War of Words Over Hammersmith Bridge Intensifies

Claim that council could use reserves to fund repairs branded 'stupid and ignorant'

Hammersmith Bridge viewed from Barnes. Picture: Darren Pepe/Reach

The war of words between the Government and Hammersmith and Fulham Council over how repairs to Hammersmith Bridge should be paid for have intensified, with Stephen Cowan calling a minister’s claims “stupid and ignorant”.

Mr Cowan, who leads the council, also accused ministers of playing “political shenanigans”, and said the Bridge Task Force met “five times” before properly discussing how to fund the repairs.

The Department for Transport said there has been an “absence of local leadership”.

Meanwhile the council predicts it will spend £2.7 million a year on maintaining the bridge in its current state.

The 133-year-old crossing closed to motor vehicles in April 2019 after microfractures were found in its cast iron pedestals. In August, the cracks widened during a week-long heatwave and the bridge closed to pedestrians and all forms of traffic.

The cost of stabilising the bridge to allow pedestrians and cyclists to cross it has been quoted as £46 million. A full repair of the bridge, which is owned by the council, would be £141 million.

Transport for London’s finances have been reliant on bailouts from the Department for Transport since the pandemic killed its fare revenue, but it also had financial problems that predated this year.

Mr Cowan said: “I just wonder if they [the Government] are messing with us really.

“Even on Sunday night a former council leader and member of the House of Lords [Stephen Greenhalgh, a Conservative] was saying we should borrow money against our reserves. That would cost roughly £7 million a year.”

He referred to the recent news that Croydon Council had declared bankruptcy, and that similar problems are being seen at Bexley and Windsor and Maidenhead councils, adding: “I’m not prepared to risk the finances of the council on this.”

Mr Cowan also admitted: “Our reserves are below the London average and the reason we have reserves is to deal with things like pandemics…

“I just don’t think we’re getting anywhere with this government. They think there’s votes to be won from making people angry, which is a standard technique… but they are in charge, the Task Force took the whole thing over.”

He went on, “We need to shoot this fox, that we could take the money out of our reserves. It’s an ignorant and stupid suggestion based on a lack of knowledge about our reserves… it’s part of a political shenanigans.”

Mr Cowan’s remarks came during a Finance Policy and Accountability Committee on November 18.

The committee heard that £7.1 million of its reserves have been used this year for costs associated with the pandemic, and that its available reserves will stand at “£80 million by the end of the year”.

Mr Cowan was also scathing of the Task Force set up by the Department for Transport, and which he and other council and TfL officials are members of.

“We only spoke about finance five weeks in, and that was only after there had been a press statement released that said we had made ‘significant progress’.

“I made the point that how can you say we’ve made progress when we haven’t done anything? All we had done was recognise that all the work that we and TfL had done [in terms of structural surveying] has been robust.”

A Department for Transport spokesperson said, “As owners of Hammersmith Bridge, the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham is responsible for the maintenance, repair and decision-making on its upkeep.

“We are committed to ensuring Londoners can cross the river again as soon as safely possible. As a condition of the last TfL bailout, the Government ensured TfL will use some of the funds to provide a ferry service [due to start operating in spring 2021] and begin work on Hammersmith Bridge itself.

“The Taskforce continues to drive progress and, in the absence of local leadership, will continue efforts to restore this vital link.”

The spokesperson then said any funding solution would have to be “fair” to UK taxpayers.

During last week’s committee, the head of finance, Emily Hill, said the council already has “significant commitments” for using its reserves, and needs them to guard against “financial shocks and unforeseen circumstances”.

Ms Hill also said the council, like all UK authorities, had experienced deep funding cuts over the last 10 years. Hammersmith and Fulham Council “lost 54 per cent” of its grant funding from central government in that time.

While the Chancellor is today due to announce details of his Comprehensive Spending Review, councils are waiting to find out how much money they will get in the next financial year to run services.

Ms Hill said the council made three requests to the Department for Transport for funding to restore the bridge, all of which were rejected or ignored.

And she revealed that the council is forecast to spend £2.7 million a year to “continue the safety inspections, to keep the bridge stable, monitoring systems and any sort of minor maintenance that’s required”.

In September it shelled out £420,000 on a “temperature control system”, which itself has “ongoing maintenance costs” of £417,000 a year, Ms Hill said.

This system was purchased after the heatwave in August caused cracks in the bridge’s pedestals to widen.

Owen Sheppard - Local Democracy Reporter

November 25, 2020