Sadiq Khan pledges to make River Thames ‘swimmable’ within decade

Brands river ‘national embarrassment’ as analysis reveals five-fold rise in duration of sewage spills in London last year

Tara Cobham
Monday 22 April 2024 11:09 BST
Comments
Fish 'full of contraceptive pill, antidepressants and cocaine' after sewage spills

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has pledged to make the River Thames “swimmable” within a decade as he plans to transform the capital’s waterways.

The former Labour cabinet minister branded the river a “national embarrassment” as his own analysis published this year revealed a nearly five-fold rise in the duration of sewage spills in London in 2023.

Acknowledging the huge challenge facing the capital yet undeterred from his “moonshot plan”, Mr Khan told The Sunday Times: “We won’t do this overnight. It will take us a few years to do – but the great thing is there’s an appetite from Londoners and campaigners.”

His announcement echoes a proposal by the Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo to reopen the Seine to swimmers to create an Olympic legacy for the city. The river is currently being cleaned so swimming events for the 2024 games later this year will be able to happen in its waters.

The opening of London’s new £5 billion 16-mile “super sewer” this summer is bringing environmentalists hope the state of the Thames is set to improve. The Tideway Tunnel will join 34 storm overflow drains as well as divert sewage to an east London treatment works, consequently reducing the amount of waste being pumped into the river, according to engineers.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has pledged to make the River Thames ‘swimmable’ within a decade as he plans to transform the capital’s waterways
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has pledged to make the River Thames ‘swimmable’ within a decade as he plans to transform the capital’s waterways (PA)

It comes as television naturalist Steve Backshall called the Thames “toxic” last week.

Mr Backshall, who lives near to the river, told the BBC: “I’ve been living here for ten years, kayaking this stretch of river for at least 25, and what’s happened to it in recent years is absolutely heartbreaking. Right now I wouldn’t go in the river, and I would seriously reach out to anyone who is a wild swimmer, or anyone who uses the river in any capacity, to stay out of it until it has been given a chance to clear.”

Meanwhile, River Action found levels of E. coli in the Thames were 10 times higher than what the Environment Agency deems acceptable for swimming when the charity tested the water at Hammersmith Bridge.

Speaking near to the banks of the Thames in Isleworth, west London, Mr Khan said: “We’ve made huge progress in cleaning up London’s air, exceeding expectations. Now it’s time to clean up our waterways too and build a plan to make rivers in London swimmable again within ten years.

A sewage pipeline connected to Thames Water's Maple Lodge Sewage Treatment Works is seen over the River Colne near Maple Cross
A sewage pipeline connected to Thames Water's Maple Lodge Sewage Treatment Works is seen over the River Colne near Maple Cross (REUTERS)

“The levels of sewage that water companies are pouring into our rivers is a scandal. Thames Water urgently need to up its game and get a grip of the situation. Thankfully, Labour is committed to tough new legislation to get these companies in line, including new rules around restricting pay and bonuses for those companies who fail to up their game.

“The mayoralty does not have the power or resources needed to, on its own, turn around the decline of our rivers. However, I have seen what can be done that others thought impossible in terms of cleaning our air.

“It just needs political will, and determination across the political spectrum to deliver real change. I will commit to bringing together the companies, government agencies and campaigners to work together on a 10-year plan to get London’s rivers so clean they are safe to swim in.”

Television naturalist Steve Backshall called the Thames ‘toxic’ last week
Television naturalist Steve Backshall called the Thames ‘toxic’ last week (BBC)

Thames Water has been fined significantly for pollution and leaks, while previous shareholders took out billions of pounds of dividends, leaving the utility in a dire financial situation. Mr Khan branded the company’s behaviour “grossly negligent”, claiming it is an “appalling advert for privatisation”.

The mayor’s announcement focusing on tackling water pollution is the latest in his ongoing environmental crusade. It follows his mission to combat air pollution in the capital, which involved resisting a U-turn on expanding the ultra-low emissions zone (Ulez) last summer.

As the 2 May elections approach, Mr Khan is aiming to appeal to Green and Lib Dem voters, as green policies are expected to be a dividing line in the campaign. He has pledged to invest at least £30 million in nature during his next mayoral term, which will partly go towards planting and rewilding, such as the return of bats and water otters to the Thames.

Mr Khan said: “For the first time in more than 400 years beavers are back in west London and the first two are called Justin Beaver … and Sigourney Beaver. And they’ve had kids. The great thing about beavers is they build natural dams. So, the whole point about rewilding is actually … because they can do things naturally that benefit us and stops flooding.”

A Thames Water spokesperson told The Independent: “We regard all discharges as unacceptable and taking action to improve the health of rivers is a key focus for us.

“We appreciate how much our waterways are loved and we want everyone to be able to enjoy them. In London, the Thames Tideway Tunnel, a £4.5billion investment, is nearing completion.

“This project, combined with previous upgrades we’ve made to our London sewage works and the building of the Lee Tunnel, will capture 95 per cent of the volume of untreated sewage currently entering the tidal Thames in a typical year.

“We have also started the £100million upgrade of Mogden sewage treatment works, which will increase capacity and reduce the number of storm discharges from the site, and we’re also spending £145million upgrading Beckton sewage works.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in