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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What’s the constitutional status of the Isle of Man, then?

...what? Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

Amidst the tumult of Brexit negotiations, away from questions about the integrity of the Union itself being asked by wearied bureaucrats in Edinburgh, Belfast, Brussels and London, the constitutional uncertainty of our times has washed up on the shores of the Isle of Man. Now it threatens the slumber of policymakers in Douglas, too.

The ten-by-forty mile island in the Irish Sea is best known internationally for its annual TT motorcycle races and tax haven status. If you haven’t been you should go: the variety of scenery is breath taking, as are the economics. Lamborghinis emerge from the back of slate cottages, a seaside dwelling can set you back more than an Edinburgh duplex, and the gilet prevalence index is off the charts in certain localities.

The reason for the disconnect is the constitutional relationship between the Isle of Man and the UK. For centuries the island supplemented threadbare revenue streams from subsistence farming and fishing with a robust smuggling sector. The IoM government homepage clearly, maybe even proudly, states that it has never been part of the UK: in the 1700s plans to buy it out and make it part of England were shelved after local unrest, while the current arrangement of Home Rule dates to the early 1800s.

Today the IoM government is based in Douglas, the island’s largest town. Its funding comes through a revenue sharing agreement, the “common purse”, with tax gathered locally on behalf of London and returned to the island according to an unpublicised formula. The agreement has been a source of contention for about as long as it’s existed, but ire has grown proportionally with the island’s pre-eminence as a tax haven. Its detractors point out that the UK consistently gives back to the IoM government more than it gathers, effectively subsidising the island’s status as a tax haven; while its supporters are wealthy.

A map of the Isle of Man. Image: Eric Gaba/Wikimedia Commons.

In a world gripped by economic injustice, the IoM drives social change with a programme of support to welcome the huddled masses of oligarchs yearning for freedom from autocratic tax regimes. Income tax tops out at 20 per cent but, fear not, it’s capped at £150,000. Corporation tax is nil, until your firm earns £500,000 a year; then it has to pay 10 per cent on everything over that. For mega-wealthy émigrés forced to flee odious obligations like capital gains, inheritance or wealth tax, there are opportunities to invest in local property, to get back on your feet: proceeds are taxed at 20 per cent.

The Isle of Man enjoys the same constitutional status as the Channel Islands: the UK handles its accountancy and defence, but aside from the constant vigilance required to keep Dublin at bay the only international hassle comes from Brexit. In the same way as the IoM has never been part of the UK, it’s never been part of the EU – it enjoys all the benefits (or unconscionable infringements) of membership by virtue of a legal protocol which doesn’t bestow membership. Crucially, the IoM doesn’t have any representation with the EU – it can’t, being the kind of Schrödinger jurisdiction which is neither part of the UK nor its own recognised area.


That distinction brings other problems. Regardless of how Brexit pans out, the EU has shown signs of going to war on tax avoidance – a rare political argument which unites populists and progressives. The EU now maintains lists of high risk money-laundering and tax compliance jurisdictions, and the IoM’s prominence in the international sector was part of the reason some MEPs have pushed for including the UK as a whole.

The IoM experiences the paradox of autonomy without representation. Its relationship with the UK has often been hamstrung, too, such as in 2009 when the Treasury slashed common purse funding in an attempt to nudge Douglas away from its tax avoidance platform.

Domestically, the distance between the plutocracy and everyday islanders is stark. Most people on the island are not wealthy: they rely on public services and work jobs like anywhere else. After the IoM’s funding was cut by London at the height of the financial crisis, lower and middle income earners were worst hit. Now the island has to maintain a favourable tax code for plutocrats while supporting public services used by the people who need them. It’s a difficult balance to strike, and likely to become more so if the EU pursues its anti-tax avoidance agenda post-Brexit.

Simon Jones is a writer based in Glasgow.