Revealed: Raw sewage dumped at nature reserve in east London
The Spy has been investigating a park where sewage is spilt every four days
Morning — London’s waters can be pretty gross. Today the Spy reveals a particularly shocking example in the east of the city, where raw sewage is being allowed to spill at a nature reserve. That’s after your Sunday briefing below.
Plus: the market for London’s mega mansions is booming again, while a mega party boat wants to start cruising through the city.
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What we’ve spied
🏠 London’s ‘super-prime’ property market has officially bounced back after losing confidence due to Brexit. Over 160 properties worth £10m or more were sold in London in the most recent financial year, a return to the number sold before the UK voted to leave the EU. In other ridiculous property news — a home in Regents Park listed at £250 million is now the most expensive property in, er, the whole world.
🛥️ A 1,000-capacity party boat named ‘Oceandiva’ that will cruise through several London boroughs is expected to re-apply for planning permission. The boat’s owners want to serve alcohol on the boat until 3am as it cruises along the Thames. To say local residents are annoyed would be an understatement. The first licence application resulted in a record 980 submissions to Newham council, consisting mainly of objections from people in nearby boroughs. The boat’s owners have since launched a charm campaign, inviting local residents on board. They are expected to reapply in July.
👑 In the latest Coronation-related embarrassment for the Met Police, it has emerged that officers accidentally detained a royal superfan after mistaking her for a protestor. Alice Chambers arrived at The Mall in St James's Park at 7am hoping to get a good view of the King. She had no idea she had pitched up next to protestors, but by 9am she had been arrested by Met officers on suspicion of “potential to cause a breach of the peace”. In the 13 hours that followed, she was repeatedly questioned, subjected to physical searches, handcuffed, held in a cell, told to provide fingerprints and had her mugshot taken.
👮 Also new in Met controversy: two officers are now under investigation over a man’s fatal fall from a balcony after being tasered. The incident took place last month, when police were called over concerns for a man’s welfare who had been threatening to jump. After an hour-long standoff, the man was tasered while on the balcony and then fell to the ground. Both officers involved are under criminal investigation for gross negligence manslaughter.
📷 And while we’re on the rather dark topic of state-related deaths, there’s a new exhibition on this very theme opening in London. The exhibition was set up by Inquest, a charity that specialises in investigating such deaths, and will showcase images taken by the photographer Sarah Booker in memory of 17 people. The exhibition opened on Friday at the 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning Gallery in Brixton.
🚓 The Archbishop of Canterbury has been fined £500 after he was caught speeding in London. The Most Reverend Justin Welby was snapped by a speed camera last year while driving his Volkswagen Golf along the Albert Embankment towards his Palace. He was driving at 25 miles per hour in a 20 miles per hour zone.
🥒 Pickled penises, human foetuses and jarred organs will be put on display once again in central London as the Hunterian Museum reopens after a six-year closure. The anatomy-themed museum based on a collection amassed by the surgeon-anatomist John Hunterre opens on Tuesday next week. It’s definitely not for the squeamish.
The London park where sewage is spilt weekly
It was once held up as the UK’s first ‘climate change park’ — a shining example of how London’s urban rivers can be restored and adapted to rising sea levels.
Now, Mayesbrook park has become one of the worst dumping grounds for raw sewage in London, despite the public money poured into its regeneration.
Raw sewage spilt at the east London nature reserve an average of once every four days in 2022, the Spy can reveal, risking the habitat of its wide variety of water birds, fish and amphibians.
A local canoe club has even told the Spy it suspects poor water quality has led to its members falling ill with stomach infections.
Thames Water has apologised for the sewage spills, which happen when the area’s sewers become overwhelmed and discharge into the environment to relieve pressure.
Today we bring you the story of Mayesbrook park. It’s a reminder that, as central London awaits the opening of a new ‘super sewer’ to clean up the Thames, the city’s suburban waterways have morphed into unofficial extensions of our sewers, with no solution in sight.
Sewage at the lakes
Arrive at Mayesbrook park and you’re greeted with the best bits of London’s greenspaces — the city and nature coexisting.
Nestled between suburban housing in the borough of Barking and Dagenham, the park features two lakes connected to a river — Mayes Brook, a tributary of the River Roding that gives the park its name and meanders along its western side.
Geese and ducks potter about the lakes and near a boathouse, used by the local canoe club. Plonked in the middle is a large leisure centre, at one point used as the training ground for athletes ahead of the 2012 London Olympics.
But just upstream, that image of urban and natural harmony is shattered. Pipes managed by Thames Water are regularly spilling raw sewage into the park’s waters.
Like other water companies in England, Thames Water has permission to use what are known as ‘storm overflows’ to relieve pressure on its sewer network. They’re called into action when there’s so much rain in the area that it risks overwhelming the system, potentially resulting in sewage backing up into people’s houses, through toilets and sinks.
To avoid this, the water companies open the storm overflows — pipes that feed directly into natural water bodies like rivers and lakes. This often involves the discharge of sewage that has yet to be treated.
These overflows are meant to be used as a last-ditch solution, but the high frequency and duration of sewage spilling at Mayesbrook park suggest east London’s ageing sewers are hitting capacity far too easily.
We’ve examined data from the Environment Agency, which monitors the use of storm overflows in England. It shows Mayesbrook park’s overflows spilt on 90 separate occasions in 2022 — an average of once every four days.
The EA’s data, compiled from devices attached to the overflows that monitor when they open and close, also shows how long the pipes were spilling: 618 hours in 2022. That’s equivalent to 26 days of continuous spills, and among the worst in London.
All of this spilling is happening upstream of the lakes at Mayesbrook parks, which are officially designated local nature reserves, managed by Barking and Dagenham borough council.
Much energy and effort has been spent bringing nature to the park. In the 2010s it was the subject of a major regeneration program, driven by the threat of climate change. Once an unloved and underused park, extensive works saw the creation of riverside wetlands and woodlands, a by-product of an effort to boost the park’s flood defences in the face of rising sea levels.
Public cash, including £400,000 from the mayor of London’s office, was used to uncover Mayes Brook from a deep concrete channel and let it run openly through the park. Along the newly exposed waterway sprung newts, toads and kingfishers.
It’s this habitat that has now become the dumping ground for frequent sewage spills. Barking and Dagenham council did not confirm what investigations it was undertaking about the sewage’s impact on the nature reserve, but it did say it had asked Thames Water to remove the overflows from Mayesbrook park.
A spokesperson for Barking and Dagenham said: “Thames Water is aware that we, along with other local authorities in the Thames Region have repeatedly requested the removal of all sewer crossovers as the pollution of our watercourses is unacceptable.”
A Thames Water spokesperson said: "We are sorry to hear of sewage spills from Longbridge Road into the Mayes Brook, which can occur during periods of heavy rainfall when our sewers are overwhelmed.
“We understand this is unacceptable and we are committed to protecting and enhancing our waterways.”
Cleaning London’s water
The overflows at Mayesbrook park are among hundreds in London currently permitted to discharge sewage into the city’s waters, and among thousands more across all of England.
Scrutiny of these spills is on the rise, with the government recently announcing it is planning big fines for water companies that release sewage into the rivers and seas.
Yet another big solution is in the works to deal with the worst spill sites in London: Thames Tideway.
Branded a ‘super sewer’, the £4bn mega project will see a tunnel built along the length of the Thames that will redirect much of the discharge from overflows currently spilling directly into the river.
A case in point is the Brixton Storm Relief Sewer, which has an outlet just underneath Vauxhall bridge. Data shows it spilt into the Thames for 487 hours, or 20 continuous days, in 2022.
It’s the termination point of a Victorian-era sewer built by Sir Joseph Bazalgette that runs through south London, along the route of what was once a natural stream, the River Effra.
Once Thames Tideway is completed in 2025, these discharges will begin to be wholly intercepted by the new sewage tunnel, and rerouted away from the Thames to a sewage treatment works at Beckton in east London.
But that solution isn’t available to London’s other overflows, like those at Mayesbrook park, which are just as old and creaky but don’t feed directly into the Thames. Without their own Tideway project, they’ll need separate investment in their local sewer network from Thames Water — yet so far, a complete solution isn’t on the horizon.
A spokesperson for Thames Water added: “What matters most is stopping the need for the discharges. That’s why we’ve committed £1.6 billion of investment in our sewage treatment works and sewers over the next two years. We’ve recently published our plans to upgrade 250 of our sites. This will help us to deliver our commitment to a 50% reduction in the total annual duration of discharges across London and the Thames Valley by 2030, and within that an 80% reduction in sensitive catchments.
“We want to make these discharges of diluted sewage unnecessary as quickly as possible. We have a long way to go – and we certainly can’t do it on our own – but the ambition is clear.”
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