The Super Sewer

When the heavens open and the rain falls, the genius of London’s Victorian subterranean engineering saves its streets from being flooded with raw sewerage. The sewers, unable to cope with their aquatic burden, are assisted by Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s interceptors, which spring into action and divert the excess rainwater that floods the combined sewers and drains, into the river Thames.

The 13,000-mile network designed by Bazalgette helped to expel cholera and eliminate the stench London had become famous for. However, three times as many people live in London now and there is less vegetation to soak up rain; resulting in 39million cubic metres of sewage spilling into the Thames with the rainwater each year. In1860s London this was not a major issue as the interceptors were only used a few times a year, the Thames was biologically dead and the knowledge of pathogenic microorganisms was still in its infancy.

The combined sewer overflow spills out on average once a week, breaching EU rules. From 2000 to 2005 the Thames Tideway Strategic Study Steering Group studied how best to resolve this problem and proposed a full-length tunnel from Hammersmith to Beckton. In 2006 the European Commission initiated environmental violation proceedings against the UK. In 2007 the government instructed Thames Water to construct a full-length tunnel from Hammersmith to Beckton at an estimated cost of about £2bn, to solve the problem. Since then the total estimated cost has increased to about £4.1bn.

Thames Tunnel Film (2011) from Thames Tunnel on Vimeo.

The project, officially called the Thames Tideway Tunnel, but widely known as the Super Sewer is controversial.

For residents of Fulham the recent naming of Carnwath road as the preferred site for the main drill shaft for the Super Sewer has left them wondering ‘why us, why here’? If the project goes ahead, Carnworth road, the size of six football pitches will be home to a drill wider than three London buses operating 24 hours per day for at least 7 years.

The site, whilst designated by Thames Water Brownfield is home to many residents in flats and houses who overlook the wharf where construction will take place. There is also a small business park that employs 130 people, a gym, a pub and river walk. There are two nursery schools, five primary schools and one secondary school within 500 metres and a further 15,000 residents and 2,200 businesses all within 1,500 metres of the site. Clearly for them, the project is not welcome news.

Vibration, noise, pollution, foul odours and traffic problems are the major concerns that has led to a staunch campaign against Thames Water’s plans by residents and local politicians since the announcement.

Cllr Ali de Lisle, from Sands End Ward in Fulham expressed concern that “a tunnel bigger than the Channel Tunnel [will have] its entrance off a small side road in a highly residential area of South Fulham.”

Carnwath road was not Thames Water’s first choice for the site for the drive shaft. In December last year a report was published by Thames Water titled; “Barn Elms Sports Ground – How We Chose the Preferred Site”. The report states on page 3 that “the sites identified at Carnwarth Road even if used together, were considered to be too small to be used as a main tunnel drive site” it goes onto say on page 4 “we chose Barn Elms because there were no suitable sites in Wandsworth Bridge from which to drive the tunnel.” In March this year Thames Water did a huge U-turn. Carnwarth Road was reconsidered to be big enough to be the ‘main drive site’ for the Super Sewer.

The move from barn Elms to Carnwath road will add £500 million to the estimated cost of the project.

“Barn Elms was the only place that could fit us in until we changed our tunneling strategy,” said Phil Stride, Head of London Tideway Tunnels. The Carnwath road site will enable Thames Water to move significantly more of the soil away by boat – which will be better for health and safety,” Mr Stride explained further.

Hammersmith and Fulham Council are opposed to the project and have been heavily lobbying Thames Water against the use of Carnworth road. Along with 4 other London boroughs they commissioned a report by Lord Selbourne. The report concluded that the river could be made cleaner and obligations to meet EU directives on water quality without building the super sewer.

“Our forensic analysis shows there is a substantial body of evidence pointing to the fact that there is a smarter way to make the River Thames cleaner. A shorter tunnel, combined with green infrastructure solutions that are built up incrementally in the medium to long term, would be both compliant with EU directives and less costly and disruptive to Londoners. These alternatives require further study.” Said Lord Selbourne in his report.

Mr Stride disagrees with the “feasibility” of the conclusions drawn by the Selbourne Report, adding, “it’s not realistic and there’s nothing new in it.”

The project is estimated to cost Thames water customers £70-80 per year extra on top of their normal bills, “for the foreseeable future,” Thames Water have said.

A report out on Tuesday called ‘Why does London need the Thames Tunnel?’ claims the major new sewer will be a huge boost for the capital’s economy.

The report, which is backed by business organisation ‘London First’ and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) was listed in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement as one of the country’s top 40 most important infrastructure projects According to Thames Water tthe proposed tunnel is expected to directly create over 4,000 jobs at the peak of its planned seven-year construction phase.

It has not yet been decided who will finance and deliver the project, the Thames Water-led team developing the project has said that it’s “clear on the need to set contractors a minimum 20% threshold for the use of local labour.”

The project has strong political support. London mayor Boris Johnson said in an article in the Daily Telegraph, “this new super-sewer is the right thing to do for the environment – and it is above all the right kind of thing to do for a country still struggling to get back to growth.” Chancellor George Osborne has also shown his support by including the project on a list of infrastructure projects that will be underwritten by the government.

“There’s no point spending £5 billion and pushing many Londoners into water poverty if there’s a smarter and a cheaper way,” said Fulham and Hammersmith Council Leader Stephen Greenhalgh.

Thames Water has a vested interest in pushing through the “gold-plated” scheme, as Cllr Greenhalgh has called it.

“They have chosen to ignore the water industry experts who say there are alternative ways to improve the cleanliness of the river without the huge environmental, social and economic costs,” a spokesperson for Hammersmith and Fulham Council claimed.

Chris Binnie, who worked for Thames Water as head of the original steering committee and created the original sewer plans, presented evidence to the Selbourne Commission. He argued that the whole basis for the project was out of date and needed to be revisited. He also appointed to the way in which the water industry is financed through international borrowing, incentivises Thames Water to build infrastructure whether it is needed or not, because the more they borrow the more money they will make.

Mr Stride refuted this claim and emphasised that no decisions on funding had been made and this assertion that Thames Water was only interested in money is incorrect.

Since the consultation period ended in February residents fighting the super sewer, in Fulham as well as other proposed sites across London where construction will take place, suffered two serious set backs. Firstly Government officials banned Hammersmith and Fulham Council from giving planning permission to housing projects in and around Carnwath Road, the site of one of three main shafts needed to construct the tunnel. Secondly, in March, a new bill had a second unopposed reading in the House of Commons that allows the Government to underwrite major water projects such as the Super Sewer.