East London River Crossings – are they the correct transport approach?

Recently I responded to TfL’s consultation on additional East London River Thames crossings. My first set of thoughts were that, yes, we need more crossings. But then I began to think that this was a knee-jerk reaction and perhaps we need to look deeper at the communications network before spending a lot of money. The following is the core of what I ended up saying:

Given the high level of growth which is being planned for within the area to the east and south east of London close to the River Thames, it seems logical that the area requires new and additional road transport links across the Thames. As someone who lives in this area I know full-well that the inadequate transport links across the River Thames to the east of London restricts and constrains travel, employment and business options, with possibilities often not even being considered because of the difficulties.

It therefore seems natural, and intuitive, that new bridge crossings are required to the east of London, and I support new bridges at both Gallions Reach and Belvedere because, with the planned for growth, in the long run both will be required. To me it makes sense to have a period of excess capacity in order to encourage the required growth rather than always trying to catch up from already congested infrastructure. It is often argued that building road infrastructure encourages its use – well we might as well accept this in an area where we want to encourage growth to happen, and build to encourage development. Likewise, even if only two lanes are provided for in each direction (which hardly seems adequate anyway), future-proofing must be built in to enable the easy retrofitting of additional lanes and capacity at some time.

TfL argues that these new crossings will help the economic growth in the east and south east of London in areas close to this new infrastructure, with a large number of additional employment opportunities being brought closer together with homes in terms of travel time. However, the economic evidence of the cost and benefits of the east London Crossings is lacking and TfL needs to carry out these studies and make them available before decisions are made.

I am not sure that TfL’s existing studies yet prove the case for the new crossings. The transport studies seem to argue that there will not be a large amount of new traffic, but rather a proportion of existing traffic will choose to use the new crossings instead of those currently used. TfL’s transport studies seem to be saying that demand will be shifted from existing crossings rather than created, so I fail to see how the new crossings will therefore help to create new jobs and help business growth except marginally.

I would like to see (in fact surely it is vital) more-detailed economic benefit appraisal carried out before any decisions are made. It may be that it makes more economic sense to accept that the natural and existing travel routes are radial into London and that these must be strengthened and improved, rather than trying to create new orbital routes used by few but created at great expense. I would like to see more exploration of whether it is better to invest in better public transport radial routes into London (with stops on the way) from east London and south east London, or indeed to provide better road connections between the large development areas north and south of the Thames with their more immediate respective hinterlands and accept that the Thames is a barrier.

So, is the option of turning the areas north and south of the Thames to the east of London into 2 parallel, separate, but equally high quality locations for homes and jobs etc, with top quality radial routes a better way to spend £1.5bn? I don’t know the answer to this but am hoping that TfL and The Mayor of London are looking at this question and will have the answer to it.

In other words, although my gut-feel is that I think we need to build new bridges to the east of London to provide orbital routes, I want to see some evidence from TfL that this is a better thing to do than create new and better radial routes combined with some local improvements linking the radial system into its local hinterlands. As TfL is arguing that the new crossings are not for strategic traffic but rather local residents and businesses, it seems to make more sense to provide better local links with those sites north and south of the Thames respectably rather than spending a lot of money making essentially local connections for short journeys across the Thames.

If the proposed new crossings are provided I am totally against the use of tolls or user charging. East (and south-east) London citizens and businesses contribute to the general taxation pot, and some of this is used to provide, for example, major infrastructure to the west of London, such as additional lanes of the M25 around Heathrow, which is freely available, yet they are expected to pay separately, in addition to taxation, for the use of their vital infrastructure. This is unfair, and puts east London to a disadvantage: adding to the list of disadvantages it already has compared with west London. In any event, it seems illogical to say that new crossings are required to enable the planned for growth to the east of London to happen and then try to restrict demand through user-charging – if TfL don’t want people to cross the Thames then they shouldn’t build the crossings; or the Mayor should not allow so much development to the east of London.

It is understood that TfL intend to procure the new crossings via some sort of Public Finance Initiative (PFI) methodology. I strongly object to this method of procuring the crossings without robust and detailed evidence that PFI is the most cost effective (i.e cheapest) method. The Public Accounts Committee has published findings that PFI and its variants are expensive methods of funding, financing, procurement and delivery, so if it is used I wish to see the evidence that alternatives have been seriously considered and have found to be more expensive across the lifetime of the crossings. Furthermore, using PFI goes against the Government’s public procurement strategy of using Two Stage Open Book Tendering and Supply Chain Relationship methodologies when procuring large construction and engineering projects. In addition the Government’s wish of using ‘Partnering Arrangements’ is also ignored by the use of PFI.

Whatever options for crossings are chosen a ‘Total Landscape’ approach to the design and construction must be taken. Using a Total Landscape approach, which includes ecological, environmental, social and aesthetic issues and considerations, all integrated and being considered holistically, will enable a much better project or programme being delivered and go a long way to answering many objections from local communities.

By treating design holistically the argument that bridges and their approaches sterilise the surrounding environment and area can be countered and avoided. Good quality design will enable homes, offices and other structures to be built very close to bridges and for the bridges to actually contribute towards ‘Place Making’. I have examples of high quality communities and environments which are directly under bridges of the scale we are talking about in East London. Even if buildings and structures are considered unsuitable for some reason (such as security perhaps) the surrounding environment and landscaping must be dealt with as an integral part of the project and be of high quality (a public park perhaps rather than a dead and neglected piece of land).

To assist with this holistic and integrated approach, and to get maximum contributions to the cost of delivering the new crossings, TfL (or some other public agency) ought to be considering securing the ownership of the surrounding areas and development sites, and work at a very early stage with a development partner to plan development of the area in proximity to the crossings and their approaches. In this way we can plan for, and deliver, developments whose value is increased by the proximity of the crossings rather than are considered ‘blighted’ by it – in this way financial contributions to the cost of the crossings can be made.

I am concerned that the cost estimates of the crossings are not including the total infrastructure changes which are required. It is understood that only those roads which are or will be the responsibility of TfL are included in the cost estimates and programme. However, many of the changes required to the surrounding areas are the responsibility of the local London Boroughs – these must be included in the project costs, and the funds made available. Without this there is not a complete and integrated scheme and programme.

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