The Thames Tideway Tunnel, better known as the London Super Sewer, is causing a stink. It hasn’t been built yet – and a lot of people think it shouldn’t be.
Opposition to the development comes from various sources: local residents and businesses facing years of disruption; Thames Water customers who’ll have to foot the bill; environmentalists who say there are greener solutions to wastewater management; and free marketeers who hate the idea of yet another government-guaranteed, crony capitalist, backdoor Keynesian stimulus that the economy doesn’t need.
According to a report in the Guardian by Ian Griffiths, the coalition against the Super Sewer includes Professor Chris Binnie – who happens to have been the chairman of the “assessment team that supported the super sewer a decade ago”:
“The key to Binnie’s about-turn is cost and the permanent uplift of at least £80 per year in the bills of Thames Water customers. The cost has spiralled from an initial estimate of £1.7bn to £4.2bn, the point at which experts believe the value of the benefits no longer justify the expenditure. Binnie, who headed the Thames Tideway Strategic Study Group in 2005, hopes it will not be too late to scrap this multibillion-pound solution to improving water quality in the Thames.”
But, hang on, shouldn’t we be following the example of Sir Joseph Bazalgette – the Victorian engineer who was commissioned to sort out London’s sewers following the Great Stink of 1858? Here was a visionary who built a sewerage system that would stand the test of time, not to mention the accumulated bowel movements of millions of Londoners.
Why can’t we, with our 21st century technology, show the same ambition?
Binnie’s answer is that technological progress should encourage us to build smarter and faster, not necessarily bigger:
“Since the tunnel was chosen, in the intervening 10 years, technology has moved on much and techniques such as sustainable drainage systems, real-time control of sewer flows, floating booms to retain floating litter, sewer separation and the like have been developed and are now widely used elsewhere.”
Also, far from dishonouring Bazalgette’s legacy, Binnie’s argument is that it still serves us admirably:
“I have been down into the Bazalgette sewer system and it is in remarkably good shape. When the sewers are loaded with dry weather wastewater they do not spill. The biggest problems occur when the interceptor sewers are unable to cope with severe localised summer thunderstorms and need to spill into the river, as they were designed to do.”
There is some “foul sewage” content in this overflow and this does carry an environmental cost. The question, though, is whether the Super Sewer is a proportionate response – and, at present, this doesn’t appear to be the case.
Of course, when Bazalgette was at work in the 19th century he didn’t just cater for the needs of his own day, but also those of generations to come. Quite rightly, he anticipated that the demands on the system would increase over time.
However, we’ve now reached a point in our technological development when an ever-increasing demand for basic resources cannot be assumed. In fact, as an economy we’re becoming increasingly resource efficient. Indeed, the forecast is that London will be using less not more water in the decades ahead.
The ConservativeHome manifesto calls for a complete overhaul in the way that major decisions on infrastructure are made. Fundamentally bad decisions including HS2, Hinckley Point C and the London Super Sewer show that our wasteful, lumbering system of government is institutionally biased to wasteful, lumbering infrastructure projects.