Clemmie Watkins used to have a 10-minute walk to school across Hammersmith Bridge. Since September, it has become a 40-minute bike ride via Barnes Bridge on roads plagued by speeding drivers and riverside paths that flood when the Thames rises.
On winter nights, even adults avoid her unlit route home across Dukes Meadows, a haunt of muggers and doggers. On Wednesday the 13-year-old slipped and fell crossing a wet Barnes bridge, cutting herself and ruining her school skirt. “It’s really annoying,” she said. “If it floods it’s so much longer in the rain. It’s not good.”
It is more than two years since Hammersmith bridge, a Grade II* listed iron structure opened in 1887, was closed to vehicles by Hammersmith and Fulham council when cracks were detected in its giant pedestals. The crossing was kept open to pedestrians and cyclists until August last year, when the cracks widened.
Since then, the effect on west London has been “catastrophic”, Labour MP Fleur Anderson told the Commons this month. About 4,000 vehicles a day divert via her Putney constituency. Even at 7am, the already polluted approaches to Putney bridge, the nearest alternative crossing, are gridlocked.
The inability to reopen the bridge has made London a laughing stock. Politicians blame each other while residents despair. Ms Anderson describes it as an “international embarrassment”. It has even made the New York Times.
On September 9 last year, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, accompanied by Tory mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey, visited the bridge. In a video, Mr Shapps vowed to “take control” and “get it fixed and reopened”.
Mr Shapps established a taskforce headed by junior transport minister Baroness Vere. Yesterday it met for the 15th time. The taskforce includes representatives from Transport for London and Heidi Alexander, Sadiq Khan’s deputy mayor for transport. But Mr Khan said this week that the taskforce had been little more than a “talking shop to kick the can down the road”.
Clemmie’s mother, Julia Watkins, a member of the Hammersmith Bridge SOS residents’ group, agrees. “You can’t walk over a taskforce,” she said. “They have done nothing. They were meant to be knocking heads together. Baroness Vere points the finger at Hammersmith and Fulham council. The council points the finger at Grant Shapps.”
A resident survey found some feeling suicidal because of the closure. Almost nine in 10 said they had suffered worse mental health. The apolitical Hammersmith Society, in a letter to the Prime Minister, said: “The communities on both sides of the river are unified in their anger, their disappointment and their despair.” There is a growing acknowledgement that only the Government has the financial might to break the deadlock. The council owns the bridge but cannot afford the £141 million restoration bill. Mr Shapps wants the council to pay half the bill. TfL has provided about £20 million for investigations and design work, including £4 million for a temporary ferry and repairs from a government Covid bail-out last year.
“The Government should be able to break this deadlock,” Ms Watkins said. “They could have straightaway funded a temporary pedestrian and cycling bridge. Instead they went for this ludicrous ferry. It’s completely inadequate.”
Mr Bailey, as part of his mayoral campaign, visited the bridge on Thursday. His battle bus pulled up in Barnes, on the south side of the river. Unfortunately for him, his supporters had gathered on the north side of the bridge, in Hammersmith.
Even the ferry has been delayed. An initial plan was to have it start operating last autumn. Uber Boat by Thames Clippers has won the contract but two temporary piers have yet to be constructed. Residents fear services may not start until November. “Our contract is to have it running by the beginning of October, but we are in negotiations with TfL to accelerate that,” said a spokesman for Beckett Rankine, which will design the piers. “TfL would like it ready at the start of September, but there are a lot of things that have to go right. Normally it would take a year to build a new pier.”
The contract between TfL and Thames Clippers is for a minimum of 12 months, to a maximum of five years. Adults will be charged £1.55 per crossing, though children will travel free. There will be two ferries, with a third as back-up. The crossing will take 90 seconds, with a boat every five to seven minutes in peak hours. “It will be a huge improvement for the residents,” the Beckett Rankine spokesman said. “It will be a very slick service. Thames Clippers know what they are doing.” The source added: “It’s a lot cheaper than a temporary bridge.”
The council’s preferred option is a “double decker” bridge. Designed by architects Foster + Partners and specialist bridge engineers COWI, it would cost about £100 million — £41 million less than fully restoring the existing bridge. This could allow the bridge to reopen to pedestrians and cyclists in summer next year, and to drivers two months later — four years earlier than otherwise planned. But motorists would face an estimated £3 toll.
The other hope for a “quick win” rests with engineers who have analysed the structural integrity of the pedestals. It may be the case that the ironwork has stabilised and the bridge could be safe to reopen to pedestrians and cyclists.
The engineers’ report was submitted to the DfT three weeks ago. But sources say that “further engineering analysis and checks need to be completed” — and this could take a further three months. Behind the scenes there is concern about safety. The Government wants the council to retain liability should anything go wrong. Residents are furious at the thought that a “risk-averse culture” could be used as an excuse to keep the bridge closed to retain it as a political football.
“On that basis, politicians should close every bridge in the country,” one said, noting that teenagers continue to climb the railings to cross the bridge at night and use it as a skateboard park. “If they continue to do that after the engineers’ report shows it’s safe, that is just despicable. They’re ruining people’s lives.”
Another resident said: “If you want to eliminate risk, it’s a very high bar to meet.”
As summer approaches, residents say the longer days make the situation almost tolerable. The third lockdown post-Christmas brought relief too, as schools were closed.
The key date is when the clocks go back in October, when the thousands a day who follow Clemmie’s route risk being stranded on the wrong side of the river.
Michelle Coulter, another member of Hammersmith Bridge SOS, whose daughters Iris, 16, and Lana, 13, also attend school in Hammersmith, said children were often unable to board the replacement buses. Under Covid rules, the single-deckers can only carry 11 passengers. “Since August it’s become so stressful, I cannot tell you,” she said. “My youngest finishes school at 4pm. In winter she was getting home at 5.30pm, sometimes 6pm. That was by bus.”
Her elder daughter takes the train to Richmond, and then travels back in on the Tube to Hammersmith. It also affects the girls’ after-school clubs and weekend activities.
“We have looked at possibly moving house but that is hugely expensive, and house prices are affected by the bridge closure,” Ms Coulter said.
“It’s really hard watching kids suffer and seeing there is not enough political will to do something about it. There is a lot of frustration that the Government have set up this taskforce, with Grant Shapps saying they are going to knock heads together, but nine months later no progress has been made.
“The focus is on the North of England. I think London they have written off as a lost cause.”
Mr Khan accuses the Government of “dither and delay” and failing to honour promises made before the 2019 General Election.
“Until the Government steps in and gives the financial support that the council needs, the bridge won’t reopen to vehicles,” he admits. TfL’s own finances have been wrecked by covid and it does not have the cash – or the legal authority – to rebuild the bridge itself.
Mr Khan believes the bridge’s listed status prohibits the radical solution of knocking it down and rebuilding a modern replacement. Nor does he support building a temporary road bridge alongside, noting this would require the demolition of homes on both sides of the river.
“It’s really important that the bridge is reopened as soon as possible to pedestrians and cyclists, so I’m very much in favour of the bridge reopening in whatever form it can safely for pedestrians and cyclists while the work is done to remediate the bridge so it can reopen for vehicles, whether it’s single decker buses or other vehicles,” he told the Standard this week.
The council submitted its double-decker bridge proposal in February, but it is regarded by the DfT to be lacking detail. Two weeks ago, minister Rachel Maclean accused the council of wearing “gold-tinted lenses” and said a “blank cheque” would not be forthcoming. The DfT said it could not comment due to pre-election purdah restrictions.
* Update: This story, first published on April 30, was updated on May 5 with the following delayed response from the Department for Transport:
A DfT spokesman said it was “misleading” to suggest that it had asked Hammersmith and Fulham council to pay half the bill for a new bridge. In fact, the council had proposed various options, with the council’s share of the bill varying between zero and 100 per cent, he said.
He said it was only the council and not the DfT which retained authority to reopen the bridge.
He said the council’s plan for a £100m “double decker” bridge did not have an accompanying business plan, unlike the previous £141m six-year proposal. He said that the option of tolling the bridge related to how the council would seek to repay any loan it took out to help fund repairs.
What London’s mayoral candidates say on fiasco
Sadiq Khan (Lab)
Keen to have the bridge reopened to pedestrians and cyclists if engineers find the structure safe but says the bridge will only fully reopen to vehicles when the Government covers the bulk of the cost. A TfL-funded ferry service is due to start in the autumn.
Shaun Bailey (Con)
Promises to make the ferry free, build a temporary road bridge and fully repair the existing bridge, which he would rename the Prince Philip bridge. Says it is essential the bridge can carry vehicles and would not impose a toll on motorists. Says TfL should have funded the full repairs as soon as the bridge closed in 2019. He would fund his ideas by establishing a TfL investment fund.
Sian Berry (Green)
Believes the Department for Transport should provide “at least the majority of the costs” of repairing the bridge, and wants a date to be set for the reopening of the bridge for walking and cycling.
Luisa Porritt (Lib Dem)
“The Government is the only body with the funds to foot the bill. The mayor could make a bigger contribution if the £2 billion Silvertown Tunnel road project was axed.”