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Architects fear ‘super sewer’ could blight major Thameside projects

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Practices raise fears over impact on public realm and major construction schemes as £4 billion Thames Tideway Tunnel goes to planning

Today (28 February) Thames Water will submit its 50,000-page Development Consent application to the Planning Inspectorate for the Thames Tideway Tunnel – the 25km ‘super sewer’ running under the river from Acton in west London to Abbey Mills Pumping Station on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in the east.

It will involve construction of pumping stations and ‘stink shafts’ at more than 20 riverside sites across London, raising concerns about its impact on both the public realm and on a number of major building projects. One site is Carnwath Road, where last month Hammersmith and Fulham Council granted planning approval for a major project by Harper Downie for 475 homes, office space, shops, new public squares and an ‘artisans’ village’. The area is Thames Water’s preferred location for one of its main tunnel drive sites and a safeguarding directive means that, although the council has approved Harper Downie’s scheme, the Secretary of State has the final say on what happens to the plot and could yet overturn the decision.

David Harper, director of Harper Downie, who feared the practice’s designs would not be realised said: ‘London has to invest in infrastructure, but it has to invest in the right way. An original report proved a need for the Thames Tunnel, but the author of that report [appears to have] rescinded his views. The biggest thing is to make sure that we truly need the Thames Tunnel.’

Further to the east, a scheme by Ian Simpson Architects to create 407 residential units and 441m² of offices and shops at Chambers Wharf in Southwark is also under threat from the Thames Tunnel plans. Thames Water’s proposals have been branded ‘unacceptable’ by Southwark Council leader Peter John. He said: ‘The government needs to wake up and see the damage it will do to the surrounding community and local environment.’

There has been a mixed reaction to visualisations released by Thames Water of its above-ground construction proposals. The initial designs were created by Fereday Pollard Architects.

A spokesman for Thames Water said: ‘Any new public open spaces would be designed to positively enhance the environment and provide a lasting legacy. Site designs are of high quality and provide value; respecting each site’s individual location and setting.’

Although designs have not been finalised, they have been broadly welcomed by CABE. But Mark Brearley, formerly of Design for London, said that opening up the above-ground projects to small design contests would have led to proposals which better served each site as well as opportunities for small and emerging practices to get involved. He said: ‘You would almost certainly have got a more careful outcome, specific to each place.’

The Planning Inspectorate has 28 days to decide whether or not Thames Water’s application is valid, a decision which will pave the way for a consultation, with government expected to decide on planning consent in autumn 2014. A decision in favour will see work begin on the project in 2015, with a target completion date of 2023.

Comment by landscape institute president Sue Illman, managing director, Illman Young:

‘I don’t doubt the super sewer will do what they say it will do, but I’m not convinced we need it.

‘One of the problems with the design is that it has finite capacity and Thames Water admits there will still be some floodings of sewage into the Thames each year anyway. So we are building something we know is not going to deal with today’s problem completely and will cope even less well if the rainwater situation gets worse.

‘The solution has to be a grey-green infrastructure initiative that utilises the sustainable drainage techniques we have at the moment – green roofs, rainwater gardens that slow the run-off into the sewers and improving our green spaces. Public buildings and office buildings could all be retrofitted. Lots of interventions locally can start to make a difference very quickly, while with the tunnel we’ve got 20 years of upheaval before we see any benefits.

‘A green solution would not only solve the problem of excess water in our drainage system, but would lead to other benefits too – we’ll get biodiversity, improved amenities, improvements in air and water quality, even improved social cohesion, not to mention all the possible work for architects and other professions in implementing it. And we’re going to get none of those if we just build a tunnel.’

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