Judging by opinion polls, Shaun Bailey, the Conservative candidate for London Mayor, will, at best, finish a distant second to Sadiq Khan at next year’s postponed election. One issue Bailey hopes will help gain him a bit of ground, at least in some parts of west London, is the forlorn condition of Hammersmith Bridge, which links Barnes (in the borough of Richmond upon Thames) on the south side of the Thames with Hammersmith (in Hammersmith & Fulham) on the north side.
Sir Joseph Bazalgette’s beautiful, Grade II-listed creation, opened in 1887, has been closed to motor vehicles since 10 April 2019 and to pedestrians and cyclists too since 13 August 2020. The closure, caused by fractures in the bridge that have worsened over several years, has caused huge inconvenience to a lot of people: Hammersmith & Fulham says over 20,000 vehicles and around 16,000 pedestrians and cyclists used to cross the ailing suspension bridge each day.
The burning and increasingly party political question has been about how and when the problem can be solved and, in particular, who will pay for it. Hammersmith & Fulham, which is the owner of the bridge, claims credit for detecting the seriousness of the problem by commissioning a “comprehensive structural integrity review” in 2014 – the year Labour, which has run the council ever since, regained control of it from the Conservatives.
Engineers, including some brought in by Transport for London, which is responsible for the bridge’s road, calculated it would cost £46 million to stabilise the bridge and up to £141 million to fully restore it for use by motor vehicles within three years. The council insists that no local authority has that kind of cash to hand, and in August of this year joined with Liberal Democrat-run Richmond to make a joint approach to the government for help.
Early the following month, transport secretary Grant Shapps announced that he was setting up a government “task force” to address the problem. He then went on LBC radio to sigh heavily and complain that he was “fed up with waiting” for Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan and Hammersmith & Fulham to do anything. However:
- There was no mention during during Shapps’s LBC appearance of his previous pledge to step in and get a grip on the Hammersmith Bridge problem. That pledge was made on 10 December 2019 – a whole nine months earlier, and two days before the last general election. Shapps stood on the Richmond side of the bridge with Zac Goldsmith, the then Conservative MP for Richmond Park, and said that if Goldsmith was re-elected and “we get a Conservative majority” there would be no standing by. “We are going to get involved”, he said. A new Tory government would support a “temporary structure” while the bridge was being fixed. This would be “done quickly”. And, Shapps added, he would “put some money in as well”. Well, the Conservatives got their majority, but no “temporary structure” has ever been built. Why? Despite the Tory national triumph, Goldsmith lost his seat to Lib Dem Sarah Olney. Was Shapps’s “temporary structure” always conditional on Richmond Park residents re-electing Goldsmith, as a literal reading of his remarks suggests? Should the subsequent non-appearance of a “temporary structure” been seen, therefore, as a form of punishment for Richmond Park voters for preferring a Lib Dem as their MP? Or was Shapps’s “temporary structure” promise always going to turn out to be bullshit whoever won the seat?
Whatever, the “temporary structure” pledge now looks like the onset of a trend:
- When Shapps announced his “taskforce” on 9 September 2020, he returned to the still-shut Hammersmith Bridge, this time in the company of Bailey. Once again, in Bailey’s words, the transport secretary was “stepping in” where “the Mayor of London and Hammersmith Council (sic) have utterly failed to deliver a solution for local people”. Once again, Shapps tutted and sighed about the failures of others to “get this sorted out”. He was there to “take control”. He’d had Network Rail engineers there, he said, “to provide us with the detail of what now needs to happen”. Apparently, the detailed advice of other engineers just wouldn’t do. And it seemed that attempts by TfL and City Hall to secure money towards fixing the bridge from existing funding pots going back to last December were either unknown to Shapps or didn’t count.
- On 6 October 2020, Shapps and Bailey were in front of the cameras together discussing Hammersmith Bridge again, this time at the Conservatives’ virtual annual conference. Bailey told Shapps he had spoken to “a number of residents” who were pleased “that you’ve provided the money, that your department has provided the money, to repair the bridge in the long run, to get back to motorised traffic.” This will have been news to Shapps. He had done nothing of the kind. Hammersmith MP Andy Slaughter wrote to Shapps asking him to confirm what Bailey has said. No reply has been received.
- On 8 October 2020, the Hammersmith Bridge taskforce met for the fourth time and issued a statement. in it, project director Dana Skelley mentioned “options for a temporary solution for pedestrian and cycling traffic, including a TfL-run ferry service and emergency stabilisation works”. But there was no mention of the DfT money “to repair the bridge in the long run” Bailey hailed at the Tory conference. Or of the “temporary structure” Shapps had promised last December.
- On 28 October 2020 at a task force public meeting, transport minister Baroness Vere said it will be six years before the bridge can fully re-open and that the council must meet some of the cost. Skelley said emergency stabilisation works would take seven months and cost £13.9 million and that permanent stabilisation works would take a further 21 months and cost £32 million. Deputy Mayor for Transport Heidi Alexander pointed out that TfL had already put £16 million into the repair project. According to figures obtained through a Freedom of Information request by New Civil Engineer, a total of £16.7 million has been spent by TfL over a 13 year period, including £7.6 million since the April 2019 closure. Alexander also speculated that “some form of toll may be required in future in order to enable the council to borrow against future toll income.” (note: “the council”).
- On 31 October 2020, a second emergency funding agreement was reached between the DfT and TfL and a letter setting it out was released the following day. It had two things to say about Hammersmith Bridge: one, that part of a minimum £75 million of the bailout total ringfenced for “active travel” should be used by TfL to “prioritise the urgent delivery and operation of a temporary walking and cycle ferry as a replacement crossing for local communities affected by the closure of Hammersmith Bridge”; two, a “fixed contribution” of £4 million to be spent during the bailout period “for the stabilisation and repair of Hammersmith Bridge as part of the programme led by the task force for the Hammersmith Bridge”. In other words, the government has coughed up the cash for that temporary crossing Dana Skelley referred to and accepted the need to contribute towards the costs of fixing the bridge between now and 31 March, when the second funding settlement period ends. Shapps has been characterising this part of the agreement as something he has “required” TfL to do and “insisted” on. It’s so important to understand that nothing would be happening if he hadn’t taken charge…
- On 10 November 2020, the Daily Mail reported Bailey accusing Mayor Khan of “planning road tolls” to “claw back” money “wasted” on other things. The Mail quoted some of what Alexander had said at the taskforce meeting of 28 October, but left out the bit where she said it would be Hammersmith & Fulham – as distinct from the Mayor or TfL – that might have to consider that option.
- On 13 November 2020, the seventh meeting of the taskforce welcomed the fact that TfL will soon be instructing contractors to start the stabilisation works and expressed confidence that that the temporary pedestrian and bicycle ferry “will be operational” by spring 2021.
There is a respectable argument to be made that Mayor Khan could have been more prominent and forceful about trying to find a solution to the Hammersmith Bridge problem: Tony Arbour, the Conservative AM who represents Richmond, Hounslow and Kingston has done just that. But if Khan could have done more, perhaps the same charge could be made against his predecessor, Boris Johnson, and others before that.
After all, the bridge has been closed on a number of occasions in the past – in 1973, 1984, 1997, 2000 (following a bomb attack) and in 2014, when Johnson was Mayor. Further strengthening work was delayed in late 2016 (by which time Khan was Mayor) amid a dispute between Hammersmith & Fulham and TfL over who should pay for a £5.3 million shortfall.
All told, a long and rather sorry tale. With election foolishness intensifying and another TfL settlement to be reached before the 6 May vote takes place it might not become any more impressive any time soon.
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