No, London is not getting 13 new river crossings

Two of east London's proposed road crossings. Image: TfL.

A rule of thumb when looking at London news – if it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn't.

So when the capital’s news outlets trumpet “plans for 13 new London bridges and tunnels”, it's wise to take it with a pinch of salt. In fact, it’s worth having a whole silo of the stuff on hand.

On Tuesday, Transport for London (TfL) began a new consultation into its plans for new road river crossings at Gallions Reach and Belvedere – one either side of Thamesmead. This builds on work already done on the Silvertown Tunnel, another road crossing between Greenwich and the Royal Docks.

All three are controversial – TfL claims they will clear jams and spark economic regeneration, opponents point at a limited road network south of the river and fear induced traffic and yet more jams. (Full disclosure: I am one of the founders of the No To Silvertown Tunnel campaign.)

How to avoid repeating a row, and make it all sound fresh to weary editors?

When is a plan not really a plan?

To make the crossings issue palatable, TfL also launched a report into potential and actual new crossings called Connecting The Capital.

This report outlined 13 locations where crossings – either rail, road, foot or cycle – could be built, may be built, or are being built.

The plan for the crossings. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

The Evening Standard faithfully reported these as “plans” from the mayor, as did the the BBC's regional desk. They weren’t the only ones who implied these were some kind of grand mayoral masterplan.

It’s nothing of the sort. Many of these schemes have little to do with TfL. Some may not be built at all – or may just be opportunities for commercial operators to provide ferry services.

So, what are the 13 “crossings”?

The uncontroversial crossings

One's definitely coming – the Abbey Wood branch of Crossrail 1 , crossing the river at Woolwich from December 2018.

There’s a walking and cycling crossing that has planning permission: the Diamond Jubilee Bridge at Wandsworth. Small problem: it doesn’t have the funding.

Then there are two that lack both planning permission and full funding: the Nine Elms to Pimlico bridge and the Brunel Bridge between Rotherhithe and Canary Wharf. None of these walking/cycling projects have had much to do with TfL – these are down to developers, councils, and in the case of the Brunel Bridge, infrastructure charity Sustrans.

More controversial crossings

The highly controversial pedestrian-only Garden Bridge – arguably more a tourist attraction than a crossing – has planning permission and is part-funded by TfL.

TfL hopes to submit the contentious Silvertown Tunnel, effectively a third Blackwall Tunnel, for planning permission next year. TfL sees this as a magic bullet for notorious Blackwall Tunnel queues; opponents say it’ll just create new jams instead.

The Belvedere Crossing could be a bridge... Click to expand. Image: TfL.

After that, we get to the Gallions Reach Crossing and Belvedere Crossing – still very much in the early planning phase, as shown by TfL deciding that they could be tunnels rather than the earlier-proposed bridges, and deciding to lob some public transport options into this new consultation. Again, highly controversial, especially as Mayor Boris Johnson scrapped Gallions Reach’s earlier incarnation, the Thames Gateway Bridge, in 2008.

Then there's the Lower Thames Crossing, deferred by the last government and nothing to do with TfL – this is a Highways England project. TfL's material implies this will be a fourth Dartford crossing, not a popular option in the town. But another option is an M2-M25 link much further downriver, which involves going through open countryside. Again, still very much on the drawing board.

To 2030 – and beyond

Then things get even hazier for the tenth crossing. Crossrail 2 is due to cross at Chelsea around 2030, and going through another consultation process.

Then we’re going beyond 2030 – because we're down to the ones TfL really isn’t taking seriously.


Councils and campaigners will be delighted to see a London Overground extension from Barking Riverside to Thamesmead in the river crossings document. This would link two huge residential development areas, and two neighbourhoods with some of the worst public transport in London. But they’ll be less happy to see the brand new Gallions Reach Crossing consultation documents claiming it won't offer good value for money as the line can only manage four trains per hour.

That said, only having four trains per hour isn't stopping TfL steaming ahead with an extension from Barking to a station at Barking Riverside that will have to be demolished if the line ever does cross the river. Some new housing schemes are evidently more valuable to City Hall than others.

The crossings that could just be river bus stops

Then, and only then, we're into almost-uncharted territory. The only genuinely new link suggested is a pedestrian and cycle crossing between Charlton and the Royal Docks – two areas set for huge changes in future decades. But it admits the (fairly costly) link is purely conceptual, at least 15 years off, and suggests it could be a location for a ferry, which seems to be a pitch for business for London’s river bus operator, Thames Clippers, rather than a piece of transport infrastructure.

Finally, one that's definitely not a bridge or tunnel, even though one would be very handy here – a ferry between North Greenwich and the Isle of Dogs. Despite the misleading headlines, there's no mention at all of building anything – this would just be some extra stops on Thames Clippers services. This popped up in the Greenwich Peninsula masterplan earlier this year.

...or the Belvedere Crossing could be a tunnel. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

Neither TfL nor Greenwich Council have taken calls for a fixed pedestrian/cycle link between the two locations seriously. When TfL was planning the Emirates Air Line cable car, it rejected a walking/cycling bridge to Canary Wharf because it wanted to make an income out of a crossing. Greenwich dismissed calls to consider a fixed link in its Greenwich Peninsula masterplan – even though the planning gain on it could have covered the £100m cost of a bridge.

The one that’s missing – the Inner Ring Road tunnel

It's telling that the plan to stick the Inner Ring Road in a tunnel doesn't feature in Connecting The Capital, despite appearing in City Hall’s 2050 transport document issued last year. Maybe it’s too controversial ahead of an election.

So what we have is an ragbag of stuff that's happening, stuff that might happen, and stuff that may never happen. At best, this document’s a set of options for the next mayor to mull over. At worst, it’s just a bit of a PR diversion.

Effectively, the only new proposal here is the walking/cycling link at Charlton that's at least 15 years off. Boris Johnson used to criticise Ken Livingstone for promoting unfunded, uncertain schemes, but everyone's forgotten about that these days.

Should river buses be included?

It also seems misleading to bracket river buses in with fixed river crossings. The great thing about walking or cycling is that it's incredibly cheap. River transport in London isn't.

While it's true that some cities include ferries as part of their usual public transport offering – Hamburg, for example – TfL has been reluctant to cough up to bring them into the zonal system because of the large subsidies and relatively limited benefits. Interestingly, this 2009 report from Policy Exchange calling on TfL to do just that has 2016 mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith as one of its authors.

But for now, Thames Clippers markets the ferries as a premium service – it has to, it needs to turn a profit – and even the Rotterdam ferries cited in TfL's report charge higher fares.

London needs a river crossings plan – and an honest debate on roads

Save for the odd belligerent who refuses to cross the Thames, there isn’t a Londoner alive who doesn’t want to see more crossing points on the river.


The vexed question is what kind of crossings, and how they should be paid for. Tough decisions need an honest debate. A road crossing that might be the saviour of the haulage industry in Erith could help mess up traffic and pollution miles away. You don’t get that risk with a cycle bridge at Rotherhithe.

Leaving the Inner Ring Road Tunnel out of the list suggests TfL isn’t quite ready for that debate, at least on roads and how they fit into the wider network.

And should anyone – including cyclists and pedestrians – be paying more to cross the river in Woolwich rather than Wandsworth, simply because the river’s wider there?

None of these questions appear in Connecting The Capital. It’s not brought us any closer to a more linked-up London.

But it’s achieved its aim in giving TfL and the mayor boundless good publicity. For developers and campaigners, the real hard work is yet to come.

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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.