Fresh controversy has hit Thames Water’s £4.1bn super sewer project, with a Labour peer threatening to make a formal complaint about the National Audit Office’s (NAO’s) handling of the project.
Lord Berkeley said he would write to the House of Commons public accounts committee about an email from a senior official at the public spending watchdog to a high profile opponent of the project.
Berkeley believes the email compromises the NAO’s impartiality with regard to a project he claims is wasting billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money.
The Labour peer described the comments from NAO manager, value for money, private and third sector delivery Robert Cook, to consultant Chris Binnie, as “totally inappropriate” and “very wrong”.
Binnie is the former chair of the Thames Tideway Strategic Steering Group, which was set up to investigate the environmental impact of stormwater discharges into the River Thames and to recommend ways to minimise it.
In 2005 it produced a study funded by Thames Water, the Environment Agency, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Greater London Authority. The study recommended the construction of the Tideway Tunnel on the basis that it would cost £1.7bn. Cost estimates have since soared above £4bn and Binnie has withdrawn his backing.
Binnie and Berkeley are instead promoting a series of lower cost measures to address the stormwater problem.
On 5 June this year, Cook emailed Binnie a link to the NAO’s recently published report on the Tideway Tunnel after receiving his comments on the draft version.
“The government has pointed out that controversy about the project at this point in the procurement process could increase project costs, by increasing bidders’ perceptions that the project might not go ahead,” wrote Cook in the email.
“Potentially, this could cause bidders to increase the price of their bids or drop out of the competition entirely, which would be to the detriment of public value,” added Cook. “To avoid influencing these competitions, our report deliberately does not make audit judgements or evaluate the value for money of the project to date.
“We would be grateful if you would consider these sensitivities in any public statements you make about the report.”
Binnie said he was”surprised” and “disappointed” by the email.
Berkeley told NCE: “We will be writing to [public accounts committee chair] Margaret Hodge to suggest the public accounts committee looks at how the NAO has handled this and whether it is [truly] independent.”
An NAO spokesman said: “We have no desire to stop people opposing the project.
“We are trying to ask people not to misrepresent our report. The report is not an evaluation of value for money and we would not want it to be represented as such.
“We cannot judge value for money so early in the project. We will look back and decide whether the government has used its money well in retrospect. We cannot become part of the process itself; government governs.”
Binnie and Berkeley believe their alternative set of measures could save taxpayers billions of pounds. They include sewage separation, intelligent stormwater flow controls and sustainable urban drainage systems.
“Using a combination of measures we could come up with a more cost effective solution to the problem,” said Binnie.
“No-one has looked at that. The government and the Environment Agency have refused to look at a combination of measures. This is highly disappointing. We are wasting money.”
Defra defended the project. “Many years of study have demonstrated that a tunnel is the best solution, and the Thames Tideway Tunnel is one of the government’s priority infrastructure projects,” said a spokesman.
Thames Tideway Tunnel head Phil Stride said: “We have absolute confidence that the Thames Tideway Tunnel is the most effective and cost-efficient way of tackling the tens of millions of tonnes of untreated sewage which discharge into the tidal River Thames every year.”
A panel of Planning Inspectorate experts has privately made its recommendation to the communities and environment secretaries on whether they should accept Thames Water’s planning application for the super sewer.
Their joint decision on whether to grant development consent will be made by 12 September.
Eight contracting joint ventures are currently tendering for the £2.3bn main construction work of the Thames Tideway Tunnel. Work packages have been split into geographical sections of west, central and east along the 25km route across London. Preferred bidders are set to be announced in early 2015.