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Let’s press on with the Thames Tideway

Little surprise last Friday when the £4bn-plus Thames Tideway Tunnel got the green light from ministers. Communities secretary Eric Pickles and environment secretary Elizabeth Truss concluded that the 25km long tunnel is the best way to stop frequent, untreated sewage discharges into the river.

And even less surprise that the announcement was greeted with joy from environmentalists and engineering lobby groups, and hostility from expert opponents and local authorities along the route.

So who’s benefiting? Well, the construction industry clearly, and the tunnelling industry in particular, as it now has the perfect job to roll off Crossrail onto. All those who have long bemoaned stop-start investment and campaigned for continuity of work in the interests of the industry providing long-term innovation and best value for clients will be especially delighted. Contracting joint ventures shortlisted for the three tunnelling contracts will be redoubling their efforts and mobilising some serious A teams to maximise their chances of winning work on a beautiful thing - a mega project in a regulated industry.

Proponents of gender equality should also be pretty happy, with Thames Tideway boss Andy Mitchell on record in NCE as wanting 50% of the staff on the project to be women by the time the project completes in 2023: “Why shouldn’t we be after [gender] parity by the time we complete the job?” he told us in June.

But there are plenty who aren’t happy. Southwark Council leader Peter John immediately branded the decision to allow the project to go ahead as “ludicrous”, having vehemently opposed the inclusion in the scheme of a drive site at Chamber’s Wharf within his borough. The council will fight on and is already making mutterings about calling for a judicial review.

In which case Southwark may have to form an orderly queue behind a group of environment, water and science experts who have branded the tunnel “unnecessary”.

Notably featuring former chairman of the Thames Tideway Strategy Steering Group Chris Binnie, the group believes the problem of sewage discharges into the Thames can be solved much more cheaply through a series of localised interventions and more widespread deployment of sustainable drainage systems.

Thames Water customers may not be so delighted either, with bills set to rise by £80 - permanently - to pay for it.

So who is right? As Mitchell says this week, if the tunnel had been in operation last year, it would have captured 97% of the sewage that poured into London’s river. No-one is disputing that, or that it is a good thing. It’s just the cost.

So maybe we should just back this one. Yes, it’s expensive. But the taxpayer is not paying -Thames Water’s customers are - paying directly for a service they use, almost entirely without thought or question.

Maybe higher bills will trigger a mass move towards metering. Maybe it will force people to think more about the utilities they use. Maybe higher bills aren’t such a bad thing.

When I last wrote about the Tideway back in November I leant on the old adage that you regret the things you don’t do in life far more than the things you do.
So I’m with Mitchell: “This is a huge project. But it’s a huge problem. And we can now get on with tackling it.”

Best crack on then.

  • Mark Hansford is NCE’s editor

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