After years of fierce debate at all levels, the fate of Thames Water’s £4bn Thames Tideway Tunnel currently rests with just five people.
The panel of Planning Inspectorate experts is one month into the three month period after which they have to make a recommendation on the controversial scheme.
Royal Town Planning Institute members Jan Bessell and David Prentis; ICE fellows Libby Gawith and Andrew Phillipson; and solicitor Emrys Parry are sifting through tens of thousands of pages of legal and social arguments for and against the application made by Thames Water.
One submission that stands out comes from the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. It opposes plans to locate a main tunnel boring machine launch shaft near Wandsworth Bridge, and claims that Thames Water did not disclose key information in its application for the super sewer.
It says 2,500 people live within 250m of the Carnwath Road site, and the streets are too congested to take the construction traffic comfortably. The council believes an alternative site at Barn Elms is feasible and would have less impact.
In a submission to the Planning Inspectorate the day before its assessment period for the scheme closed, the borough insisted that Thames Water had not backed up its case for using Carnwath Road.
“Following six months of examination, it remains firmly the council’s view that Carnwath Road Riverside is not the best available site for a main tunnel drive site and that the applicants have failed to disclose key information to support its selection above other sites,” said Hammersmith and Fulham’s submission.
“The council also remain of the view that an alternative drive strategy is feasible and has not been adequately assessed by the applicant to determine whether there is a sustainable alternative route for the tunnel.
“The applicants have, in the council’s view, failed to provide an application which was adequate to be examined, particularly in relation to site selection but also with regard to measures for the delivery of mitigation, which has throughout the examination remained incomplete, uncertain and unnecessarily complex.”
Thames Water said it submitted 125,000 pages to the Planning Inspectorate for the super sewer scheme.
The firm’s head of Thames Tideway Tunnel Phil Stride told NCE: “We are confident in our application. We are considering all possibilities but are planning on the basis that we will get the development consent order.”
Stride insisted Carnwath Road was the best place for the drive.
“We have been through two massive phases of consultation and written to a third of a million people,” he said. “Two overwhelming pieces of feedback have been: where you can, use brownfield sites; and where you can, use the river rather than roads [for transporting materials].
“We have done that, and that’s why we have selected Carnwath Road over Barn Elms. There is a wharf and it has been previously developed. The river is also wider and deeper than at Barn Elms, which is the busiest stretch of water in the UK for recreation.”
Thames Water had asked for an extension to the application assessment period but was told by communities secretary Eric Pickles that it would be completed by 12 March as planned.
Stride said after the deadline: “We are confident we have done all we can in terms of on site mitigation, answering all questions raised by the process. We [also] have comprehensive measures in terms of off site mitigation. We have done all we can.”
While the panel deliberates, Thames Water is gearing up to launch the procurement process for the infrastructure provider that will finance and deliver the super sewer.
A competitive process will begin in May, and a delivery organisation is being put in place ahead of this so that bidders can focus on finance.
Sir Neville Simms has been appointed as chairman of the delivery organisation, while Crossrail programme director Andrew Mitchell will join by May as chief executive.
They will build a senior team, with several members of Thames Water expected to transfer across.
“We need to transition that knowledge and experience into the delivery organisation,” said Stride, adding: “It is entirely possible I will go across.”
The infrastructure provider will be in place by May 2015 and will formally award the main construction contracts.
Eight teams have been shortlisted across three packages that make up the £2.3bn main construction phase of the scheme. Tender documents have gone out for two of the three, and the final set will go out this month.
The plan is to start construction in 2016 and complete the project in 2023. But first the scheme must win planning permission.
The Planning Inspectorate panel has until 12 June to make a recommendation to the communities and environment secretaries on whether they should accept the application as it stands.
Then the secretaries of state have three months to decide whether to approve the application, with or without conditions, or to turn it down.
Thames Water says the huge piece of infrastructure is required to help prevent discharge to the River Thames of untreated sewage from London’s Victorian sewerage network. As little as 2mm of rainfall can currently trigger a discharge to the river in central London.
The government has already given its strategic support in its March 2012 Waste Water National Policy Statement.
But whether the Planning Inspectorate concurs is a different matter. Time will tell.