The Thames Gateway is being stymied by the lack of a bridge downriver of Woolwich. So, asks Nick Raynsford, why does the present mayor of London have no plans to build one?
The Thames Gateway has been a focus for controversy for most of the past 20 years. Few dispute the merits of the “grand design” advocated by Sir Peter Hall and other visionary planners to make east London and the Thames estuary as attractive an area to live, work, play and invest in as the Thames valley to the west of London. But achieving this metamorphosis has proved a hard nut to crack.
That is not to say there have been no spectacular advances. The emergence of Canary Wharf as a business centre, the regeneration of the Greenwich peninsula, the transformation of the Olympic site at Stratford, the prospect of major development around the High Speed One station at Ebbsfleet, and the developing London Gateway port near Southend all bear witness to the potential of the Gateway. But, to date, these success stories have tended to stand on their own, and the gaps between them along the Thames estuary have not yet benefited to the extent that they should if the whole of the Gateway is going to add up to more than just the sum of its parts.
One of the vital ingredients for future success is transport infrastructure. We have already seen the impact of investment. Without the Jubilee line, Canary Wharf and the Greenwich peninsula could not have changed and grown as they have. Without the High Speed One line, the Olympics at Stratford and new developments at Ebbsfleet would not have been possible. Further developments are equally dependent on new transport links. Crossrail in particular has a crucial role to play in unlocking further expansion at Canary Wharf and the redevelopment of Woolwich.
I suspect Johnson regrets that impetuous decision on the bridge, but at least he is no longer influenced by his deputy, who resigned after revelations about his expenses claims
The glaring omission in all of this is the lack of cross-river links between the communities and potential development sites along each bank of the Thames. Whereas central and west London are well served with fixed river crossings – there are 18 road bridges between Richmond and the Tower of London – the same length of river to the east has just four crossings and the Woolwich ferry. The grotesque congestion that is a daily experience for all who try to cross the river at Blackwall is witness to the absence of adequate road crossings between Dartford and the Tower. Those unfamiliar with the area find it difficult to believe that a resident of Thamesmead who wants to visit a friend in Barking or Dagenham has to make a detour taking an average of 40 minutes via the Woolwich ferry, or an even longer detour via the Blackwall tunnel or the Dartford bridge, to arrive, literally, at the opposite side of the river!
This is not only a bar to economic development and social contact, it is also environmentally damaging; it forces people to make unnecessarily long journeys and adds to the congestion at the few existing crossings. This gives the lie to those who opposed the Thames Gateway bridge on the grounds that it would increase traffic pollution.
The Mayor of London has a heavy responsibility for allowing this wholly unsatisfactory situation to continue. Ken Livingstone supported the idea of a Thames Gateway bridge, but his transport planners made such a mess of the application for what was so obviously necessary that it failed to get through a public inquiry. To add insult to injury, Boris Johnson compounded the problem by cancelling the bridge. This decision, taken shortly after he became mayor, reflected the influence of his then-deputy mayor Ian Clement, the former leader of Bexley council, whose Nimbyish instincts clearly overrode the transport, regeneration and economic development objectives that should have guided the mayor’s thinking.
a resident of Thamesmead who wants to visit a friend across the river in Barking has to make a detour taking an average of 40 minutes
I suspect that Johnson now regrets that impetuous early decision, but at least he is no longer influenced by his former deputy, who resigned earlier this summer after revelations about his expenses claims. It would have been nice to think that this would have opened the door to some common-sense thinking at City Hall. Instead, Transport for London has issued one of the most extraordinary options reviews I have ever seen. It clutches at a host of straws, including new ferries, cable cars and footbridges, to avoid the one glaringly obvious conclusion: namely, the need to build the Thames Gateway bridge without delay.
How much longer are we going to have to wait till common sense prevails?
Nick Raynsford MP is honorary vice chairman of the Construction Industry Council and a former construction minister