Despite huge objections from residents living in Taw Hill, Thames Water, through its contractors Optimise, started construction of two huge underground storage tanks on Monday 17 March.
The tanks will be situated right in the middle of housing at either end of Queen Elizabeth Drive would provide storage for overflow rainwater and sewage that could result from future housing developments, namely from 1700 home Tadpole Farm development, to the north of the existing housing area.
But residents say the plans have barely changed as the scheme put forward by Optimise in the middle of 2013, save for the fact that a 6 foot high vent pipe has been removed. The tanks will be vented at ground level.
They believe installation of the tanks will create a flood risk and having them so close to housing may result in odour. They are also angry that Thames Water has completely ignored their suggestion that the tanks can be located to the west of Thamesdown Drive, given the main sewer from North Swindon runs under the road.
Thames Water, as a utility company with a statutory responsibility to plan for and provide sewage disposal in the long term, do not need planning permission for the tanks, they’ve agreed with Swindon Council planning officers that the work should start on 17 March.
This has been agreed even though local councillors have been arguing that resident’s views should be taken into account and the proposal should be debated by elected councils on the planning committee under Article 4 proviso of Town and Country Planning Act.
North Swindon MP Justin Tomlinson said a different approach could have been taken. "I am extremely disappointed that Thames Water have taken it upon themselves to bypass public scrutiny through a formal planning application.
"Thames Water should be working with, not against, the local community who have continuously sought to present practical alternatives."
Priory Vale councillor Toby Elliott wrote to planning officers calling for a delay in the start of work stating: ‘It is for the precise wishes of the 150+ residents interested in these proposed works that I would like the application to go through a full and proper process. This being a report to Planning Committee and a vote taken on whether or not to apply an Article 4 direction.
‘It appears that Thames Water / Optimise are trying to run roughshod of proper practice by going ahead with the development on Monday 17 March before Planning Committee could meet to discuss any possible Article 4 direction.
‘The residents of the area have called on the Council to refuse access to the proposed sites so that proper process can follow. Can I inquire why this is not possible?’
In a belated attempt to persuade Thames Water to delay the start of works until their plan is discussed by Swindon councillors the Leader of Swindon Council David Renard wrote to Huw Thomas at the company:
‘As you are aware, I have received strong representation from both the ward councillors and the North Swindon MP about Thames Water’s imminent construction work in Taw Hill.
‘While I recognise that you have no statutory obligation to do so, I would like to request that Thames Water considers delaying work until the Council’s Planning Committee has had an opportunity to receive a report about an Article 4 Direction.
‘Your company’s response to this suggestion would be most helpful to those facing concerned residents.’
Taw Hill campaign coordinator David Parkinson expressed the frustration residents feel. "I cannot see how our council can allow this development to take place on an officer recommendation, given the impact on our environment, our concern that the tanks could overflow – as has happened elsewhere in the country – the smell that could emanate, and the fact that there is a viable alternative site at Mouldon Hill which has not been seriously considered.
"The whole process is totally undemocratic. Our elected representatives are being neutered by planning officers in the interests of private company who want to build a low cost short term stop-gap storage facility which does not answer the long terms requirements of sewage disposal in Swindon.
"We are not arguing against the need for overflow storage, but Thames Water refuse to consider the alternative of building the tanks on the other side of Thamesdown Drive, just yards from the main sewer pipe which they want to divert into our front yard."
David has written to residents about his last meeting with Thames Water and concludes: ‘I regret that we have been ultimately defeated by a Council Leadership which refuses to fight to look after our interests, to the detriment of nobody else, by seeking to ensure that other ‘no risk’ sites owned by Swindon Borough Council were used and is clearly content to see its own planning committee prevented from making an informed decision, on our behalf, as to whether to impose an Article 4 direction or not.’
David Parkinson’s letter to Taw Hill residents on 7 March explaining the situation.
Following the decision of SBC not to impose an Article 4 direction, I was invited at very short notice to attend Thames Water’s Offices in Kembery Park today.
David, pictured in June 2013 on the left with fellow residents, on the site which Thames Water are going to build on
Present were Huw Thomas (TW), Justin Seeley (Optimise), two other representatives of Optimise and myself. I had expected that at least one of our elected representative might be there but that was not the case.
I am sorry to inform you all that Thames Water now intend to start at the North site on 17.03.2014 and will commence work on the Southern site during late May or early June. They expect to be in the Taw Hill area for about 12 months in total.
They will be writing to residents in the next few days. I presented all our arguments for the final time and expressed the view that the unreasonable failure of SBC to impose an Article 4 direction had effectively meant that we had been denied our democratic rights in this matter.
The whole purpose of the Artilce 4 direction is to ensure that the many matters still left unresolved were properly tested at the Planning Committee.
Instead of that the public have been forcibly subjected to the untested decisions of unelected Council Officers.
TW still admit that they cannot give a cast iron promise that the tanks will not flood but they believe that the risk is minimal and that substantial flooding would have to occur elsewhere in other lower lying areas before it became an even remote possibility. I explained that it may seem acceptable to them to assess the risk as minimal and then go ahead with their project but that it was easy for them as they were taking a risk with other peoples’ property. If they put themselves in the property owners’ shoes then their assessment may be somewhat different.
I explained that if there was any risk of flooding, however minimal then the tanks should be placed to the West of Thamesdown drive where there was no risk of damage to property.
TW still admit that the Tanks may emit odours. For the same reasons, I explained that the tanks should be to the West of Thamesdown Drive. Thames Water have added that there will now be a flushing system in the tanks to ensure that no sludge is left in them after operation and that the ground level vents will have activated carbon filters.
For the same reasons, I explained that the tanks should be to the West of Thamesdown Drive. Thames Water do not believe that the pumps will be heard at ground level and in the vent of double pump failure temporary submersible pumps will be used to enter the tank rather than tankers.
I expressed alarm that no reposnse had been recieved to Marie Percivals request for the transport plan. I pointed out the risks involved at the North and South sites and that these risks could be avoided by locating to the West of Thamesdown Drive.
I was assured that suitable risks assessments would be in place – for what that is worth! At my request, Optimise will be looking at re-routing of the buses through Taw Hill whilst the development takes place after I pointed out that, as it is, the buses were pushing each other and other cars off the road and the addition of their heavy goods vehicles would only make a bad situation worse.
West of Thamesdown Drive
The argument that 33KVA cable were preventing such development was finally shown to be a sham when I pointed out that Optimise were conducting very similar construction in a very tight space in Cheney Manor. They would be able to put two Cheney Manor sites to the West of Thamesdwon Drive before they came close to the cables.
The removal of tree issue to the West of Thamesdwon Drive was also shown to be a sham as most have already been cleared. The only real objection which then remained was that an officer at SBC Highways Dept had apparently told them that they would not be allowed to use it to access and exit such sites and permission would not be given to construct a service lay-by.
I pointed out that this was the untested view of one Officer and that this was one glaring reason why the Article 4 direction was necessary. I further pointed out that a speed restriction and lane closure could be used on Thamesdown Drive during construction periods.
I added that Thamesdown Drive is a 40mph restricted road and that it is lightly used during daytime periods when maintenance would be likely to occur. I expressed the view that it was questionable whether the officers claim that the service lay-by could not be constructed could be justified – if the lay-by were long and wide enough it should not create a problem.
I pointed out that the occupants of these houses were busy people who needed time to ensure that they recieved adequate undertakings and assurances from Thames Water and Optimise that they would be compensated if any damage occured to their properties as a result of the work. An Article 4 direction would have allowed sufficient time for such matters to be examined fully covered. I pointed out that SBC planning had a duty to ensure these people were looked after and had clearly failed in that duty.
TW’s and Optimise’s handling of this matter
I explained that what was portrayed as a consultation was anything but and that this had been insulting to residents. I explained that residents had been told right up to the last meeting at St Francis School that no final decision had been made on the site and that there was no fait-a-complit.
I expressed the view that residents should have been approached before test drills were ever made and should have been involved it the site selection process and that it should be the duty of SBC, on receiving notice of it, to make suitable notification of proposed major engineering work to local residents. This would then have allowed plenty of time for all issues to be thoroughly examined.
I also expressed the view that SBC needed to make residents aware of the fact that it was possible for a Local Authority to control general permitted development using Article 4 directions provided that sufficient grounds for doing so. In this case, the short time between final notification of the chosen site and a start date had effectively scuppered the Article 4 process and this was palinly unfair and undemocratic.
Residents had also worked for a long time on the presumption that there was no opportunity to oppose the underground tanks and Thames Water had misleadingly reinforced that view.
This is my recollection of the general content of the meeting made to the best of my ability. Brian McLean and I have done our best, with others, to try and get the collective message across.
I regret that we have been ultimately defeated by a Council Leadership which refuses to fight to look after our interests, to the detriment of nobody else, by seeking to ensure that other ‘no risk’ sites owned by SBC were used and is clearly content to see its own planning committee prevented from making an informed decision, on our behalf, as to whether to impose an Article 4 direction or not.