It was first suggested in 1943, as part of Patrick Abercrombie’s London Plan. Then it was seriously proposed in 1979, before being subjected to a lengthy public inquiry, redesigned, subjected to a further inquiry, approved in 1991, cancelled in 1993, revived in 2002, subjected to another inquiry in 2005 – and finally cancelled again in 2008. Like some undead infrastructural zombie, consigned to an eternal purgatory of being trampled and resurrected, the long-debated plan for a road bridge across the Thames in east London has once again been relaunched. Will it fare any better this time?
“It feels like there might finally be enough momentum to make it happen,” says Kat Hanna from the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI), the latest body to launch a plan for a bridge between Thamesmead and Beckton at Gallions Reach, linking Greenwich and Newham. “There are 22 crossings west of Tower Bridge, but only two to the east – where more than half of London’s population already lives, and where most of the growth in housing and jobs is going to come from over the coming decades. The current infrastructure is at breaking point, relying on the bottlenecks of the Blackwall and Rotherhithe tunnels.”
It is an argument that has been made for the last 70 years, during which time countless other road networks have been extended, tube lines tunnelled, wobbly bridges built and novelty cable cars erected. As the gaudy gothic confection of Tower Bridge celebrates its 120th birthday, the 20-mile stretch of London that rolls eastwards, up to the Dartford Crossing in Kent, remains an unbridged chasm.
“What have we done in the last two generations to supplement the work of the great Victorians?” asks Andrew Adonis, former Labour transport secretary during the Blair and Brown years, and godfather of HS2, who is heading up the new Commission on East Thames Crossings. “We have three times proposed a bridge in east London and three times cancelled it. This is a no-brainer in political terms – we should just get on and do it.”
The project launched today by the LCCI is “more of an image to talk around than a detailed plan,” admits Hanna, drawn up by architects HOK with Arup engineers as a catalyst to get the discussion going – again. It takes the form of an unusual “extradosed” structure, a cross between a girder bridge and a cable-stayed bridge. It looks lean and functional, but has none of the sparkly glamour of Thomas Heatherwick and Joanna Lumley’s proposal for a garden bridge between Temple and the South Bank, which has already wooed both the mayor and the Treasury into committing £30m each, to cross a part of the river that doesn’t really need bridging.
“The Thames Gateway Bridge was all ready to go, but then Boris pulled the plug, for purely electioneering reasons,” says Mark Brearley, former director of the Architecture and Urbanism Unit (later Design for London) at the Greater London Authority under Ken Livingstone, who was involved in developing the original plan. Keen to win votes in Bexley, where residents were fiercely opposed to the idea of a 6-lane bridge landing in their neighbourhood, Johnson promised to scrap the £500m project as one of his first acts in office, and stuck to his word. If the plan hadn’t been derailed, it would have opened last year.
“It was imagined as a Brooklyn Bridge for London,” says Brearley, “something quite straightforward and clunky, with pedestrian walkways and cycle lanes on a level separated from cars, offering amazing views back towards the city.” It came complete with a plan for what was ambitiously called the “cross-river park,” not a fairytale pair of copper mushrooms sprouting a floating forest like Heatherwick’s design, but a way of conceiving the two sides of the river as part of the same feral green landscape.
“It wasn’t a giant clean park, but something a bit rough and wild,” he says. “It was an idea for this distended green area with islands of other uses inside, strengthening the strange character of the two places at this particular point in the Thames.” It was inspired by the Emscher Park in Germany’s Ruhr valley, a wild green landscape strewn with the great carcasses of industry in a sort of open-air heritage theme park. Brearley’s team identified the majestic if unlikely attractions of the Beckton sewage works, built by Joseph Bazalgette in 1864, and the great steel drums of the gas works, matched across the river by the curious charms of the Tripcock Point landfill site and the sheds of Belmarsh Prison. It might not have had the seductive allure of Dan Pearson’s garden bridge journey from pioneer species to cultivated glades, but it had its own rough and ready appeal, with plans for a climbing wall on one of the bridge’s vast abutments, outdoor amphitheatres and boardwalks weaving between the marshy expanses. The bridge wasn’t shy of its great heft, but it was a humane thing, with pedestrian lifts leading to generously scaled platforms for picnics at the top, looking out over the estuary.
If the bridge is to be revived, it must draw on the spatial intelligence forged by countless consultants and expounded in numerous reports, which is in danger of being buried since the dissolution of Design for London. It must not fall foul of the lumbering technocratic procurement of Transport for London’s default solution, or the whims of a celebrity and her Da Vinci.
“It would be ahistorical to be optimistic,” says Sam Sims at the Centre for London, which is leading the Adonis commission, “but there is now overwhelming support for a crossing in this location.” Consultation conducted last year by TfL found that 71% of residents in surrounding boroughs are in favour. TfL’s director of strategy, Richard De Cani, says they are “scoping options” for crossings further east, and promises a new £600m road tunnel at Silvertown, to the west, will be delivered by 2021.
“It’s important not to be in denial about the logistics of a big city like London,” says Brearley. “It is exciting that we’re moving away from the idea that the car is forever ascendant, but that doesn’t mean we should suddenly abandon the motorway network, or ignore the fact that our industrial capacity and logistics are being choked by this crucial missing link.” And it shouldn’t need a sprinkling of fairy dust and the backing of a national treasure for Boris to take notice.