Keep waste on barges, says river boss: Helen Nowicka reports on proposals to switch rubbish on to the city's roads

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The number of heavy lorries driving through the capital could increase dramatically if councils switch the transport of domestic refuse from the Thames to the roads, the Port of London Authority has warned.

One million tonnes of rubbish is carried annually on the river to landfill sites in Essex. Local authorities bordering the river operate five waterside transfer stations where the waste is loaded from lorries on to barges.

Geoff Adam, head of port promotion with the PLA, said that the authority received no income from the rubbish barges, but was keen to see the river used as a thoroughfare.

'We are urging councils to think not just of the cheapest option, because barges are more expensive to use than lorries, but to consider the best all-round idea, taking into account environmental factors as well.

Westminster is considering the switch to save money. And other contracts, including that of the Corporation of London, are due to expire in the next two years.

The PLA has raised the issue with the Department of the Environment, and Stephen Norris, London's transport minister, claiming the DoE supports using the Thames for bulk cargos. The arguments received qualified support from Robert Atkins, minister for the environment and countryside, who agreed cheapest is not always best, but added that the final decision lay with individual boroughs.

The authority has also been in contact with Westminster council which is seeking tenders for its refuse disposal service. The contract with Cleenaway to transport rubbish from its depot at Grosvenor Dock, next to Chelsea bridge, to Rainham in Essex, expires next year.

Westminster's rubbish accounts for one-fifth of the total moved by barge through London. The PLA estimates moving this off the river would create 100 extra lorry journeys daily through the capital. If all boroughs switched to road, it says, heavy vehicles would cover an additional 3.7 million miles a year around the city - an extra 500 daily journeys.

Malcolm Haxby, Westminster's assistant corporate director of planning and environment, said the council's decision was complicated by the antiquated arrangements at Grosvenor Dock, where waste is dropped into open barges and covered.

Today's modern systems place the compressed rubbish in containers which are loaded on to barges. At the end of the river journey, they are re-connected to lorries for the final haul to the landfill sites.

'The transfer station was built in 1939 and uses a system no longer acceptable in 1994. If we continue to use it, considerable improvements, costing millions of pounds, will be required, Mr Haxby said.

'The refuse could be moved by rail, but part of the assessment of tender bids will be to consider their environmental implications.

'Operations at the Grosvenor Dock affect nearby residents. We have had complaints because the vehicles that use it are there at all hours of the day and night.

(Photograph omitted)