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University Boat Race Protest

Fed-up rowers took to the water today in protest at London’s broken bridge: the ongoing closure of Hammersmith Bridge is causing yet more havoc as the historic Boat Race is displaced to Ely and river use is still heavily restricted

A large group of London’s rowers including former Olympians and Oxford and Cambridge boat race competitors took to the water this morning in front of Hammersmith Bridge wearing builders hard hats and hi-vix construction gilets bearing the slogan "Get Our Bridge Done". The demonstration organised by Hammersmith Bridge SOS and local rowing clubs, was aimed at the Government’s ongoing inability to find a repair solution to open Hammersmith Bridge after almost two years, and the impact it’s having on historic rowing events like the Boat Race and the heavy restrictions on river use.

London’s rowers were the latest group to vent their anger at the Government’s lack of progress in repairing Hammersmith Bridge; causing extensive disruption to lives in and around South West London. The un-repaired damage to London’s historic landmark bridge has caused an equally historic London icon, the Oxford vs Cambridge Boat Race to be displaced to the River Great Ouse in Ely for at least a year, and to the disappointment of millions of fans around the world. The stoppage of all river traffic under the bridge for safety reasons has caused extensive disruption to the heart of Britain’s rowing community in Putney and one of Britain’s most successful Olympic sports.

Rowers are one of many river users and wider local communities severely impacted by the closure of Hammersmith Bridge and the extended delays in starting repair works. The broken bridge has placed yet more strain on local businesses already pushed to breaking point by the pandemic. School children and adults face huge deviations to their school and work commutes. Since the bridge’s closure to vehicle traffic in 2019, almost two years ago, the local authorities and central Government have consistently argued over who should pay to repair the bridge, shifting blame and responsibility between the various political parties and stakeholders. To the fury and astonishment of SW Londoners, they still have no confirmed funds, nor agreed action plan to repair the bridge. As businesses re-open post Lockdown, the severe traffic congestion and pollution issues around Putney, Chiswick and Kew Bridges will return as a result of the loss of this major London artery. In a recent survey, 88% of those interviewed in the local area said the bridge closure had a significant negative effect on their mental health.

Local residents are now accusing Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Transport, of misleading the public. On Wednesday 31st March he claimed on Twitter that Hammersmith and Fulham council had not presented a financial plan (see Tweet below). However a day later, Baroness Charlotte Vere, the junior minister in his department, wrote to Helen Pennant Rea, the Chair of the Hammersmith Bridge SOS residents’ group that campaigns for the bridge re-opening, saying that the financial plans had been received and the Department for Transport was working with the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham on the future feasibility.

Helen said: “We feel for London’s rowers and their anger, as we do the hundreds of thousands of others whose lives have been impacted by the bridge closure for the last two years. We now know Grant Shapps MP the Secretary of State for Transport is playing politics with the lives and livelihoods of those in this area. Whilst he claims publicly to have received no financial plans from the local council, his own department has written to us contradicting what he has said. It’s disappointing that he prefers to blame the problem on local politicians from other parties and focus on the more glamorous multi-billion pound legacy projects like bridges and tunnels to Northern Ireland.”

Jess Eddie, three-time British Olympic rower and medallist in the Rio Olympics said “The impact of the broken bridge on British rowing, other water sports and river users has been huge, confining hundreds of boats to a small section of the river. A closed Hammersmith Bridge will stop a number of important river events and races that people train for year-round, some of which have been taking place for over 100 years. Unless Grant Shapps shows some leadership and commits to a repair solution, we’ll be looking at the cancellation of next year’s boat race too.”

Mark Luciani, Captain of London Rowing Club commented: ”We really hope the Government will listen to our request and put an end to these fundamentally un-necessary delays in repairing Hammersmith Bridge, that hugely compromise a key sport for everybody from elite athletes through to school children. The time has come for our nation’s leaders to stop playing politics with the bridge and listen to locals. You got Brexit done. Now get our bridge done.”

With thanks to Fulham Reach Boat Club, the Thames Rowing Club, the London Rowing Club and Vesta Rowing Club without whose help this event would not have been possible!

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