Comment

Scant funding for historic infrastructure affects us all

The Chancellor promised more money for infrastructure, but the scale of the problem won't be met by the Treasury's apparently deep pockets

Hammersmith Bridge during The Cancer Research UK Boat Race on April 2, 2017
The 2017 Boat Race approaches Hammersmith Bridge, which is now closed due to structural issues. How many other fine Victorian constructions might be affected - and at what cost? Credit: Ian Walton/Getty Images

Hold the front page. Apparently it's likely that next year's University Boat Race will have to be run (rowed?) in Cambridgeshire instead of its traditional route from Putney to Mortlake on the Thames in south-west London.

I'm all for tradition but what relevance does this so-called sporting event between England's oldest two universities, first raced in 1829, have in Covid-hit 2020?

But I digress. The 133-year-old Hammersmith Bridge, a magnificent cast iron construction designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette, lies almost half way into the four-mile rowing race. The popular vantage point to Boat Race spectators has been closed for 18 months because of structural problems.

First it was closed to motorised traffic, from April 2019. What's more, all river traffic under the bridge – along with cyclists and pedestrians – was banned in August this year after cracks in the structure worsened during the heatwave. According to Hammersmnith & Fulham Council, up to 10 April 2019 the bridge carried 22,000 motor vehicles per day, while until 13 August 2020 more than 16,000 pedestrians and cyclists crossed it each day.

It is expected not to reopen to traffic fully for another six and a half years. Road traffic in the area, particularly through Barnes and Mortlake, heading west towards the next road bridge (Chiswick). And it's not just private cars. Local bus routes have been heavily impacted by the closure of Hammersmith Bridge and the consequent gridlock in the area.

Long-term remedial work to Vauxhall Bridge, in the top right of this aerial view of central London, has had massive repurcussions for traffic and polution Credit: Steve Parsons/PA

Then there's the ongoing chaos in the area around Vauxhall Bridge, near the seat of government, a 116-year-old structure that has been closed for 18 weeks for essential maintenance and repairs. 

But this is all about London. I don't live there, and never visit, so why should I care?

This closure affects everyone, however indirectly. The long-term closure of Hammersmith Bridge is a salutary tale about how our relatively ancient infrastructure is slowly crumbling – to the detriment of all our lives.

To get an idea of the scale of the problem, in 2014 the Hammersmith & Fulham Council initiated what it called a Comprehensive Structural Integrity Review on the bridge between Barnes in the south and central Hammersmith to the north. It says this was the first such survey in the bridge’s history and that previously only £250,000 had been spent touching up the decking and other minor works.

Hammersmith Bridge is expected to remain closed for another six and a half years - even the cheapest repair estimate is £46 million Credit: BEN STANSALL/AP

It is clear that, as with the average passenger car, routine maintenance is the key to avoiding massive – potentially ruinous – bills further down the line.

The engineers, some of whom have worked on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, apparently, advised the council that it will cost £46 million to stabilise Hammersmith Bridge and make it safe for pedestrians, cyclists and river traffic, and up to £141 million to fully restore the bridge so it can be reopened to buses and motor vehicles.

Now multiply this by the mind-boggling number of Victorian road and railway bridges across the land and begin to understand that Mr Sunak's apparent largesse won't spread very far.

How would we feel about losing Brunel's magnificent Clifton Suspension Bridge due to long-term neglect? Credit: David Cheshire/Alamy

Then consider the rest of Britain's fantastic infrastructure dating from the Victorian era; the tunnels, the viaducts, the sewers, the London Underground. We take them for granted and piecemeal repairs have kept them functioning but it's only thanks to their robust design and construction that we're still able to rely on them.

The money has been found for a major renovation of the Houses of Parliament, but who is going to pay to keep our historic infrastructure fit for purpose? And, following the pandemic, how?

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