Hammersmith Bridge’s role in exposing cracks in global Britain's facade

Famous west London crossing no closer to being repaired, five years after it was shut to traffic over safety fears

Authorities have failed to reopen Hammersmith Bridge in west London, despite various plans being mooted. PA
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This Wednesday, 10 April, marks an unwelcome anniversary. It will be five years since Hammersmith Bridge closed to traffic.

Cracks were found in the iconic, Sir Joseph Bazalgette-designed, 1887 suspension bridge and it had to shut.

Five years without a major thoroughfare across the Thames. Five years in which emergency services have had to use another bridge. Five years of vehicles using longer routes. Five years of jams and congestion on nearby roads. Five years that have seen the estimated cost of repairing the bridge soar, from £40 million to £250 million ($50.6 million to $316 million). Five years, and it is still unclear when the bridge will reopen to traffic or if it ever will.

I apologise for the repetition but I want it to sink in. Name another city, another country, that would take so long to repair such an essential structure, one smack bang in the capital, that before its closure was used heavily day and night, linking the south bank of the Thames in west London with the north.

Everything, utterly everything, that is wrong with Britain today is represented in the Hammersmith Bridge saga. Five years, which make a mockery of the local campaigners and their "SOS Appeal" to have the bridge restored.

In modern Britain, it seems, SOS means five years.

Yet this is a nation that holds itself out as cutting edge, at the global forefront, a place in which any right-minded, ambitious, go-getting person or fund would want to invest. Really? Not when we’re incapable making a bridge safe to use.

Worse, Hammersmith Bridge is not about leaders who can’t, it’s symbolic of won’t – testament to a political class that says one thing and does the other, who claims it cares but doesn’t. For Hammersmith Bridge read HS2, Post Office, contaminated blood, MPs’ expenses, PPE, potholes and all the other scandalous failures of recent times. They’re about, in their different ways, failure to lead, to accept responsibility.

Name another city, another country, that would take so long to repair such an essential structure

Above all, it’s about a country that is mired in the past, unwilling to confront the reality of the present and prepare for the future.

For more than a century, Hammersmith Bridge stood as a jewel of brilliant British engineering and innovation, evidence of the genius of Bazalgette who created London’s sewer system and helped eradicate cholera from the city (ironically the Thames is polluted again because his sewers can no longer cope and no one had the foresight to invest, rather like his bridge).

One of the world’s oldest suspension bridges, Hammersmith is made from wrought iron and wood. It’s 210m long and 13m wide.

It's Grade 2 listed, making it deserving of protection. That translates, in practice, to "the bridge must be preserved at all costs even though it is no longer fit for purpose" (cue the NHS if another example is required, of this British attitude that decrees the past is to be pickled and saved, at the expense of the current).

It would be relatively easy to disassemble and rebuild it elsewhere as a foot and cycle bridge, and to replace it with a modern, suitable for all-comers, structure. But that isn’t contemplated, instead it must remain where it is.

In a bizarre move, when London local government was shaken up in 1985, ownership of the bridges crossing the Thames was transferred to nearby councils. Even though they were usually short of cash and would struggle to properly maintain and repair a bridge, it became theirs.

In this case, it meant Hammersmith & Fulham council, which, while comprising some of London’s smartest neighbourhoods in its borders, also had some of the most socially deprived. The borough would always have to weigh up the choice: spend a packet on a bridge or use it for welfare. And so it proved.

While it was owned by the council, the bridge was run by Transport for London, or TfL, part of mayor Sadiq Khan’s empire. Except that Khan does not possess an empire as such, he is an emperor without clothes. He has limited powers, not much money. Even though he is anti-car in other parts of London, Khan has said: “I do want that bridge reopened for vehicles.”

Khan wanting something and Khan getting it are not the same. He can say it but it’s not up to him. Meanwhile, he is surrounded by those who are opposed to the car virtually everywhere and have contemplated turning Hammersmith into a cycle and pedestrian-only link and the "Garden Bridge that London never got", a reference to a green project that crashed due to its cost.

On the south side of the bridge is Richmond council. They have limited interest in it – the bridge is at the far end of the borough, if it was Richmond Bridge in Richmond town centre, they would stop at nothing to get it repaired. They would not rest; as it is, they sleep easily knowing that many of their residents are left to cope with the consequences of a broken bridge.

The government could pay for all of it but won’t. Again, if Hammersmith was elsewhere, in Wakefield, say, it would have reopened long ago because that would have conformed with the "levelling-up" agenda. As it is, Hammersmith is a fine example of the other half of the levelling-up equation, which is levelling down.

Similarly, it’s in west London whereas if it was in the east it might have been repaired sooner – the more disadvantaged east is where public capital expenditure is heading.

So, the government’s plan is a third each – from Hammersmith & Fulham, TfL and HM Treasury. But none of them are in any rush and if they have the cash to hand, they would rather be seen using it on other things.

To overcome the lack of funding, one idea that appears to have gained traction is for a toll. There are precedents for tolls paying for roads but they are brand new roads, not ones that have been there for centuries.

There is no one knocking heads together, nobody driving and forcing. The Prime Minister? Hammersmith & Fulham are a Labour council, Richmond is Lib-Dem. So, no votes there, then, despite how committed he sounds and how hard he smiles.

I asked a senior office in the Royal Engineers, the British Army’s support division, if they could build a new bridge. "In an afternoon," he said. What weight would it bear? "As heavy as you wish." How long it would last? "As long you want it."

But, he said, they could not build a new Hammersmith Bridge. Why not? "Too political."

He’s dead right there. On it goes, this journey of ineptitude. It’s not that they can’t repair the bridge, it’s that they won’t – and that makes it doubly shameful.

Published: April 09, 2024, 6:00 AM