Last week The Animal posted on the unambitious, short-sighted and generally depressing pair of strategy documents that emerged from the Mayor of London and Transport for London on the future direction of London’s transport networks. Today, at the risk of appearing a touch parochial and exposing myself to accusations of a conflict of interest, I wanted to look at the approach being taken to the issue of river crossings in east London, which demonstrate quite clearly the lack of coherence and strategic thought in these documents.
It should have come as no surprise to anyone that Boris Johnson announced last week that the plans for a road bridge in the Thames Gateway linking Thamesmead and Beckton were being scrapped. In his manifesto, Johnson had said
I support in principle the need for an extra river crossing upstream from Tower Bridge to ease congestion and aid economic growth. However, any scheme will have to deal with the issues on both sides of the river in terms of traffic management, safeguarding the environment and public transport usage. The current scheme for a Thames Gateway Bridge does not currently fulfill these criteria; therefore I do not support the scheme in its present form. [hat-tip to Friends of the Earth as Boris hasn’t left his manifesto online]
Clear enough – and there were certainly weaknesses in the plans for the bridge: namely that it was too heavily biased in favour of private transport (although it would have had bus lanes); the approach roads would have blighted areas on either side and that the road infrastructure beyond the bridge was not capable of dealing effectively with the extra traffic generated. Balancing that are the strong arguments in favour of a new crossing somewhere in the area: that the vast gap of fixed river crossings between Blackwall and Dartford needed plugging to reduce congestion at these two crossings; that the effective development of the Thames Gateway as a residential and employment centre on both sides of the river relied on there being reasonable capacity on cross-river routes; and that the bridge would improve access to employment and training opportunities for some of London’s most deprived and isolated communities. So it could have been seen as encouraging that Johnson accepted these points and remained committed to a further river crossing in the east.
Encouraging, that is, until last week. In his foreword to TfL’s business plan (see page 6), the Mayor tells us that
I have asked Transport for London (TfL) to look again at alternative options for a much needed new east London river crossing, including a crossing at Silvertown that would be integrated with the Blackwall tunnel.
Oh dear. The Silvertown crossing is an old chestnut, which has been doing the rounds as a Blackwall Tunnel capacity relief scheme for many years. I can’t find a very good map of the proposals for those unfamiliar with the area – but the map on page 6 of this Thames Gateway report may help. Basically, it would provide a new tunnel between Canning Town on the north bank and North Greenwich on the south bank, at the southern end feeding into the same network of approaches that is currently used by the Blackwall Tunnel.
Former Mayor Livingstone did occasionally have supportive words for this scheme and did order that the land required for approach roads on either side was protected. However, the key difference is that for the last administration, Silvertown was something to be considered aftera crossing further east had been put in place, not instead of. Quite simply, a new link at Silvertown has none of the advantages of a crossing further east and shares many of its disbenefits:
Transport: The key benefit of the Thames Gateway bridge scheme was that it provided a transport link across a physical barrier where one doesn’t currently exist, something which Silvertown simply doesn’t achieve, given that its route is paralleled not just by the Blackwall Tunnel, but also by the Jubilee Line, which has stations at both North Greenwich and Canning Town. The Jubilee Line is due for a significant capacity increase following the completion of a signalling upgrade in December 2009. Additional cross-river public transport capacity in the area will be provided by the opening early next year of the DLR extension to Woolwich. The Blackwall Tunnel hosts just one bus route, whose capacity issues would be best served by a move to bendy operation (a double decker won’t fit through Blackwall), but dogma prevents anything that sensible occurring. Given all this, there will be little, if any, benefit to public transport users from a Silvertown crossing. Whilst private transport users would no doubt welcome any lessening of congestion in the Blackwall Tunnel that an extra link would provide, it won’t address the key issue which causes that congestion: that a lot of traffic is forced to go miles out of its way to use Blackwall because there isn’t a reliable crossing further east until you get to Dartford.* The difficulties in providing extra capacity on the approach roads on the southern side (including the one past the back of The Animal’s house) is likely to mean there will be little positive effect on journey times or congestion.
Regeneration and economy: Again, the Thames Gateway bridge had a distinct purpose in providing a link between two separate areas of the Thames Gateway development, which represents one of the largest residential and employment schemes in the country. The bridge would have allowed residents of the existing deprived areas on either side to access the new employment and training opportunities and help to make the new residential areas more economically sustainable. Whilst Silvertown would also link two Thames Gateway areas, as we discussed above, these areas already have public and private transport links between each other. The economic justification for Silvertown is therefore nowhere near as strong as for a crossing further east.
Environment: whilst the Silvertown crossing would require less new road construction than the Thames Gateway bridge, it would still have significant environmental disbenefits through encouraging car use and channeling more and more traffic into already polluted areas. Have a look, for example, at the results for the most relevant London Air Quality Network monitoring site, which measures air quality where the Blackwall Tunnel access road (A102) crosses Woolwich Road on a flyover (A206) – map here. This monitoring site measures air quality against five different targets (two ways each of measuring particulates and nitrogen dioxide and one measure of ozone). Since the monitoring site was established in 2005, it has met the ozone target in one year and failed every other target. A Silvertown Link would put still more traffic on the A102, with the extra capacity through the tunnel attracting motorists who don’t want to risk the queues at the Woolwich ferry or the time spent diverting via Dartford. The Greenwich peninsula is already a growing residential area and will soon also be playing host to a large school and college – efforts should be being made to improve air quality, rather than to degrade it still further. The extra traffic on the A102 will also blight communities further down the road, such as Kidbrooke, Eltham and Sidcup. Unfortunately, there isn’t a monitoring site anywhere near the proposed tunnel exit in Silvertown, but we can safely assume that a community living next door to City Airport isn’t going to be blessed with the capital’s cleanest air.
Timing: if we accept the need for extra river-crossing capacity, then we presumably accept that it might be a good idea to have it sooner rather than later. The Thames Gateway bridge, whilst it needs radical rethinking in terms of what it carries and to where, does have the benefit of having been through a public inquiry, having had permission refused and having the government set out what further information it requires for a re-opening of the inquiry. There are a lot of hurdles still to jump, but to get this far has taken 12 years. I don’t think it would take much more than another five to get a re-jigged bridge scheme on that site approved. Silvertown is still very much a ‘blue-sky thinking’ project, so we can assume that even if serious planning work begins tomorrow, on a similar timescale it will be at least 2025 before construction could begin. Not much use in helping the Thames Gateway developments find their feet.
So far as I can see, the resurrection by Johnson of the Silvertown link as some sort of substitute for a independent river crossing in outer east London, suggests nothing so much as dredging around for something face-saving to cover the embarrassment of rejecting outright any kind of Thamesmead-Beckton crossing. The Silvertown link is in the wrong place, has no strategic transport purpose, is environmentally questionable and fits the wrong timescale. If this ever gets to public inquiry, the Animal hereby promises to submit evidence against the scheme. Tremble before the wrath of East Greenwich, Boris, tremble. Now if only there was a locally based ‘campaigning’ journalist I could call…
*: According to a report in the Bexley Times, candidate Johnson came to see the congestion on the Blackwall Tunnel approach for himself during the campaign. The quote below from the article is more than a little illuminating about Boris’ approach to policy making:
But while Mr Johnson was happy to bash the [sadly dropped Greenwich] congestion charge, he refused to take sides over construction of the Thames Gateway Bridge. He said: “We’re looking into it very hard. It raises problems and it solves problems.”
Yet in a moment of instinctive populism Mr Johnson appeared to back the bridge when a driver shouted: “We want a bridge! Get us a bridge!” Mr Johnson waved and shouted back “We’re going to sort it out,” but added aside “We’re going to sort the transport problem, that is.”