London’s bridges not yet falling down but they need a lot more money, Assembly hears

London’s bridges not yet falling down but they need a lot more money, Assembly hears

London’s bridges may not be falling down quite yet, but the repair bill for the capital’s historic river crossings is mounting while resources for essential repairs and maintenance are dwindling, the London Assembly’s transport committee has heard. Tunnels as well as bridges are at risk of being forced to operate with increasing restrictions and could even face closure, Transport for London’s director for surface transport Gareth Powell told AMs. 

Hammersmith Bridge has already been closed to motor vehicles for more than two years awaiting repairs estimated to cost more than £140 million, and the Rotherhithe Tunnel, with a repair bill of £120 million, and Vauxhall Bridge, needing up to £50 million-worth of work, are most at risk, he said. “We need long-term sustainable funding,” added Powell. “If we don’t sort that out, these restrictions will continue. And ultimately, if we don’t think an asset is safe, we will have to close it.”

The capital’s bridges, many dating from Victorian times, are managed by a patchwork of owners, the meeting heard. Seven are controlled by TfL, eight, including Hammersmith Bridge, by individual boroughs, and five by the City Corporation’s Bridge House Estates trust.

Cash for their repair and renewal is in short supply. The boroughs are not eligible for direct government funding for highways and are therefore  relying on their own resources, while TfL funding has reduced as a result of decreasing Whitehall grant and the impact of the pandemic on revenues. “We’ve only got a financial settlement until December this year,” Powell reminded the meeting.

The Bridge House Trust, by contrast, has £216 million allocated for planned maintenance on its five bridges, the Millennium Bridge, Tower Bridge and the London, Southwark and Blackfriars bridges, said trust managing director David Farnsworth. He told the committee that the charity relies on endowments established from the 12th century, when tolls were collected for using the original London Bridge, which was the only river crossing at that time, alongside property income, with surpluses distributed through the City Bridge Trust

Farnsworth added that approaches had been made about both the now-abandoned Garden Bridge scheme and taking over Hammersmith Bridge, but the Trust’s charitable purpose limits it to managing bridges providing direct access to the Square Mile,  

Conservative former mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey said the current ownership arrangements for the city’s bridges are a “catastrophe” overall, and asked, “Wouldn’t it be easier if TfL had control of everything?” However, Powell said the issue is not one of ownership but “long-term planning with long-term funding to support those plans. That is much more important than the historic ownership of particular assets”.

Another committee guest, Tom Osborne, director of specialist bridge designers Knight Architects, said London needs more bridges as well as a greater push on active travel. “I struggle to think of any other example where heritage assets of such value are being sweated so heavily to support the city’s connectivity,” he said. “We are over-reliant on too few bridges and too few modes of transport. The city needs more options, or we can expect more disruption. We need to see new crossings as an integral part of the long-term strategy of crossing the river rather than a ‘nice to have’.” 

Joining the meeting from the US, academic and transport veteran Michael Horodniceanu, former chief engineer and head of capital construction at the Metropolitan Transport Authority in New York City, also focused on funding. “What I’m hearing is that operational arrangements are clear, but who is going to fund that is not,” he said. “If you give people responsibility to operate you have to give them the ability to be able to get the finances in place,” he said.

Separately, London’s local authorities have recently been warned of “chronic underinvestment” across the whole road network, including TfL roads, tunnels and bridges, with a maintenance backlog of more than £1 billion. The warning came in the fourth annual “State of the City” report produced by the London Technical Advisers Group, which details the condition of the capital’s 17,000 kilometres of highway and 4,300 bridges and other transport structures. 

Responding to the report, Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville, who chairs the transport and environment committee of the the cross-party London Councils’ body, said that “Without more support and investment, the repairs and maintenance funding shortfall will only continue, risking a decline in road safety and quality year on year.”

The full transport committee meeting can be viewed here. Image: Gareth Powell speaking at the meeting.

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  1. London’s infrastructure — including its bridges — clearly costs billions to maintain . Many millionaires and billionaires enjoy living in London . There should be a specific London Infrastructure Tax on wealthy Londoners to maintain the city .

  2. Whichever 12th Century citizens of London decided that for every five groats collected for river tolls, they would keep one groat saved for future maintenance did the City of London a good turn. There is now more than enough to maintain the five bridges in the City, plus amazing philanthropic work around the capital too. A shame similar arrangements were never made on other bridges and tunnels. Of course there is a solution of road pricing now made considerably easier by optical character recognition for cars (in particular) moving outside the congestion zone but using up scarce road space. Demand management can also fund future maintenance. Blackwall’s revenue could fund Hammersmith’s maintenance.

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