In London we are used to the idea of the River Thames dividing London on a North-South axis. We are even used to that North-South divide being carried over into the capital’s culture, footballing allegiances, house prices, economics and (given that only 1 in 10 tube stations are located south of the river) even our transport choices. However, a new campaign by the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) is seeking to remind Londoners that the river also divides the metropolis along an East-West axis.
Whilst there are 19 road bridges spanning the Thames from London Bridge to Hampton Court in West London, to the east the only vehicle crossings are the congested road tunnels at Rotherhithe and Blackwall and the Woolwich Ferry in the twenty miles from Tower Bridge to Dartford. Whereas West Londoners enjoy a generous ratio of 250,000 people per road crossing, in East London that ratio is a whopping 1.7million people per crossing.
The LCCI is campaigning for a new, £600 million bridge in East London, spanning the Thames between Beckton and Thamesmead in East London which is estimated to add £55.7million a year to the East London economy. According to designs by Arup and HOK – released to coincide with the 120th anniversary of the completion of Tower Bridge – the new bridge will be tall enough to allow cruise ships to pass underneath and designed to be cycle-friendly. The campaign – ‘Bridge East London’ – has the backing of Labour mayoral hopeful (and former Transport Secretary) Lord Adonis and Mayor of Newham Sir Robin Wales as well as a number of well-known East London businesses.
However, the proposal has attracted vociferous criticism from environmental campaigners, including London Assembly Green Party member Darren Johnson, who sought to remind advocates that local Londoners have repeatedly rejected various proposals for a new river crossing in the area for more than 30 years. Ken Livingstone championed a new Thames Gateway Bridge in the same location as the LCCI’s proposed bridge but the scheme was dropped by Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson upon coming to power in 2008. The Woolwich Ferry is expected to reach the end of its operational life in the next decade and Transport for London (TfL) is expected to launch its consultation on options for how to replace it later this month.
But, as if to rub in West London’s abundance of river crossings, at the same time that the LCCI were unveiling artists’ designs for the East London bridge, Westminster City Council released figures suggesting that as many as eight million visitors a year could flock to see a proposed rival bridge in Central London. The brainchild of Joanna Lumley and designed by Thomas Heatherwick, the Garden Bridge will span the river between Temple and the South Bank, is expected to cost around £150million and will be a pedestrian crossing. The scheme has so far been promised £30 million by the Government, £30 million from TfL and £30 million from private donors, but still needs to raise at least a further £60 million. The full planning application for the Garden Bridge was submitted by TfL in May last year and is currently under consideration by Westminster and Lambeth councils. It is estimated that the bridge could be open as early as 2017.
It remains to be seen which, if any, of these proposed bridges will become a reality. But, in the meantime, spectators of London Politics can look forward to watching an unseemly battle that will not just pitch East against West but will also see the titans of London business lock horns with Patsy from Ab Fab.
James Ford is a Senior Adviser at PLMR. Previously he was an aide to Mayor of London Boris Johnson, advising him on transport, digital and environment policy between 2010 and 2012.