Meeting Discusses Next Options for Hammersmith Bridge

New permanent crossing now being considered

A new, permanent bridge could be built near Hammersmith Bridge while it is being repaired, a town hall leader has said.

Hammersmith and Fulham Council leader Stephen Cowan made the surprising announcement on 16 September, at a council Policy and Accountability meeting that has already been watched nearly 900 times on YouTube.

He also reported back on the first meeting of the government’s newly-created Task Force, led by Baroness Vere of Norbiton, which has taken over the project of fixing the 133-year-old, grade II*-listed landmark.

During the meeting, Mr Cowan said: “We’re also talking about maybe another cycling and road bridge.

“The danger of the temporary bridge is that… I think in some ways a temporary bridge is extremely unhelpful, because we have had all sorts of people mooting it and it has misdirected the conversation nationally in many ways.

“We are looking at other sites around Hammersmith and Fulham and Barnes where we can put a suitable river crossing and that might be more cost effective than a temporary bridge, which comes out at £27.3 million, but some of that [cost] includes having to dismantle the bridge when you put it in place.

“So we [the Task Force] have agreed to scope that out, and we had some jokes about a Garden Bridge which I don’t think were very helpful, but that is one of the things the Task Force will be looking at.”

Hammersmith and Fulham Council’s chief officer for public realm, Bram Kainth, said “landing points” with pontoons and temporary structures will need to be created, but in a way that would not be “constrained by tidal flows”.

Planning permission and consent from the Environment Agency and Port of London Authority would be needed, as well as from parties who own land on the river banks.

It has yet to be decided whether the ferries would charge passengers or be free to use, and whether they would be restricted to school children, key workers or disabled people, Mr Kainth said. A time frame for opening the ferry service was not given.

Mr Kainth also said TfL is looking at a “point-to-point coach service for children”.

Hammersmith parent Alina Rocha Menocal asked what will be done to make routes over the Thames safe for children.

She said her child’s school run has gone from a “leisurely 15-minute walk to a 60-minute ordeal, either by public transport or bike”.

“I’m worried about security issues as the days get shorter. We don’t have the luxury of a temporary solution, our children are at risk. We need a solution within the next few weeks,” she said.

Mr Kainth replied: “This is clearly a matter of public safety. I understand the point you are making as nights draw in…

“I’ve asked for engineers to do a full audit of alternative pedestrian and cycling routes so we can improve the street lighting wherever possible.

“We have asked if we can put in some active travel measures so we can help pedestrians and cyclists where there may be difficulties.”

The idea of a temporary road bridge running adjacent to Hammersmith Bridge was proposed by an engineering consultancy who said it would cost just £7 million and take three months to implement.

Mr Kainth explained that TfL had reviewed the idea and discarded it because it would cost £30 to £50 million rather than £7 million, and take at least one year to implement.

Mr Kainth made the following points:

Private buildings would need to be acquired by a compulsory purchase order and the demolished
The road connection on the north side would “require major highway road works and loss of residential parking”
It would mean destroying habitats on the north shore that the Environment Agency finds “unacceptable”

Mr Cowan said: “Clearly a temporary motor bridge next to Hammersmith Bridge isn’t viable, not least because if there was a risk of the bridge collapsing it would look pretty ridiculous if our old bridge fell onto any new structure.”

Mr Cowan said the council and TfL are now “in a position to go to tender” and find a company to do the repairs, a process that can take “weeks or months”.

“What I do not want to do is to lose that tendering window,” Mr Cowan said. “We can only go to tender when we have surety on the finances. And I raised that in the Task Force and we agreed to come back to that in the next meeting.”

The Task Force, announced by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps last week, met for the first time on September 16.

It is chaired by Baroness Vere and comprises nine other members, including Mr Cowan, TfL’s head of surface transport Gareth Powell, the council’s strategic director for the environment Sharon Lee and Richmond Council leader Gareth Roberts, as well as Department for Transport officials.

Mr Cowan said the Task Force was set up after the Prime Minister received a joint letter from Mr Cowan and Mr Roberts urging the Government to intervene.

“I’m grateful to the Prime Minister’s intervention in getting this moved along,” Mr Cowan said.

He said that both he and Mr Roberts “pushed” the Task Force on the need for “mitigating measures”, which refers to the idea of a new crossing and a ferry service.

Mr Cowan added: “I was pleased that the engineers that the Government hired to essentially check our homework were able to say our work had been considerable, it happened at pace.”

‘clearly there are corporate manslaughter issues here’

Mr Cowan said the bridge has 35 “microfractures” and that it “essentially has metal cancer”, with “high levels of corrosion”. Thirteen of the microfractures are in the bridge’s north-eastern pedestal.

Earlier in the meeting, Mr Kainth said £2 million is being spent per year on security and maintenance, including dozens of sensors keeping a 24/7 check on the cracks.

“The north-eastern pedestals was where the sudden and rapid increase in the microfractures occurred [last week],” Mr Cowan said.

“And that led to the possibility that the bridge could suddenly fall into the Thames. Fortunately that didn’t happen on the other three pedestals. So the conversation became about whether we could steady the north-eastern pedestal and would the bridge be safe to cross.

“Clearly there are some corporate manslaughter issues here because we have to make sure this is completely safe and there is no risk.

“The view was that that wasn’t safe and that keeping them steady wasn’t good enough.”

In short, Mr Cowan stressed that to fully repair and restore Hammersmith Bridge, strong enough for motor traffic, the bill would be £141 million and take “up to two years”.

For £46 million alone, the bridge could be strengthened enough for cyclists and pedestrians to use it. This could take nine months.

He suggested it would still be simpler if the Government took a “Keynesian” approach and pay for the repairs.

“Some of these sums of money are eye-wateringly high and difficult to come by, particularly after 10 years of austerity and having spent tens of millions defending residents from COVID. I don’t think any authority has £141 million sitting around,” Mr Cowan said.

He noted several “fall back” options for finding the money, including issuing a loan to a new “legal entity” that would “take ownership of the bridge”.

Introducing a toll is being considered, but Mr Cowan warned a toll could “drive up significant amounts of traffic on Kew Bridge, Chiswick Bridge and Putney Bridge”.

It’s now a well-told tale but it’s worth remembering that the bridge closed on 10 April last year after cracks were first found in its cast iron pedestals.

The Labour-run council commissioned a structural survey of the bridge that began in 2015, the year after they defeated the Conservatives who had been in power since 2006.

The council says this was the first survey commissioned in “decades”.

TfL applied for Government funding earlier this year but it was rejected by the Department for Transport. Last month, the microfractures increased in size due to the hot weather.

The new Task Force was announced last week.

Owen Sheppard- Local Democracy Reporter

September 17, 2020