‘Supersize, but is it sustainable?’ asks consumer champion

The Consumer Council for Water (CCWater) has raised serious concerns about this morning’s Government decision to approve a massive £2 billion project to collect overflows from London sewers. The tunnel, to be completed by 2020, converts to just under £40 on the average water and sewerage bill across the region, to be paid by consumers for decades on end.

David Bland, Chairman of CCWater Thames, said: “Nobody would dispute that sewerage systems must meet decent environmental standards. Consumers tell us that they are willing to contribute something towards environmental improvements: but this project far outweighs consumers’ willingness to pay for improvements to the Tideway. The costs will be met wholly through increases in consumers’ bills, and will be far more than most are willing or expecting to pay. For some Thames Water customers, the resulting price rises will be simply unaffordable”.

“Significant cost overruns typify such large construction projects, and there is no guarantee that the starting price will hold.  Remember that large-scale projects such as Crossrail and the Olympic Park will be sucking in labour, materials and equipment at the same time. As a result of the tunnel and other investment – for example to secure supplies against drought – water charges for Thames Water customers may increase by 50% in real terms within ten years.”

David Bland added: “Thames customers are already disillusioned with the performance of the company due to its continuing failures to meet leakage targets, the investigations into Thames Water over its customer service failures and unrelated issues around large profits and the premium paid by Macquarie to take over the company.

“London and the Thames Region need a coherent water strategy that gives equal weight to customer priorities and the environmental challenges. That means focussing effort on security of water supply in drought years, containing unnecessary leakage and limiting extra water taken from the environment. It does not include spending water consumers’ money on work for the Olympic site, and we are pleased to see that the Government has omitted this requirement in today’s announcement.

David Bland added: “We urge the Environment Agency to reassure consumers that the carbon footprint of this vast steel and concrete tunnel, and the additional energy for pumping that would be permanently required to run the system, are not so great that they invalidate the Tideway project as a responsible, sustainable solution to sewage overflows in the Thames.”

Paying for the project would hit low-income consumers particularly hard. There is no direct help available to soften the impact on the poorest households, and the Government has so far rejected calls from MPs and from the Consumer Council for Water to deal with water affordability through the tax credits and benefits system.