It’s a dirty job, but do Thames authorities have to do it?
London Letter: Plans to build a London super-sewer are proving unpopular
Cholera-plagued London was forced during Victorian times finally to tackle the flood of sewage that daily polluted the Thames. Photograph: John Stillwell/PA
Somerset House on London’s Victoria Embankment has a wonderful terrace, supported by a series of bridges underneath, along with an arch once built to welcome the King’s Barge Master, looking every bit a building that should have a clear view over water.
It once did, and, if history had worked out differently, it still would; bar the reality that cholera-plagued London was forced during Victorian times finally to tackle the flood of sewage that daily polluted the Thames.
Today, Somerset House is separated from the Thames by pavements, but, more importantly, a four-lane highway, leaving the quadrangle of buildings, which once housed the Admiralty, literally “high and dry”.
Underneath the road lies the work of Joseph Bazalgette, the Victorian engineer whose work so impressed the Houses of Parliament – members of which had found it impossible to occupy their quarters further up the river – that he received a £6,000 bonus.
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Bazalgette’s design, which captures rain-water along with sewage and was designed to cope with four million people, is a system of nearly 60 overflows spread along its route that pour directly into the Thames in emergencies.
The logic was sensible in the 1850s, because the alternative – that the sewage should back up and flood Londoners’ homes – was unacceptable, undoing many of the health gains that were made from falling cholera figures after it opened.
Today, however, emergency has been the norm.
“In wetter years, the figure can increase threefold. These discharges occur, on average, once a week – up to 60 times a year – and after as little as 2mm of rain,” says Smith, who argues that the super-sewer is not a choice, but rather a necessity.
Without action, the UK faces the threat of Brussels fines, following a judgment last year by the European Court which warned that neither practical nor administrative difficulties, nor indeed cost, justified the pumping of raw sewage into rivers.
A preliminary hearing by the planning inspectorate began yesterday, though a full inquiry is still to come. A final decision by ministers is due next year, uncomfortably close for any of those with London riverside constituencies to defend in the general election a year later.
Opposition is voluble, well-connected and wide-ranging, including actor Patrick Stewart and musician Annie Lennox. Some localities face years of 24-hour, seven-day construction, along with truncated parks and ugly air intakes if Thames Water gets approval for the £4 billion project.