Updated: Feb 22
On Friday 19th February HBSOS's very own Michelle Coulter talked to Riverside Radio host Julia Bright and explained how our recent #HammersmithBridge Valentine’s Day projection shone a light on central Government's woeful failure to facilitate a funding agreement with Hammersmith & Fulham, why this has made the Task Force in-effect redundant, and the interim results of our Mental Health Survey.
Councillor Alex Ehmann, Deputy Leader of Richmond Council, was also interviewed.
Listen to the interviews (video above) and/or read the transcripts below:
Julia Bright: We start with Hammersmith Bridge. Thousands of residents have had their lives seriously impacted by the closure on safety grounds of the Listed bridge. First, to heavy traffic in 2019, and since last August to pedestrians and cyclists who daily numbered around 16,000. The cost of rebuilding the 133-year-old bridge owned by Hammersmith & Fulham Council is estimated to be £141 million. Other Stakeholders are the Government, TFL and Richmond Council, where residents are more severely affected apparently, than on the north side of the river.
Government Minister Grant Shapps launched a Task Force last autumn to get things moving, but local activist group the Hammersmith Bridge SOS Campaign sees no sign of progress. So, on St Valentine's Day on Sunday, it took action, boldly lighting up the whole bridge in brilliant red with a flashing Valentine's Day message. I spoke to Michelle Coulter, who's on the Campaign's Steering Committee, and first asked her about the stunt:
Michelle Coulter: So, on Valentine's Day, we actually lit the bridge up in bright red with the message on it "Broken Bridge, Broken Lives, Broken Promises, and Broken Hearts" with a big cracked-open heart flashing continuously and causing great notice from all those who passed by.
Julia Bright: What a sight! What prompted you to do this, and what impact has it had, do you think?
Michelle Coulter: Well, Valentine's Day coincided with the six-month anniversary of the bridge being closed entirely. So not just to road traffic, but to pedestrians and cyclists as well. So we lit the bridge up as a giant Unhappy Valentine's Day Card to all those involved in this bridge fiasco who we feel have let us down so badly. And we really wanted to draw attention to the issue, and to the fact that after all this time there's still so little progress and people affected are still struggling so much.
Julia Bright: So how has life changed for those thousands and thousands of people using the bridge every day? Obviously, journeys are much longer, but who is suffering the most, do you think?
Michelle Coulter: Well, when the bridge closed in August, 16,000 people were crossing it by bike or foot daily, and the impact has been immense. Firstly, there are children, thousands of which have to cross the bridge to get to school, and what was once a 15 minute journey, is now a several mile detour by foot or bike along flooded towpaths through an unlit park with a high crime rate. Or they end up sitting for up to an hour and a half in traffic if they can even manage to get on a bus. There's also also elderly people who are completely cut off from essential services like doctors, shops, carers can't reach them. And these are all people who are already so isolated by Covid who now feel even more alone. Finally, key workers and other commuters are looking at journeys of up to an hour, and an hour and a half trying to get to work in places like Charing Cross Hospital. And local businesses, let's not forget, who are so dreadfully affected by Covid, now without people passing by on the way through to Hammersmith, are really in desperate straits.
Julia Bright: You've recently published a survey of the mental health of Hammersmith Bridge users, or should I say former users, with findings that were pretty dreadful. Tell us about them.
Michelle Coulter: I have to say the survey results were really heart breaking. 88% of people said that their mental health had been affected by the bridge closure. And a lot of the same words just came up again and again. They feel trapped, isolated, hopeless, anxious, people having sleeping difficulties, children worried about getting to school. And the message that's coming across is that this is a double lockdown for these people. And even though we have hope that there'll be an end to a lockdown in terms of Covid, the feeling is that the lockdown caused by the bridge just has no end in sight and there's no sense of hope for the future at the moment.
Julia Bright: Why hasn't there been any progress since the Task Force was formed? And who do you think's responsible for the stalemate?
Michelle Coulter: Well, the Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps, did absolutely the right thing when he set up a task force and he appointed Charlotte Vere as its Chair. And the job of the Task Force, essentially is to come to some sort of agreement on funding, put a plan into place for the repairs and start the works. But none of that has been achieved. And I think this comes down to this being a political battle. It's exacerbated by the fact that the Council is Labour, the Government is Conservative, and they've got no incentive to cooperate with each other. And it appears that the funding discussions have really been very limited, with the Task Force being given very limited authority to actually resolve the situation. And Hammersmith & Fulham not offering any money on their own part - the Government, asking them for £63 million. So it's just created a stalemate that continues and nothing moves forward.
Julia Bright: Could anyone else step in? I mean, is it, do you think, a matter for Boris Johnson?
Michelle Coulter: Absolutely. This is absolutely a matter for Central Government because at the end of the day, the Department for Transport can't decide on their own to spend this sort of money. And it's the sort of thing that the Treasury would need to approve. But that does need to be done, because otherwise this Task Force is actually not achieving anything useful. It's just something in name.
Julia Bright: What do you want to see happen in the near future? I mean, immediate future, I should say, and in the medium term, because the bridge will take perhaps five or six years to repair?
Michelle Coulter: Well, in the immediate future, a ferry is being put in place to get people across the river at Hammersmith, and this really needs to be ready to go as soon as possible. And we need to make sure that elderly and disabled can access this and that it has enough capacity and runs to the same hours as the tube so that people like key workers are provided for. But in the medium term and, well, really in the short term, this issue of funding needs to be resolved. And so far the Task Force have not been forthcoming or managed to make any progress in terms of sorting out the funding and haven't been very helpful in terms of what they're requesting from Hammersmith & Fulham - requesting £63 million apparently, which they know is unaffordable and isn't going to help the situation move forward.
Julia Bright: Is that what you would say if you were speaking to the appropriate local Councillor, probably on the Fulham & Hammersmith side? What would you like to say or ask?
Michelle Coulter: If I was to speak to Stephen Cowan, I would ask him... Stephen Cowan is the head of the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham. I would, first of all, ask him to consider the possibility of reopening the bridge to pedestrians once the investigation works that are currently underway have been completed, because the Government engineering reports suggest that that might be a possibility. And we would really like him to look into that. And if he doesn't feel able to, then at least share his engineering reports that led to the bridge being closed. But secondly, he needs to work constructively with the Government to come to some sort of agreement on funding for repairs, even if that means a toll potentially. But we've just had enough of the Government passing the buck back to Hammersmith & Fulham, and feigning helplessness. They've said that they will contribute to the bridge. They know that it's an essential part of London infrastructure. Please stop using it as a political football. Be transparent and realistic about what's actually expected of Hammersmith & Fulham, rather than asking the impossible and then saying your hands are tied.
Our job as a pressure group is to continue to represent the people who are so badly affected and draw attention to this issue. And I actually think the international community are just incredulous, really, that in a country like Britain, a major capital city like London, it seems impossible to fix a vital bridge that spans a body of water that's only a hundred and eighty metres.
Julia Bright: Afterwards, I reached Councillor Alex Ehmann, Deputy Leader of Richmond Council, for his comments:
What did you think of the Hammersmith Bridge all lit up in scarlet red neon and lights?
Alexander Ehmann: It looked pretty grand, to be honest. It sort of did a dis-service, really, to the bridge given that the bridge is unusable, but it sort of showed in its resplendent glory. And I thought, frankly, great effort on the part of the residents. You know, it's a decent, well intended form of protest that, you know, is the right side of protest, as it were. It's not you know, it's not abusive or threatening. It is an attempt to highlight a very deeply felt frustration that I certainly share with those residents
Julia Bright: A very imaginative stunt. But, Alex, can you actually tell us anything more than anybody knows already? I mean, is there an update, is there something happening, a meeting perhaps, that's planned?
Well, I mean, the Task Force of which I'm not personally a part, but the Leader of this council, Councillor Gareth Roberts, is a member, meets frequently. To the best of my knowledge, the key things that I guess residents need to know from from my side is that, you know, progress towards the procurement of a ferry service as an interim measure is is still progressing. There has been a hold up, as I understand it, due to the TFL procurement process, but I understand that's a couple of weeks in the overall timeline. So you know, it's not kicked this thing out into into long grass. But, you know, still these processes take time that frankly, I know many residents can ill afford. So that's still sort of beavering on. The critical factor is, of course, the lack of a resolution over the funding for the repair. And I'm afraid to say on that one, I think that the debate between political adversaries in the form of a Labour Council and a Conservative Government seems to be about as seized up as the bearings on Hammersmith Bridge, to be perfectly frank.
Julia Bright: I guess you're as frustrated as anybody else about the situation?
Alexander Ehmann: Yeah, I mean, look, for what it's worth, my view, you know, and I'm happy for it to be a matter of public record, but my view is, and has been for some time, that frankly, unfortunately, there just isn't the political incentive for the Conservative Government, nor really for the Labour administration at Hammersmith & Fulham, to resolve this issue before the London Mayoral elections and the GLA elections. And I think that's deeply unwelcome. But I do think that is a likely reality. It may well be that post those elections, a little more rationality emerges. But, you know, who knows? This has dragged on far too long already. So I don't want to give people too much reason to dare hope.
Julia Bright: Could it be an election issue?
Alexander Ehmann: I'd certainly think that certain parties want to make it an election issue. I don't think it needs to be. I think, frankly, what most residents feel is this shouldn't be a party political issue. You know, there is a fundamental piece of infrastructure which is compromised. It clearly requires a bill that no individual local authority is well positioned to stump up. And so it requires collaboration. It requires people to start working together. And I think, you know, I think we have been... I would, wouldn't I? But I think we this side of the river in terms of Richmond have tried to be collaborative and collegiate with both the Conservative Government and Labour.
Julia Bright: I think you decided that you would actually fund the planning application or something?
Alexander Ehmann: Yeah, so we've said that we will put up to, well we put a sizeable amount of money, the exact amount is not immediately to hand, but it was, we set aside over a couple of hundred thousand pounds for both mitigation measures emerging from the bridge's closure, like putting lighting on the towpaths, improving the state of the towpath, putting Park Guard facilities along the towpath and so on. Looking at cycling infrastructure to supplement some of the routes that would otherwise have been taken. And we've also set aside a sum of money for building out the Richmond side infrastructure for a ferry service as well.
Julia Bright: Yes, ah, that's all done is it?
Alexander Ehmann: Well, the money's there, and as it were ready to go once we've got a ferry service agreed by TFL and once the locations from which that ferry service should operate are confirmed, then we stand ready to contribute to that.
Julia Bright: And here now is a statement we received from Hammersmith & Fulham Council. "We have tremendous sympathy for residents on both sides of the river who've been so affected by the closure of the bridge on public safety grounds in August. The expert engineering advice we have received is that there is a clear route towards the bridge being reopened for pedestrians and cyclists within a year provided the necessary programme of stabilisation works is agreed by the Task Force.
Tom Hopkinson: That was Julia Bright reporting. And the action group's website is HammersmithBridgeSOS.co.uk and we'll continue to cover the latest news on Hammersmith Bridge here on Riverside Reports.
Listen to the entire interview here on Riverside Radio's Soundcloud page:
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