The ‘Garden Bridge’ now looks unlikely to be constructed, which is the victory of common sense over vanity. Abandoning a river crossing that serves no practical purpose should be seen as £175m well saved. However, unless this saving is invested in a long-awaited, much-needed Thames crossing to the east of Tower Bridge, the East End of London – the capital’s growth area – will continue to suffer.
George Osborne backed the garden bridge, alongside Mayor Boris Johnson, and Transport for London and the Treasury pledged £30 million each, but comparisons with the Emirates "air line" to the east in the Royal Docks are reasonable. The cable car looks like the triumph of novelty over practicality, serving primarily as a not-very-successful tourist attraction, with ridership figures dwindling. Studies estimated in 2013 that a grand total of four "frequent fliers" used the cable car to commute across the Thames.
Johnson’s more visible legacy to the capital’s transport infrastructure lies in: the replacement of the cyclist-unfriendly "bendy bus" with new "roastmasters", so nicknamed after the non-opening windows and underperforming air conditioning that leave the otherwise pleasant buses uninhabitable in the summer months; and the "Boris Bike" hire scheme, the genesis of which occurred under Johnson’s predecessor, Ken Livingstone, and could have been known as "Kencycles" had electoral results turned the other way in 2008.
Vanity and personal enthusiasm can easily play a part in big infrastructure projects. The chance to build a monument to oneself is a tempting perk of being a decision maker. This is what makes the National Infrastructure Council, recently established by George Osborne and headed by Labour peer Lord Adonis, such a good idea. Taking the ego and the politics out of infrastructure decisions will help to avoid short-termism, and while Adonis might have wished that his resigning the Labour whip in order to take the job could have been announced at a more convenient time than during Conservative Party conference, the opportunity must have been too good to pass up.
Adonis will be keen to get things moving with an east London river crossing. He has repeatedly spoken of the imbalance in Thames crossings either side of Tower Bridge. A crossing, over or under the river, has been shown by study after study to be all but guaranteed to boost economic growth and local employment in east and south-east London, as well as providing a boost to the construction of 50,000 much-needed new homes. TfL’s consultative polling earlier this year showed the public to be overwhelmingly positive towards the idea in principle – the problem is that there is no agreement on exactly where to put it. No one wants it in their own back yard, and experts remain divided over which particular scheme is the best.
Plans for a new bridge or tunnel to connect east and south-east London have existed for decades. In the 1980s and 1990s a suspension bridge known as the East London River Crossing between Galleon’s Reach and Thamesmead was planned but never built. Some blame the arrival of London City Airport, which required the bridge to be re-designed so as not to risk interfering with take-offs and landings. The failure of a massive retail scheme for Galleon’s Reach to materialise did not help; neither did the entrenched local opposition – some valid, some nimbyish – that has prevented a river crossing in the area for decades. Green groups oppose the construction of a new crossing, which they say will bring increased traffic and congestion; experts are divided as to whether a new crossing will increase or decrease congestion.
As the Chairman of the London Docklands Development Corporation, which orchestrated the regeneration of the East End’s Docklands in the 1980s and 1990s, described in the LDDC’s final annual report: "It is worth remembering that a road bridge between Gallions Point and Thamesmead has appeared as a dotted line on maps since the 1940s." An east London river crossing appeared in Patrick Abercrombie’s 1943 County of London Plan, meaning that the crossing is now over 70 years old. Having waited a lifetime, it is still yet to be born.
Opposition from Conservative councils such as Bexley, which does not want to see an increase in road traffic, seems to have caused the hold-up under the current Mayor. Green groups have also campaigned against any further incentive for increased road use in the polluted capital. Yet the discrepancy between the 22 bridges to the west and the two to the east of Tower Bridge seems to make the decision obvious. The east London river crossing remains unbuilt today. Will a change in Mayor, guaranteed regardless of the results of the 2016 Mayoral election, and the presence of Adonis and the National Infrastructure Council, break this decades-long deadlock?
Jack Brown is a PhD candidate at Queen Mary University of London, and Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College, London. He is working on a history of Canary Wharf and Docklands.
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