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Thames Tunnel mega-sewer a ‘rushed’ decision

Independent report blames “rushed” and “overzealous” interpretation of directives.

An independent commission investigating the case for the Thames Tunnel mega-sewer claimed on Monday that the decision to pursue the huge tunnel solution was based on rushed decision making and overzealous interpretation of the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (UWWTD).

Commission leader Lord Selborne said he believed the tunnel was chosen over other solutions such as smaller tunnels and sustainable drainage systems (Suds) due to “ministers’ concern that they were out of time on the UWWTD, and something had to be done quickly”. The UWWTD aims to protect the environment from sewer discharges.

Beyond waste water directive

Former Thames Tideway Strategy Steering Group chairman Chris Binnie, also at the launch event, agreed that the project’s objectives “go beyond what is required by the UWWTD”. The steering group’s study was funded by Thames Water.

The Thames Tunnel Commission was formed by Hammersmith and Fulham Council in July to examine whether the proposed £3.6bn sewage storage tunnel beneath London was the only viable option to adequately prevent 39M.t of annual river sewage pollution from combined sewer overflows (CSOs).

It concluded that the river Thames could be made cleaner and water quality obligations could be met without building the Thames Tunnel. It also urged Thames Water to review alternatives including shorter tunnels and hybrid solutions, such as those proposed by Binnie (NCE 29 September) and Middlesex University professor of water economics Colin Green. Thames Water sustainability director Richard Aylard said the company took the report “very seriously” but could not respond until it had fully digested the findings, which he estimated would take 10 days.

Shorter tunnel

“A shorter tunnel, combined with green infrastructure solutions that are built up incrementally in the medium to long term, would be both compliant with European Union directives and less costly and disruptive to Londoners,” said Lord Selborne. “These alternatives require further study.”

Hammersmith and Fulham Council leader Stephen Greenhalgh, a vocal opponent of the project, said the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), regulator Ofwat and the Environment Agency should “compel” Thames Water to “go back to the drawing board”. In the meantime, Greenhalgh called for a “moratorium on [the Thames Tunnel] being presented as the de facto solution”.

Project costs criticised

The Commission also criticised the project costs that it said would be passed on to Thames Water customers. It said this would amount to at least an extra £65 per customer annually, “for life”.

But Thames Water denied that this was necessarily true. “We do not yet know who will finance and build the tunnel, but it is by no means certain that it will be Thames Water,” the company said. “Nor is it likely that the government and Ofwat will want to use the conventional regulatory approach … on a project of this scale. It is much more likely that, in common with major infrastructure projects in other sectors, it will be financed on a stand-alone basis.”

Timeline review

Thames Water confirmed this week that the proposed Thames Tunnel project end date of 2020 was still under review.

“Nothing is finalised yet by virtue of us still being in the consultation phase,” said a spokesman. A source close to the project told NCE that postponements to the second phase of consultation - which begins today - combined with a lack of precedent for the duration of Infrastructure Planning Commission processes have made it more difficult to predict viable timings for the project.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Maybe Xmas has come early and Santa will pay for it!
    Financed on a 'stand-alone basis'? Someone has to pay! Of course it will not be Thames Water - it has to be 'customers' in some form.
    If it is share holders then they will wish to see secure and reliable returns. Thames are already massively indebted as are all the water and sewerage providers in England. This may be exacerbated by the tunnel investments needed.

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