Charles Wright: A revival of London’s historic river trade could at last be underway

Charles Wright: A revival of London’s historic river trade could at last be underway

Delivery company DHL’s yellow and red river boats are familiar in Venice and Amsterdam. Now they’re on the Thames too – the UK’s first high speed river-based parcel delivery service, running daily from Wandsworth into Central London.

The new service, seeing Thames Clippers Logistics boats loaded daily from electric vehicles at Wandsworth Riverside Quarter Pier, docking at Bankside Pier opposite St Paul’s Cathedral for “final mile” delivery on DHL courier bicycles, has been welcomed all round by proponents of trade on the river.

It’s a “great example of how the Thames can play its part in an innovative new way,” Sadiq Khan’s transport deputy Heidi Alexander told On London, while Port of London authority chief executive Robin Mortimer described it as a “significant step forward in opening up a new and potentially substantial area of river use.”

Tidal for 95 miles, from Teddington Lock to the North Sea, the Thames, overseen since 1912 by the Port of London Authority (PLA) public trust, remains the UK’s busiest inland waterway for freight, moving some five million tonnes of materials each year.

What Mayor Khan’s planning deputy Jules Pipe has called “this uncongested marine superhighway” nevertheless remains underused, despite a fistful of strategies aimed at unlocking its potential, from the PLA’s Vision for the Tidal Thames to City Hall’s London Plan and TfL’s Freight and Servicing Action Plan.

But the new DHL service is just one sign that the often-heralded resurgence of river trade could actually be happening.

A key piece of the Thames trade jigsaw fell into place just before the DHL service launched, with the government confirming the “safeguarding” of 50 wharves along the river, adopting in full recommendations from City Hall following a review last year.

Safeguarding, first introduced in 1997, effectively puts the future of river wharves in the hands of the Mayor, giving City Hall the power to refuse redevelopment proposals for wharves on the safeguarded list which are viable or “capable of being made viable” for water-borne freight handling, as set out in the current London Plan.

The policy has been a key weapon in preserving vital riverside infrastructure from the pressure of waterfront development, as demonstrated by the protracted legal battle to prevent the loss of Peruvian Wharf in the Royal Docks, which concluded last year with the PLA completing a £3 million purchase of the site.

The eight-acre wharf ceased operations in 1993, and mixed-use development plans were stymied by then Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly in 2007 on the grounds that the scheme would prejudice the site’s ability to handle cargo. “Without the restriction resulting from the policy, I don’t think there would be a wharf for us to reactivate,” Mortimer said in 2016.

Peruvian wharf finally reopened last year after further lengthy compulsory purchase wrangling. It is expected to handle more than 400,000 tonnes of cargo a year, mainly construction materials, and the PLA has also acquired the neighbouring Royal Primrose Wharf, now safeguarded in the recent review to secure the future of a major new cargo handling hub in the Royal Docks.

Whitehall sign-off of the wharves review would ensure the protection of essential “slip roads” on and off the river, said Pipe, adding: “As we continue building a more resilient and sustainable city for the future, it’s essential that we make better use of the river on which London was founded.”

Increasing concern about air quality and congestion, as well as the dangers posed by heavy vehicles to cyclists and pedestrians in particular, is also encouraging a new emphasis on the river.

The PLA estimates that river freight already saves more than 250,000 lorry movements a year, with Peruvian Wharf capacity alone capable of keeping some 20,000 lorries off the city’s roads.

It’s an important consideration, with freight taking up almost a third of morning rush hour traffic, the number of delivery vans on the increase, and lorries and vans between them contributing a third of nitrogen oxide emissions in the capital.

It’s part of DHL thinking too, according to UK chief executive Ian Wilson. “With traffic and poor air quality becoming an increasing problem in urban areas like London, we’re committed to finding a better blend of transport,” he said,

Much of the existing Thames traffic is bulk materials – waste transported downriver, construction materials and spoil from the Thames Tideway “super sewer” tunnel project and materials for Crossrail – and this freight is demonstrating the further potential of the river for construction traffic, supported by the new wharves and, increasingly, conditions on new developments requiring use of the river where possible.

TfL’s proposed Silvertown tunnel will be using the river to transport construction materials, while the planned relocation of the city’s historic Smithfield, Billingsgate and New Spitalfields markets to Dagenham Dock will open up other new water freight opportunities.

The PLA is also talking up the river as a direct, uncongested route from the estuary container terminals to the heart of the capital – with the new DHL service now offering a model for “last-mile” delivery. “From Barnes and Bankside, all the way to Barking and beyond, the renaissance of the river is real,” says the PLA’s Mortimer.

Barriers do remain, including lack of awareness of river freight options, perceived costs and “double-handing” requirements, whereby goods are moved from one transport mode to another, while the pressure of housing demand, including on potentially lucrative waterfront sites, remains acute.

But City Hall, with the PLA, is pushing ahead. It launched its freight and servicing action plan last year, aimed at promoting sustainable cargo transport, and is now working through the Thames and London Waterways Forum, established by Khan in 2017, to promote river freight specifically.

“The Mayor is committed to maximising the full potential of the Thames, and enabling more water freight to be delivered in London helps to reduce congestion on our roads, tackle road danger and improve air quality,” said Alexander. “We will continue to look for opportunities to expand and promote water freight while reducing the number of lorries on our roads.”

Trade on the river has been central to the development of the City, from Roman times to its trading peak in 1964, when more than 61 tonnes of freight was carried. And while the container revolution has seen a shift downriver to deeper waters, the city’s remaining wharves aren’t giving up their traditional role just yet.

Photograph from DHL.

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