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Kicking up a stink over London’s new super sewer 

Britons have a strange relationship with the toilet.

On the one hand it is something to be engaged with on a strictly private basis, but on the other a source of great entertainment (or ‘the focus of an entire culture’, to quote Baron von Richthofen in Blackadder).

But in London it is absolutely crucial we talk about it in a serious way because if we don’t we are heading for an unholy mess, in an all too literal sense.

We have a dirty secret in this city - a story that we shy away from telling – and that is where our effluent goes.

“We have a dirty secret in this city - a story that we shy away from telling”

When it rains, the overflows gush into the river leaving human waste floating along our iconic landscape. This happens on a near-weekly basis and it’s going to get worse.

Today the equivalent volume of eight billion lavatory flushes pollute the tidal section of the river in London every year.

As London continues to grow, an additional 600,000 properties will need to be built by 2030, and each of those homes will need at least one loo.

The system we have currently does not have the capacity to cope with the existing population, let alone support a growing city.

It was built in the 1850s to support four million people and the London population now numbers around 8.3m and growing fast.

This is why it is so important the government has granted planning permission for a £4bn London super sewer – the Thames Tideway Tunnel (TTT).

Reservations have been voiced about the cost for households, as well as the interruptions caused by its construction.

The government has accepted that there will be major disruption in certain places.

“Those who stand in the way of this mammoth task need to think about the consequences of inaction”

But it has also concluded TTT has solid plans to mitigate the interruption as much as possible and – crucially – that there aren’t any better options.

Those who stand in the way of this mammoth task need to think about the consequences of inaction for us and for future generations.

When you consider that enough sewage already discharges into the River Thames each year to fill the Albert Hall 450 times over, you’ll realise that those consequences stink.

Baroness Jo Valentine is chief executive of London First

Readers' comments (1)

  • Jo Valentine has got it wrong! I know that the construction industry would love to build the Thames Tideway Tunnel but, contrary to evidence which Thames Water have clearly fed her, this £4.2 bn project is not necessary, will cause disruption for a number of years to those living along the Thames and will cost all of Thames Water's £12 m customers an extra £80 per annum on their bills for decades.

    The river is not filthy; the sewers can cope with the lavatory flushes which so concern Jo, except when there is heavy rain so the solution is to slow or stop rain entering the sewers. This is called Sustainable Urban Drainage; it works successfully in many US cities, and Government has recently introduced legislation to enable it to be installed here. In any event, the Lee Tunnel, due to start operating soon, will reduce the spills from the combined sewer outfalls very significantly, as has the extended Mogden Sewage works near Twickenham. Most new housing is being built in areas where the sewage is put into separate pipes from the rainwater.

    I know that Government ministers have set their heart on this massive project and the construction industry would love it too - with a built in government guarantee. But it has to be the right project. Opinion and technology has changed since the decisions was made nearly ten years ago; there are now alternatives which are easier, less risky, cheaper and will cause much less disruption. Government and London First need to think again!

    Tony Berkeley
    House of Lords

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