Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pledged an “infrastructure revolution” as part of plans to boost the country’s economy after the impact of both the coronavirus outbreak and departure from the European Union.
But already the promises have hit a snag: how to repair and upgrade Victorian-era engineering achievements such as bridges for the demands of the 21st century — and more importantly, who pays?
Hammersmith Bridge in southwest London is a case in point. Its closure to traffic in April 2019, and to pedestrians and cyclists in August, has made everyday travel a daily nightmare.
Toby Gordon-Smith can look across to the north side of the River Thames from his home in Barnes but getting there — or further afield — has become frustrating and time-consuming.
“It can take 45 minutes to get to the office instead of 10 minutes across the bridge in my wheelchair,” he told AFP. “I was in the office last week. It took two hours to get back.”
Hammersmith Bridge opened to the public 133 years ago during the reign of Queen Victoria and was originally designed to carry horse-drawn carts.
For John Kelsey, an assistant professor of engineering at University College London, it’s a symptom of a wider problem.
“A lot of infrastructure has already gone past its sell-by date,” he said.
In August, London’s landmark cantilever Tower Bridge, opened in 1894, was closed for two days after a malfunction left it stuck open.
Vauxhall Bridge, which dates from 1906, and London Bridge, a more recent crossing from 1973, have also faced lengthy closures for repairs.
Hammersmith Bridge was closed on safety grounds because of fractures in its cast-iron structure.
River traffic has even been banned from passing underneath due to fears of a sudden collapse.
But costs for the repairs to Hammersmith Bridge have been estimated at more than £160 million ($210 million, 178 million euros).
Maintaining it to its current state has already cost the local Hammersmith and Fulham Council that owns the structure £2.7 million ($3.5 million, 3 million euros) alone this year.
But a potential completion date allowing it to reopen to traffic in 2027 threatens to stretch further into the future.
– ‘A bit of a mess’ –
The plans are caught in a standoff between at least seven local and national government bodies and agencies.
The wrangling over funds has been made even more acute by the financial demands of responding to the coronavirus outbreak.
Greg Hands, a Conservative MP whose constituency of Chelsea and Fulham has been swamped by traffic following the bridge closure, called the issue “a bit of a mess”.
“You’ve got national government, you’ve got London City Hall, you’ve got Transport for London, you’ve got two London boroughs, at least, and they are all run by different political parties,” he said.
In September, Hands’ boss, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, set up a taskforce to try to cut through the frustrating stalemate.
The MP, who is also a government trade minister, blames the impasse on the Labour-controlled local council, which in turn blames the government for dragging its feet on funding.
“The real issue is getting the bridge stabilised so people can cross it again and that takes an initial £46 million — a figure no council has available and which the government has refused to act on,” council leader Stephen Cowan said.
Now, as residents feel the brunt of the closure and lengthy detours, a proposal has been made to introduce a ferry service from early next year to help cut travel times.
– Stranded –
For people in Barnes, it is too little, too late.
“It is just really not good enough for all sorts of reasons,” said Julia Watkins, 52, whose two daughters go to secondary school in Hammersmith.
The two girls, she said, have to negotiate flooded river paths and congested roads on their 45-minute bike journey home from school in the dark.
“By the time this ferry is ready, the clocks will have changed back so that the kids have to somehow get through the whole winter of making these incredibly dangerous journeys.”
Charlotte Harman first moved to Barnes in 1963. Now 92, she said one ambulance trip to Charing Cross Hospital just across the bridge took her an hour.
“What happens if something does happen, immediately?” she asked.
“You can’t get to things that you were so used to. I mean, they are there, but I’m too far away now for them even though walking I could get there in 10 minutes.”