills constantly growing, this is one prestige project that could be shelved until better days."

Cllr Peter John, Leader of Southwark Council, said:

"Seven years of misery for those who use Kings Stairs Gardens or who live adjacent to Chambers Wharf is not a prospect which we are prepared to contemplate without a thorough independent investigation and challenge of the scheme as currently presented.

"I look forward to the work of the Commission being taken forward and it proposing a scheme which will make the Thames cleaner and safer, but which minimises the disruption and cost to our communities."

Cllr Sir Merrick Cockell, Leader Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, says:

“I welcome an objective look at this project from an independent commission. It is an enormously expensive scheme and comes at a time when there are other schemes being shelved that will meet more immediate needs, such as the replacement of our Victorian sewers."



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