East Thames River Crossings

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 18th November 1994.

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Photo of John Austin-Walker John Austin-Walker , Woolwich 2:30 pm, 18th November 1994

East London, north and south of the River Thames, is an area of higher unemployment than the rest of London. It has more housing problems and poor transport connections to the rest of London. North of the river, Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets are first, second and third in the Department of the Environment's league tables of urban deprivation. South of the river, Greenwich ranks 28th in the Department's list of the 100 most deprived urban councils.

My constituency has one of the highest rates of youth unemployment in the country, a training and enterprise council that increasingly looks unable to deliver, and adult male unemployment around the town centre in the region of 50 per cent.

The name Greenwich conjures up images of the Cutty Sark, Greenwich park, the royal observatory, the famous Queen's house of Inigo Jones, Wren's masterpiece of the Royal Naval college and Georgian terraces—the Greenwich that tourists see. Few glimpse the reality for ordinary families in the borough, which has unemployment rates higher than in Bolsover or Blyth Valley.

Unemployment levels in my own constituency of Woolwich are higher than in Bootle, Hartlepool, Knowsley, Newcastle or Salford. Together with the boroughs on the north bank of the river, Woolwich also has development potential. At the heart of the town centre are 75 acres of derelict industrial land owned by the Ministry of Defence, which once housed the royal arsenal. In its heyday, the arsenal employed 80,000 people on that site—the largest factory in Europe. Today, it is derelict. To the east, there are hundreds of acres of development land in Thamesmead. To the west, there is the Blackwall peninsula—derelict land that once housed the now-defunct metropolitan gas works.

In that picture of gloom there are enormous opportunities for change; that is already occurring in the London docklands north of the river, where there are well-formulated plans for the Blackwall peninsula. The biggest drawback to development is transport. East and south-east London have poor public transport links to the rest of London, and south-east London is the worst served of all. Indecision about investment in public transport and uncertainty in the vacuum created by the Minister's announcement last June of the withdrawal of proposals for the east London river crossing are hindering development and job opportunities in the area.

Woolwich boasts one of the modern wonders of the world—the Thames barrier. That is a superb feat of civil engineering, but the Thames itself is a barrier to communities and to development that is difficult to overcome. The Thames could be used as a means of transport. It offers possibly the quickest way into central London, but there are no commuter services—only tourist boats. There could be traffic across the river, but apart from the Ford ferry which transports workers from Belvedere to Dagenham, there is only the Woolwich ferry—the floating link between the north and south circular roads in which the Department of Transport has failed to invest and which it has neglected to modernise, resulting in queues and congestion as boats are taken out of service. For motorists in south-east and east London, there are two depressing announcements on the morning radio. One is, "Only one boat is working on the Woolwich ferry," and the other is, "Overheight vehicle stuck in the Blackwall tunnel." I have to tell the Minister that there were two of the latter this morning.

The Government's preferred solution to those problems was to build more roads. I am aware that there was much lobbying for a motorway to link docklands on the northern side with the M2 and M20 south of the river and the channel ports; for enhanced capacity on the M25 crossing—the construction of the Queen Elizabeth II bridge. There was pressure for improved access across or under the river at Blackwall.

The Government appear to have listened to those voices, but to have ignored all the possible public transport solutions and put all their eggs in the road-building basket. But they came unstuck over the east London river crossing. They planned to build a motorway across the Thames, through Thamesmead and the residential areas of Abbey Wood and Plumstead—areas with some of the highest incidences of asthma and child respiratory illness in the south-east—and then through Woolwich's Oxleas wood, destroying an 8,000-year-old ancient woodland and site of special scientific interest.

Clearly, the Government had not anticipated the strength of the environmental concerns. The battle over the east London river crossing led to what I understand was the longest planning inquiry on record. The Secretary of State was taken to the High Court by local residents. The European Environment Commissioner issued a reasoned opinion that the Government had breached the European directive on environmental impact. What started as a small, local campaign—Plumstead Against the River Crossing—became Londonwide, then national and eventually international. It was discussed at the Rio summit and gained support from the rainforest campaigners in southern America. It eventually led to the Minister coming to the House last June to say that the proposals did not measure up to the Government's current environmental standards.

The problem was that, all the time that that was going on, the area along the line of the proposed road was blighted. Homes fell into disrepair and decay, not just the 258 homes due to be demolished to make way for the road, but the surrounding area as well. The problem now is that, although the original proposals for the east London river crossing have been withdrawn, the Government appear to remain wedded to the idea of a strategic road linking docklands north of the river to the M20 and the M2. They cannot work out how to get around, over, under or through Oxleas wood. They have not cancelled the compulsory purchase orders and have not withdrawn the line order, so the area which has been blighted for the past 20 years remains blighted. But I urge the Minister, having seen the situation for himself yesterday, to accept that the east London river crossing will not be built and to lift the blight on the Abbey Wood and Plumstead area.

I am aware that there are discussions with the private sector about the possibility of a road bridge linking Barking with Thamesmead and stopping at the Thamesmead spine road. The Minister will know that I have reservations about such a proposal. I accept that it might produce some benefits for Thamesmead, but it would also pose problems in terms of traffic generation for Woolwich, Belvedere, Erith and, possibly, Dartford, too. If that east London river crossing were ever built, it should not exclusively be a road bridge, because at very little extra cost it could carry the docklands light railway south of the river to Thamesmead, and I can see that as a very real plus for the area.

If the little east London river crossing—the bridge from Barking to Thamesmead—is an option that the Minister wishes to explore, he could go out to consultation on that and we could examine in detail the benefits and disbenefits of that proposal, but in the meantime he should withdraw the line order through Abbey Wood and Plumstead for the big east London river crossing and help the regeneration of housing in that area.

I implore the Minister to look seriously at the public transport alternatives. I draw his attention to the east London rail studies. In 1989, the then Secretary of State pointed to the need to improve rail services to docklands and east Thameside. The earlier central rail studies had been about relieving congestion, but the east London rail studies stressed the developmental role of public transport provision. The first east London rail studies report referred to regeneration and was probably the first official report to highlight the need for a rail link across the Thames to Woolwich, which would extend the docklands effect east and south. It was clear that a public transport river crossing would have advantages over a road crossing: less noise, less pollution, less disturbance during construction, less community severance, greater development potential, higher safety, less demolition and land acquisition and less harm to local ecology.

The proposed Woolwich rail crossing enjoys the support of the London Docklands development corporation, London Transport, British Rail, Railtrack, Union Rail and the local authorities in the area. London Transport and the London docklands corporation now propose a core scheme linking the north London line with the north Kent line and the provision of new cross-river services between Stratford and Abbey Wood. I hope that a spur to Thamesmead will also be built at little extra cost. The Woolwich metro fits into the Government's east Thames corridor, Thames gateway initiative and core services could be extended east to Dartford and possibly to the proposed international passenger station at Ebbsfleet. A new station could be provided at Silvertown, with a possible link to City airport, and the existing Woolwich-Arsenal station could be utilised.

The project is clearly attractive to the private sector and the project group, consisting of London Transport, British Rail, Railtrack and the London Docklands development corporation, is looking into those possibilities. But the scheme will require a public sector contribution and the Government's reticence could be a major contributor to delay.

The local authorities most affected— Greenwich and Newham—have not been invited to participate in the project group or its steering group. In view of the significance of the rail crossing for Woolwich and the direct impact on Woolwich town centre, I hope that the Minister will argue for the borough council to be a full member of the group. The LDDC, as the planning authority for the north bank, is fully represented on both groups and will, no doubt, be safeguarding its essential interests. Greenwich, as the planning authority for the south bank, ought to have similar representation. I understand that the LDDC and London Transport are sympathetic to that proposal, but that opposition is coming from Railtrack. I enlist the Minister's support in rectifying that.

The east London rail study has looked at the benefits in terms of development and job creation. It has looked at the possible relief on other overcrowded lines, but it has not yet estimated the benefits from reduced rail overcrowding. It has not considered the benefits from reduced congestion on the road network, nor have the environmental impacts been evaluated and compared with road options.

Even without assessing those additional benefits, the arguments to press ahead with the Woolwich metro are convincing. I hope, however, that we will not see delay, such that we saw over the Jubilee line extension, as the Government dither about whether there is to be public investment. The scheme is too important for the future economy of Woolwich and north Kent and to the successful development of the royal docks to insist on private capital alone being responsible for its construction. It must be a partnership, with the Government playing a full part.

We had delay and anxiety over the Jubilee line extension and then uncertainty about a station on the southern side at Blackwall. What nonsense it would have been to build the Jubilee line extension crossing the river twice from north to south and north again and not provide a station on the south side. What an opportunity will be missed now if the docklands light railway extension to Lewisham does not have a station at Cutty Sark gardens, despite an undertaking by the Government that a station would be included. I hope that the Minister recognises the near impossibility of getting a private funding package of £14 million together by January 1995 and that he will persuade the Department of the Environment to allow the project to go to tender in the new year with the options open regarding the Cutty Sark station.

Finally, I come to the proposed Blackwall third crossing. Clearly, the impact of a third crossing at Blackwall, together with the Woolwich metro, will need to be assessed in relation to the perceived need for an east London river crossing. It is the view of Greenwich council that the Woolwich metro plus the Blackwall scheme would be sufficient to meet transport needs in the area. Of course, the Minister will be aware of local arguments against the third crossing at Blackwall. I share the concerns on both sides of the river about the adverse environmental impact of a high-level bridge on the residents, especially those in Tower Hamlets, the blight and adverse effect with regard to the land-take on the Greenwich peninsula and potential traffic effects. However, at the end of the day, if the Minister is convinced of the need for a third crossing at Blackwall, I urge him to consider seriously the tunnel option.

Yesterday, the leader of Greenwich council, Councillor Len Duvall, suggested to the Minister that, instead of piecemeal consultations on individual projects, there should be widespread consultation in a meaningful way with the local authorities on a comprehensive package of measures to meet the needs of the east Thames area. I know that Councillor Duvall and his colleagues in Greenwich, as well as those in Newham and Tower Hamlets, I am sure, are willing to work positively with the Minister to ensure that the developments in the east Thames corridor bring lasting benefits to the local community. The Woolwich rail tunnel is crucial to the economic regeneration of Woolwich and north-east Kent and is crucial to the successful development of the royal docks as well.