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Thames River Crossings: A vision

Thames River Crossings: A vision

Grant Swan 31 Mar 2016
I recently attended a Thames River Crossing event, hosted by The Thames Estuary Partnership, Transport for London (TfL) and National Maritime.  They were showcasing 13 proposed river crossings, including bridges, tunnels and ferries to support growth in London. The presentations from TfL, Farrells and the Port of London Authority (PLA) were broad ranging and featured questions including -
“Where are the opportunities?”
“What does this mean for shipping?”
“Do we need to rethink the way the river serves London?”
These are all crucial topics for consideration particularly to ensure sustained economic growth and enable continued housing development in London.

All the speakers established that new river crossings are required to support the current population growth in London.  However, what stood out to me was that whilst TfL is considering the imminent ‘need’, has published a “River Crossings Plan” and undertaken long-term work with many stakeholders and expert groups,  there was no consensus on the locations or form of said proposed crossings.

It is increasingly recognised that meeting infrastructure needs is vital to delivering housing, particularly as London’s population is due to increase to circa 11 million people by 2050. The Barking Riverside planning permission for 10,800 homes is a prime example of how  proposed river crossings can release otherwise unviable brownfield land in Greater London for housing  - the housing figure for this development is partially based on the London OvergroundeExtension to Thamesmead. Without significant transport improvements, the original masterplan permission in 2007 imposed planning conditions on the site to limit development to only 1,500 units.

Existing observed trips in London are higher than forecast in the latest Mayor’s Infrastructure Plan and transport capacity is becoming an increasing concern.  As a starting point, there are a number of initiatives to increase capacityand shift transport mode within existing TfL assets, such as the new superhighway on Vauxhall Bridge.

TfL’s Plan “Connecting the Capital” identifies thirteen new locations for river crossings, some of which are in place, while others are long term visions. These crossings fall into four categories, pedestrian/cycleways, passenger ferry opportunities, public transport crossings and highways all in the form of bridges, tunnels or boats:
  1. Jubilee Line (public transport)
  2. Crossrail 2 (public transport)
  3. Nine Elms to Pimlico (footway/cycleway)
  4. Garden Bridge (footway/cycleway)
  5. Rotherhithe to Canary Wharf (footway/cycleway/passenger ferry)
  6. North Greenwich to Isle of Dogs (passenger ferry)
  7. Silvertown Tunnel (highway)
  8. Charlton (passenger ferry)
  9. Crossrail (Public transport)
  10. Gallions Reach (highway)
  11. Barking Riverside to Thamesmead (public transport)
  12. Belvedere (highway)
  13. Lower Thames Crossing (highway) although this is outside of the Greater London area)

Image: Connecting the Capital Report - TfL
However, Farrells architects presented a different view on the location of river crossings.  Their suggested routes were smaller scale, ‘low-level’ bridges, much closer together, with at least five crossings connecting the Isle of Dogs (see below image). They predominantly focused on the growth of communities around low level, more affordable bridges similar to Newcastle’s Millennium Bridge. Farrells’ proposals focused on releasing housing potential and the benefits that better connections bring to local communities (indirectly improving London’s economy). Conversely, TfL concentrated on easing existing capacity and improving the economy, which would indirectly unlock land for future development.

Image: Bridging East London Report - Farrells
The challenges of shipping were brought into the mix by the final speaker from thePLA. The PLA has no in-principle dispute with river crossings, having supported the Cable Car, the Millennium Bridge and others. In the context of trade and navigation, the Gross Value Added by the port - particularly in East London - is a huge benefit to the local economy supporting approximately 44,000 jobs.  As such, allowing access to large vessels along the river as a public right of way is of the utmost importance for the PLA.

It was clear that there is an interesting conundrum – balancing north/ south accessibility and connectivity, with maintaining theeast/ west route along the river.  It must also be considered that, if a bridge is required to be ‘raised’ too often for shipping to pass, then it is not creating a north-south connection as required by the general population.  Unfortunately, the tide has no respect for rush hour and ships are bound by tidal movements. I’m confident that accessibility in all four compass directions is not an insurmountable problem but it was brushed over somewhat by speakers.  Further concerns were voiced from the floor in relation to ‘too many proposals for highways’ when the national planning policy and government agenda clearly promote sustainability and use of public transport - another issue that was not discussed in depth.

Perhaps more radical thinking is required, such as that suggested by one audience member – a ‘Thames Barrage’ - producing a large freshwater lake. Although this may be easier for river transport and north-south connectivity, the Environment Agency may have some concerns!  Perhaps we should learn from best practice, in cities such as Rotterdam. So many options to consider….there is no doubt that this issue will move higher and to the forefront of the Government’s London transport agenda in coming months and years.



Planning Performance Indicators in Wales: Performance Indicators = Positive Planning?
Only 48 hours after recently submitting a planning application for the change of use of a commercial unit in Wales, we were advised that it was not valid despite us meeting all statutory requirements. After much to-ing and fro-ing, the application was registered by the local planning authority (LPA) as it was, indeed, valid. It gets worse. Before it was validated, we were also told by the LPA that the application had been reviewed by the highway authority and that it would have to be refused. And to cap it all, we were told that the application was likely to give rise to public objections and therefore we should revise the proposal. All this before the statutory consultation process had even begun, and before due process had been followed. The highway authority never did raise any objections to the proposed development. Whilst non-validation is not a regular occurrence, neither is it rare. Even more recently, a London borough planning officer point blank refused to accept an amendment to a similar application and forced us to withdraw rather than seeking to address the issues raised during the consultation. The reason? The ‘pile of applications waiting on his desk’.

Our experience of LPAs is usually far more positive but in a few cases, some have chosen to take a systems approach to handling planning applications in a bid to be more efficient. One would not complain about efficiency, usually. However, there appeared to be little flexibility in the approach that the LPAs had taken and, in the case of the first example, it did not make for a constructive start to the 8-week determination period ahead of us. It would seem that performance indicators associated with target determination periods are at least in part behind these experiences.
Figure 1: Percentage of "major" applications determined within time periods required January 2015 - December 2015
N.B. There was no data for Snowdonia National Park Authority | Source: Welsh Government Planning Performance Framework Table (February 2016)
At times, I’m sure that LPAs feel that they are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Agents often need an application determined positively as quickly as possible. There are occasions, on the other hand, when we want to spend time fully exploring competing issues resulting in the determination process taking longer than the targets allow. Ideally, there will have been some pre-application consultation between the Council and the applicant (or their agent) before the submission is made but for many reasons this is not always possible. We welcome any authority that works positively with us and the applicant to get the best development within the constraints of the project. The difficulties arise when LPAs are pushed into a corner to ensure that they are meeting performance targets. These create barriers that force an applicant into either withdrawing and resubmitting, or taking a refusal and appealing that decision in cases where having a little more discussion would avoid additional time and expense for all parties.

In Wales, we are in the middle of a Positive Planning revolution, okay perhaps not a revolution, but a change agenda. The Welsh Government is making legislative, policy and culture changes. I’m not aware of anyone who objects to the overall intention of these changes (although some of the details might have been better drafted to greater effect). But, meeting performance indicators that are set in legislation raises concerns for me, and many applicants.

‘Planning Performance Framework Indicators and Targets’ grade authorities across a range of categories into three performance bands: ‘Good’, ‘Fair’ or ‘Improve’. ‘Efficiency’ is one of the sets of indicators. Is there a risk that the barriers we have recently experienced could worsen? This would indeed seem a possibility. Annual reports are to be prepared by LPAs and are reviewed by the Welsh Government. The first reviews are due to be published this spring. The final criteria for designating an authority as poorly performing are to be consulted on later this summer. It is likely that it will be against these indicators that LPAs will be measured for persistent under-performance. When commenced, provisions in the Planning (Wales) Act 2015 will allow applicants to bypass persistently failing planning authorities and to submit applications direct to the Welsh Ministers.

If this is the stick that could see recent negative experiences increase, we have to find opportunities to work through this challenge. There are two obvious approaches that we can adopt. While attracting a sum of £190 (for major applications), amendments to planning applications give LPAs an additional 4 weeks on top of its target timescale. This could be used to encourage LPAs to work with applicants to address issues of concern instead of refusing an application simply to avoid a big black mark in its performance. Four weeks is not altogether welcomed by many clients but it will inevitably be more time and cost effective than seeking to resubmit or appealing a refusal.

There may also be the option to deal with unresolved details by condition in some circumstances. This in itself can give rise to its own problems, particularly where they go undetermined and a developer needs to start on site. However, an additional condition would generally be more productive than a refusal where the development would be unacceptable without the additional detail.

All in all, performance indicators can be helpful but it is not yet clear the extent to which LPAs will be able and willing change their existing cultures, such as in the example above, and will continue to be driven entirely by the target determination timescales. These in the not so distant future will decide whether or not the LPA will be classed as poorly performing or not. And well, that’s another blog altogether.