A composite image showing Tower Bridge being built in the late 19th century, and today
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London’s landscape is undergoing a phase of rapid change. Towers are sprouting on the banks of the Thames and in the City, and hundreds more are planned. Big infrastructure projects are transforming the capital’s capacity to house and transport people. Vast subterranean structures are taking shape unseen by the populace, while above ground, cranes march across the skyline.

Much of this development is focused on east London, where former industrial areas are providing space for a rapidly growing population. But in one respect, east London’s development has more or less stood still since the 1960s: its bridges.

London is distinctly lopsided in its provision of road bridges. East of Tower Bridge, the world’s most famous example of the “bascule” bridge whose Gothic style was designed to be in keeping with the Tower of London, there is only one for 20 miles: the Dartford Crossing. (There are also road tunnels at Rotherhithe and Blackwall, and a car ferry at Woolwich.) To the west, the river is festooned with 17 road crossings in the shorter distance to Richmond Bridge.

Lord Adonis, former transport secretary, describes the eastern stretches of the Thames as a “virtually unbridgeable chasm” that puts its residents and businesses at a serious disadvantage compared with their better-served counterparts upriver. “Because of this grossly inadequate transport infrastructure, east Londoners are far more isolated and divided in their communities than central and west Londoners.”

Business is unhappy about delays and congestion caused by traffic bottlenecks in the east, as well as stifled growth. David Leam, infrastructure director at business lobby group London First, says: “There’s an absence of connectivity, which reduces the efficiency with which people can be matched to jobs on either side of the Thames and leads to higher costs for businesses through longer and unreliable journeys.”

Plans to rectify the problem have been extraordinarily long in the making. Sir Patrick Abercrombie, the planner who reshaped London in the postwar years, first proposed a new bridge in the east in the 1940s. Detailed plans for a bridge from Thamesmead to Beckton were put forward in 1979. Redesigned after an inquiry, it got the green light in 1991, but was cancelled in 1993. Proposed once again in 2002, it was put through a public enquiry in 2005, then cancelled again in 2008, in one of the first acts of the new mayor, Boris Johnson.

Transport for London (TfL), the body that runs the city’s transport systems, recently consulted on four alternative crossings, including one at Gallions Reach and an alternative, further downstream, at Belvedere. It is also proposing a tunnel at Silvertown to ease the traffic blackspot of the existing Blackwall Tunnel.

Sam Sims, a policy analyst at the Centre for London think-tank, which is leading a commission under the chairmanship of Lord Adonis for a new eastern crossing, says the stymied plans are an exemplar of planning paralysis. “This project dates back further than proposals for a third big London airport – which is a pretty good benchmark for infrastructure delay,” he says.

Part of the reason for the historical lack of bridges over the eastern Thames is a prosaic one: technical engineering challenges increase downriver, as crossings demand a wider span at greater depth. Another is that until the collapse of the docks industry in the 1970s, the Thames was still the main route for river traffic. “Any bridge would have had to have been incredibly tall to allow large vessels up the river,” says Georgina Young, senior curator at the Museum of London.

For nearly 700 years, Old London Bridge, the location selected by the Romans as their favoured crossing point, was the only way of traversing the Thames without climbing into a boat. Its 20 heavy piles, protected by pontoons, were so large and numerous that they impeded the flow of the Thames, making it more sluggish and allowing it to freeze over completely – which it did on at least 23 occasions between 1309 and 1814, giving rise to the famous Frost Fairs, a carnival-cum-street market that briefly united north and south Londoners in the festivities.

But in the 18th century, the pressures of a growing population – just as now – brought demands for a new phase of bridge-building. Three crossings – Vauxhall, Waterloo and Southwark – were built in the early 1800s as Londoners complained of bottlenecks and damage to business. “Population growth was a significant part of the argument in the 19th century, when London’s population had exceeded 1m and there was a great deal of congestion on the roads,” says Young.

Then as now, though, there was also strong opposition to bridge-building. The Thames watermen who had ferried generations of Londoners across the strong currents demanded – and won from Parliament – compensation for loss of business.

Today, opponents worry that far from easing congestion, new bridges will attract it. Jenny Bates, a campaigner for Friends of the Earth, the environmental group, says it is now widely accepted that new roads create more traffic. “Business doesn’t realise why it should oppose this.”

She points to traffic modelling by TfL that shows an easing of congestion in some areas but a build-up elsewhere, and argues the public has not been asked whether it would prefer public transport options – such as a combination of rail and foot or cycle bridges – as an alternative to road bridges.

Pollution is an increasing part of the opposition argument in a city which is already in breach of EU limits on harmful emissions. Henry Dalton, director of Tottenham and Bennett, the structural engineers, works across London. He is concerned about the impact of pollution, noting that one employee had been forced to take time off sick because of problems relating to asthma. “There are 4,000 early deaths a year in London because of air pollution problems,” he says. “Reductions are required to save lives and meet EU requirements.”

TfL has indicated that tolls are likely to be needed to help pay for any crossing. This may spark a different kind of complaint, as east Londoners realise they are being asked to pay for something their western neighbours enjoy for free.

Boris Johnson, who cancelled the so-called Gallions Reach project in 2008, has now come round to the idea of more Thames crossings in the east, including them in his London Infrastructure Plan 2050. But the Conservative mayor is unlikely to be around to drive the plans through, with his self-declared final term ending in 2016.

For Leam of London First, it is a “sorry history of stop-go” that points to problems with local politics, a neglect of east London in the long term, and poor planning and leadership. “The same or similar proposals keep re-emerging because the fundamentals haven’t radically changed. They all point to the need for new crossings in the east.”


Photograph from the exhibition ‘Bridge’, at the Museum of London Docklands until November 2, www.museumoflondon.org.uk/docklands

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