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A Wapping opportunity

  • July 14th, 2010

Residents of Wapping in London’s Docklands were deprived on their main transport link for over two years as the East London Line metamorphosed into part of the London Overground network. Now re-established to the wider world, the locals have clearly developed an appetite for travel, and are lobbying for the riverside town to be added to the Thames Clipper commuter boat route. Given that boats already come past every twenty minutes, that a new service would offer journey times of less than ten minutes to Canary Wharf and Tower Bridge, and the potential interchange with the Overground, the attractions are obvious.

The sticking point is Wapping pier – currently used for private hire services and not suitable for the demands of the Clipper service without “substantial upgrades.” Even though no one appears to have quantified the costs of these upgrades, stakeholders are queuing up to announce that they will not fund any improvements. Head of the line appears to be Kulveer Ranger, the Mayor of London’s Director for Transport Policy who confirms “while all parties support the development of commuter services for Wapping, unfortunately this particular pier requires significant funding to be brought back into use and there is no scope for this identified in the current TfL business plan.”

The irony of boats being unable to stop in the heart of London’s “Docklands” notwithstanding, the rejection of Wapping pier may be an ominous portent for transport enhancements in the new “Age of Austerity.” For in the discussion of Wapping pier, stakeholders appear to be focused on (lack of) funds rather than value for money. In the rush to conclude that the scheme cannot be afforded, have people paused to review the business case for developing Wapping pier? How much of the improvements could be funded through the fare box? What other private sector investment can be leveraged?

In the current climate, new schemes that stack up based on socio-economic benefits may indeed be unaffordable. But to reject schemes out of hand that could be self funding in the long term is a worrying trend. One hopes that this is an isolated incident, but if the public sector is going to reject new infrastructure schemes on sight, then the onus shifts back to private scheme promoters, both to demonstrate a compelling business case and identify innovative funding structures to bring the schemes to life. Whether Wapping pier can become such a scheme remains to be seen.