Regulating toxic emissions from vessels on the River Thames

On Friday 12 July, Criterion Capital, a property company that owns and manages a £2 billion property portfolio across London and the South East of England and that has acquired the Enderby Wharf site in East Greenwich from investment bank Morgan Stanley, confirmed that they will not revive plans for a cruise liner terminal on the site.

I welcome Criterion Capital’s announcement. I fought from day one, alongside local community and amenity groups, to secure a clean, green terminal – one that would have met the highest, not just the most basic, environmental and air quality standards – or, if one could not be secured, for the proposals.

Success in that fight entailed a sustained effort over several years to bring home to the developer the political and reputational costs of seeking to proceed with plans for a terminal that was not environmentally sustainable. 

However, the final demise of the Enderby Wharf cruise liner terminal does not mean that the problem of toxic emissions on the River Thames has been solved. There remains the issue of the large number of cruise ships that dock at Greenwich Pier each year.

According to the Port of London Authority (PLA), the body responsible for issuing licences to vessels to moor at Greenwich, 12 cruise liners berthed at Greenwich Ship Pier last year and a total of 14 are set to do so over the course of this year.

An average cruise ship, running its auxiliary engines while berthed, burns approximately 700 litres of diesel fuel an hour – the equivalent of 688 idling Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs). It is true that all ships must comply with international, national and local emissions legislation, which requires vessels to burn less than 0.1 per cent sulphur emissions. However, current emissions standards are simply not stringent enough to ensure that the cruise ships that dock in Greenwich do not exacerbate already poor local air quality and adversely impact the health of residents.

The crux of the issue is that responsibility for regulation of the Thames is utterly fragmented and no existing regulator has a clear responsibility for improving air quality or reducing emissions overall. At present, a wide range of different organisations have responsibility for regulating different classes and uses of vessels on the Thames. These include the PLA, the Environment Agency, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, and “riparian” boroughs, of which Greenwich is one, with boundaries that lie in the river itself.

Further complicating the problem of regulatory fragmentation are inherent conflicts of interest. For example, the PLA is under pressure to play its part in improving air quality in London and has developed a ground-breaking Air Quality Strategy to that end. Yet they are also the body responsible for issuing licences to cruise liner companies who wish to berth vessels at Greenwich Ship Pier; they generate revenue from doing so and they have no formal responsibility to regulate the emissions they generate.

Small improvements have been secured. Transport for London (TfL) introduced upgraded Woolwich ferries at the start of the year that are Stage V, hybrid vessels with additional exhaust treatment and an innovative docking system that means they do not have to run their engines at berth. The Mayor’s Air Quality Fund included £500,000 in funding for retrofitting 11 vessels. However, these piecemeal efforts are not enough.

What is needed in my view is a single regulator for the Thames and London waterways.

Replacing the current, multi-regulator system with one, either by creating a new regulatory or empowering an existing one, would ensure we have a coherent and consistent approach to reducing emissions generated on the river.

Over recent months, I have been attempting to secure a stand-alone debate in the Commons on the issue (so far unsuccessfully) to make the case for a single regulator and I will continue to do so.

I also intend to table an amendment to the forthcoming Environment Bill given that the creation of a single regulator would necessarily entail a reduction in the number of enforcement and licensing authorities – a step that would require primary legislation.