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Spotlight on the Thames

Spotlight on the Thames
From the closure of the Coryton refinery to the opening of London Gateway; from the disappointment of a biomass power station that didn’t work out, to the triumph of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee river pageant; while all ports see their ups and downs, perhaps those overseen by Richard Everitt during his nine years at the head of the Port of London Authority have been more extreme than most.

Everitt, who retires this month (March), says the highlight is easy to remember – it was 2012 and the central part that the River Thames and the Port of London played in the river pageant and London’s Olympic Games.

In fact, 2012 so successfully put the spotlight back on the river that he believes it was something of a turning point for the Thames.

London is turning to the river again, whereas for a long time it had its back to the river, both in passenger and freight terms,” he says. “To see the Thames used more and more by a greater variety of users is very encouraging.”

It wasn’t just 2012, of course. The PLA has been working hard for years to encourage more use of the river, which provides a ‘motorway’ for a wide variety of cargoes: aggregates and construction materials, petroleum products, containers, bulks, recycling materials, household refuse and construction spoil, to name a few. What’s happening now is certainly a reward for that hard work. In the past two years, intra-port freight has increased from 2m to 3.3m tonnes, and that figure is predicted to rise further.

Some of Europe’s largest ever engineering projects are going ahead in London, including Crossrail, the Northern Line extension and Thames Water’s Tideway Tunnel sewer project, and it’s hard to see how they could do so without the Thames acting as a vital logistics corridor. Millions of tonnes of tunnelling spoil is being out by river, while tunnelling equipment, tunnel sections and wide variety of construction materials are coming in. London’s roads simply couldn’t cope with the volumes involved.

For every 500 tonne barge that goes by, you have 25 fewer lorries on the roads of London. These projects will encourage investment in both people and equipment, which will serve the river long-term – and the more people see that this works, the better,” says Everitt.

London’s Mayor is an important ally in this. Boris Johnson’s vision of doubling the number of passengers using the river has been one more recent headline. But far longer term has been the Mayor of London’s ‘safeguarding’ policy, which protects 50 wharves along the tidal Thames for freight operations, effectively preventing them from being swallowed up for expensive riverside apartment blocks.

Even with this policy in place, the PLA has had to take things a step further. “The policy says you can’t do anything else with a safeguarded wharf other than use it as a wharf – but it doesn’t say you HAVE to do something,” says Everitt. In short, some owners are content to sit on their riverside investment in the hope that eventually they’ll wear down the opposition and get permission for residential development.

In response, the PLA has been pursuing a ‘reactivation strategy’ to forcibly bring disused wharves back into action.

It has taken ten years of legal and planning battles, but at last the PLA has been able to compulsorily purchase Peruvian Wharf at Newham, for use by aggregates company Bretts. There will be similar battles to follow for Richard Everitt’s successor, Robin Mortimer.

He is a former director in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), where he led the transformation of British Waterways into the new Canal & River Trust and set up the UK’s Adapting to Climate Change Programme. His previous career included acting as private secretary to three Transport and Environment Secretaries, advising on ports, aviation and London transport issues.