Saturday 22 November 2008

H&F Council’s ‘Super Sewer’ Shenanigans, Part Two – The Facts From The Public Meeting

About six weeks before the 2005 general election H&F Conservatives put out a story that the Government was going to close Charing Cross Hospital. The public were taken in and it won the Tories around 3000 extra local votes in that election. At the time, when I asked the Conservatives about their “Save Charing Cross” propaganda, one prominent member admitted to me that they knew it wasn’t true, and advised me to “look at the small print on the back of their leaflet”. The fact that Charing Cross hasn’t closed and that instead, the hospital is just about to receive record new investment and a much wider range of facilities has gone without mention from our local Conservatives. Their interest was always just about the votes.

So, when I read H&F Conservatives stories about the ‘Super Sewer’ I was more than a little sceptical. Our local Tories and Council have spent tens of thousands of pounds of council tax payers' money telling residents how “giant craters” will be driven into Furnival Gardens and Ravenscourt Park to build a huge “Stink Pipe” causing “at least eight years of chaos”. It’s now clear that much of this is plainly not true.

On Monday night, a publiic meeting took place concerning the ‘Super Sewer’ – which is officially known as the Thames Tideway Tunnel. The meeting was opened by a Conservative councillor who told residents that he, his colleagues and the Council are yet to form a view on the scheme and hoped this meeting would help that process. This was a slightly peculiar thing for him to say as he has recently published comments saying his administration “is bitterly opposing the super-sewer project on the basis that the cost, chaos from eight years of construction, and loss of open space outweighs any benefits.”

Thames Water’s Richard Aylard then got on to the points which of were of greatest concern to residents. Mr. Aylard confirmed that Ravenscourt Park was never considered for any Thames Tideway Tunnel works (as previously reported here) and explained that Furnival Gardens also fails any criteria for an access tunnel into the sewer - as it’s not big enough.

David Wardle of the Environment Agency spoke for the scheme next. He told us that 32 million tonnes of untreated sewage is slushed into the River Thames each year. He graphically explained what is contained in this material and how, due to tidal conditions, this pollution then sloshes up and down the length of the river for up to two years before it is eventually flushed out into the North Sea. The Stamford Brook sewer (near the Dove pub) is one of the entrance spots where this material flows into the river.

Richard Aylard said that if the Thames Tideway Tunnel goes ahead, then the Stamford Brook sewer would be required to be sunk so that the sewage pours into the new tunnel and not the river. He added that this would take up to two years to complete and that the works wouldn't begin until the middle of the next decade.

Andrew Whetnall was then called to set out the case against the Thames Tideway Tunnel. I was told that he is an amateur enthusiast representing a consumer group. He said that he thought there were “minimal health benefits” to cleaning the river and that they would largely only aid a small number of rowers. Mr. Raj Bhatia, the Chair of the Stamford Brook Residents Association in the north of the borough, also explained his concerns.

We moved onto questions. A gently spoken man was the first person called. He politely told Cllr. Stephen Greenhalgh (Con), the Leader of the Council, that he had found the meeting to be very informative but asked him why he and the Council had put out so much information that had “evidently been widely misleading?” Audience members later told me that they thought this was the moment Greenhalgh lost the confidence of the room. His body language indicated he thought he'd been found out. Greenhalgh shuffled and looked around, like a boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar, eventually telling the gentleman that he “wasn’t there to talk but wanted to listen”. Cllr. Greenhalgh then tried to walk away from the podium but someone in the audience shouted out “answer the question!” Greenhalgh returned looking flustered but didn’t respond to the demand and simply repeated his keenness to hear the views of the public and slipped back to his seat.

Two thirds of “the public” who were called to ask questions by the Tory Chair were in fact Tory party members, councillors or candidates. The Conservative Party Parliamentary Candidate for Hammersmith was called early on. He told Thames Water’s Head of Civil Engineering that he too "is an engineer as he has a degree in the subject" (although his website says that he passed his degree in Computer Aided Technology) and asked whether the Thames Tunnel wasn’t simply an opportunity for “boys to play with big toys?”. Other questions followed, some very good, but many in a similar vein and the Chair brought the meeting to a close with two further speeches; one from Cllr. Greenhalgh and one from another Tory Councillor.

All in all, most of the audience I spoke with afterwards told me that they thought it was useful to be able hear and then question Thames Water about their plans. Nearly everyone I spoke with expressed concern that their Council had seemingly tried to hoodwink them over this issue. You can view the local journalist, Rebecca Kent’s take on things in an article in this week’s Gazette newspaper – which I have attached and you can click on to read.

Thames Water confirmed early on that there will not be any works in Ravenscourt Park. I am relieved that there has also turned out to be no truth in what H&F Council told us about major works in Furnival Gardens either but concerned to find out what Thames Water will still need to do to realigned Stamford Brook. I have therefore written to them to seek further information on this and what this would mean to my constituents. I will report back when I have that information but please email me here if you want to raise any matters with me about this and I will do all I can to help.

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