As well as providing knavish politicians with a setting for making empty pledges, the plight of the handsome Hammersmith Bridge has highlighted how confusing ownership of and responsibility for Thames crossings of every kind is, and demonstrated how daft and disastrous the consequences can be.
How did things get to a stage where an important piece of transport infrastructure in the nation’s capital city is suddenly found to be too dangerous to use and a London borough, London’s strategic transport authority and a department of national government spend months in rancorous disagreement about how it should be made safe? And what should be done to stop such a situation happening again?
A report published yesterday by the London Assembly’s transport committee proposes some rational solutions to what, due largely to an array of historic reasons, has become a highly irrational state of affairs. The committee has considered the capital’s rail and pedestrian bridges as well is its more famous road bridges, and also crossings that go under the Thames rather than above it.
It sets out in detail the complex sharing of responsibility for these often very elderly assets and its implications. Hammersmith Bridge, a Joseph Bazalgette design opened in 1887, was transferred to the ownership of Hammersmith & Fulham Council (H&F) in 1985, along with the legal responsibility for maintaining it and making decisions about its repair.
Maintenance and repair costs a lot of money, and the report says that between 2010 and 2020 Transport for London provided H&F with nearly £17 million for “assessments, feasibility, inspections and surveys, designs and other matters”. But TfL continues to say the bridge is H&F’s responsibility.
In 2015, the council put restrictions on the weight of vehicles allowed to cross the bridge after receiving a report raising concerns about its strength, but in April 2019 it was closed to motor vehicles and in August 2020 to everything and everyone else. Two months later, the Department for Transport’s permanent secretary said the government would help meet the cost of fixing it, and then said, actually, it wouldn’t.
The bridge has since reopened for pedestrians and cyclists, and the council has approved a £6 million stabilisation plan – far less than previously feared – which it hopes will be in full effect before the end of next summer. But it remains the case that, as the DfT’s permanent secretary had already observed, “there is no single body which has ownership, responsibility or oversight of bridges in London”.
For example, London Bridge, Tower Bridge, Blackfriars Bridge, Southwark Bridge and the much newer Millennium Footbridge are maintained by the City of London Corporation through the Bridge House Estates trust, but Westminster Bridge, the oldest in Central London, is TfL’s entire responsibility.
In all, TfL has 15 “significant assets” that traverse the Thames, including Battersea Bridge, Kew Bridge, the Emirates Air Line Cable Car, the Blackwall Tunnel, the Rotherhithe Tunnel, the Woolwich Ferry and four Tube line tunnels. Waterloo Bridge is Westminster Council’s (along with the Golden Jubilee Bridges), Wandsworth looks after Wandsworth Bridge and Putney Bridge, Network Rail owns nine crossings, including Hungerford Bridge and the Canon Street rail bridge.
And let’s not forget the Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels, managed by Greenwich Council on behalf of Newham and Tower Hamlets north of the river to which they link, and which have been enduring their own sagas of belated renovation and closure.
The Assembly committee’s report suggests practical ways to avoid this type of mess in future. As so often when important work falls through governance cracks, part of the solution is getting the right people round the same table and, more metaphorically, keeping them there.
It recommends TfL, the government and all the relevant boroughs should formalise the current Thames River Crossing Coordination Group and consider creating a “collective fund” to which all parties would contribute. Echoing TfL and Mayor Khan, it asks for the portion of Vehicle Excise Duty raised in London each year – about £500 million – be devolved to TfL instead of being spent almost entirely elsewhere in the country as at present, but specifies that some of this should go towards maintaining Thames crossings and paying for a bridge maintenance backlog put at £241 million. An annual report on the state of Thames crossings should be published
The committee also concludes that all options for controlling the speeds and volumes of road bridge traffic should be considered, in order to hold maintenance costs down. The wider context is that a string of river crossings have been in need of significant work of late and others are likely to be during the next ten years. Meeting this challenge in a timely and efficient manner shouldn’t be so very hard, should it?
Image from committee report, which can be read in full here.
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