Bridges in London: Maintenance Funding

– in the House of Commons am 7:06 pm ar 14 Tachwedd 2023.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Joy Morrissey.)

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland) 7:13, 14 Tachwedd 2023

Thank you for calling me, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting my request for a debate on the funding of London bridges. I am proud to be a River Thames MP, with Putney bridge a major and much-loved landmark as well as an essential road route in my constituency. However, it is not Putney bridge but the closure of Hammersmith bridge and its huge impact across London that brings me here this evening.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Solicitor General

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. More than a year ago I asked the then roads Minister, Mr Holden, for a meeting to discuss the repair of Hammersmith bridge. I followed up that request on at least six occasions, but he had not replied by the time he was reshuffled yesterday. I did, however, receive a reply to my letter to the Secretary of State for Transport after the cancellation of the future stages of HS2. I had asked for a little of the £36 billion to be redirected to Hammersmith bridge, given that 0.5% of that would pay the full cost, and we know that the Department for Transport typically pays between 80% and 90% for strategic road schemes. Does my hon. Friend agree that the only reason the bridge has not been repaired is that the Government refuse to pay more than a third of the cost, and cash-strapped local authorities cannot meet a bill running into hundreds of millions of pounds?

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

I thank my hon. Friend for making that important point. He puts the case very well that finance is available, that it could come from the money allocated for HS2 funding for south-east roads and that Hammersmith and Fulham Council cannot be expected to pay a third of the costs for this bridge, which are very high and rising. He has summarised my speech very well but it will be going ahead, and I hope that the Minister will respond by using this opportunity to at last announce the funding for the reopening of the bridge. Here we are, my hon. Friend and I, representing both sides of the river and both seeing the impact that this is having on our constituents.

Photo of Sarah Olney Sarah Olney Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Treasury)

I look forward to hearing more of the hon. Member’s speech on this vexed topic, but I feel a sense of déjà vu because we have all been here before. As she and Andy Slaughter know, my constituents have also been badly affected by this closure. They are prevented from accessing schools, medical facilities and public transport on the other side of the bridge in Hammersmith, and that is having a really damaging impact on the local community, particularly in Barnes, but while I am concerned about my constituents, it is having an impact on the much wider geography. Does she agree that it is affecting not just Barnes, Hammersmith and Putney but the whole of south-west London? It is a vital strategic route across the river—of which we do not have enough—and its closure is causing lengthy tailbacks and congestion in a large area across west London and south-west London, and the wider south-east and Surrey in particular.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

I absolutely agree with my constituency neighbour. This shows not only the cross-party support for the reopening of the bridge but the enormous impact that its closure is having across a wide area of London. Hammersmith bridge is a national transport route and the fact that it has been closed for so many years is a disaster for many people.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend the hon. Lady, and I want to add my support for her request. On Monday this week, the Quoile bridge in my constituency developed a crack right down it and it is now closed. It is a major thoroughfare that carries lots of traffic, which will now be unable to go through Downpatrick on that road for a period of time. I understand the pain that the hon. Lady feels for her constituents and I offer my support to her.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means), Chair, Restoration and Renewal Programme Board Committee, Chair, Restoration and Renewal Programme Board Committee

I was intrigued as to how there could be a Northern Ireland aspect to Hammersmith bridge, and now we all know. Well done, Jim!

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

It is a huge honour to be intervened on by Jim Shannon. I just hope that his constituents will not have to go through the same enormous pain, the long wait and the despair about funding as our constituents in south-west London. I also hope that the Minister heard that and will look into funding for the hon. Gentleman’s bridge as well. The closure of a bridge is a dreadful thing.

At every advice surgery I hold, at every visit to businesses, at every local event I go to and every time I go knocking on doors, everyone wants to know when Hammersmith bridge will be reopened. It is a grade 2 listed heritage suspension bridge. It was built in 1887 but closed to motor vehicles in April 2019 when fissures were found, making it dangerous. Boris Johnson said at Prime Minister’s questions here in this place on 21 October 2020 that it would be reopened, but it is still closed. I held an Adjournment debate on the issue in June last year, with a very disappointing Government response. The restoration has still not had its funding agreed, let alone being started or finished, so I am back here again.

This is a London issue but it needs a national solution and actions that can be taken only by the Government to fund the restoration. It is a disgrace that Transport Ministers have not sorted this out. My constituents are worried that it has become a plaything of Conservative party politicking, with Conservative mayoral and parliamentary candidates and MPs standing next to the bridge saying that something will be done, and then quickly forgetting about it altogether.

The Hammersmith bridge saga has revealed systemic failures in the way that bridge maintenance is funded that need to be urgently addressed by the Minister. While the Government have dragged their feet, the estimated cost of the bridge has been hit by Conservative-fuelled inflation and the war in Ukraine, where the steel was going to be sourced, rising from the initial £140 million to an estimated £250 million. The longer the Government wait, the more the costs will rise.

The closure of Hammersmith bridge since 2019 has had a huge impact on my constituents, especially in Putney and Roehampton. An estimated 22,000 vehicles used to cross the bridge every day, as well as seven vital bus services. Those vehicles are now diverted through Putney, which causes high levels of pollution and congestion and long journey times.

So that the Minister can fully understand what this closure has meant for my constituents, I will tell him some of the results of my recent survey of local residents and businesses. Over 75% of business owners said that the closure has negatively impacted their business because of pollution, difficulties with deliveries, employee commutes and low morale. Some 90% of people said that the bridge closure has been “extremely disruptive” and that they feel more isolated and disconnected.

Putney suffers severe traffic jams every day, with children inhaling toxic fumes. Asthma levels are rising. Patients needing to get to a hospital in an emergency are stuck in traffic that is barely moving. It is also making cyclists and would-be cyclists less likely to cycle because of the danger and pollution on the very congested roads. People who commute through, live or work on Putney High Street, Upper Richmond Road and Lower Richmond Road know how bad things are, and they need their voices to be heard.

The Government should have stepped up back in April 2019, worked with Hammersmith and Fulham Council on the business plan and funded it, and then they should have begun the restoration works. We might then have had the bridge reopened by now. Instead, they palmed off responsibility and have played political games.

Engineering works costing £8 million started in February 2022 and will be finished in a few months—the carriageway will then be cleared for pedestrians and cyclists, which is very welcome—but the full restoration is still unfunded architects’ plans.

The Hammersmith Bridge taskforce chaired by Baroness Vere agreed a settlement of Hammersmith and Fulham Council paying a third, Transport for London paying a third and the Government paying a third, but the taskforce then did nothing else. The taskforce has not met since November 2021. No task and no force. This third-third-third structure is a very poor settlement, as neither the council nor TfL can afford a third and the Government have not yet agreed to their third. The estimated cost is £250 million, but the council’s entire annual budget is just £132 million.

A business plan was submitted by Hammersmith and Fulham Council in December 2022, proposing a toll to pay for its third but, nearly a year on, it has still not been agreed and funded by the Government. I hope the Minister can tell us what will happen. These sums are way beyond the means of an individual council. How can a council with a budget of only £132 million a year for libraries, adult social care and children’s services afford to pay for this? Where could the money come from?

When it was announced that over £4 billion had been carved out from the cancellation of HS2 for road infrastructure in the south-east of England, it was an opportunity to fund the bridge. My constituents deserve to know why Hammersmith bridge is not receiving any support from this fund, or from which fund it will receive support. If just 5% of the £4 billion budget for the south-east—that is just 6% of the overall budget—were used, Hammersmith bridge could be fixed and reopened after all these years of closure.

My constituents and people across south-west London need answers, so I hope the Minister can answer these questions today. Why is it taking so long to fund the bridge? Has a funding source been identified? When will we know that it has been funded? When will the bridge be reopened for buses and vehicles? What is being done to stop another London council having to foot such a large bill again in future?

The closure of Hammersmith bridge should be a wake-up call for the Government to reassess the state of our bridges and the broken funding settlements. I hope that the Minister will commit to looking at the ownership and funding of all London bridges, so that this Hammersmith bridge fiasco is never repeated. But why does Hammersmith and Fulham Council have responsibility for this enormously expensive bridge? The arrangements for responsibility for London bridges were established by the Local Government Act 1985, when the Greater London Council was dissolved, and we have a disorganised and messy hotchpotch of responsibilities. Some were assigned simply because of the names, and so Hammersmith and Fulham Council is responsible because the bridge is called “Hammersmith bridge”. That is a ludicrous way of assigning responsibility for a national, heritage, landmark bridge and a vital connection in our city’s transport infrastructure. It is an embarrassment that as a country we are unable to find a political solution to this crisis. Hammersmith bridge is a national infrastructure project in the greatest city in the world, and the abstention from responsibility by the Conservative Government is shocking. Would Brooklyn bridge, or any other bridge in any other capital, be allowed to remain closed to all vehicles for years and years on end? We urgently need a futureproof, reliable and sufficient stream of funding so that all our bridges are maintained for all who use them. I urge the Minister to look into reforming the funding formula for London’s bridges and river crossings, so that another council is not burdened with a bill of £250 million that it cannot afford.

London boroughs were previously able to access support for bridge maintenance from TfL’s local implementation plan, but the Government’s restrictive cuts imposed on TfL mean that that support is no longer available. That will inevitably lead to more and more bridges needlessly falling into disrepair, meaning bigger and bigger bills in the long term. So what needs to happen? TfL needs new, long-term funding certainty through a multi-year funding arrangement, which would make sure that councils can access the support they need when bridges fall into disrepair. Without this investment, costs will continue to soar, with the Conservatives kicking the can down the road for a future Government to clean up. If the Minister is still convinced that this is not his problem, I hope that the £500 million paid by Londoners in vehicle excise duty every year which is spent on roads in other parts of the country, convinces him of the need to make sure that London’s roads and bridges are maintained when they need it.

I invite the Minister to visit the bridge and I request a meeting to discuss the funding. My main ask is very straightforward—it is for the Government to do everything in their power to urgently fund the restoration and reopening of Hammersmith bridge at the earliest opportunity. I hope he will not tell me that the Government have done everything they can and that it is all up to Hammersmith and Fulham Council to step up, because all the leadership so far has come from the council. That applies in respect of discovering the fissures in the first place; taking action to close the bridge and make it safe; the memorandum of understanding; the proposals for a cheaper bridge replacement and the first project; the business plan; and the stabilisation work. The Government must now step up to shoulder their responsibility to push this through, respond to the business plan, work with Hammersmith and Fulham Council and TfL and ensure that the restoration is finally fully funded. I also ask the Minister to review the entire funding settlement for London bridges, which has led us here, and why this most expensive of heritage bridge projects is being left to a cash-strapped local council because of a historical whim. We clearly need a new approach that safeguards our London bridges for generations to come.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 7:28, 14 Tachwedd 2023

I congratulate Fleur Anderson on securing this debate. I appreciate and fully understand that Hammersmith bridge is of particular interest to her constituents and to people in the constituencies throughout the south and west of London. I wish to make a few preliminary points, the first of which is that clearly there is a good pre-existing working relationship between the Department for Transport and the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham.

Obviously, as the Minister, I have to choose my words relatively carefully because, as the hon. Lady will be aware, the business case for Hammersmith bridge strengthening works has been submitted to both the Department for Transport and Transport for London for review. As she will no doubt appreciate, I can only say so much tonight to avoid prejudicing any ongoing governance procedures and the borough’s future procurement activity. However, I will attempt to address that.

I am uniquely acquainted with the particular bridge. I have cycled across it many times in the past. I used to live in Fulham, back in the distant days when I first became a Member here, so I am well acquainted with it. Clearly, on my first day in the Department for Transport, I am delighted to be answering the Adjournment debate on an issue that I have inherited but which I am delighted to inherit.

It would be a sad day if there were no contribution to the Adjournment debate by Jim Shannon. Like you, Mr Deputy Speaker, I fathomed my brain to try to work out how, on a debate on “Bridges in London: Maintenance and Funding”, a gentleman from Northern Ireland would wangle in a vital part of transport infrastructure that would make all the difference in the world, but he successfully did so without interruption, fear or favour, and I congratulate him on that. I look forward to his pitch, doubtless in writing, to myself, the Northern Ireland Government and various other local authorities for bridge assistance. I have visited his constituency on several occasions and I congratulate him, as always, on his support for this process.

Photo of Louie French Louie French Ceidwadwyr, Old Bexley and Sidcup

Given the Minister’s comments about Jim Shannon, I assume he welcomes interventions. I congratulate Fleur Anderson on securing this important debate on the financing of roads and bridges in London. I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to his place, but I hope he is aware that Government funding for roads and bridges in London is normally funnelled and channelled through Transport for London. He might be aware that the Government have already bailed out TfL to the tune of around £6 billion in the last few years, which is a significant sum of money.

I politely urge the Minister, as he gets his feet under his new desk, that he might consider channelling that money directly to the boroughs, in places like Bexley and Bromley, as I think that money would be better spent that way than through Transport for London. Can I be really cheeky and ask him to meet me, when he gets the time, to discuss my campaign to prevent the Mayor of London from tolling the Blackwall tunnel, which is one of the few crossings in south-east London?

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

My hon. Friend, who I know very well—I have visited his constituency in a former life—makes very good points. He is a doughty champion for Bexley. He follows in the famous footsteps of James Brokenshire, who we all miss and who was my boss at the Home Office for a long period. I am happy to discuss the issues he raises further. He makes an interesting point about funding going in a particular way. It would be wrong of me to make first-day commitments at the Dispatch Box, but I will take his point away and get officials to look at it with interest, and I am happy to discuss it further.

The hon. Member for Putney set out the history of Hammersmith bridge in some detail. She is right that it is a grade II listed suspension bridge, opened in 1887, and has served generations of Londoners very well for some considerable time. However, there are a few of her points with which I would gently take issue. First, let us go to the basics: the bridge is not owned by the Government; it is owned by the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. It is not the responsibility of the Government. Even if people had listened to quite a lot of the speech, they may not have picked that up.

The responsibility for maintaining the bridge and making decisions on its repair lies with the borough. It is unfortunate that the bridge had to close, first to motor vehicles in 2019 and then to all users in 2020. The reason, as we know, was that the safety of those using the bridge was deemed to be of the utmost priority. The assertion was made that the Government have done nothing. I respectfully invite the hon. Lady to accept that the Government have provided nearly £10 million of funding to support the London borough, to ensure that there is remedial work and assistance on an ongoing basis. I set that out to try to correct the record.

Following the complete closure of the bridge in 2020, the DFT provided £4 million of taxpayers’ money, which enabled a comprehensive investigation into the overall structure and condition of the bridge. Through this investment, world-leading engineers worked to develop a complete picture of the issues that faced the bridge. The works determined the bridge to be in better condition than first feared, leading to the bridge reopening on a temporary and controlled basis to pedestrians, cyclists and river traffic. The Department for Transport has worked closely with the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham and with Transport for London to help facilitate the reopening of the bridge to all users. In that vein, DFT established the Hammersmith bridge taskforce, which was led by the Transport Minister, Baroness Vere, as the hon. Lady outlined. The taskforce was set up in 2019 and has had many, many meetings—well over 15—since, and it was instrumental in providing a forum for interested stakeholders to work together to develop a clear course of action to resolve the immediate safety concerns around the bridge.

I know the hon. Lady has called for a further meeting of the taskforce. I want to try to address that. I assure her that when we are in a position to hold a further taskforce meeting, it will be to discuss issues of significance or change for the project, therefore ensuring that it remains a good use of stakeholders’ time. However, she will be aware that we have been waiting for the business case to be submitted and that is clearly the key part.

The commitment to this project by the DFT has not stopped at the initial £4 million support provided to the authority. In the most recent TfL extraordinary funding and financing settlement of August 2022, we committed to funding up to one third of the costs shared with the borough and TfL of reopening the bridge to pedestrians, cyclists and river traffic, and then, depending on costs, to buses and motor vehicles. The first part of this commitment has already been delivered. In March 2022, the Department for Transport approved the business case from the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham for the stabilisation works on the bridge, which in turn triggered the release of a further £3 million of Government funding. These works will ensure that the bridge remains open to pedestrians, cyclists and river traffic permanently, with no risk of further temporary closures due to unsafe conditions. I am pleased to say that those works are due to complete very early in the new year and will provide certainty to the pedestrians and cyclists of Barnes, Hammersmith, Fulham, Richmond and beyond that this link across the Thames will remain open.

Most recently, as all parties will be aware, the Department for Transport provided the borough with a further £2.5 million for the crucial geotechnical investigations now being carried out at Hammersmith bridge, which will pave the way for the next stage of the works. This brings the total amount of Government funding to the bridge to date of up to nearly £10 million. That is exceptional funding.

The next stage of the project is to strengthen the core and renovate other structurally significant parts of the bridge. The strengthening phase of engineering works will build on stabilisation works and, upon completion, will allow the bridge to reopen to all users. That should include buses and motor vehicles. Following close co-operation with TfL and the Department, the borough has now developed and submitted a His Majesty’s Treasury Green Book outline business case for the second stage of the works to the Department for Transport, setting out the estimated cost range for strengthening the bridge. The Department is reviewing that outline business case in great detail. It was submitted in on 23 April, as I understand it, so clearly that is an ongoing process. The hon. Member for Putney asked about the HS2 project and the funding related to it, but no decisions have been made regarding reallocation of funds.

Sarah Olney also raised the local implementation plan. It is true that Transport for London provides formula funding to London boroughs for transport projects, but its budget for bridge projects is just over £2 million, to be shared between 33 boroughs. That is obviously insufficient to fund this project.

Photo of Sarah Olney Sarah Olney Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Treasury)

The Minister stressed at the beginning of his remarks that the repair of the bridge is the responsibility of Hammersmith and Fulham. While I fully accept that, does he not think it is in the Government’s interests to provide more substantial funding, because of the strategic nature of the river crossing? Would he consider the fact that, as I said earlier on, this is about more than local transport—it is a piece of strategic infrastructure? Therefore, responsibility aside, is it not in the Government’s interests to provide more substantial funding?

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I want to address the hon. Lady’s point in brief, but I was going to come on to the legal basis. The practical reality is that, under successive Governments of different political persuasions, dating back many decades, the legal basis for this bridge and for other bridges in London is in relation to the local boroughs. It is the case, for example, that Wandsworth bridge required repair works, and in that particular case that was done by the local borough. She will be aware of the Local Government Act 1985, the Greater London Authority and the actions taken in 2000 with the mayoralty and the creation of TfL, which meant that significant roads became the specific responsibility of TfL.

With no disrespect, the A306, which runs over Hammersmith bridge, is a local road, as are, effectively, most of London’s bridges. I make the point again: under the Highways Act 1980 and various other Acts under successive Governments—this is not the work of one particular Government—these bridges and roads are associated with the local authority. I take the point the hon. Lady makes, and it is for that reason that the Government have spent over £10 million progressing matters as we have done thus far.

With no disrespect either to the hon. Member for Putney, who seemed to suggest there was nothing the Government have done and that it was all down to the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, the £10 million has been paid over a series of years to get to the hurdles that we have necessarily got to, and an agreement was entered into at an earlier stage. I do not believe I can add anything further, other than to congratulate her on securing the debate and highlighting the issue, which clearly affects her constituents and others in west London. I continue to assure her that the Department will provide support to both the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham and to TfL on the bridge project as it goes ahead.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.