Kate Turner, Senior Corporate Adviser, donned a hard hat and went deep into London’s newest sewer. Here she reflects on the subterranean world connecting London’s past and its future…
Londoners have a history of not treating their river with respect. Up to the Victorian era it was common practice to dump all kinds of waste straight into the Thames – and it smelt. The stench got so bad in the summer of 1858 that Parliament ceased sitting in Westminster due to the ‘Great Stink’.
The sewage system built after the city’s sanitary low-point continues to serve us today despite the fact that capital's population is now four times that of the 1860s. The system is simply bulging at the U-bend.
“ The fact that Londoners can produce quite so much poo to need a tunnel of this scale is mindblowing! ”
The task of the Tideway tunnel
To prevent raw sewage from flooding our homes, 39 million tonnes are instead discharged into the Thames every year from overflow pipes. This harms the environment and also breaks EU directives. In many ways we’re back where we started.
Today’s solution is in the hands of a new company, Tideway, which will divert these overflows into a much larger sewer constructed under the river Thames, running 25km from Acton in the west to Abbey Mills in the east. The sewer is so large that it could hold three double decker buses side by side.
A tunnel that reaches beyond its length
I was recently invited by Tideway's Head of Stakeholder Engagement to don a hard hat and PPE, and join a site visit to the Lee tunnel at the easternmost end of the Tideway tunnel. Once I had been winched down in a lift by crane to the bottom of an enormous shaft - 65m deep - I was struck by the scale of this tremendous feat of civil engineering. The fact that Londoners can produce quite so much poo to need a tunnel of this scale is mindblowing!
But what’s more exciting are Tideway’s legacy plans. Whilst the Victorian sewers’ primary objective was to eliminate cholera and other water-borne diseases, Tideway is reaching much further.
This is not just about protecting the environment: the project will rejuvenate London’s river economy, create over 4,000 jobs for local workers and upskill the next generation of balanced labour by becoming the first major UK construction project to aim for a 50-50 gender split amongst workers.
From conception to completion, sustainability runs all the way through this tunnel’s construction. This is a responsible business by design.
“ We want the Tideway Tunnel to reconnect Londoners with their river and offering first-hand experience of the scale of the problem and our project to solve it is a step on the way to doing that. ”
A privilege to work with Tideway
I have spent much time over the past five years advising companies on how best to integrate responsible business practice throughout their operations and in my eyes, the most successful companies are those who have the vision to look beyond short-term, commercial pressures.
These companies go back to basics. They do this by considering the legacy they want to leave for society, the values and workplace culture which will enable them to succeed, and which groups they need to consult with to ensure it can achieve these positive impacts.
Tideway is exemplary in this approach, which is why I feel so privileged to be working with them.
A sustainable future for London
The nine million consumers serviced by Thames Water, who are funding the Tideway tunnel, all expect clean drinking water at the turn of a tap and take an ageing waste water infrastructure for granted, all whilst expecting their bills to remain static. Yet while exploring the Tideway tunnel I couldn’t help but doubt whether any customers give a second thought to where their waste goes after they have flushed a loo or drained their dishwater.
Having seen the project first hand I now have a different perspective on the city I left behind at ground level – to keep the Thames clean requires ambition and foresight to match the engineers of the Victorian era.
Tideway’s aims go beyond civil engineering. The tunnel will ensure that not only will the next generation of Londoners not have to face another Great Stink, but that their city will be that little bit more fair and that little bit more sustainable.
Tideway is the delivery organisation of Bazalgette Tunnel Limited, a special-purpose company licensed by Ofwat as a separate entity from Thames Water, appointed to build the Thames Tideway Tunnel. Read more about Tideway’s project here and its proposed legacy here.