The Bridge To Nowhere, Colliers Wood, London, SW19
|Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org||Last updated: 30th June 2012|
|Is this Merton Council's greatest embarrassment?|
|PUTTING WHO FIRST?*|
|*“Putting You First” was Merton Council's “mission statement” for a number of years of the bridge debacle. It now seems to have been dropped. Hmm.|
|How could this happen?|
"The recreation component of the [Connolly Leatherworks] development is an 8 metre wide landscaped riverside walkway and cycleway along the west bank of the Wandle. Together, [sic] with the new bridge over the Wandle, this will form a link between Wandle Park and the Wandle Valley [sic] Nature Park." (Councillor Brian White, Merton Council's Cabinet Member for Regeneration, 6th December 2000)
As you can see, it doesn't.
The bridge was an obligation placed on the developers, Bewley Homes (since taken over by George Wimpey; now Taylor Wimpey) as part of its "Section 106" agreement to obtain planning permission (99/P9136) from Merton Council for the development - to give something back to the community, in return for being allowed to build a large number of houses and flats.
The original elevation shows a bridge with a drop of about 1m along its length, with the plan showing its east end linking to an existing footpath. It was intended to be part of the Wandle Trail, with a footnote in the leaflet (dated 2003) that it had a planned construction date of 2005. The leaflet has since been quietly updated to show 2005 crossed out and 2010 put in its place! Someone has a sense of humour...
The last property on Bewley Street was sold in May 2003, but bridge there was none - Bewley/Wimpey had their money, so what was the "thoughtful, responsible house builder" doing for the community in return?
At some stage the Environment Agency objected to the design of the bridge as it could form an obstruction to the flow of water in flood conditions. No part could be lower than the North Road bridge just to the north, resulting in a 2m drop at the east end which would need to be accommodated. Furthermore, the approach would not be allowed to interfere with "flood plain storage" so would have to be a fabricated, open structure rather than solid banking. (The cost of this was suggested by the council in an internal email of October 2008 as £75 000 and is believed to be much greater.)
So, the plans had to be scrapped. Should Bewley Homes have consulted the Environment Agency before submitting them to the council? Should the council have checked?
Control of Merton Council passed from Labour to Conservative at the local elections of 4th May 2006. The inevitable disruption and possibly different approach to Wimpey may have contributed to the mess.
Pressure seemed to be on to do something, and in November 2006 an "easement" document drawn up by Wimpey was signed and sealed by the council, giving Wimpey permission to site bridge supports on council land. This document contains drawings corresponding to the current bridge, with the minimum soffit height (lowest point) as 12.2m (above sea level), but apparently showing the bridge ending only just above solid ground level, even though this is at about 10m. Also in the covering letter (written by a Mr J I Holmar, Engineer at George Wimpey West London and addressed to Brian Fraser, Merton's Estates Surveyor, Property Management and Review) is the statement "We will cranelift the new footbridge onto the abutments and fix it in place, with the access being blocked off as as we will not be constructing an access ramp. This will be done by the Local Authority at a time of their choosing."
Was Merton Council bamboozled by Wimpey or did it ignore the statement under pressure to get some results?
The "bridge", or "Wandle Meadow Nature Park Viewing Platform" as it should be more properly known, was eventually installed on 20th June 2007. And ever since, the residents of Trinity Ward (Conservative) have been able to look down on the residents of Colliers Wood Ward (Labour).
|“We have as a Council ended up in the really daft position of having a half-built bridge - madness in my view. However, we are where we are and need to put an appropriate spin on it.”|
Local newspaper The Post published an article on the subject on 21st February 2008, in which John Hill (Interim Head of Public Protection and Development) said, “it would appear that a bridge has now been constructed without the details being approved by the council's planning department ... [We] will be seeking an early resolution to the case.” Either he wasn't aware of that deal with Wimpey, or wasn't saying so. The quote above from Lyn Carpenter comes from a flurry of internal emails resulting from The Post contacting the council again after one of its readers pointed out that that “early resolution” had not materialised.
After the conversion of the "unfinished, seemingly useless bridge into a site of entertainment and expectation," as part of an art installation in November 2008, I decided to get involved. The council's planning enforcement department told me that they thought that Wimpey were going to do something but hadn't heard from them since July, so I contacted Taylor Wimpey via its "corporate responsibility" web page. The immediate response was from a PR agency (no, I don't see much on their site either), merely to ask "what publication [do] you write for?" and after refusing to give a convincing reason why they needed to know, completely ignored me when I told them I was a private individual. Surprising behaviour from contractors of a company which "takes ethical behaviour very seriously", don't you think?
I eventually got through to someone via the UK Head Office.
It took three months of pushing to get a site meeting arranged with council employees, a local councillor and potential bridge users on 5th March 2009. The man from Taylor Wimpey had rummaged in his filing cabinet that morning and found the stitched-up easement document absolving his company of any responsibility for finishing the bridge, so that was that. This seemed to be a surprise to the council members present.
The council consulted its legal department, so nothing happened for six weeks until I chased them up and then was told that it looked like they didn't have a leg to stand on. Just a bridge which can't be crossed. Meanwhile I put in a Freedom of Information request which initially resulted in only the original planning application and approval, until I pointed out areas where documentation should exist, whereupon I got about 25 megabytes of scanned material as PDFs. Even this can't be all that the council must have, but it was a good effort.
I wrote to the then Deputy Leader and Cabinet Minister for Corporate Resources, Samantha George, on 21st May. All she could offer after nearly a month's delay was: “I can advise you now that Officers from the Greenspaces Team are currently looking into the permissions, design, engineering, construction and cost requirements of completing this bridge.” Erm, they have been "looking into" it for nearly two years, Cllr George.
The renewed interest resulted in the bridge making the front page of The Post: "We are looking at how to progress this and are working with the developers for as quick a completion as possible," another council mouthpiece in the form of Cllr William Brierly informed them. Beginning to sound familiar? Dream on, Cllr Brierly - do you really think Taylor Wimpey is going to come to your rescue now? Why not spend some of the £10 million the council has stashed away for a rainy day (i.e. next year's council tax, set just before the local elections)?
At the council's Overview and Scrutiny meeting on Thursday 12th June, Council Leader David Williams and Chief Executive Ged Curran gave a presentation on policy plans which included improving the relationship between the east and west of the borough, getting Wimbledon and Mitcham more interconnected, etc. It was only natural, then, for quick-witted Cllr Sheila Knight of Colliers Wood to ask if they were going to do something about the bridge to nowhere, especially considering that it links a Conservative ward to a Labour ward. Once everyone had stopped laughing, David Williams was unable to answer.
From a plaque on the bridge I was able to find the company who made it, Sarum Hardwood. They kindly consulted their records to tell me the exact date of installation, so we decided we would hold a second birthday party for it on Saturday 20th June. Matthew Morris from the BBC came to film the bridge and interview local residents and John Hill the day before (a weekday as they have longer broadcast slots). The story was transmitted as part of the 1830 BBC London News programme, and also appeared on the web, where it reached at least No. 2 in the "most read" list. In the clip, John Hill says, “I'd just like to say on behalf of the council how sorry we are that it's reached this particular situation. It's a great frustration to us; it's an embarrassment to us as well. We've negotiated with the developer in a very positive manner to secure this and other facilities and it's a great sadness I think for everybody that that hasn't come to fruition, so it is not a laughing matter, absolutely not.”
I put up several posters in the locality to advertise the party. The only one which was removed was at the west end of the bridge, visible from Bewley Street (although no-one contacted me through the website address shown on it). This does chime with the view that the residents of Bewley Street are schizophrenic about the bridge being open. The part of the street which runs along the river is not a public right of way, but a path has been constructed running between the street and the river from Byegrove Road to the bridge. On the one hand, residents at the north end are only too keen to remonstrate with members of the public trying to cross the fence erected slightly bizarrely to block access to North Road (and which they have tried to get the council to raise). This is the route someone would naturally want to take if they got to the bridge and found they couldn't cross it, and is the route that was always there before the development was built. On the other hand, you get the strong impression that they would rather have no-one walk along the Bewley Street path at all, bringing to mind the quote in the first Post article: “It is not a private waterfront for the people who live there.” Indeed, while I was on the side of the bridge setting up the equipment for the party I was handed a cordless phone by the wife of the director of the management company, on which was her husband. He was abroad and not aware of our campaign or the television coverage. While he told me that the company had been trying to get the council to finish the bridge (something I'd seen in the FoI material, with names redacted), he also made clear that the road, waterfront and bridge were owned outright by the company, and that the public had a right to cross it but not necessarily attach balloons to it and didn't exactly offer any words of encouragement. You'd think we'd be “on the same side,” wouldn't you? His wife didn't stick around for the entertainment, either.
A small but appreciative audience enjoyed “The Water Is Wide”, “I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside” (from the end of the “pier”), and a somewhat topical version of “Down By The Riverside” with pedal-powered piano and ukulele accompaniment. We then tucked into Sarah Kipps' “unfinished cake”. Thank you to all who took part with such great gusto.
The Post again covered the story the next week, and three months later published a front-page article hailing a solution, as the council had apparently accepted responsibility for the cock-up. Unfortunately, it was not to be.
Then, in a bizarre twist, the council spent more than twice the estimated amount to finish the unfinished bridge on another bridge over the Wandle at the other end of the borough! And this one is virtually touching an existing road bridge! This was covered by the other local paper, the Guardian. David Williams, the leader of the council, is quoted as saying, “With regards to Bewley Bridge, we are carrying out a feasibility study as well as environmental and topographical surveys, and are finalising plans for the completion of the bridge with construction scheduled to start next year.” Is there an echo in here?
Another year of inaction by Merton Council. Following the elections of 6th May, control passed back to Labour, and a new councillor, Gam Gurung, took up a seat in Colliers Wood Ward. He had a cunning plan to persuade the Brigade of Gurkhas to build the approach to the bridge, but, due to cuts and commitments elsewhere, this wasn't to be, either.
Another year of inaction by Merton Council. We decided the bridge needed cheering up, so threw another party, on the day before (Sunday 19th June).
The Guardian previewed it this year, with another tired old quote from a council mouthpiece, this time in the shape of Andrew Judge, who seems to show a remarkable lack of knowledge about the subject: “We will continue to press the developer to complete the bridge. However, we are also looking at alternative solutions and will keep residents updated on the situation.” A couple of points to note, Andrew:
There were some remarkably new-looking signs on the Bewley Street side of the river announcing that there was no through access and the bridge was closed. Whether these were put there as a result of the newspaper article I don't know. We had cake, music, poetry... and a ladder!
Guess what? Another six months of inaction by Merton Council, up to the fifth anniversary of the bridge's installation.
On 23rd May, I contacted the council via their "JustAsk" address, which states, “we will normally reply within 2 working days.” I asked: “The farcical "Bridge to Nowhere" has its fifth birthday on 20th June. Can you please provide a statement giving your current position on this matter. Thank you.”
A week later and there was no response, so I called and the person who distributes the emails said she would forward it again with high priority. On 12th June, spookily just when Keith Spears had asked the same question due to an imminent residents' association meeting, I got this depressingly familiar fact-free statement: “Merton Council is currently considering options to fund the completion of the bridge. We understand that this delay is frustrating for residents. However, we are doing all we can to resolve the situation and will update residents once we have further information.”
I replied with a few past quotes, saying I didn't believe a word and would they actually tell me if they were doing anything or not. More than two weeks later I got: “...they are proactively looking at other sources to fund the work that’s needed to the bridge.” Looks like someone has been wringing out that thesaurus again.
I also contacted the Environment Agency who gave a more detailed response. I am considering how to take this forward.
Meanwhile, on its fifth birthday, we had another party. All six councillors from Colliers Wood and Trinity wards were invited and asked to RSVP. This was the result:
|Laxmi Attawar (Lab., Colliers Wood)||Apologies|
|Nick Draper (Lab,. Colliers Wood)||Attended|
|Gam Garung (Lab,. Colliers Wood)||Attended|
|James Holmes (Con., Trinity)||No response|
|Krystal Miller (Con., Trinity)||No response|
|Simon Withey (Con., Trinity)||No response|
More poems, music, laughter and cake. The Guardian covered it - thank you to Auriel Glanville for taking pictures and organising the article.
Afterwards, I emailed the three councillors who had not responded, asking why. Krystal Miller replied, suggesting I put a question to a full council meeting, which happens twice a year, the next being on 11th July. Good tip - the following question (limit 50 words) has been submitted:
The Unfinished Bridge means access along the Wandle is worse than it was before the Connolly Development, and the entire Section 106 compensation has been squandered. Would it therefore not be sensible to redeem matters by re-opening the footpath from the bridge to North Road as an interim measure?
Copyright © Matthew Marks 2009-2012. All Rights Reserved. "Merton Snail" image copyright © Christopher Killerby 2009. Contact: email@example.com.