Why Aren't There Bridges On The Thames In East London?

Why Aren't There Bridges On The Thames In East London?

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That's a whole let of bridge-less water

One of the (many) criticisms lobbed at the doomed Garden Bridge was its placement. London did not need another river crossing in central London. Instead look east along the river; it's a barren wasteland in terms of river crossings.

A new crossing in east London has long been mooted, but still movement is slow. It's time to take a look at why there's such a westward imbalance when it comes to London's bridges.

A timeline of bridges built in London.

There are roughly — depending on what you count as an individual bridge — 33 bridges across the Thames within London. The furthest east in London is Tower Bridge. West London also has two ferries, if the plethora bridges aren't enough

To the east of Tower Bridge it's an entirely different story. There's just the Rotherhithe Tunnel, the Blackwall Tunnel, The Woolwich Ferry, two foot tunnels and a Dangleway, then nothing all the way out until the Dartford Tunnel and QE2 bridge.

Research shows that new crossings in east London would create jobs and housing — the latter of which London is currently desperately crying out for. One estimate says 45,000 new homes could be built by 2031 in the area if crossings were built.

The furthest east Thames bridge within London

There are some physical constraints to building further east. The first of these is a width issue. At Tower Bridge the Thames is 250m wide, whereas it's a vast 570m by the time it reaches Dartford. That sounds like a lot, but it pales in comparison to a list of the world's longest bridges.

Another physical constriction is height. The Thames in east London is still a regular shipping route so a bridge would have to be a high enough that ships could easily fit under. Again this is something to take into consideration for a new bridge, but by no means should it provide a serious barrier. The existence of Dartford's QE2 bridge is proof that both the width and height difficulties can be overcome.

As these parameters make bridge building difficult, should the question be why aren't there more tunnels beneath the river in the east? Well, there's a third issue that historically made that challenging. As you travel further east, the earth beneath the Thames gets softer, making tunnelling tough. Still, the three tunnels that already exist prove that this is again nothing more than a factor rather than a cause to give up.

Police training on the river in Gallions Reach. Also one of the only ways to cross the river out there. Photo: A Christy

Some of those constraints explain the lack of crossings pre-20th century, but as technology improved why hasn't London built more? Well, people did try.

Back in 1937 Sir Charles Bressey wrote the Highway Development Plan for Greater London. The second world war commenced before it could be implemented, but it still informed a lot of later road building policy. One proposal included was to join up the North and South Circulars with a crossing at Gallions Reach. However, post-war fiscal realities left this idea dead in the water.

It was revived in the 1960s when there was another push to improve the South Circular. However the plan included the demolition of 20,000 homes, so it proved deeply unpopular and was killed off by a mass of public complaints.

The budding Gallions Reach crossing wouldn't give up that easy. In 1985 the Department for Transport unveiled a plan to a build a bridge there. A road from the bridge would have gone through Oxleas Wood, an ancient woodland dating back to at least the 12th century and a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Unsurprisingly, people were unhappy and the scheme was killed off again.

Ken Livingstone was the next person to attempt to build a crossing at Gallions Reach. "Fourth time lucky", he probably said to himself. This scheme was criticised for not taking environmental impacts into consideration and was sunk by Livingstone's successor, Boris Johnson.

There was talk of this plan again in 2014, but once more, no dice.

Boris then managed to do what no one had achieved since 1967 — when the eastern bore of the Blackwall Tunnel opened — and provide east London with a new river crossing. Except it was the bloody Dangleway, and achieved near nothing.

So now Sadiq Khan has attempted to tackle to problem, by announcing a potential five river crossings bridging east and southeast London. There's a pedestrian and cycle bridge between Rotherhithe and Canary Wharf, a tunnel beneath the river at Silvertown and an extension to the DLR at Gallions Reach (sixth time lucky?). Then there's further assessment to be done on a ferry between Canary Wharf and North Greenwich and an Overground extension between the planned Barking Riverside station and Abbey Wood.

If history's shown us anything, it's that announcing crossings round here and building them are two very different things. There's already significant opposition to the Silvertown Tunnel. Then there are also those who say one new road crossing for the river isn't enough. Outside of the M25, there are plans for a new Lower Thames Crossing, east of the existing Dartford Crossing, linking Gravesend in Kent with Tilbury in Essex. Meanwhile, the wait goes on for a new eastern river crossing within London.

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Last Updated 27 September 2017