In the 1950s the tidal Thames was declared “biologically dead” and, not surprisingly, it was marginalised by local councils and commercial developers alike. The capital city had turned its back on the river. Now, 70 years later, the Thames is again full of life, with more than 120 species of fish supporting thriving populations of herons and cormorants, seals, harbour porpoises and other wildlife. In 2010 the Thames won the top international Thiess river prize as the most improved waterway worldwide.
As one measure of this transformation the estuary is now Europe’s most important commercial fishery for Dover sole. Views of the river have once again become the focus for much of the capital’s most prestigious development. It is celebrated as a ribbon through history, a vital thoroughfare for commercial traffic and a very significant tourist attraction.
Despite such progress, there is still room for improvement. Riverside public access is increasingly a requirement of new development, but the ambition to achieve a continuous city-to sea footpath and cycleway along both banks is compromised by long-established land use.
Water quality is hugely improved, and the wildlife is testament to that. Nevertheless, there is still a frequent threat from sewer overflows when rainstorms overload the system. This is a threat that is predicted to increase with climate change and more extreme weather patterns.
The high-tech engineering counterpoint to the absorbent city, is the Tideway Tunnel Supersewer which is now under construction. This £5 billion infrastructure project is installing a 20km holding tank under the bed of the Thames, connected to the large sewer overflows that currently drain directly into the river. Many millions of fish fry migrate up and down the river between fresh and salt water.
Climate change is leading to significant sea-level rise as well as more extreme storm surges. The combination of high river flows and coastal inundation poses a serious threat to the city. The Thames Barrier needs to be activated on increasing numbers of occasions year on year, and many millions are being invested in higher sea defences, but at some point in the next few decades the need for a second tidal barrier is predicted.
Public perception is the final significant issue that needs to be addressed and The Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset has a lot to answer for. “Dirty old river” is firmly embedded in the nation’s folk memory, and a superficial observation seems to confirm that reputation.
Join Castle Debates to explore the challenges, the wonders and the suprising partnerships involved with the stewardship of this historic River.
Chair: Pamela Castle, OBE
Guest speakers include:
Chris Baines, Honorary President, Thames Estuary Partnership
Richard Aylard, Director of Sustainability, Thames Water
Tanya Ferry CEnv, Head of Environment, Port of London Authority
To find out more and book your place, please click here