The River Thames: a blueprint for the future
Thames Heritage Alliance
The River Thames is one of the world’s great rivers. A great part of the beauty and functionality of London derives from its river. Images of its bridges, its buildings, its fireworks over the Thames represent this island’s history. It is the reason for the city’s existence.
The River Thames not only represents our heritage, but it also plays a vital practical role in London, serving as its largest open space, a key (though arguably underused) transport artery, and an essential part of the physical infrastructure that manages the capital’s rainwater and sewage.
This statement attempts to set out a brief summary containing:
– The main threats to the river
– A list of existing organisations sharing responsibility for the river
– A solution
The Thames now faces many threats which are likely to escalate in the face of continuing economic pressures:
Inappropriate development. With the continuing rise in land values and the appeal of London as a world capital, the demand for property, especially riverside property is high and rising. Some areas of the Thames are already suffering from canyonisation and lack of character, eg. Vauxhall. It is arguable whether a river whose banks are edged with a series of skyscrapers, with little open space, non-deferential to their river setting, such as those promised for Nine Elms, with properties often bought by speculative investors, are in the best interests of the river as a whole, or those of the riverside communities behind them.
Encroachment. The recent decision by Hammersmith & Fulham, supported by the Mayor of London, to permit encroachment of Fulham Football Club’s new stadium 11 metres out into the river – some 1,500m² – is a disastrous precedent which bodes ill for the survival of the river in anything approaching its current form. Speculative ideas for floating villages, floating river walks, floating parks seem motivated only by a desire for novelty and to create more land for development, while endangering the existing open space environment, biodiversity, navigational pathways and riparian activity of the Thames.
Loss of heritage buildings. Retaining heritage which reflects the history of an area is crucial to maintaining the identity of a place. Iconic buildings such as Battersea Power Station, Henry VIII’s naval dockyard at Deptford, the wharves of Brentford, or the Lots Road power station – these are the elements that retain the history and meaningfulness of a place. Sensitive redevelopment of Fort Dunlop does more for Birmingham’s image, history and liveability than a hundred new high rise buildings. London’s river development needs to work with its historic heritage, not plaster over it leaving only ghostly road names as a fading memory.
Rainwater and sewage overflows. The Thames must cope with the massive growth in population of the capital. The Thames Tunnel, a major infrastructure project planned by Thames Water, has been proposed to solve the problems of sewage overspill during heavy rainfalls. It is arguable whether this will solve the long term overflow problems, and disappointing that insufficient non-partisan exploration of alternative methods has been carried out.
Blue-green solutions. Failure to explore the positive blue-green uses of the river for sustainable and environmentally beneficial purposes becomes more acute and more indefensible, and fails to build on the traditional roles the river has played.
Loss of river traffic. As the few remaining points of access for small boats come under threat, the last working wharves yield to pressures of land value, sailing and other recreational river clubs are compromised, eg Ranelagh Sailing Club – one of the oldest clubs on the tidal Thames – whose existence is severely threatened by the Fulham Football Club; the rowing clubs at Putney whose movements are hampered by the new pier proposals; Richmond Council’s new mooring restrictions on small boats; the private residential estate at Chiswick Pier’s reluctance to encourage a ferry stop; etc)
In summary these dangers pose a threat to the health and viability of the river and its surroundings. The river is permanently diminished through encroachment contrary to planning guidelines (as clearly demonstrated with the Fulham Football Club development). Its heritage sites will be blighted, its viability as a functioning river compromised.
An identi-kit and soulless riverside, fringed with half-occupied high-rise penthouses, canalised into a narrow channel with an under-exploited waterway in terms of river traffic and riparian leisure use, is not a future that we should be contemplating with equanimity.
So why do these threats persist?
The River Thames has no single source of authority that can balance the needs and pressures on the Thames, ensuring equilibrium between economic growth, heritage and preservation with environmental needs. There is no single authority to accept responsibility, no single organisation responsible for monitoring, managing and protecting the river.
Responsibility for the River Thames lies with a variety of different bodies:
Port of London Authority (PLA). Covers 95 miles of the Thames, from Teddington to the North Sea. Responsible for the safety of navigation, for commercial and leisure users. Aims to protect and enhance the environment and promote the use of the river for trade and travel. The PLA is legally responsible for the foreshore, that being everything below Mean High Water. The PLA is a self-funded public trust, aiming to cover the cost of its operations from the fees it levies (conservancy charges, pilotages dues, river works licensing and rents for facilities in, under or over the river) and to make a small surplus to ensure its long-term viability.
Environment Agency (EA). An England-wide body whose aim is to protect and improve the environment, and to promote sustainable development. It is an Executive Non-departmental Public Body responsible to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It plays a central role in delivering environmental priorities for central government. Floods, flood defences and pollution (waste management, air and water quality) fall under its remit. Also navigation in the non-tidal River Thames. It is funded by DEFRA, and by licensing for abstraction, waste handling, fishing licences, etc.
Local authorities. Each London Borough Council is responsible for planning permissions along the river banks and local roads.
Transport for London is responsible for bridges across the Thames and major roads.
The Crown Estate. The Crown historically owned the foreshore, now administered by the PLA.
Mayor of London. Various duties and interests. Eg. In 2008 a River Concordat was signed between PLA, British Waterways, boat operators, TfL, pier owners, boroughs, GLA to work together to improve passengers services on the Thames. Major projects are referred to the Mayor, eg. Fulham Football Club’s application to build out over the Thames, which was approved. Others receive active support, eg. 60 storey Chinese funded tower block at Nine Elms announced in June 2013.
Greater London Authority, of which the Mayor is the executive head.
Each of the organisations above pursues its own specific ambitions and aims without regard to the wider implications. Often the economic needs of the organization conflict with the organization’s defined stewardship role. Planning aims and legal obligations (for instance, as set out in the various London Plans and Thames Strategies) are over-ridden to suit short-term perceived commercial gains.
We propose the creation of a new authority to which all the bodies currently involved in the river’s management should defer. This would be similar to a national park, such as the Lake District or the New Forest. This would require political vision and determination.
This authority would need to be funded, and this of course would be a key matter for discussion. Possible sources include central government funding, user fees, donations, Heritage Lottery funding, ie. similar funding sources to national parks in the UK and US.
Such an authority needs the power to veto planning projects involving the river. It would be accountable for delivering a vibrant river, rich in culture, social and business use in an environmentally sound manner.
Only in this way can the river be protected and can it continue to play its part in the health and economic growth of this city for now and the future.
Note: Many of the local organisations along the length of the Thames from its source to the estuary are coming together in a major new grouping, the Thames Heritage Alliance. The short-term aim is to raise awareness of the threats to the river listed above, which are created by the lack of a coherent strategy and an overall body to take care of the interests of the River Thames. We propose to lobby central government to recognize the threats raised above. We suggest that the creation of some form of “Thames national park” should be explored.
Drawn up by Karen Liebreich, Nick Hanbury-Williams, Peter Makower, 31 July 2013