The new Tory proposals to give greater power over the River Thames to Boris Johnson are a useful step forward in a campaign that I and the think-tank Policy Exchange have helped wage to make the river a genuine public transport highway.
Our pamphlet, At a Rate of Knots, describes how – in under three years, and for an initial outlay of just £30 million – we could create a new, waterborne Tube line, with a frequent service of high-speed boats at 20 piers from Putney to Woolwich. That is about a quarter of the time, and less than a hundredth of the money, that a similar project would need on land.
It would never be stopped by traffic or points failures. It would bring new links to places badly served by the transport system, and much-needed relief to the whole network. It would seize imaginations and raise spirits. Hundreds of thousands of Londoners would be liberated from their subterranean holes, travelling instead with the wind in their hair and the matchless spectacle of the world’s greatest city before their eyes.
But it’s never happened – has, indeed, become one of the oldest chestnuts of London transport – and one of the most important reasons for that is the bureaucratic resistance of the Port of London Authority. Probably the single greatest power on the river, the PLA is also among the most important roadblocks (mixed metaphor alert) to greater use of the Thames. So it’s good that Boris is likely to be given powers to appoint members of the PLA board. As the Tories say, the PLA needs to become a “more transparent and accountable body, better able to deliver innovative solutions on how we get the best use possible out of the Thames.”
I smiled to myself a few months ago when a rival, Labour blogger with a reliable record of not knowing very much announced that Policy Exchange’s river report had “sunk at a rate of knots“. (One more triumph for London Labour, by the way – opposing yet another transport project which is popular with the public, purely on the grounds that the hated Johnson supports it!)
I’ve known for a while that today’s news was going to happen – though the way it emerged suggests that the national Tories were slightly bounced into announcing it today. It is the first of several tangible steps forward which I and the other authors of the report have been discussing with TfL and City Hall. Increasing the use of the river won’t happen overnight – nothing ever does in Britain – but there are strong grounds for hoping that it will happen.