You might have noticed TfL started a new consultation into its planned road river crossings at Gallions Reach and Belvedere a few days ago. You didn’t? Well, what you may have seen is a story about TfL planning 13 new crossings across the Thames. The trouble is – it’s nonsense.
Most of the crossings have very little to do with TfL, only a couple have planning permission and few have any funding. Only one is guaranteed to happen, because it already exists – the Crossrail tunnel at Woolwich, which opens three years from now. The ones TfL are involved with are the most controversial – including the Garden Bridge and the Silvertown Tunnel. It has very little to do with the less contentious ones, such as a cycling/walking bridge at Nine Elms. One at Charlton appears to have been plucked out of thin air, while a deeply controversial scheme – putting the Inner Ring Road in a tunnel – doesn’t appear.
At best it’s a list of options for a new mayor to ponder. At worst, it’s a smokescreen (look! a cycle bridge!) to avoid having an awkward debate on new roads (boo! jams! pollution! tolls!) that would have been sparked by talking about the two Thamesmead crossings.
A similar thing happened in summer 2014, when the London Chamber of Commerce plugged a “cycle friendly” bridge at Thamesmead that was actually the same old bridge that’s been proposed there for years.
Even more bizarrely, the 13 picked for this document includes two TfL doesn’t want to do – including one from Canary Wharf to North Greenwich, which appears to be just an opportunity to expand Thames Clippers services rather than an actual fixed crossing.
The rights and wrongs of each proposal aside, presenting this random collection of optimism over funding struck me as an interesting PR strategy – when the Garden Bridge was starting to hog headlines a year ago, I remember talking a year ago to a figure in London broadcasting about the Silvertown Tunnel, who bemoaned “bridge fatigue” because so many stories were about crossing plans which were annoying people.
What about the Gallions Reach and Belvedere crossings? Well, what makes this consultation interesting is that TfL has lobbed some public transport ideas in them – I’ll look at those in a post soon.
The road lobby’s getting itchy. Monday saw the London Chamber of Commerce publish a new design for the road bridge it’s desperate to see built between Thamesmead and Beckton. The Evening Standard obligingly spun it as a “bicycle-friendly” bridge, because it has a pedestrian and cycle lane beneath the dual carriageway taking it across the windy Thames. Even the BBC fell for it, The Guardian’s architecture writer piled in with another sycophantic piece, proving that if you come up with a pretty picture of something and call it “bike-friendly”, you can flog any old crap in London.
Nobody bothered to ask any questions like how this bridge would fit into the road network, how it’d be paid for, what effect it’d have on the area, or whether there were any better ideas than digging up a road scheme that’s been around since the 1940s.
All the talk is of supposed benefits to “east London” – so let’s see the effect on south-east London…
This map shows the projected traffic impacts of a Gallions Reach bridge, based on a study commissioned for Newham Council last year. The thicker the yellow line, the more traffic. The numbers represent levels of nitrogen dioxide captured in January’s No To Silvertown Tunnel air pollution study. So, going anti-clockwise, there’s a fair chunk of traffic using the only existing infrastructure, the Thamesmead spine road. Then the horrors start – another chunk of traffic using Brampton Road, Bexleyheath, then crossing the A206 to enter a side street – Knee Hill in Abbey Wood, on the Greenwich/Bexley borough border. Here’s how it looks on Google Streetview.
It simply won’t cope. It gets worse, though, with another load of traffic using Wickham Lane in Welling, emerging into Plumstead Common – which is buried under a yellow line – and using the side streets there, principally Griffin Road, the last leg of the 53 bus route, to reach the one-way system at Plumstead station before heading towards Thamesmead.
Quite frankly, the road network simply won’t be able to cope. And that’s before you get to the known phenomena of “induced traffic”, where new roads encourage new journeys by car or existing journeys to be switched to cars, which is the main problem for the Silvertown Tunnel.
So, if the infrastructure doesn’t exist, does it have to be built instead? Much of Plumstead was blighted for years by the threat of the East London River Crossing, linking the North Circular Road with the A2, which would also have carved up Oxleas Woods and Woodlands Farm on its way to Falconwood.
Either way, Plumstead is squarely in the firing line. Greenwich Council claims to have moved its position slightly to acknowledge fears of congestion and pollution, both from here and the Silvertown Tunnel proposals. Here’s the Greenwich Labour group’s manifesto:
Indeed, the Labour campaign in Shooters Hill was very proud of this, judging by this exchange with Stewart Christie, the Liberal Democrat candidate who created the map above.
Nobody seems to have told their colleagues at City Hall, though.
Some reward for the Labour voters of Plumstead, eh?
Then, one by one, Labour’s mayoral wannabes started coming out in favour. Sadiq Khan called it “exciting” and said it was “desperately needed”. David Lammy called it “interesting” and “new”. “22 road crossings to west of Tower Bridge and two to the east,” parroted Margaret Hodge, ignoring the Dartford crossing and five railway tunnels, two foot tunnels and a cable car. “Looks brilliant”, she added, although for who, she didn’t say.
I wonder what questions they asked about the scheme and their effects? But let’s face it, as for many of London’s politicians of all colours, Plumstead may as well be on Mars. Even assembly member Val Shawcross managed to undermine her pro-cycling credentials by backing a scheme that’s going to flood the streets with more motorised traffic.
So how did the London Labour Party end up falling for this, ending up taking a more extreme view than its Greenwich outpost? To be fair, a bridge at Thamesmead has been Labour policy for some years, but there’ll be many Labour members locally who’ll be furious to see the London Chamber of Commerce scheme – which contains less for public transport than Ken Livingstone’s Thames Gateway Bridge – backed by Labour at City Hall.
Nobody’s suggesting a “do nothing” option. There are many other ways to get Thamesmead properly connected to the rest of London. A DLR extension from Beckton. A rail link from Barking. Yet this isn’t about Thamesmead, this is about a belief that regenerating the Royal Docks requires a new road connection.
Should Plumstead be sacrificed for some imagined benefits north of the river? A fancy design may be enough to impress ambitious politicians, but it won’t disguise the congestion and blight that will be visited on the area. The 2016 mayoral election should have been an easy win for Labour in this part of SE London. Now they’re looking like they’re making things needlessly hard for themselves.
9.20am update: Today marks 138 years since the Plumstead Common riot to protect common land.
Greenwich Council is demanding the power to build a new road bridge at Thamesmead, according to its response to Transport for London’s consultation into river crossings.
As expected, the council is “strongly supporting” the controversial Silvertown Tunnel, which would branch off the A102 just south of the Blackwall Tunnel, as favoured by mayor Boris Johnson but opposed by local residents and the local Labour party.
There’s also no surprise in the council rejecting the mayor’s other proposal – to build a ferry at Gallions Reach, linking Thamesmead with Beckton, instead – and favouring a bridge instead.
But what is interesting is a demand that Greenwich and Newham councils be given the power to build their own bridge if TfL doesn’t build one.
It says: “The Royal Borough is concerned that a new fixed crossing at Gallions Reach should be constructed at the earliest possible opportunity [and] does not accept that a new fixed crossing at Gallions Reach could not be constructed before 2021.
“If TfL is unable to deliver a fixed crossing sooner than 2021 the Mayor should use the powers provided by the GLA Act 1999 (as amended by the GLA Act 2007) to delegate authority to the Royal Borough of Greenwich and Newham Council so as to facilitate that.”
The chances of Boris Johnson approving a bridge at Gallions Reach, to be built by TfL or anyone else, are remote. His political allies at neighbouring Bexley Council are implacably opposed to the idea, and scrapping a previous proposal – the Thames Gateway Bridge – was one of his pledges prior to his election as mayor in 2008.
That said, though, the mayor clashed with Conservative assembly member and Bexley cabinet member Gareth Bacon on the subject in January, an exchange which is worth reading (“I am not ruling it out. I am ruling out the Thames Gateway Bridge. I have ruled that out.”), while he has also acknowledged that a future mayor may take a different view.
Are the two Labour councils trying to offer Tory Boris a way out by offering to build a bridge themselves? It’s an interesting development.
It also deepens the council’s disagreement with Eltham Labour MP Clive Efford, who fears a Gallions Reach bridge would lead to a revival of long-scrapped plans to drive a motorway through Oxleas Woods. The local ward party in Shooters Hill has rejected the council’s campaign.
While a bridge at Gallions Reach may look more attractive compared with the crazy Silvertown proposal, many of the same issues apply. Air pollution is already poor in the area, underneath the London City Airport flightpath, and housing has already been built either side of the proposed approach at Barnham Drive, west Thamesmead.
There’s the additional complication of attracting more traffic to roads which wouldn’t be able to cope with the traffic – notoriously, the main route to the area from Bexleyheath is a side road, Knee Hill.
That said, those issues would also apply to Boris’s ferry proposal – supported by Bexley – which would replace the Woolwich Ferry, mostly used by HGVs.
Another interesting aspect of Greenwich’s response suggests using both crossings to create some kind of circular public transport link between the Royal Docks and the north of the borough, as well as flagging up its pet “DLR on stilts” proposal.
“An analysis of the opportunity to incorporate provision for a DLR extension to the south of the Royal Borough within the Silvertown Tunnel would be welcomed – alongside an analysis of the prospect of creating a circular public transport arrangement that could connect Thamesmead, Beckton, the University of East London campus, City Airport, ExCel, the O2, Ravensbourne College and North Greenwich station, Charlton Riverside, Woolwich Central and the new Crossrail stations utilising new crossing at Silvertown and Gallions Reach,” it says.
No reference to worries about air quality or increased congestion at either Silvertown or Gallions Reach feature in Greenwich’s submission, which records the curiously round figure of 1,200 signatures in support of its three-month long Bridge The Gap campaign, of which 795 were received online, the rest from pre-printed cards supplied to the public. (The No To Silvertown Tunnel petition got 348 in a month.)
It also supports tolling, yet acknowledges that this could send traffic towards Rotherhithe Tunnel and Tower Bridge: “It is essential that any tolling regime introduced is designed such that the World Heritage Site at Greenwich is not detrimentally affected by a potential shift of vehicle movements westwards to the nearest ‘free’ crossings.”
It says there should be “appropriate local traffic mitigation measures to safeguard the World Heritage Site and other residential areas in the proximity of the proposed Silvertown tunnel”, although it does not suggest what these would be.
Boris Johnson launched his transport manifesto on Monday, and there’s a line in it which went largely unnoticed which could have profound effects in Woolwich.
“I will launch a new car ferry service from Thamesmead to Gallions Reach, to replace the ageing Woolwich ferry.”
That’s the first confirmation that the mayor’s planned ferry – overshadowed by the Silvertown tunnel keffufle – would replace the Woolwich Ferry, whose three vessels were launched nearly 50 years ago. I’ve gone on about the joys of the ferry before, but it’s very hard to imagine Woolwich without a crossing which has existed in various forms for hundreds of years.
I’m also not sure how motorists – particularly the lorry drivers which mainly use the ferry – will take to seeing the link between the North Circular and South Circular broken.
The ferry will be at the site of the scrapped Thames Gateway Bridge, which begs the question – why not just build the bridge?
Boris’s manifesto shows where he’s angling for votes:
“I killed off my predecessor’s proposal for a Thames Gateway Bridge because of the damaging impact it would have had on Bexley, and I will not resuscitate it. Instead, I will continue to call on the Government for residents within Greater London who live close to the Dartford Crossing – notably those living in Bexley and Havering – to be given the same discount on the Dartford toll as residents of Dartford and Thurrock.”
The obvious bribe to zone 6 motorists aside, why would a ferry not have the damaging impact on Bexley borough that a bridge would?
As for the Silvertown crossing:
“I will also seek powers to construct a new Blackwall relief crossing, a road tunnel that will cross from Greenwich Peninsula to Silvertown, near the Royal Docks, and which will be completed within ten years. The government has committed to explore the case for using the Planning Act to streamline planning for proposed additional river crossings in East London.”
In other words, no more pesky inquiries like the one that killed off the Thames Gateway Bridge.
There’s more, including a very vague plan to extend the Docklands Light Railway to Bromley, in the full manifesto.
Speaking of mayoral matters, the Guardian’s Manifesto for a Model Mayor is well worth a read, and features a couple of contributions from me – see if you can spot them.
One-time and maybe next time’s mayor Ken Livingstone was in Plumstead yesterday, and my Scoop colleague Adam Bienkov grabbed a few words with him. Among other things, he came out against plans for a new river crossing at the Greenwich peninsula – the Silvertown Link.
Plans for a crossing have been around for years – with Livingstone himself wanting to build a bridge where Edmund Halley Way (pictured above) now sits. More recently, Boris Johnson has talked up these plans a bit more, promoting a tunnel across to Silvertown. The development masterplan for the peninsula has following the approval of the cable car scheme, which – if it actually gets built – will depart from what’s now a coach park to the east of Edmund Halley Way. The masterplan envisages two skyscrapers either side of Edmund Halley Way – again, if the cable car gets built – leaving room for a tunnel in the middle.
It’s this change to the vision for the peninsula that has prompted the U-turn from Livingstone.
The reason we went for the bridge and not the tunnel at Silvertown is because the bridge benefits a much wider area. If you look at the impacts of a bridge versus the tunnel you’re mad to do the tunnel, especially because a tunnel would be much more expensive. I’m also not sure you want to dump all that extra traffic in the area around the Greenwich Peninsula.
It’s a belated admission that the road network leading up to the peninsula simply couldn’t cope with the extra traffic that would be attracted by a third crossing coming off the A102, adding to the two Blackwall Tunnels. While the 42-year-old approach road is – effectively – a three-lane motorway, it soon drops down to two lanes in spells through Kidbrooke and Eltham, and homes right the way along the route would have been blighted by possible expansion plans.
Yet this didn’t stop there being support – or a lack of visible objections – from across the political spectrum. Conservatives were in favour, but the Silvertown Link was the local Labour party’s dirty secret too, with Eltham MP Clive Efford backing it in election material. Even the local Green Party – for whom I stood as a candidate in last year’s council elections – was reluctant to campaign against a development which would have catastrophic consequences for the quality of life in east Greenwich. Indeed, it’s as if a conspiracy of silence has surrounded the whole thing, with the local media ignoring comments last week from Boris Johnson that there was a “pressing need” for the crossing.
Further down the river, it’s less clear-cut. For Livingstone also reiterated his support for a Thames Gateway Bridge – the one Boris scrapped. But TfL still kept the plan on the drawing board, even floating the idea of a ferry at West Thamesmead until a bridge could be built. Ken wanted to build the TGB before the Silvertown Link – Boris wants to do it the other way around.
While some of the infrastructure to support the Thames Gateway Bridge is already there – half-finished junctions on dual carriageways either side of the river – the plan fell down thanks to fears of increased traffic through other neighbouring streets. As discussed before, some of the streets leading up to Thamesmead – such as Knee Hill in Abbey Wood – are no bigger than side roads. It’s suburban voters in the likes of Bexleyheath who demand extra river crossings for their cars – but the same suburban voters didn’t want the extra traffic around their areas, or to see green space built over to accommodate those cars.
It’s not quite clear how this problem gets solved without causing great disruption around areas like Abbey Wood and Bexleyheath. There’s no indication as to how Ken Livingstone would solve them, either.
I can’t help thinking he should offer a substantial public transport improvement alongside a road bridge – not just extra buses, but maybe an extension of a rail line across the bridge too.
Extend the London Overground from Barking across to Abbey Wood or Erith, creating new links deep into east and north London? Or bring the Hammersmith and City line across from Barking? Or maybe the DLR? If a bridge has to be built, it could be an opportunity to give Thamesmead the public transport it desperately needs. Anything less than that, and I suspect Ken will have another bitter fight on his hands – if he wins the fight to be elected next May, of course.
Everyone knows that the biggest problem which blights Greenwich, and its surrounding areas, is traffic. It has always been the case. Here’s some pictures from a bus enthusiasts’ site of some meaty jams in 1968, shortly before the opening of the Blackwall Tunnel Southern Approach. What used to be the A102(M) cut a deep swathe through east Greenwich, Charlton and Blackheath, with whole communities – by the tunnel itself, and close to Westcombe Park station – finding homes and shops flattened, as documented in Christopher Fowler’s novel, Paperboy. Little signs of the destruction remain – the stub of the old Westcombe Hill, now Farmdale Road, in east Greenwich. A stray bit of pavement from what used to be the end of Siebert Road, Blackheath – and the long, lonely, overgrown end to Bramshot Avenue, Charlton, which formed another part of it.
The loss of these communities, though, was seen as a necessary evil at the time. Indeed, residents’ associations made a special presentation to the Greater London Council’s representative when the road opened in 1969. They were lucky – the A102M was meant to be part of a network of urban motorways. In the end, only the BTSA, the East Cross Route – its north-of-the-Thames sister road at Hackney Wick – the Westway and the West Cross Route were built before public opinion turned on road-building.
That’s not to say that no new roads were built – the Rochester Way Relief Road appeared in the 1980s, and north of the Thames, the A102(M) is now the A12, linking it neatly with the controversial extension of that road which connects it up to the M11. Anyone who can’t be bothered to pay the Dartford Crossing toll can simply go via the Blackwall Tunnel instead, it’s a dual carriageway all the way. We just have to deal with the pollution and jams – the area close to the Blackwall Tunnel is one of London’s most polluted spots. (Naturally, Greenwich Council wants to move a school there.)
Since then, though, the pressure has been on politicians to build yet more roads to acommodate the demand caused by the new roads they built in the 1980s and 1990s; that themselves helped satisfy expectations caused by roads built in the 1960s and 1970s. Nobody seems willing to break this dangerous cycle.
Margaret Thatcher’s government finally binned plans for the East London River Crossing, that would have torn up Oxleas Woods, in the late 1980s, but even Ken Livingstone partially resurrected the scheme as the Thames Gateway Bridge, crossing underneath the London City Airport flightpath to link blighted west Thamesmead with Beckton. It would have been easy to see it as a benign local bridge for local people, but we all know it wouldn’t have been that way – traffic would have suddenly flooded through Thamesmead, Abbey Wood, Belvedere and Bexleyheath to find a way to avoid both the Blackwall Tunnel and the Dartford Crossing, clogging up roads that are, in some cases, no more substantial than side streets.
Boris canned the Thames Gateway Bridge last year – but London’s politicians still feel the need to stick another river crossing somewhere between Blackwall and Dartford. So, at the end of last week, Transport for London issued a report into what it thought was worth pursuing. (Download the full thing here – 6.6MB PDF) It discounts an eye-catching but probably impractical plan for a cable car between the Dome and Canary Wharf – but suggests a passenger ferry may be a good idea. It also discounts a potty idea for a road tunnel close to the Thames Barrier, between Charlton and Silvertown.
But worryingly, it backs more work on the Silvertown Link – a proposal for either a bridge or a tunnel which would run from Edmund Halley Way (between the Dome and the David Beckham Academy) across to roughly where the Azko Nobel plant is on the north bank of the Thames. Land is already safeguarded for such a scheme.
The Silvertown Link would be a disaster for Greenwich – merely giving people more reasons to drive up the A102, creating more congestion and pollution. How could you build a third crossing on the peninsula (after the two Blackwall Tunnels) without expanding the 40-year-old dual carriageway that struggles with the two that are there already? It’s insane, and threatens to blight the lives of hundreds of people in Greenwich and Blackheath. It’s bad enough they have motorways at the bottom of their gardens – the last thing they need is the threat of that motorway expanding.
Another recommendation – revamping the Woolwich Ferry and introducing tolls – would also only send more traffic through the Blackwall Tunnel.
Building a new road crossing is justified, according to TfL, because of a lack of “redundancy” in the current network – if the tunnel is blocked, then all traffic is halted because there is no alternative place for it to go. But the same logic does not apply to public transport – we’re not building a second Jubilee Line because there’s nowhere else to go if that line is blocked, for example. When cars are involved, though, we’re expected to roll over and let it happen. We cannot go on building more and more roads.
Boris Johnson has long backed the Silvertown Link – and it’s the Labour party in Greenwich borough’s dirty little secret too; Eltham MP Clive Efford is keen on the idea of sending more traffic through neighbouring Greenwich. But nobody seems to have thought about asking the people of Greenwich and Blackheath whose homes and livelihoods would be threatened.
People aren’t stupid. They drive because it’s a pain in the arse to cross the river any other way, unless you live near the DLR, the Jubilee Line or the 108 bus route. They drive because they feel they have no other choice. Yet there’s nothing in this report which suggests giving people the choice – why no suggestions for rail links between east and south-east London? I’ve long suggested that Thamesmead would benefit from being plugged into the rail lines from Fenchurch Street, linking it to both the City and east London. It’d be of greater value than a new, pollution-generating road bridge.
Other proposals include a ferry or smaller bridge where the Thames Gateway Bridge would have been – the latter idea would surely be overwhelmed with traffic the moment something gets stuck in the Blackwall Tunnel. (The Thamesmead area did have a little-known ferry until 2004 – a link between Belvedere and Dagenham to serve the Ford plant. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of local MP John Austin, its 300 daily passengers were forced onto the roads.)
But this report largely just deals with cars. Yes, a lot of road transport is urgent and vital to keep the capital and the country going. But more work needs to be done to give people the option of not jumping in their cars. Until policy-makers face up to this, this report will just be the product of lazy thinking.
And if you live in Greenwich, Charlton or Blackheath – you should be thinking of acting now to make sure the Silvertown Link, the laziest and most damaging idea of them all, never happens.
Every week, Greenwich Council takes some of my council tax money and uses it to produce a newspaper which, apparently, should inform me of what’s happening in my local area, let me know what the council’s up to, and broaden my knowledge of what’s going on with the seventy quid a month they take off me.
The result is Greenwich Time, which has no proper web presence, so – citizens of a random splodge of London between Deptford, Mottingham and Thamesmead, it’s our little secret, okay? So, to make sure the rest of you aren’t missing out, here’s its completely unbiased take on the scrapping of the Thames Gateway Bridge in Thamesmead…
Apparently, we’re set to suffer because of this decision. Apparently this is worse than having added traffic congestion and pollution because someone’s lumped a bloody great big road bridge through the middle of residential Thamesmead, which is already under an airport flightpath. Now, I appreciate there’s an argument for creating better transport links to the north side of the Thames, but… oh, if Greenwich Time can’t even put both sides of the argument across, why should I bother?
(See Brockley Central for the kind of lively debate that this subject needs.)
There’s a point to this, though, which is beyond politics. Greenwich borough has no proper, independent, paid-for local newspaper. It has two iffy freesheets, the Mercury and the News Shopper, based well outside of the area (in Streatham and Petts Wood, near Orpington, respectively). Greenwich Time has a superior distribution system to the Mercury and the News Shopper. It competes with these titles for advertising revenue. To an extent, the owners of these two rags (especially the Mercury, which suffered badly under previous owner Trinity Mirror) are the authors of their own misfortune and it could be argued that Greenwich Council is filling a vacuum by providing its own newspaper.
But the existence of Greenwich Time in its current form is a threat to independent journalism in the borough of Greenwich, putting the jobs of journalists at risk and denying the people of the borough of their right to independent, unbiased information. This is dangerous, and, ultimately, is a threat to democracy.
So, clearly, what we need is a big, strong, local paper to expose Greenwich Time for the nasty propaganda sheet for what it is! Oh…