After decades of post-war decline, the Thames has undergone a renaissance and is once again at the economic heart of London.
However, if it is one of the capital’s greatest assets, it is also one of its greatest liabilities – because of the inability to get across the Thames by road in most of East and South East London.
The Port of London Authority estimates that Thames-related economic activities support 43,000 jobs. Most of this activity is concentrated in port operations and processing, and the supply of ports and ships.
This is a vital source of employment to some of the Thames Gateway’s most deprived boroughs, including Barking and Dagenham, Newham, and Thurrock.
The private sector is investing more in the Thames, notably at the Port of Tilbury in Thurrock, where a new distribution park and logistic centre will provide major new capacity.
The indirect value of the Thames is also great and increasing. Thames-side property is booming – at a 13 per cent premium to neighbouring property. Apart from the Olympics, Tate Modern, on the South Bank, is London’s most successful cultural venture since the Millennium.
The wider regeneration of the South Bank is proceeding apace, including Battersea and Nine Elms, thanks to the extension of the Northern Line. Crossrail is having a similar effect on Woolwich further east.
The riverside and towpath are increasingly busy routes for walking and cycling, and the Thames Clipper appears, at last, to be a river bus which works, although it is poorly promoted by Transport for London.
However, if the Thames is a magnet, it is also a chasm. Over the 20 miles west of Tower Bridge to Kew, the banks are connected by 16 road bridges. For the 20 miles east of Tower Bridge, there is just one road crossing (the Dartford Crossing) and two low-capacity tunnels.
No new East Thames road crossing has been built within Greater London since the second bore of the Blackwall Tunnel half a century ago. The first bore, opened in 1897, is low capacity and dangerous, including sharp bends whose purpose was to prevent horses from bolting.
The lack of East Thames road crossings is a massive constraint on the economy of East London and the Thames Gateway, including the provision of new housing. It is arguably the single biggest obstacle to trade within England. The Blackwall Tunnel and the Dartford Crossing are the most congested pieces of road infrastructure in the entire country.
New crossings are needed urgently. The proposed Silvertown Tunnel, near the Blackwall Tunnel, should proceed as fast as possible, and Boris and the next mayor need to plan at least two more road crossings further east.
The government also needs to publish a firm plan for a new M25 crossing to supplement the Dartford Crossing. The Department for Transport has been consulting on options for six years: it is now time for action. All these crossings can be tolled to pay for part of the cost.
Canary Wharf is a testament to the development potential of East London. It wouldn’t have happened without the Jubilee Line, and its three crossings of the Thames to get from Waterloo to Stratford.
Now let’s do the same for roads in East London.