The Thames Estuary Partnership (TEP) is a charity that wants to make the river a better place. Its role is to coordinate the many organisations who work on or along the Thames east of Tower Bridge. If these organisations all talk to one another, we're more likely to get a river that's cleaner, fun to explore, and well suited to commercial needs.
Every year, TEP organises a big gathering at which interested parties mingle and exchange notes. We went along to the 2014 forum a few days ago at the Royal Geographical Society. We met archaeologists, sewer-mongers, port administrators, wind farmers, river dredgers, ecologists and any number of other professionals of riverine or riparian persuasion. Here's some stuff we learnt, or were reminded of.
MASTERPLANNING: Architect Terry Farrell is well known for grand schemes and masterplans. A few years back, he proposed ambitious ideas to reshape the Thames Estuary, adding artificial islands, flood defences, new bridges and eco-parks, linked up with high-speed rail, to look a little something like this:
His latest vision, flashed up on screen but alas not available online (as far as we can see), involved a series of seven bridges linking up Rotherhithe, the Isle of Dogs and Greenwich Peninsula to give true cross-river interactivity.
THEME PARK PLANS: A huge Paramount theme park is planned for Swanscombe Peninsula, just east of Dartford. No roller coasters at the moment, but you can ogle one of the country's biggest pylons. The theme park development would create up to 30,000 jobs and spur house building so that a quarter of a million people could live in the region. There was also talk of extending the Thames Path around Swanscombe Peninsula and on to the sea, as well as building new piers for Thames Clippers this far out.
SUPER SEWER: The proposed Tideway Tunnel sewer system under the Thames, designed to reduce the amount of crap that overflows into the river, will be a whopping eight metres in diameter. Beckton sewerage works will double in capacity to cope with the extra waste water. (Sort of) addressing the gripes of residents and businesses along its route, Thames Tideway Tunnel CEO Andy Mitchell promised: "To those who have concerns about the disruption we will cause, we will do absolutely everything possible, so that we can look back in a decade and say, ‘it really wasn’t that bad’".
GREEN IS THE NEW GREY: For a conference supposedly about the river, we were surprised to hear a talk from Lend Lease's Head of Sustainability in Europe, John Kirkpatrick, on the hardly riparian Heygate Estate redevelopment. It was of some interest, though. One tidbit: the old estate was blessed with a small woodland of mature trees. These trees have been left in place, and the arrangement of the new flats was designed around them, taking into account their deep root networks. "Greenery has to be the new grey... and we're hoping to be one of the most biodiverse areas in the city". Finally reaching a watery note, the speaker revealed that the new flats are designed to cope with flooding, should a 'once in a hundred years' event overwhelm the Elephant.
FLOOD DEFENCE: Which leads us neatly on to the Environment Agency's project called Thames Estuary 2100 (TE2100) to develop flood risk plans for the region. Its representative gave out a few facts and figures. We're spending £300 million on flood defence over the next decade, compared with the £20 billion New York has earmarked, although that's mostly because we've already invested heavily. Any kind of flood planning is complicated by the sheer number of stakeholders: 3,200 freeholders share the land along the Thames. The funniest stat came at the end when, via an audience voting gadget, 53% of attendees thought the name TE2100 was an unmemorable bit of branding, and 31% of people had never heard of the project (in an audience of river professionals). Some work to do, then.
ALL ABOARD: Passenger trips on the river have grown from 6 million in 2011 to 8.5 million in 2013. The Mayor wants to get this up to 12 million by 2020 — an 'under-ambitious target', according to one audience member.
TOO MUCH RAIN: You remember how the Thames Barrier got closed so many times last winter? Most of these closures were not to counter storm surges or rising tides, as is often asserted, but to manage flood water from heavy rainfall further upstream. The barrier is still expected to remain in operation until 2070, but other solutions are needed in west London to reduce or hold the amount of water coming over Teddington weir.
ARCHAEOLOGY: The Thames is the country’s longest and largest archeological site. The Thames Discovery Programme is an organisation that arranges public access and interpretation to some of the remarkable stuff you can see along the foreshore.
As well as cataloguing and researching foreshore finds, like the ship's keel pictured above, the Thames Discovery Programme is hoping to get a bevy of ancient riverside place names back into current usage. Places like Water Lane, Wool Quay, Salt Wharf, Galley Quay, Roperie and Trig Stairs deserve to live again. You can volunteer as a riverside archaeologist through the group's FROG network.
CRUMBLING PALACE: Part of the Tower of London almost fell into the Thames recently. The river wall has been patched and heightened many times over the centuries to keep pace with rising levels. The lower courses, down to the medieval foundations, were becoming worryingly exposed. Thanks to a tip-off from Thames Discovery Programme, Historic Royal Palaces is now carrying out repair work.
WAR HERO: The bombs of the Second World War ruptured the river wall in 122 locations. A secret rapid-response team led by Sir Thomas Peirson Frank was on hand to make quick fixes, preventing London from flooding. A plaque to his achievements was recently unveiled in Victoria Embankment Gardens, close to one such repair site that can still be detected if you know what you're looking for.
Find out more about Thames Estuary Partnership.