It will be at least six and a half years until Hammersmith Bridge reopens to vehicular traffic, says the Hammersmith Bridge Task Force. A toll may be introduced to pay for it. It’s not feasible to demolish the bridge and replace it with a modern one, and not good use of resources to build a temporary one. These are the headlines which came out of a public meeting organised by the Task Force on the evening of Wednesday 28 October.
The meeting also heard that if they can agree the money, the existing bridge could be stabilised sufficiently to allow pedestrian and cycle access in a matter of months, and a passenger ferry service could be introduced in the spring, but it all hinges on local and central government agreeing on who pays for it. Although the Task Force has made some progress in the six weeks since it was set up, Transport Minister Baroness Vere told the meeting they weren’t there yet and the Department for Transport would only put in UK tax payers’ money if the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham also contributed.
The bridge was closed to vehicular traffic in April 2019 and closed completely in August 2020 because cracks in the Victorian cast ironwork have made it dangerous to use. Its closure has been disruptive to residents on both sides of the river, but particularly to those on the south side, in the borough of Richmond, with children finding it much harder to get to school, adults to work and elderly people to get to medical appointments. The build up of traffic because of the closure has affected Chiswick, Barnes and Fulham.
The Hammersmith Bridge Taskforce was set up by the Department for Transport in September 2020 to take over the project and work up solutions after over a year of deadlock between Hammersmith and Fulham, which owns the bridge, Transport for London, which is responsible for buses for which the bridge used to form a vital north-south route, and the Department of Transport, which is responsible for roads.
Minister for Transport Baroness Vere chaired the meeting. Heidi Alexander represented the Greater London Authority and Transport for London; Leader of Richmond council Cllr Graham Roberts spoke for LB Richmond and Deputy Leader of Hammersmith & Fulham council Cllr Sue Fennimore was there for Hammersmith and Fulham, stepping in for Council leader Steve Cowan, who had to pull out because of a family emergency. The Port of London Authority was also represented, by Chief Harbourmaster Bob Baker. The closure of the bridge has meant that since August river traffic cannot pass beneath it.
Cllr Sue Fennimore, speaking for LB Hammersmith and Fulham, told the meeting that while they had the responsibility for maintaining Hammersmith Bridge, they have already spent a lot of money on examining the problems and monitoring the state of the bridge, but don’t have the money to do the necessary repair works. The bridge should be seen as a national resource, she said. Baroness Vere said she couldn’t just put her hand in her pocket and hand out money when in every other part of the country local authorities made some contribution to the cost of renewing and restoring local infrastructure.
Although clearly still deadlocked over the financial problem, the meeting was businesslike and informative and Baroness Vere expressed confidence that the Task Force would find a way through. Both she and Heidi Alexander apologised for the delay in sorting it out, as did Cllr Roberts and Cllr Fennimore. Only a handful of local residents out of the 1,000 who took part were allowed to read out pre-selected questions.
What needs to be done to repair the bridge
Independent consultant Dana Skelley OBE and Department for Transport engineer David Coles were asked to explain the engineering problems that need to be fixed and to lay out a timeline for the work once funds were ‘unlocked’.
Dana is the Project Director for the Task Force. A chartered civil engineer, she joined TfL in 2000 as principal engineer for the City and became director of roads for London in 2008. She was responsible for a £4 billion road modernisation plan, which included preparing for the Olympics, almost all of the Thames crossings and strengthening Hammersmith flyover.
She explained that the bridge needs to move and flex. The 137 year old structure is a classic suspension bridge with two towers, cast iron chains and four cast iron abutments. Over the years the roller bearings have seized and the chains no longer move, which has put unexpected pressures on the pillars, causing cracks. She said there is a very strong business case for repairing the bridge, with a benefit-cost analysis of 10:1. As well as freeing the mechanism, the towers will need to be strengthened and the hangers replaced (the 172 vertical struts all the way along), and also the deck and the girders.
So far they have completed the design work required to stabilise the bridge and the concept design for the main strengthening works. The engineers have found that all four pedestals have cracked but they don’t yet know the full extent of the cracks. They think it will take four months to properly understand the condition of all four pedestals. It’s possible that the bridge could be reopened to pedestrians and cyclists at that point, depending on what they find. “The risk assessment will change when we have the full picture”. The cost of that exploration will be £2.3m “when funding becomes available”.
The next stage will be to carry out emergency works to stabilise the bridge as a temporary solution, which will take seven months. The cost of that is estimated at £13.9m. Only then can work begin on the permanent repairs. To get the bridge to the point where it is permanently stabilised to take pedestrians and cyclists will take 21 months. The total estimated cost is £80m.
“The business plan is sound” said Dana Skelley. “Funds just need to be unlocked”.
For the bridge to be made strong enough to take vehicles again, Baroness Vere said they were looking at six and a half years at least.
Cllr Sue Fennimore told the meeting that LB Hammersmith & Fulham’s budget had been cut from £184m to £121m over the past four years. They were facing a £19m shortfall this year because of the coronavirus. Since the current administration came to power in 2014 they had spent £5m on exploratory engineering works on Hammersmith Bridge and they were currently spending a further £2.7m on monitoring its safety. Hammersmith Bridge was a “national strategic transport asset” she said, which should be funded by the capital’s transport authority or the Department for Transport.
Heidi Alexander, Deputy Mayor, Transport and Deputy Chair, Transport for London, said that although legal responsibility for the bridge rested with Hammersmith & Fulham, she acknowledged that Transport for London had a responsibility for making it usable. They have spent £16m on investigative work, she said, and the presentation by Dana Skelley reached similar conclusions to those reached by TfL a year ago. They had put various bids in place over the past year but had had no response from the Department of Transport. Now, she said, they were having “intense discussions” with the government over funding for TfL as a whole, and were “completely hamstrung” by the loss of revenue resulting from the pandemic.
Baroness Vere said the Government runs major roads and railways. Bridges and underpasses are the responsibility of local authorities. She said the Government would “help” but there had to be a contribution from Hammersmith & Fulham. “In every single other case that has come across my desk, the local authority has made a contribution”. She was being asked to spend money which had been provided by tax payers all over the country. Before she could go to the Chancellor and make a case, she had to be convinced that the proposal stacked up “from the perspective of UK taxpayers”. To date, she said, she has not had a proposal that met that criterion. She gave the example of the restoration of Albert Bridge, to which Chelsea & Westminster had contributed 25% costs to Transport for London’s 75%.
“I agree this bridge is exceptional and we will step up and contribute” – Baroness Vere
The Minister said Government funding relied on Hammersmith & Fulham also making a contribution.
“London councils don’t have tens of millions of pounds lying around” – Cllr Sue Fennimore
Cllr Fennimore was not prepared to commit to any further funding at the meeting, above what the council had already committed to spending.
“It will not be done without a local contribution” said Baroness Vere, “because that would not be fair to the UK tax payer”.
Image below: Hammersmith Bridge; photograph Aubrey Crawley
Possibility of a toll for Hammersmith Bridge would “push traffic to Chiswick Bridge”
Baroness Vere said she had offered Department of Transport accountants to “help Hammersmith & Fulham go over your accounts” and suggested some form of toll might be considered. Maybe Hammersmith & Fulham could borrow against future revenue to be raised by a toll. They would have to look at issues such as whether local residents would get a discount and what impact the introduction of a toll on Hammersmith Bridge would have on traffic. The likelihood is that it would be pushed to adjacent bridges at Chiswick and Putney.
“No point” carrying out partial work
The minister was asked if the Government would “front-load” funding, so that the work could start immediately. She said she wanted to avoid the situation where partial work was done and then the project ran out of money.
“We all have to be committed and have the funding in place to see the work through to the end”.
Replacing the bridge “not viable”
A question was asked by an audience member about whether the Victorian bridge should be demolished and replaced by a modern bridge. Both Richmond and Hammersmith & Fulham council representatives said they were committed to restoring the existing bridge.
“Hammersmith & Fulham is fully committed to restoring the historic bridge” said Sue Fennimore. This she said was supported not only by the Labour group on the council, but had been endorsed by the opposition as well in a meeting on 21 October.
“We need to work within the realms of possibility” said Richmond council Leader Gareth Roberts. “If we tried to demolish it, we would be mired in legal challenges from the Victorian Society and heritage groups. We’d have Griff Rhys Jones (President of the Victorian Society) down here protesting. We have to do what is both possible and realistic”.
Image below: Hammersmith Bridge; photograph Natalia Bobrova
The Task Force has agreed that a ferry service is the easiest and quickest solution to getting passengers across the river and that it needs to be publicly funded, so that it continues to run even if it’s not commercially viable.
Dana Skelley said it would be possible to start a passenger ferry service in the spring, if they started on it now. She told the meeting it would take 66 working days from the release of funding to the start of a ferry contract, but it all depended on funding being agreed.
Normally it would take at least a year to award such a contract, but in this instance the “speed of mobilisation” would be “key” to awarding the tender.
Cllr Roberts said Richmond was ready to spend the capital to make a safe landing point on the south side of the river. People were having to take hugely circuitous routes to get to school and work and children were having to travel in the dark, so for Richmond a speedy resolution to the provision of a ferry service is very important.
Cllr Fennimore said Hammersmith & Fulham “will do everything we can to support the introduction of a ferry service” but she would not commit to the council putting any money towards it.
Baroness Vere said the Government “stands ready to help but we are not doing it on our own”. She said she was “working very hard on a package to break the deadlock” but that she needed to “see some movement from Hammersmith & Fulham”.
“I would have thought two piers, one from Richmond and one from Hammersmith & Fulham would be possible. We are not talking about vast amounts of money”.
Temporary bridge not an option
Nicholas Reed, representing a residents’ association in Fulham, asked whether the task Force would consider building a temporary bridge, given the knock on effects of the closure of Hammersmith Bridge.
Dana Skelley answered that often solutions were put forward which were technically feasible, but that it would not be practicable in this location. The feasibility study alone would cost half a million pounds, and it was not worth the money. Much better, she said, to focus on a permanent solution by repairing the existing bridge.
Cllr Graham Roberts agreed and said we would find ourselves “so mired in legal challenge it wouldn’t be worth the candle. There would be “fun and games with Extinction Rebellion” he said, if they tried to install a temporary bridge.
“This is not a new idea. We can spend out time chasing rainbows but I would rather spend half a million pounds more productively”.
Bob Baker, speaking on behalf of the Port of London Authority, told the meeting it was no good putting a ferry service in place or a temporary bridge across if they could not get the existing bridge stabilised. Their priority was to get the rive opened again for river traffic beneath the bridge, both for businesses and for recreational users of the river. It was important, he said, for the RNLI and the River Police to be able to come and go. Now is the season when boat owners need to get their boats upriver to dry dock for repairs. They had managed to get some “controlled passages” of vessels under the bridge since August and they were trying to organise more.
Baroness Vere said she would like to see the river open in time for the next Boat Race.
Heidi Alexander told the meeting that since the closure of the bridge TfL had been taking measures to alleviate the increase of traffic on Chiswick Bridge and Putney Bridge. It had reviewed hundreds of sets of traffic lights.
“I appreciate it won’t have yielded the results local residents would like, but we do have a 24 hour control room to modify traffic signals when you can see that there is pressure building up”.
She said more buses were coming in to service on the 533 route. The number of buses was being increased to five per hour from Monday 2 November.
Safety of school children
Cllr Roberts said Richmond council was working with residents to improve things for school children having to walk along the tow path in the dark winter months.
“We are committed to a sizeable investment in improving the tow path security and we are looking at whether we can put extra cycling space on Barnes Bridge (owned by Network Rail). While they were looking at improving lighting, he said they were bound by law to protect the habitat of bats along the river.
“Sorrow not good enough”
Deputy Leader of Richmond Council, Liberal Democrat Cllr Alexander Ehmann (Cabinet Member for Transport) said it was all very well politicians voicing their “sorrow” for the lack of action over Hammersmith Bridge, but that sorrow had to be translated to “concrete action”.
Baroness Vere closed the meeting by saying she wanted “to fix this” and that the Government stood by “ready to fund this project alongside local funding”.
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