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Hammersmith Bridge

Volume 832: debated on Monday 18 September 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to expedite the re-opening of Hammersmith Bridge for traffic.

My Lords, the Government are keen to see Hammersmith Bridge reopen to all road users, including motor vehicles, as soon as is safely possible. In the most recent Transport for London funding settlement, the Government committed to contributing directly up to one-third of the total cost of the project. To date, the Government have provided the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham with almost £10 million of funding for the repair works so far.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but Hammersmith Bridge is a major arterial way into London and has now been closed for more than four years. Every day, 22,000 cars and buses that used to go over it are diverted to other bridges, with consequences including congestion and inconvenience. The Government sensibly set up a task force to grip this problem three years ago. Can the Minister say how often that task force has met and whether it has any explanation for why so little progress has been made over this very long period?

To put things in perspective, I say that Hammersmith Bridge is a grade 2 listed suspension bridge that was opened, in its current form, in 1887. Since its opening, the structure’s use has changed dramatically, with the bridge carrying modern motor vehicles until its closure, for safety reasons, in April 2019. The government-led task force was set up by the DfT in September 2020 to work towards the safe reopening of the bridge. It brings together key stakeholders—the local authority, the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, Transport for London, the Greater London Authority and the Port of London Authority. The current priority for the department is to deliver the stabilisation works and develop a business case for the second stage of the works.

My Lords, this is all very well, but it is surely unreasonable for the Government to expect a local authority—the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham—to pay 33% of the total cost of reinstating this wonderful old bridge. Surely it is part of our national heritage; the Government should pay a much larger percentage and make sure that the work goes a bit more quickly, too.

Ownership of the bridge was transferred to the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham as part of the Local Government Act in 1985. The local authority has a legal duty to maintain the highway, and the responsibility to maintain the bridge and make decisions on its repair lies solely with the borough.

My Lords, the bridge has now been closed for longer that it took to build. The total cost of that construction between 1884 and 1887 was £82,117—less in equivalent terms than the £10 million grant to which my noble friend the Minister just referred. When did this country become bureaucratically incapable of building anything?

I understand the emotion behind this, but the works to repair Hammersmith Bridge are split into two phases—the stabilisation side, which the Government have been funding, and then the strengthening side. It is not one of these weekend jobs with a few spot welds; it is a question of dismantling the bridge, taking it away, repairing it, bringing it back and putting it together again. It is not quite as straightforward as noble Lords might think.

My Lords, in 2009, when floods hit the UK and wiped out a number of bridges across the country, I was in the Department for Transport. Many of those bridges were wholly owned by local authorities. We found the money to initiate repairs rapidly to support both local economies and the national economy. I do not understand why the same approach has not been taken to Hammersmith Bridge which, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, said, is a critical part of the network. Will the Minister answer the noble and right reverend Lord’s question about how frequently that task force has met?

I cannot give the House an exact date for when the task force last met. All I can say is that the priority for the department, at the moment, is to deliver the stabilisation works and develop a business case for the second stage of those works. At that point, the task force will meet again.

My Lords, the task force was due to take two weeks. It has now taken four years, so it would be nice to know how it is going to get this work going. Will the Minister join me in thanking Hammersmith and Fulham Council for the prompt action it took to avert the potentially disastrous collapse of this bridge and for the work it has since done to recruit internationally renowned engineering experts to devise a solution? Will he now outline the Government’s position on the liability on Hammersmith and Fulham Council for the cost of the major works? Will this reflect the proportion levied on the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea for its works on the Albert Bridge? This was around 10%, whereas 33% is expected of Hammersmith and Fulham, which is the entirety of its annual budget.

I congratulate everybody who is involved in trying to get the bridge open again. As to the contributions, I am not in a position to give details on exact sums of money, but the Government want to do what we can. Under the current scheme, we accept that a third will be contributed by the Government, a third by Transport for London and a third by the local authority.

My Lords, as a Barnes resident, I have been significantly affected by the closure of Hammersmith Bridge to traffic, especially when neighbouring bridges are also closed, as Wandsworth Bridge is at the moment, and local bus services have been reduced. I may be able to help the Government in response to some of the earlier questions; I understand that the task force set up in 2020 last met on 25 November 2021. It has no plans to meet again

“until there is either an issue that requires unblocking … or a significant milestone that needs discussion or celebration”.

Given that the former seems permanent and the latter looks increasingly far off, what can the Government and the Minister now do to ensure that some heads are knocked together and the bridge is actually reopened to traffic, preferably within my lifetime?

The noble Lord is right; the task force met 16 times between 1 October 2020 and 25 November 2021. Previous Ministers agreed not to call further meetings

“until there is either an issue that requires unblocking between members, or a significant milestone that needs discussion or celebration”.

I can add only that the Government are as keen as anybody to see this completed.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that this has had a considerable impact on river traffic at various times, and that it has been very constrained. When the repair work finally starts—goodness knows when it will be—will the Government bear in mind the impact on not just the tourist-trade craft but also the craft carrying rubbish and that sort of thing up and down the river?

The noble Lord is absolutely right, and the Port of London Authority is very involved in the decision-making process.

My Lords, is it true, as has been asserted, that India sent a spacecraft to the moon for a third of the estimated cost of repairing this vital bridge?

My Lords, I did not think I would ever say this, but I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Hannan. This is a totally shambolic situation and is symbolic of the chaos surrounding government infrastructure projects. Can the Minister tell us what assessment has been made of the cost to the economy, both of London and beyond? Does he not think that those costs will far outweigh the actual costs of rebuilding the bridge?

There is no question but that there is an additional cost to the economy in terms of additional transport. I come back to the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, who asked about the passenger situation with the bridge being closed, and say that Transport for London has laid on additional bus services on adjoining bridges to alleviate that problem, but there will be a knock-on effect in additional costs for travellers. That is regrettable, but we are where we are with the bridge, and we are doing as much as we can to get the work done.

My Lords, could not a little of the money that is apparently going to be saved on HS2—the most prodigal example of expenditure in British history—be used to make sure that this bridge becomes open again? The Minister says the Government want it to be open; if the Government will the end, let them will the means.