arts and design

London's bridges are falling down: how politics has failed the capital's crossings


Toby Gordon-Smith can see the district of Hammersmith from his flat. In normal times it takes him a few minutes to get there in his wheelchair. His cannabidiol products business is there, with the accessible tube station that he needs to get to the rest of London. The station is the reason why he moved to the area, but now it might as well be in another city. For he lives in Barnes, on the south side of the River Thames, opposite Hammersmith, and the bridge that connected them is closed for safety reasons – to vehicles since April 2019, and to pedestrians, cyclists and wheelchair users since last August. Although it is nearly two years since the first closure, there is still no clear plan for fixing the bridge.

There are thousands of stories like Gordon-Smith’s. For children in Barnes who go to schools in Hammersmith, what was once a 15-minute walk is now a tortuous three-mile journey along a towpath regularly flooded by the tide, up flights of steps on to a railway bridge (which makes cycling difficult) and through an ill-lit park with high rates of crime. Or they can take a long bus ride, which means getting up at 6am, if you’re going to beat the rush-hour traffic. The area’s main hospital, Charing Cross, is on the north side of the river, so those of its staff who live to the south, and patients needing such things as chemotherapy, now have to make gruelling journeys of an hour or more each way. Ambulances face potentially lethal delays.

It is as if a town has had a limb sawn off. Things formerly taken for granted – going to shops, restaurants, GPs’ clinics, meeting friends and family – are now inaccessible. “We used to go there three or four times a week,” says Muriel Seaman, who is “92 coming up to 93”, and who lives with her 96-year-old husband Joe in Barnes. “A little outing on the bus, a little trip out, nothing special, but it gave a different outlook.” They had to change their doctor of 40 years. “It was hurtful, sad, it made me cry. When you get older you rely on things that have been happening all the time.”

Lockdown, for now, makes some of these difficulties moot, although in some cases it compounds them. Shops and pubs that have just about coped with Covid, for example, are doubly hammered by the loss of passing trade. But however endless lockdown now seems, it is unlikely to match the six or more years that the bridge closure is projected to take. A pedestrian ferry is promised sooner than that, in spring or perhaps summer, but it will only be partial solution. It is hard to think of a London bridge whose closure would be more damaging, as Barnes has no tube station, and the nearest alternatives (for vehicles) are about two miles away in either direction. The effects on bus and car traffic are felt across much of west London.

Hammersmith Bridge has been closed to traffic since April 2019.
Hammersmith Bridge has been closed to traffic since April 2019. Photograph: Transport for London/Alamy

It’s obvious who to blame: politicians are guilty to varying degrees of buck-passing, posturing, point-scoring, broken promises and inaction. The problem is that they are in different parties and different authorities. The main players are the now Labour-run borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, the Tory national government, London’s Labour mayoralty, and the borough of Richmond, which is run by the Liberal Democrats. As Professor Tony Travers of the London School of Economics has said, the Hammersmith Bridge saga is a failure of political as well as structural engineering.

And, if this bridge story sounds like a little local difficulty, it is not. There are other bridges with similar problems – messy politics, decaying structures – and failing infrastructure is a national issue. The Times has reported that “4,000 of about 9,000 bridges and large culverts on motorways or A-roads showed evidence of defects or damage that may significantly affect capacity” and that “the RAC estimates that there are more than 3,000 substandard road bridges across Britain that are not capable of supporting the heaviest vehicles”. It is a poor portent if every cracking structure is dealt with as ineptly as at Hammersmith.

The current bridge, painted in sage green and touches of gold, has something of the fairground about it – turrets, finials, heraldic emblems, sculpted scrolls and foliage. It was installed in 1887 by London’s Metropolitan Board of Works under the leadership of Joseph Bazalgette, the organisation and the individual who had rescued the capital from cholera epidemics by installing an effective sewage system. It replaced an older bridge of 1827, financed by charging tolls, which was no longer strong enough for the traffic passing over it. There were also concerns about the effects of the crowds that clambered over it to watch the annual Oxford and Cambridge boat race.

The Hammersmith closure has caused inconvenience to thousands of Londoners, forcing lengthy detours.
The Hammersmith closure has caused inconvenience to thousands of Londoners, forcing lengthy detours. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

Bazalgette’s bridge was built of iron, with the deck suspended by chains hung from two pairs of pillars, technology that would soon be made obsolete by the development of steel cables. Time would not be kind to it. It was subjected to three bombing attempts by different versions of the IRA, in 1939, 1996 and 2000, not all which succeeded. The last one did, which led to a two-year closure for repairs. The bridge required significant renovations in 1973 and 1997, in part to deal with the weight of motorised vehicles on a structure designed for horse-drawn traffic.

Perhaps its greatest misfortune came in 1986, with Margaret Thatcher’s abolition of the Greater London Council, whose properties were dispersed to London boroughs. These included Hammersmith Bridge, which was passed to the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, for whom it was nothing but a liability. The decision was stranger for the fact that the bridge is much more important for people south of the river, in the borough of Richmond, than it is for Hammersmith. It was therefore in the care of an authority with limited electoral motivation for looking after it.

In April 2019 it was closed indefinitely to motor vehicles after cracks were spotted in the cast-iron pedestals through which the suspension structure is tied back to the ground. In August 2020 the engineering firm Mott MacDonald, which is working for Hammersmith and Fulham, found that the cracks had widened, possibly due to an intense heatwave. The bridge was closed to pedestrians and cyclists, and river traffic – which will include the hallowed boat race – was forbidden from passing underneath, decisions that other experts have since called “overly cautious”. Mott MacDonald, though, stands by it.

The estimated bill would be £141m for a full repair, £163m if that repair were fast-tracked, or £48m just to make it safe for pedestrians, cyclists and river traffic. The fact that the bridge is listed for its historic and architectural interest, and therefore has to be preserved, makes the remedies all the more difficult, costly and slow.

Tower Bridge recently suffered a technical fault that caused huge traffic problems.
Tower Bridge recently suffered a technical fault that caused huge traffic problems. Photograph: Chris Gorman/Getty Images

At this point the arcane details of ownership and responsibility became life-changing for thousands of people. The strokes of the bureaucrat’s typewriter that consigned the bridge to Hammersmith and Fulham have proved more effective than the IRA at snarling up this part of London. Hammersmith and Fulham council, the owner, announced that it couldn’t pay. “No council has that sort of money available,” it said. Last December, when told by the Department for Transport that it would have to stump up at least £63m for the renovation, the council’s leader, Stephen Cowan, called it a “cruel, unusual and unprecedented punishment” for an authority whose annual budget is £140m. It believes that national government, in the form of the Department for Transport, should contribute funding, along with city-wide government, in the form of Transport for London and mayor Sadiq Khan.

A blame game has broken out, amplified by the politics of 2019’s general election and the London mayoral election in May. No one wants to do anyone else any favours. Matters have been complicated by the government’s “levelling-up” agenda of diverting resources to more deprived parts of the country, which means not-London. It probably doesn’t help that Barnes, often prefixed by the epithet “leafy”, has a reputation for being posh, even though as in most of the capital there are council tenants and struggling private renters in among its £2m houses. “It feels as if London is being punished,” says Richmond’s Lib Dem leader, Gareth Roberts.

Hammersmith and Fulham council is accused – by both the Department for Transport and the Lib Dem Richmond MP Sarah Olney, among others – of poor maintenance standards over decades of both Conservative and Labour administrations, for example by slapping on layers of paint that impeded the flexibility that structures like this need. The transport minister Charlotte Vere says that it’s “extremely regrettable that government had to step in. We expect local leadership with local assets.” She criticises Hammersmith and Fulham for “foot-dragging”. She points out that the borough refuses to release its engineers’ report in full, a position that she says is unhelpful and strange.

Transport for London has so far put up £16.7m on urgent works and on the proposed ferry, but Khan, say local residents, has been insufficiently helpful. He could have done more, in their view, to bang heads together. “Some people are trying to play politics with this issue,” he wrote to them recently, “this letter is not an attempt to respond in kind.” He went on to do just that, blaming “ministers” for their inaction. The worst-affected borough, Richmond, while assisting with the ferry proposals, has largely stood by in relative impotence, as it lacks direct authority over the bridge.

An engineer abseils from Lambeth Bridge, one of many London bridges in need of repair.
An engineer abseils from Lambeth Bridge, one of many London bridges in need of repair. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

The man at the top of this administrative pyramid, the transport secretary Grant Shapps, has seemed more interested in point-scoring than getting anything done. In December 2019, just before the general election, he was filmed next to the bridge, standing alongside Richmond’s incumbent Tory MP Zac Goldsmith. “Zac, if you’re re-elected,” he said, “if we get a Conservative majority… we are going to not stand by, we are going to get involved.” He promised to get a temporary structure “done quickly” and to “put some money in.” The Conservatives won nationally, Goldsmith lost locally, and the money and rapid action didn’t materialise.

In September 2020 Shapps announced a “taskforce” for the bridge, chaired by Lady Vere, saying that he would “take control” and “get this sorted this out”, albeit without putting significant funding at its disposal. In October he appeared in front of a camera again, alongside the Conservative mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey. Residents were pleased, Bailey told Shapps, “that you’ve provided the money, that your department has provided the money, to repair the bridge in the long run, to get back to motorised traffic.” Nothing wrong with this statement, except that it wasn’t true – Shapps’s department had committed no such money and still has not, beyond £4m for emergency and temporary work provided after the interview with Bailey.

There are, in all this, some glimmers of hope. The architects Foster and Partners and engineers COWI have proposed a temporary structure, a double-decker girder that could be inserted into the existing bridge. Cars would use the upper deck, pedestrians and cyclists the lower. It would also support the old bridge such that parts could be removed for repair, which would be easier than trying to fix them in their exposed location above the river. It would get the bridge working relatively quickly – less than a year for the construction of the temporary structure, though with several months more for getting approvals and appointing contractors.

Hammersmith and Fulham council has commissioned a more detailed feasibility study of this scheme. It also now proposes that the funding gap can be covered by charging tolls to vehicles using the bridge, a proposal that until recently would have been greeted with outrage, not least because many of the bridge users will be heading to or from central London’s congestion charge zone, for which they will also have to pay. Drivers seeking to avoid the toll will put pressure on other river crossings. But at this point it looks like the least bad and most viable way of ending the impasse.

Vauxhall Bridge, which may face traffic restrictions in the near future.
Vauxhall Bridge, which may face traffic restrictions in the near future. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

Elsewhere along the Thames, the Vauxhall and London bridges have had to close for repairs, the bascules of Tower Bridge recently jammed, and climate change and increasing traffic will put other ageing structures under pressure. As in Hammersmith there are byzantine arrangements of ownerships and responsibilities, with some owned by borough councils, some by Transport for London, and some by the 739-year-old Bridge House Estates. Unless saner arrangements are introduced, with realistic ideas about funding – and there is little sign of either – the Hammersmith Bridge fiasco will be one of many. And, while other parts of the country have different arrangements, infrastructure everywhere will require a greater degree of organisation and determination than has so far been seen.

At the same time the Thames has been garlanded with non-essential proposals, most notably Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge project, which cost £43m in public money not to happen, an amount which could have made a huge difference in Hammersmith. PR, evidently, is easier for modern governments than engineering. Which gives rise to ironies: one of the achievements of the Metropolitan Board of Works was to abolish tolls on Thames bridges, but it looks as if those will now come back. And the board was created in 1855 as an instrument of London-wide government, in order to overcome a dysfunctional mess of small local authorities that had stymied large-scale works. The gaggle of interested parties around Hammersmith Bridge is a step back to those bad old days.

Meanwhile the residents of Barnes can only watch and wait, as their futures are held hostage in squabbles between different political entities. “Worse things happened during the war,” says Muriel Seaman, whose husband served in the navy, “and we just got on with it. But that was an enemy we could see. This is an enemy you can’t.”





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