Tales from the riverbank: The Thames is a major asset but it has been neglected for too long

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The Independent Online
Ilove the River Thames. My constituency of Vauxhall fronts it and my home overlooks it. It is the widest highway in Britain running through the centre of our capital city, virtually traffic-free. Yet travelling on the river regularly is frustratingly difficult. Since the demise of the River Bus last summer, Thames Commuter Services offer a service to Canary Wharf from Festival Pier via London Bridge, but it is only in rush hours. They are doing the best they can without any government support, unable to expand to give what is needed - a regular, reliable service throughout the day with flexibility for commuters, tourists and residents.

Believing in the importance of the Thames and encouraging transport on it is not a romantic idea, but is based on a conviction shared by many that an increased use of the river will benefit the whole of London. Every single Londoner knows that the transport chaos in the city is a threat to our environment, our economy and our sanity. London owes its very existence to the river, since the city was built on its banks as a result of river transport. It is still one of London's major assets in terms of aesthetic, environmental and architectural importance.

Responsibility for planning and management of the river is split between a plethora of different organisations. Not only are there different authorities for land use, planning, transport and navigational duties, but different government departments - Environment (land use planning) and Transport. The government minister responsible is Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish, although questions are answered in the Commons by Steven Norris, London's Transport Minister.

In 1992 the minister did set up a 'working group' to develop traffic on the Thames. So far it has not reported, although interested organisations have made submissions. In the meantime, there is confusion and a surfeit of red tape which is stifling enthusiasm and enterprise. One problem is that the river has always been viewed primarily as a port with an international trading base, rather than an integral part of the city's transport system. The environmental advantages of river transportation have been largely unrecognised. One million tonnes of London's rubbish shipped from Wandsworth and the City of London by river to Thurrock takes 4.2 million lorry-miles off London roads. No transport network is better placed to deliver the construction materials to developments in the East Thames corridor, or to remove construction debris in an environmentally friendly manner than the ports of the Thames.

The Port of London Authority, through its River Division, is responsible for the conservancy of the tidal Thames and owns much of the riverbed and the foreshore to the high water mark. It provides navigational services for ships using the ports, including the maintenance of shipping channels and licensing of watermen and lightermen. Crucially it is meant to promote the river. This it has spectacularly failed to do.

With enormous day-to-day power over the use of the piers it controls, it can levy and increase toll charges at will. It can prevent piers being used - and it does. It is inflexible and its role as a regulator is in conflict with its role as a business manager. Boat operators and river users alike testify to the arbitrary and dictatorial decisions taken. The piers are certainly not run for the benefit of the public either. Time after time Westminster Pier will be shut at weekends, causing havoc for the tourist boats. The PLA makes other quangos look positively democratic.

A good example of the petty-mindedness of the PLA was when recently the hovercraft running from Charing Cross to Canary Wharf was prevented by strong winds from sailing and some Texaco employees were stranded. The Thames Commuter Services boatmen heard the news on the radio and came over from Festival Pier to pick them up free of charge. A few days later the PLA sent a bill for the 'unauthorised use' of Charing Cross Pier.

Recently there has been a welcome increase in the numbers of cruise liners coming up to the Tower of London with their passengers, instead of docking at Tilbury and travelling on by coach. Some liners would prefer to use the pier at Butler's Wharf, but the PLA want their own Tower Pier to be used and have put every conceivable obstacle in the organisers' way. Port operator rules are not relevant to boat operators and a legal challenge is likely.

What is needed is a hands-on government-led strategy to bring life back to the river - a future within an overall transport plan for London. There needs to be a fundamental change in attitude which allows for the 'river economy' to be recognised, understood, promoted and developed in the same way as other economic sectors.

River transport must be linked into the Travelcard scheme and promoted on London Transport maps. If this requires a subsidy to begin with, then it should be provided. The PLA must be radically shaken up. Promoting the river would mean encouragement to new ideas - small boats crossing back and forward on a hail and ride basis. The possibilities are endless. All it takes is some imagination, some will and most of all a Transport Minister for London who is prepared to 'Think River.

Kate Hoey is Labour MP for Vauxhall

(Photograph omitted)

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