Tide of concrete threatens to destroy London riverbanks

Blocks of flats are ruining the shore, reports Catherine Pepinster
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One Of London's greatest amenities, the riverbank of the Thames, is starting to disappear under property development. Houseboats, moorings, boatyards and riverside paths are fast vanishing beneath a rash of cliff- like apartment blocks. More than two dozen blocks have gone up in the past 18 months. There are another 200 in the pipeline.

Echoing the development in Docklands, a "Chardonnay belt" of upmarket apartments is arising upstream at Wandsworth Bridge, Putney, Hurlingham, Albert Bridge, and on to Fulham, Richmond, Barnes, Chiswick and Teddington, where the tidal section of the river ends.

The Port of London Authority and the Environment Agency both say the explosion of development is unprecedented. The Agency says it is "extremely concerned" about the encroachment.

The flats offer expensive waterside views, and often grounds that encroach on the riverbank, with private moorings and security gates to keep out the public. Apart from blocking riverside walks, the development is damaging wildlife habitats. Birds on the foreshore are finding their breeding grounds replaced by concrete and steel pilings.

Among the boatyards which face the threat of demolition is Em's in Kingston upon Thames, where six boat owners are being evicted to make way for 200 flats. One resident, Gary Evans, says each morning he sees grebes nesting outside his window, and knows that after six years there, he now has just a month left in his idyllic houseboat on the Thames. "It's the centre of a city, but astonishingly beautiful and peaceful. We have swans here and kingfishers too," he said. The developer, St George, intends to demolish the boatyard and replace the moorings with pontoons for the new residents.

The threat to the river comes less than a year after the Environment Secretary John Gummer pledged to stop the "mediocre and insensitive development" which has despoiled the Thames. According to his Thames Strategy, the riverbank, mudflats and other natural environments of ecological importance are to be nurtured and preserved. Another recent paper stressed that working wharves also should be protected. Environmentalists say the threat to the riverbank and traditional ways of river life continues.

Tough's Boatyard in Teddington has disappeared to make way for three blocks of flats,, while in Pimlico, Westminster City Council is set to challenge the Department of Environment's protective guidelines on wharves with plans to convert its refuse and cargo freight depot into a site for 400 luxury flats.

Part of the problem is that there is no body responsible for protecting the riverbank. The Port of London Authority only has responsibility for navigation, and benefits from fees from developments along the banks. Planning gain - with town halls getting extra facilities such as new roads for granting permission for developments - is also a threat, say river campaigners.

Debbie Jaijee, of the London Rivers Association, said: "The Thames should be London's greatest asset, yet nobody has statutory responsibility for the river."

Two test cases, however, are likely to determine the fate of the banks. Next month, campaigners who are fighting to stop Fulham football ground building a 15,000 all-seater stadium and 142 flats on the riverfront will appeal against a High Court decision to allow the proposal. The club, which has multi-million pound debts, says the project is vital to secure its future:

Lady Dido Berkely, a Fulham resident who has spearheaded the campaign to stop the project, says it will destroy views of the river and wildlife habitats. With her colleagues from ThamesBank, a consortium of architects, planners and river lovers, she says that the Fulham scheme is particularly worrying because the sloping, stone banks of the Thames will be replaced by upright concrete walls, and the river's width at high tide will be cut by 15 feet. Though European law requires it, there was no environmental assessment of the project, they say. "The survival of the river depends on us fighting projects like this," she said. "What we need is a real voice for the Thames, someone with a vision who will protect it from some of the appalling things that have been done in the past. "

The second major battle will be the Greenwich bypass which, built in a box on the foreshore of the Thames, will be the biggest encroachment on the river.

Ralph Gaines, a conservation officer with the London Wildlife Trust, said: "Nobody seems to realise quite how much damage is being done to the Thames. There are no real sanctions to stop those harming it. The river might be getting cleaner, but the state of the banks and bed is now seriously affecting widlife. It's the aquatic equivalent of chopping down woodland."