Q There’s been talk of the 2010 Act not coming into force until April 2012, after consultation. Does this mean the City of London Corporation is rushing needlessly to act?
Prof Hughes: The factors that pushed ministers to act and draw up the 2010 Act have not changed. Nor has the condition of the Hampstead dams. This legislation is designed, among other things, to move the categorisation of reservoirs and their dams to a risk-based approach as recommended by Sir Michael Pitt in the Pitt Report. This approach will definitely come into force in the next two years and while the City could, technically, do necessary works under the 1975 Act now and then return to the issue later this would be completely illogical. You would have more work, more disruption (over more time), more concrete and – in the end the same result – at a larger total cost. In essence the 1975 Act does not allow for chains of reservoirs to be managed as a chain but the new Act does.The proposed solution – which I support – is to lessen works on what are currently the three reservoirs that fall into the 1975 Act by spreading the load. I believe this is the responsible course of action on safety and on amenity grounds.
Q What HAS to be done now and what could be done later?
Prof Hughes: The three dams covered by the 1975 Act are currently at risk of overtopping during rain events that happen once in 25 years – but that could happen tomorrow. If they do they will be damaged and could possibly fail and as the appointed Inspecting Engineer I require action to begin very soon to change this. The City needs to show me in a matter of weeks exactly what its plans are. In theory it could propose large works on the three dams, then undo them again under the 2010 legislation. That would make no sense.
Q Surely the Act will get softened? Has it not already slipped in timing?
Prof Hughes: Many people were expecting the legislation to be in force sooner than 2012. The new Act is to improve public safety and in my opinion will not get softened as demonstrated by progress in Scotland. I do not expect the consultation to materially affect dams such as Hampstead – which are in effect small dams with a large at-risk population nearby. Action will be required in such areas under the 2010 Act, I am sure, even where they are not covered (as in Hampstead) by the 1975 Act.
Why was the difference between the 1975 Act and the 2010 Act not made clear?
Prof Hughes: I have certainly made all of the above points when briefing Heath users. The City’s website also talks about both acts. All that has changed is that DEFRA have announced a clear date – 2011 for commencement and 2012 for implementation.
What’s your role and don’t you have an interest in getting more work done?
Prof Hughes: As a Panel Engineer my over-riding responsibility is public safety. Panel Engineers are professionals and liable for the lives they put at risk. Where I see work needs doing for public safety – as is the case here – I am obliged to say so. Under law I am also required to oversee and get the works done safely if necessary. If we don’t get a clear path ahead soon for Hampstead Heath, this becomes a real possibility. Works carried out under such an emergency regime are always more costly and disruptive.
Why is the City Corporation rushing at this? Why does it not challenge the 2010 Act?
Prof Hughes: I believe they are acting responsibly in a difficult situation and are not ‘rushing at this’. Others faced with the 2010 Act may simply decide to drain their reservoirs. Others are following exactly the same action as the City. Now the City Corporation knows the extent of the risk to life and property and they need to act. They are liable not just under reservoir legislation but also under common law. Of course a dam owner could challenge the act but this would an expensive, lengthy and I believe fruitless exercise – and all the while that dam owner would remain liable. It is hardly a tenable position for a responsible body like the City of London Corporation, with potential dangerous reservoirs on a hill in the middle of London.