It was the longest bridge of its kind — not just in London, but the world. What went wrong?
Renewed interest and dashed hopes for the Rotherhithe crossing
Afternoon — back in 2016, east Londoners were promised a high-tech walking and cycling bridge. Now, they’re getting a ferry. There’s been renewed interest this week in the Rotherhithe to Canary Wharf crossing, a story of grand infrastructure plans that dwindled to very little. The full story of what went wrong and what’s happening now is after your Sunday roundup below.
Plus: London’s school closure crisis, a rival to the Shard, and a new insect restaurant.
Enjoying the Spy? Help us create a quality news magazine for Londoners by pledging a subscription to the Spy. You won’t pay anything yet, but you’ll automatically become a paid member when we launch. Like a crowdfunding campaign, in slow-motion. Digestible round-ups, detailed features and hard-hitting investigations — all for less than a pint each month.
What we’ve spied
🎒 The sheer scale of London’s school closure crisis has been revealed this week — new data suggests 7,900 fewer places will be taken up by pupils over the next four years. It’s the equivalent of 128 fewer classes at primary schools and 134 fewer at secondaries across the capital. The stats are from London Councils, the umbrella organisation for local borough authorities, and is based on London’s declining birth rate, which fell 17% between 2012 and 2021. Lambeth, the City, Lewisham and Westminster are seeing the biggest drops in school demand — though there are a few boroughs where demand is expected to rise, like Havering, Kingston upon Thames and Barking and Dagenham. Much of the blame for the crisis is being placed on the fact families are increasingly priced out of the capital, and last month Hackney and Lambeth announced major cuts to places and school closures across their boroughs. But so far it’s mostly primary schools that have been impacted in London — this week’s data suggests secondary schools may soon be on the chopping block. One example of a school closure crisis this week in Islington, where the borough council has announced it wants to close Pooles Park Primary school in Finsbury Park over plummeting pupil numbers.
🛥️ Farewell, Oceandiva, we hardly knew you — plans for the £25m mega party boat on the Thames have been suddenly ditched. “It was just too big,” is the view of one delighted resident who led a campaign against the 1,500-capacity, three-storey vessel that would have hosted late-night parties and club nights on the river. Oceandiva was going to be moored at Butler’s Wharf in Bermondsey when not out on the water, but nearby residents on Shad Thames have now declared victory in their efforts to sink the plans. Others have taken a dimmer view — “First the Sphere, now the Oceandiva boat: Another planned London attraction gets canned,” runs City AM’s headline. Announcing the decision, Oceandiva’s owners, Smart Group, said “regulatory challenges and infrastructural inadequacies” had “proved too great to overcome”, and added that it was “a missed opportunity” for London.
🏙️ More details on a new contender for London’s tallest skyscraper: One Undershaft, a 74-storey tower that will now be the same height as The Shard. Eric Parry Architects have submitted revised plans to the City of London Corporation, revealing a new stepped design and a slightly higher height of 309.6m (1,015.8ft), which would make it the capital’s joint highest building. One Undershaft had initially received approval in 2016, and included a public consultation on the proposals, which will see London’s highest public viewing gallery at the top of the skyscraper. Its planned location is between the Gherkin and the Cheesegrater buildings.
🚨 The manhunt for the suspect in the chemical attack near Clapham Common on Wednesday is still underway. The attack has been covered extensively in national media in the past few days, so here are some key points just to keep you up to speed:
The suspect, Abdul Ezedi, was last seen at Tower Hill Underground Station at 9.30pm on the night of the attack. A CCTV still from the station shows him with significant injuries to his face. Police believe Ezedi had travelled down from Newcastle for the attack and may now be fleeing back north.
A woman and her two daughters are still being treated in hospital. Police say they were known to the attacker and that the woman, who is in a critical but stable condition, has sustained “life-changing” injuries. Police later said her daughters, three and eight, suffered injuries not "as serious as first thought". Four members of the public and five police officers were injured as they intervened at the scene, but they’ve now all been discharged from hospital.
There’s been a lot of attention on Ezedi’s background. Believed to originally be from Afghanistan, Ezedi was granted refugee status in 2021 or 2022, after two unsuccessful applications. He had been convicted of sexual assault and exposure in 2018. It’s prompted the prime minister’s official spokesperson to say that Rishi Sunak does not think “foreign criminals should be able to stay” in the UK.
The local MP for Streatham has hit back at that focus though. Bell Ribeiro-Addy told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday that she was concerned by the direction of the questioning into Ezedi’s background. “The primary issue is violence against women and girls,” she said.
Corrosive substance attacks have been rising recently in London. Recent figures from the Met Police show 107 attacks in 2022, up from 74 in 2021, and London had the second-highest number of attacks that year in England and Wales, after Northumbria.
🗳️ A couple of London MPs have announced they’re standing down at the next election — most prominently Mike Freer, the Conservative MP for Finchley and Golders Green, who’s said he’s been driven out by hate. Freer, who’s been an outspoken defender of Israel, says he’s quitting after a “constant string” of abuse and death threats, and that the “final straw” was a suspected arson attack on his constituency office in December. Voters in his constituency, which has a large Jewish population, have told the Guardian of their shock, with one local rabbi saying Freer’s decision has “confirmed everything the community has been feeling since 7 October — that there’s been a significant rise in antisemitism”. Another London MP who won’t be standing at the next election is Karen Buck, the Labour MP for Westminster for 27 years. She’s not put out a public statement herself but Westminster Extra understands she has cited the ill-health of her husband. Finally, there’s Bob Neil, the Bromley and Chislehurst MP for the Conservatives, who’s said he’s standing down to spend more time with his wife, who recently suffered a stroke.
🚇 City Hall is trialing lower off-peak Tube fares on Fridays in an effort to get passenger numbers back to pre-pandemic levels. Sadiq Khan says the trial is beginning in March then lasting three months, and comes not long after the mayor froze fares across London’s train and bus networks until 2025. Midweek Tube usage is now about 85% of what it was pre-pandemic, but that falls to about 73% on Fridays. More interesting policy ideas from City Hall: Khan says he will monitor the effectiveness of Paris’s plan to charge SUV owners a higher parking fee, if it’s approved at an upcoming referendum.
🐜 BED BUG WATCH 🐜 Our hearts go out to any London civil servants itching at the moment — a government office in Canary Wharf was emptied this week after a bed bug report on the fourth floor. A sniffer dog was drafted in for a search as treatment teams descended on the office block, and it’s now being treated every four weeks. The scare follows all the paranoia a couple of months back that the bugs could be imported to the capital from Paris, where they were taking over trains, schools, and cinema. Slightly ironically, the London office block in question, 10 South Colonnade, is home to the UK Health Security Agency. One other recent bug spotting we have to mention: a library in west London had to temporarily shut in December after bed bugs were found in returned books.
🪦 A symbol of Camden Market’s weird trajectory in recent years is shutting down: Tomb Raider: The Live Experience. Having been plonked in the middle of Stables Market since 2022, born out of the hope a new “experience economy” could be the market’s future, the attraction based on the Playstation classic has now announced it’s permanently closing. Recommended reading: this recent piece by Clive Martin for The Fence — When One Grows Tired of Cyberdog — in which he charts how far Camden has moved on from the heyday of the ‘indie sleaze’ scene. He writes of the market around Stables: “This is the experience economy brought to a logical endpoint, a shopping precinct where nothing lasts longer than a few mouthfuls, or a quick run round the Tomb Raider: The Live Experience.”
👮♀️ Unhinged footage from central London, when a Met Police officer tried to stop a Christian busker playing on Oxford Street, before sticking her tongue out. The Met has now apologised for the behaviour of the officer, who had told gospel singer Harmonie London that she was “not allowed to sing church songs outside church grounds”. London, who replied “That’s a load of rubbish, you’re allowed”, has now found her cause taken up by all sorts, including Ann Widecombe, GB News and advocacy groups like Christian Concern.
🔍 And finally, we leave you with:
The Traitors cast member who works for TfL
The new circular Tube maps popping up at some stations
1 ferry vs 1,000s of commuters: Is there still a case for the Rotherhithe crossing?
A bright idea popped up on social media this week: why not build a new river crossing in east London, at a much-needed spot between Rotherhithe and Canary Wharf? It turns out the idea had already been had, then extensively worked up, then unceremoniously shelved not that long ago.
Much excitement gripped the civil engineering scene back in March 2019, when it was revealed that TfL wanted to build the world’s longest and tallest lift bridge in London. Dubbed the Rotherhithe to Canary Wharf Crossing, the bridge was designed solely for walking and cycling, and featured a lifting platform to let river traffic through. For a close approximation, there’s the Arthur Kill Vertical Lift Bridge in New York, currently the world’s longest lift bridge, though it’s for freight trains. East London’s lack of bridges compared to the west is well documented, a reflection of the historic disparity between the capital’s two halves, as well as just geography, with the Thames wider and harder to build across from Tower Bridge onwards. It’s also a massive pain for many who live on one side of the river and work on the other. There were high hopes the Rotherhithe crossing would mean a step change in foot and bike journeys out east.
Today though, the plan is on ice. TfL had paused work on the bridge by July 2019, citing mounting costs. Instead, a far less permanent solution is on the way: a new ferry. This all came as a bitter disappointment to Tom Harwood, the political commentator who had revived the Rotherhithe crossing chat in the first place: “Stuff like this could happen if the mayor didn’t make his real terms 8% cut to (non-commuting) tube fairs this election year.” TfL, on the other hand, blames a lack of funding certainty from central government for its abandonment of the bridge.
The case for the Rotherhithe crossing hasn’t gone away though, at least according to those the Spy spoke to. “I still think a fixed crossing at Rotherhithe is the best way forward in the long term,” says Caroline Pidgeon, the Liberal Democrat leader in the London Assembly and the deputy chair of its transport committee. Pigeon points to the recent and upcoming development planned around Rotherhithe and Canary Wharf as reason enough to improve links. Stroll around Rotherhithe in particular, a historic dock district, and you’re struck by how relatively unbuilt up it is, a product of its poor connectivity. But that will change — the wider areas of Canada Water and the Isle of Dogs are earmarked as key spots for growth in the London Plan, City Hall’s major planning document for the capital. 36,000 new homes and 120,000 new jobs are expected to come to the region by 2041.
And the current walking and cycling options for some of those 120,000 new commuters aren’t great. One option is the Greenwich foot tunnel, which opened in 1902 and links up with Millwall on the river’s northern bank. But with 4,000 people now typically using it each day, the foot tunnel is pretty much at full capacity during peak hours. The other options are the Rotherhithe tunnel and or even Tower Bridge further west, but there you share your space with cars. “East of Blackfriars your choice is to get off and walk your bike (Greenwich) or chance it with horrible traffic (Tower Bridge, Rotherhithe),” Simon Munk of the London Cycling Campaign tells us. Rotherhithe can be particularly grim on a bike, as one Londoner recently explained online: “It's not illegal to cycle through there, but doing so is crazy! It's an old Victorian tunnel with a poor extraction system so the air quality is terrible. Regularly riding through the tunnel is going to affect your health.”
The roots of the Rotherhithe crossing project go back to at least 2008, when walking and cycling charity Sustrans started pushing for the idea. But it was when Sadiq Khan became mayor in 2016 that things became serious. Khan committed to the bridge not once but twice in his first major strategy document upon entering office, A City for All Londoners:
“The absence of river crossings in the east is a constraint on many people’s working lives and I recognise the importance of building more, beginning with the Silvertown Tunnel which is planned to open in the early 2020s. I will also progress plans for a new bridge for pedestrians and cyclists between Rotherhithe and Canary Wharf…”
And then again:
“The delivery of ‘Healthy Streets’ [Khan’s plan to reduce car use] will be different depending on the location, but it will have a significant impact across London, because streets and roads make up around 80 per cent of all public space. A pedestrianised Oxford Street would embody this important shift right in the centre of the city, and my plan to link Rotherhithe and Canary Wharf with a new bridge designed specifically for cyclists and pedestrians will be another flagship feature.”
The project was a no-brainer for Khan, who has ambitions to make 80% of Londoners’ trips be by foot, by bike or by public transport by 2041. And there was clear backing from locals — a consultation that ran in November 2017 found “overwhelming public support” for a new crossing at Rotherhithe, with 85% of the 6,094 respondents saying they were in favour of the walking and cycling bridge. So TfL got to work, later hiring the engineering firm Atkins to scope it all out.
What’s particularly striking looking back is just how far along the plans got — to quote a former mayor of London, the bridge was “oven ready” by the time it was dropped. ‘Concept design’ work was finished, meaning key parameters about the bridge’s structural form were finalised. TfL had also figured out its operational plan — how crowds would be managed during bridge lifts, how it would communicate with river and bridge users. The actual worksites and logistical setup needed during the bridge’s construction were even identified. Only a “final public consultation” was left to get the bridge over the line legally speaking, TfL’s Programme and Investments Committee would write. Indeed it would later be revealed that TfL had already racked up a £13m bill by the time it shelved the plans in the summer of 2019. There are echoes here of the notorious Garden Bridge fiasco, the failed plan to build a pedestrian bridge covered in flowers and trees in central London that ended up costing the public £43m despite being abandoned.
It was not to be though. TfL had initially estimated the bridge would cost £350m in 2018, but this estimate had risen by more than £100m to £453m the following year. And that was just the midpoint estimate for the cost — TfL put the upper ceiling of the project as high as £600m. That was all despite efforts from Atkins to shave off £135m from construction costs with some design tweaks, like changing the bridge’s alignment, using concrete instead of steel for the bridge’s towers, and reducing the width of the deck.
What was an especially bitter blow to some was the timing of the abandonment. The Rotherhithe crossing was cancelled only a day after plans for the Silvertown tunnel, a four-lane motorway under the Thames, were unveiled. Silvertown is the first river road tunnel to be built in the capital in 30 years, and when opened in 2025 it will link its namesake in Newham with Greenwich. Many are arguing against the need for another crossing motor traffic though, like Dominic Leggett, of the Stop Silvertown Tunnel Coalition. When we reached out for this piece he told us: "Instead of investing in urgent maintenance of existing river crossings, or building a vital new crossing for bikes and cargo bikes in the east of London, Sadiq Khan has blown billions on a massive new road crossing at Silvertown that won't allow cyclists or pedestrians to cross, that isn't designed to optimise public transport, and that TfL's own figures show will lock in massively increased motor traffic, pollution and carbon emissions for decades to come”.
All is not lost for east London pedestrians and cyclists though. For a while, TfL was considering bringing its own ferry service for the crossing, but it mothballed those plans too in 2020, when the pandemic blew a hole in its finances. Instead, Thames Clippers, the private company that runs much of the ferries in London, is now upgrading its existing Rotherhithe-Canary Wharf service. There’s already a ferry that runs at the spot, taking three minutes to get across the river, but it’s diesel and has a capacity of 100 passengers and just 5 bikes. A new, fully electric upgrade is now scheduled to start in February 2025, running every 15 minutes and boosting capacity to 150 passengers and 100 bikes. Thames Clippers is also revamping its piers on both banks of the river, having submitted the plans to Southwark and Tower Hamlets councils at the end of last year.
Can a ferry be anywhere near as good as a bridge? From TfL’s own internal assessments, not quite. “An enhanced ferry would be the lowest cost option and could be delivered more quickly,” wrote its Programmes and Investment Committee in October 2017, back when it was still pursuing the bridge. “But unlike a fixed link crossing, it is unlikely to deliver a step-change in walking and cycling accessibility, or realise significant wider economic benefits”.
Still, there was at least some of optimism about the ferry from the Spy’s ring round. When we reached out to local MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark Neil Coyle for his thoughts, he told us: "It is great news that the current ferry crossing is being upgraded and made more environmentally friendly. As ever, improvements to London transport have national benefits, with the new electric boats being made on the Isle of Wight. When London does well, the whole country benefits”. He also called for greater support from central government for TfL’s projects: “The government has hit London hard, and especially the TfL budget. We are the only major capital city that does not get national funding towards our transport system and the national Covid lockdowns decimated TfL’s revenue, including from advertising.”
Munk thinks the ferries could have the potential to make up for the bridge, if the price is right. “There’s a good possibility ferries could take its place – and further east too. Electric ferries, which run regularly and have ramps that are shallow enough to get on those in wheelchairs, using handcycles or those using cargo cycles, would be a good solution. But the issue then is cost to passengers. As with the cable car, simply put, most Londoners who cycle can’t or won’t pay lots to cross the Thames. Make ferries cheap or free, you’ve got something useful”. Pigeon agreed on pricing: “Given the financial constraints faced by TfL at the moment a regular ferry crossing is the most realistic option, but it will need to have very low or even free ticket priced if it's too be successful.”
There’s technically still a chance the bridge might be revived one day. All the work that went into was wound up by TfL in such a way that it could be brought back off the shelf again. However, in a statement provided to the Spy, TfL made no indication that would be happening anytime soon. A spokesperson told us: “In June 2019, TfL's Programme and Investments Committee agreed that TfL should pause work on a proposed walking and cycling bridge between Rotherhithe and Canary Wharf and instead return to the optioneering process, which included looking at whether a new ferry service could operate as an alternative. Since July 2020, that work has also been paused due to the pandemic and the need to secure long-term capital investment funding from government.
“We remain committed to delivering wider improvements across the area, including delivering Cycleway 4, new cycle routes from Rotherhithe to Peckham, and Hackney to the Isle of Dogs, and supporting the expansion of Santander Cycles. TfL will continue to work with existing and prospective new operators to encourage commercially viable passenger services on the River Thames.”
We also asked the Mayor of London’s office for comment on the current situation, highlighting Khan’s previous commitments to the bridge, but we were pointed to TfL’s statement.
Thanks for reading London Spy! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support our work.