Turning the Thames into a swimming pool is a nice way to reclaim a city's dead public space

A concept illustration of what the Thames Baths might look like. Image: Studio Octopi.

The urban design trend in the major cities of the world is for the reclamation of disused infrastructure, for conversion into something more civic-minded. The progenitor is the High Line, New York City's newest park, lovingly-cultivated along the length of a disused elevated freight line along the western edge of Manhattan. It's very nice - not revolutionary, but certainly revelatory.

For planners in London looking to do the same thing, the best option would probably have been the Kingsland Viaduct if it hadn't been repurposed for the London Overground's extended Dalston-to-New Cross East London Line in 2010 (and a damn good thing too, how it's already in need of capacity improvements to cope with passenger demand). No, Londoners will have to make do with the much-fêted Thomas Heatherwick-designed pedestrian Garden Bridge, which, if it gets planning permission and funding, will cross the Thames from Temple to the South Bank. Maybe, though, that's skipping over and ignoring and under-used resource that's been in front of planners the entire time - the Thames.

Late last year, the Architecture Foundation put out a call for entries to a series called "London As It Could Be Now", searching for "new ideas and visions for self-selected sites along the Tidal Thames reflecting on relevant changing social, economic, cultural and environmental conditions and concerns". That means things like bridges, airports, houses - the usual. But one of the entries, which was revealed in November but which I've only just come across, is Thames Baths, by Studio Octopi. It's a cute public pool constructed on the Thames, at the site of where Blackfriars Pier (one of TfL's water taxi stops) is:

Illustration: Studio Octopi.

The studio writes:

"Swimming has always featured in the River Thames. The ability to do so has become harder and harder as river traffic has increased and London’s population has outgrown the ageing sewage system. However plans are in place to upgrade Sir Joseph Bazelgette’s sewers and therefore dramatically improve the quality of the river’s water. The Thames Baths Project is about imagining the possibilities of safely swimming in the river and opening up a discussion about the future."

It's interesting that they mention sewers, as the River Fleet - once effectively an open sewer, now an enclosed sewer - empties out into the Thames beneath Blackfriars Bridge, mere yards away from the pier. That's not something you want to have to find yourself swimming in when the tide switches direction and brings it back upstream. 

Still, it's a nice idea, and the kind of thing that would allow London to express itself architecturally without nicking good ideas from New York City. Semi-wild swimming is a very London thing - see: Hampstead Heath ponds, clubs taking dips in the Serpentine, the use of Shadwell Basin as an outdoor watersports centre - and it would be fantastic if it was a genuinely public space, as the trend in the capital is for the privatisation of new public amenities like squares or parks.

It can also be seen as a less-ambitious version of the LidoLine, a 2012 proposal by Y/N Studio to convert the mostly-disused Regent's Canal, which runs from Islington to the Thames via east London:

It was pitched as an alternative route for commuters, but since the canal kind of skirts around the edges of central London (where people tend to work) it might be better-suited for leisure time. However, the difficulty of keeping rat faeces and shopping trolleys out of the water - seriously, it's big problem in the canal for anyone who happens to try swimming in it at the moment - make it unlikely. Alas.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.