Question from Alison Hancock, Resident
“H&F cabinet paper December 2014, stated that Bridge strengthening and repairs were due to commence in July 2015. Can the Council now provide residents with the reasons for the failure to commence work in 2015?”
Answer from Councillor Stephen Cowan, Leader of the Council
“Thank you very much for your question.
Actually, the work was set to take place and they discovered significant failings throughout the bridge. The Mayor of London at the time gave us £25 million for the bridge works to happen but it very quickly became evident as different parts of the bridge were peeled back that it was riddled with corrosion. And that corrosion, very likely given it was a suspension bridge, would have other detrimental effects throughout the suspension mechanism. So, it was determined instead that further works would go on investigating the bridge in order to deem that the works that were carried out were suitable.
And you are quite right to say that almost nothing could have happened until that point in 2015, and therefore the reason so many problems were with the bridge is because no one had ever checked it properly before for a very long period of time. And that's why the works didn't go ahead. And indeed, it's not just 2015, there were several points where they thought maybe we've now understood what's wrong with the bridge and we'd like to go ahead, and then new problems were discovered often with the use of new technology. But as soon as we started undoing the bolts and checking the suspension structure and looking at the bearings we couldn't believe what we found, and that's been the problem throughout.”
“Six years to continually survey a bridge to me seems quite excessive, how do we know that this will not continue to happen and that we'll never get to mending this bridge?”
Answer to the supplementary question
“Essentially if you look at it it's the first suspension bridge to cross the Thames when it was opened in 1887 and it's a particularly unusual suspension bridge because the mechanisms are held in place by cast iron pedestals. If you look at the top of the bridge the bearings were meant to move the very peculiar chains left and right as different pressures were applied. Now all of that seized up within the previous 10 to 40 years and as a consequence when they began to peel that back two things happened which is there were new levels of complexity discovered and secondly the budget began to shoot up.
So very quickly, and I can't quite remember what date it was but I think it was around about 2017, the bridge was being talked as costing £40 million to fix. Now, as you will see later on if you wait for the debate, that's an astonishing amount of money. And even then things weren't conclusive. This is a bridge that would look at home in something like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, it's not a modern bridge. It's made out of old materials. And the legal responsibility for Hammersmith & Fulham Council throughout, whichever administration has been in, is to understand the mechanisms and to maintain it. It's not to build replacement bridges – that would be someone else's call – and it's not to provide any other river crossings. It’s purely to maintain the bridge.
The reason it's cost so much money – and it's telling the task force is now what six, seven weeks since it was announced on what was meant to be a two-week task force – is because I think everyone's realizing the complexity of this issue.
If you talk to any of the world-class engineers that we have hired then you do get that knowledge and it is not something, really, that is easy to fix. And any council that's had, over the last 10 years, such huge budget cuts just didn't have £40 or indeed £163 million sitting around.
I would say at the same time as looking for capital money to spend on the bridge you had austerity introduced in 2010 by the Lib Dem / Conservative government and both Nick Clegg and David Cameron said it would be no consequences for it, it was good economics - well actually as we now see it was economically illiterate. But what it meant was local authorities up and down the country had both their capital and revenue accounts cut by significant amounts, and that too has been an issue – and is possibly the major issue as we come to fix it because we now have a plan to fix it, we just simply don't have the money.”