My Lords, that is because the noble Baroness is desperate to hear my Answer, I am fairly sure. We in government and beyond—certainly residents on both sides—are keen to see the bridge open as soon as it is safe so that, at the minimum, people can cycle and walk across, river traffic can pass under it, and in time we can see it returned to full use. To help to find a speedy resolution to this rather tiresome and tardy situation, the Government have announced today that they have established a task force. I will lead it and I shall bring together the key decision-makers in London. We will get a solution, figure out how to fund it, and ensure that action is taken. This has been going on for too long; we need to get something done.
My Lords, as the Minister said, the impact on the community is absolutely dire, in particular on the transport network. More than 1,000 schoolchildren are taking nearly two hours to get to school. We urgently need a temporary solution. Regardless of the task force, under the current circumstances the only body that has the money to provide both a temporary and a long-term solution is the Government. Can she give an assurance that that money will be made available so that this hell can be lifted as soon as possible?
My Lords, one of the problems I have faced over my many months in the world of Hammersmith Bridge is that no one seems to be able to decide how much money is actually needed, and what for. That is why I have set up the task force, so that we can lift the lid on all the proposals, see whether we can assure ourselves of their validity, and then figure out how we might fund them. At the moment, I have figures ranging from £26 million, £47 million, £141 million to £164.5 million.
My Lords, I hope that the Minister’s earlier Answer does not mean that this is to be pushed into the long grass. Does she accept that this is a really urgent matter? People on both sides of the Thames are arguing for restoration of the bridge, not just for cyclists and pedestrians, although they are important, but for public transport. Can she give us a timetable of when she expects action to happen?
I reassure the noble Lord that this issue is now in the closely cropped grass so that we can see what is going on, as well as who is doing what and when. At the moment, I am confronted with a library full of engineering reports, at least eight of them, all written by a clutch of probably fairly expensive consultants and commissioned by a plethora of bureaucrats. Somehow we have to bring all this together. I intend to hold an engineer think-in where the engineers will decide on the best solutions for both the short term and the long term. This is not about pushing the issue into the long grass; it is about bringing it into the open and getting the decision-makers to come to a decision.
My Lords, I obviously welcome the commitment of the Minister to treat this as a matter of urgency. I will follow on from the questions put by my noble friend Lady Kramer. Does the Minister not accept that, irrespective of the cost, the only organisation that is going to pay for either the temporary or the permanent solution is central government? Hammersmith, Richmond and Transport for London are clearly not in a position to do so. Does she also accept the enormous urgency of the point made by my noble friend, which is that we must have a temporary solution in the form of either a road bridge or a pedestrian and cycle bridge, as well as a temporary solution for river traffic?
The noble Lord has outlined the challenge that I face with great detail and correctness. In the short term, we need to look at ferries and whether in due course the bridge might be opened to pedestrians and cyclists after remedial works. It is a complex task but not one that is beyond the wit of man, and I think that we can crack on and do it. He also mentioned funding. Over the past 16 months while the bridge has been closed, Hammersmith and Fulham Council and TfL have both been able to find various sums of money. I accept that they have not said that they can bear the full cost of the restoration at £141 million, but in March this year the Mayor of London said that he had committed £25 million. I am not sure where that money went.
My Lords, among the many reports that my noble friend has on her desk, has she seen the Hyder Consulting Ltd report of 1997 which highlighted all the problems that the bridge now faces? It underlines the neglect of Hammersmith and Fulham Council, which has not done anything for the past 23 years. Notwithstanding the fact that the bridge is a grade 2* listed property, will she keep on the agenda the idea that the bridge could be dismantled and re-erected in, say, Bishops Park, and a road bridge fit for modern-day traffic put in its place?
In terms of long-term solutions, nothing should be off the table, but at this moment we do not fully understand the extent of the damage to the bridge. I am grateful to my noble friend for mentioning the 1997 report. I have to admit that I have not seen that one, but it will be another for my library, for which I am grateful. I point out that the department has brought in National Rail. You may ask what on earth it has to do with a road bridge, but it has a lot of cast-iron bridges, knows what it is talking about, and its engineers will help us to fix the problems.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a Barnes resident and I welcome the task force that the Minister will chair. Will she separate the short-term issues from the long-term ones so that in the short term she can do whatever it takes, with whatever knocking together of heads is needed, to cut through the endless arguments about who should pay and ensure that a cheap and cheerful temporary walking and cycling bridge, which has always been recognised as part of the process, should be funded and put in place without delay?
I intend to do exactly as the noble Lord has mentioned. We are getting bogged down in the weeds where people say, “Oh, you can’t have this, you can’t have that, and we need security to push this forward.” As far we humanly can, we have to progress things independently so that they can get done as quickly as possible.
My Lords, I noted the intervention this morning of the Secretary of State for Transport. Can the noble Baroness confirm that she does not believe that bashing heads together is what is needed? Rather, what is needed is the provision of government funding. As other noble Lords have said, it is absolutely clear that only central government has the money available to repair and restore this vital and iconic bridge. Perhaps I may press her further on the timescale for her task force. She herself has said repeatedly that the bridge has been closed for quite a long time, and it is a vital connection.
I will not return to the issue of funding because we have been around that house already. The Secretary of State used a turn of phrase about bashing heads together, but all noble Lords will recognise what we are trying to do. This morning I spoke to Stephen Cowan, the leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council, to explain our intentions to him. He has committed that he will work collaboratively with us while recognising that there will be some political noises off, as there always are in these matters. However, it is absolutely clear to me that we must work together for the people of south-west London. I spoke also with Andy Byford, the new TfL commissioner. He reassured me that his engineers also have some good ideas, so now we have to get all these engineers together to find out what they think.
My Lords, let me cite two examples of why urgent action is needed now. First, and I declare my interest here, my niece’s 12-minute walk to school has now become an almost two-hour commute, and this is her A-level year. About 1,000 other children are likewise impacted. Secondly, let me read out an email from my honourable friend Sarah Olney in the other place, which I received a few minutes ago:
“We had a call from a complex casework constituent who has been waiting for the 533 bus at the Lonsdale Road stop for 90 minutes. Apparently, there is a whole crowd of people there waiting for a 533. She is taking someone to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital for a surgery, which she is already late for. The hospital had said if he isn’t there by 12.30, they will have to bump him from the surgery list.”
This is really urgent. Can something be done now?
My Lords, I know it is really urgent; I do not need an email to confirm that. I can reassure the noble Baroness that when I spoke to Andy Byford this morning, I asked him specifically about the 533 bus. He has reassured me that he will increase its frequency.
Lord Davies of Gower is not present. I call the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso.
My Lords, with not just Hammersmith Bridge closed but also London Bridge and Vauxhall Bridge closed to most cars, this is a total disaster for London’s infrastructure. As Hammersmith and Fulham Council is clearly unable to afford the £141 million to fully repair the bridge, can the Minister assure us that, in line with Prime Minister’s commitment to “build, build, build”, surely this qualifies as a marquee project for government funding. What is the scope for building another bridge, as several noble Lords have mentioned, to serve as a footbridge?
My Lords, again, I will not return to the issue of funding, but I will address the point that the noble Lord raised about the other bridges in London under repair at the moment. Of course, noble Lords will know that transport in London is devolved to the mayor. It is a decision for the mayor to close the bridges and do the works when they have been scheduled. I agree that it is not ideal, and we will of course be speaking to TfL to get it to increase the resources for those bridges, if it can, to get them reopened as soon as possible.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed.