The UK’s Fragile Bridges:

This year is the 125th anniversary of London’s Tower Bridge. It was inaugurated, after 8 years of construction work, on 30th June 1894 in a “lavish ceremony” by the then Prince and Princess of Wales. Building it was considered essential for the million people living in the eastern part of the capital, who had either to take a ferry to cross the River Thames or use London Bridge, which 128,000 pedestrians did every day. By comparison – as the official Tower Bridge guide has noted – the 2.3 million residents living to the west of London Bridge had 12 bridges up to Hammersmith at their disposal.

Promotional material issued by the Kallaway PR company has hailed Tower Bridge as “London’s defining landmark, one of the capital’s most iconic attractions”. The bridge, however, has had it’s problems: In 2016, it was closed to road traffic for three months so extensive repairs could be carried out. Its owners, the City of London Corporation, pointed out at the time that “The bridge carries around 40,000 people, including 21,000 vehicles a day. This heavy use had had an effect on the timber decking. Maintenance is also required on the lifting mechanism and the waterproofing of the brick arches”.

This is not an unusual situation to arise with London’s bridges. Most of them (apart from the steel suspension pedestrian-only Millenium Bridge, linking Bankside with the City of London) date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. Westminster Bridge, for example, opened in 1750; Putney (1729), Battersea (1771), Vauxhall and Waterloo (1817), Hammersmith (1827), Chelsea (1858), Albert (1871), Wandsworth (1873).

Putney Bridge was closed for essential repairs from the 14th July – 25th September 2014. More recently and controversially, since 10th April motorists and seven bus services have been banned from using Hammersmith Bridge after safety checks revealed “critical faults”, though access remains available for pedestrians and cyclists. The Evening Standard’s City Hall Editor, Ross Lydall, has quoted estimates by the New Civil Engineer magazine (NCE) that the repairs could take three years, cost around £100 million and indeed that the bridge may never be re-opened to motorists. The main issue is where the money will come from: Government budget cuts have left both Hammersmith & Fulham Council (LBHF) and Transport For London (TfL) seriously short of funds.

Greg Hands, the MP for Chelsea and Fulham has however insisted that keeping the bridge permanently shut to motorists is not really an option: “There is a massive impact on communities like Fulham and Putney from diverted traffic”, he told Lydall. The leader of Wandsworth Council. Clr Ravi Govindia, agrees vociferously with Hands and has criticised LBHF for failing to keep their bridge in good working order – as a result of which it’s calculated that Putney Bridge now experiences 4,000 extra vehicles every day, Wandsworth Bridge 2,000 more and Battersea Bridge an additional 1,000:“The Nitrogen Dioxide pollution levels on Putney High Street, which we had managed to control and reduce, have now gone up by 4% and all this extra traffic is having a devastating effect on our roads, bridges and the surrounding areas”.

On 11th July, the NCE journalist, Katherine Smale, highlighted the fact that the backlog for maintaining London’s roads now exceeds £1billion. She noted that, in the opinion of the London Technical Advisors Group (LoTAG), the capital is getting an unfair maintenance deal from the Government, that its road network is suffering from “chronic underinvestment” and that other English authorities are being granted a much more favourable annual financial arrangement: “London boroughs and TfL are doing their best, using their own budgets, but if the current funding conditions remain, the future state of the capital’s infrastructure is clear: Failing highways, more potholes and more closed bridges”.

In fact, most councils across the country appear to be facing similarly difficult circumstances. On 7th January, the Transport Network correspondent, Dom Browne, reported that there are almost 3,500 council-maintained road bridges in the UK which are considered to be substandard. He was quoting from a survey conducted by the RAC (Royal Automobile Club) Foundation with the help of the National Bridges Group of ADEPT (The Association of Directors of Environment, Economics, Planning and Transportation) which infers, for example, that 18 of the 34 bridges in the London Borough of Lewisham, 2 of the 4 owned by LBHF and all of the 25 in Redbridge in the east of London, are in some way deficient.

Substandard” is defined as being unable to support the heaviest vehicles now seen on Britain’s roads, including lorries of up to 44 tonnes. The analysis found that an estimated £6.7 billion is needed to bring all these bridges back up to perfect condition – but that budget restrictions mean that the “economically-straightened” councils anticipate only 370 of these will have the necessary work carried out on them within the next five years.

Filed under: Society, Travel | Posted on July 16th, 2019 by Colin D Gordon

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