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.
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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