Letter from London
Paul Finch, 14 September 2020
London isn’t working –and it isn’t moving either, writes Paul Finch
I voted for Sadiq Khan, both as my former constituency MP, and when he stood as a candidate to be Mayor of London. So what follows is not generic criticism from a political critic, but a plea from a Londoner who would like the mayor to ensure that this great capital remains just that.
Currently, the experience of travelling in what is supposed to be a ‘world city’ is evidence that it is anything but: instead a messy amalgam of failed ideas, operational incompetence and political indifference.
Last month, in what was a symbolic moment, Tower Bridge became stuck, having opened to allow a ‘tall ship’ through but then jamming. The police, invariably absent when traffic problems occur in the capital, on this occasion eventually arrived on the scene, providing useless advice to road users that they should ‘seek alternative routes’.
To Londoners such as myself, especially those who dare to live south of the Thames, this advice was par for the course in being useless. The moment you drive west of Tower Bridge you incur a £15 road tax penalty (sorry, ‘congestion charge’). If you reverse your journey, you negotiate the nightmare of crossing the river via the Rotherhithe Tunnel, hopefully not when the police are conducting one of their helpful traffic checks on the other side, thereby extending the crossing time by 15 minutes (as happened to me that day).
If you just keep going, bear in mind that the £15 penalty now operates at the weekends, as Mayor Khan’s contribution to making life easier during the pandemic. To cross the river is no simple matter. London Bridge is closed to ordinary motorists. You cannot turn left from the Embankment on to Westminster Bridge. Vauxhall Bridge is closed to most traffic because of road works. You cannot turn left onto Chelsea Bridge. Wandsworth bridge is half-closed for road works. Hammersmith Bridge is closed (as usual) for ‘strengthening’.
Almost needless to say, there are no extant plans for replacement/relief bridges in central London, though there are terribly exciting plans to illuminate those that exist – a good example of decadent design trumping good old engineering principles which explain why we have bridges and tunnels in the first place. Bring back Brunel, you might say. At the original time of writing, it had just been confirmed that any plan for a relief Hammersmith bridge had been scrapped – one day after traffic was made crazy by the closure of the Rotherhithe Tunnel on a Sunday, generating predictable chaos around Tower Bridge.
Actually the Hammersmith bridge situation is so dire – pedestrians and cyclists cannot currently use it – that the government has stepped in to sort it out. The question you are left with is why we need a mayor if we rely on government to sort things out which should properly be the province of borough and the Greater London Authority?
London has lost the habit of bridge-building. The last new crossing, the Foster & Partners/Arup Millennium Bridge, was a private initiative and contributed nothing to relieving traffic congestion. It is hard to think of a new London bridge carrying vehicles, built in the 20th century and still operative. Public policy appears to be that bridges are bad – unless they are for pedestrians and cyclists.
But if you hate the idea of bridges for cars, it is a short step to hating any bridge: hence the abandonment of the Rotherhithe Park to Canary Wharf idea, and further west the proposal to link Vauxhall and Pimlico.
Mayor Khan hails from Tooting, so must be well aware of the grotesque inequity for South Londoners of Underground provision for people like him and me, with only about 10 per cent of stations south of the river. We therefore need bridges and transport policies that work for all, not just the lucky north London majority.
The mayor claims that he wants London to get back to work, yet he has done little or nothing to encourage this to happen. On the contrary, the instruction is that not only should we be wary of using public transport, but that we should avoid the £15 penalty charge for travelling about in our own city by other means, weekends included.
Message: London is closed.