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The Sewage Problem

Our third priority is the pressing problem of sewage. When, in October 2011, David Walliams completed his 215-mile charity swim from the source of the Thames to Westminster, it was reported that over 110 million imperial gallons (500,000 cubic metres) of raw sewage had entered the River in that short period of several days. Each year, say Thames Water, 40 million tons of raw sewage spills into the River untreated.

At least this is better than the Great Stench or Stink of 1858 when sittings in Parliament had to be suspended on account of the strong smells and there was very serious concern about a cholera epidemic, contamination of the drinking water and other health issues. The popularity of the new flushing lavatories was already causing havoc below ground. Happily the right person was on hand then at the right time, Joseph Bazalgette was appointed Chief Engineer to the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1855 and he set about building the system we have today. Within ten years he had constructed 83 miles of main sewers that discharged 400 million gallons per day into the Thames at Barking and Plumstead. That system, extended further downriver on both North and South Banks and equipped with extensive filtration plants and now power stations fed by the compressed solid waste, is now in need of massive overhaul, renovation and new relief sewers.

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The solution currently under consideration is to construct a huge new main relief sewer for 20 miles (32 kilometres) running up to 250 feet (75 metres) below ground level and following the line of the River except at the Greenwich Peninsula where it would take a short cut under the Peninsula south of the O2. The capacity of the pipe would be such that it could hold temporarily significant volumes of water coming down the River after heavy rains, an additional tool for flood prevention upriver. It might also be of value in conjunction with the operation of new surge-tide flood barriers or barrages downstream. The Great Sewer survey vessel is already hard at work on the River identifying the optimum route of the pipe.

Institutional Underpinning

Our 1972-75 LORICA meetings, publications and reports came to one very important conclusion. It was that the UK was then ill-equipped institutionally to co-ordinate long-term policy on the future of the London River. As to be expected, this struck some resonance at the time with the Greater London Council and the Port of London Authority. The fact of the matter is that this division and difference of interest persists but the gap between City Hall and the Mayor of London on the one side and the Port of London Authority and the shipping industry is closing fast under the strong leadership of City Hall.

The New London Gateway Port

The focus of the Port of London Authority is now very much directed to the disposal of the Tilbury Docks and to the new privately-owned deepwater London Gateway Port under construction at the old Shell Thames Haven refinery, storage and crude oil and product berths well beyond the River entrance and on the North Bank of the Estuary. This brand-new container facility is due to open in late-2013 and aims to handle 1.6 million containers in its first year and, once the huge logistics park is completed, to increase capacity to 3.5 million containers per year. This compares with the Port of Felixstowe’s plans to expand from the current 3.5 million containers (40% of UK throughput today) to over five million. Felixstowe has just opened its first deepwater berths capable of accommodating the new generation of super-size container ships, each over a quarter of a mile in length and much wider and heavier than hitherto that will begin to enter service worldwide in 2013.

The Port of London Authority is likely to retain its responsibilities for navigation and ownership of the sea-bed along the full 95-mile (150 km) length of the tidal Thames, but its scope of interest and employment roll (360) may be increasingly skewed towards Tilbury and the Gateway. It will also be very concerned about the proposals to build a new superairport on the opposite side of the Estuary and any interference this might mean with the navigation channels in and out of the London Gateway Port and the London River.

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