Arts feature

How Londoners can reclaim the River Thames

Through the centre of town, the river takes up more space than Hyde Park. And most of the proposals around it represent a huge missed opportunity

8 November 2014

9:00 AM

8 November 2014

9:00 AM

Last week, 539 apartments designed by Frank Gehry and Norman Foster were made available for off-plan purchase. This was heralded by simultaneous launches in London and Kuala Lumpur and a press release announcing Sting and Trudie Styler as early buyers. Battersea Power Station has stood unused for more than 30 years but after multiple failed attempts at redevelopment progress is now well under way towards its transformation into one of London’s most desirable addresses. Ultimately due to house 3,400 homes — only 15 per cent of which are set to be affordable — the project is emblematic of a far larger reclamation of London’s waterfront as a site for luxury housing. An 11km stretch of the south bank of the Thames snaking from Battersea in the west to Greenwich in the east is currently the subject of redevelopment proposals of unprecedented quantity and scale.

It might be thought surprising that this has not happened sooner. The power station’s decommissioning in 1983 effectively marked the last moment when central London’s riverfront supported significant industrial activity and by then maritime trade had already long departed, lured downriver by the advent of container shipping in the 1950s. The shift was brought home to me by a recent conversation with Steve Tompkins, the architect of the National Theatre’s current redevelopment project. Explaining that the building employed 150 people making props, sets and costumes, he described it as the largest factory in the city centre.

It is a transformation that lay beyond the imaginings of the authors of the 1943 County of London Plan. J.H. Forshaw and Patrick Abercrombie recorded 73 per cent of central London’s riverfront as being occupied by industry, wharves, warehouses and railways. They argued for a greater mix of activity, but their proposed reduction of industrial use by a third was rapidly outstripped by events.

A visit to the Festival of Britain in 1951 represented many Londoners’ first encounter with the Thames’s then particularly inaccessible south bank. The opening of the Jubilee Walkway in 1977 allowed for a wider colonisation but it was only with the opening of Tate Modern, the London Eye and the Millennium Bridge in 2000 that it began to be convincingly reintegrated into the life of the city. The current wave of development was unleashed by the election of Ken Livingstone as London’s Mayor in May of that year. Five months into his first term he issued a statement of interim planning guidance supporting the construction of tall buildings which he concluded by noting that he had ‘no objection in principle to London having the tallest of buildings’. After two decades during which the construction of towers had been restricted to Canary Wharf, the development potential of a large swath of the capital was transformed overnight. The policy change proved particularly impactful along the south bank of the Thames where the premium that could be charged for a river view and the freedom from overshadowing issues supported the construction of residential buildings of considerable height.

Given London’s longstanding housing shortage no one could refute the value of opening up its riverfront to development. However, one provision that Livingstone neglected to make was any form of plan that might govern the collective impact of this change to the city’s skyline or ensure that adequate transport provision was in place to allow for such a significant influx of new residents. It is a need that his successor has likewise failed to address. In fact, the Johnson administration’s planning policy has, if it were possible, proved more laissez-faire still. A succession of development proposals that met with understandable resistance from local authorities has been railroaded through by Sir Edward Lister, the Deputy Mayor in charge of planning.

Down by the riverside: the Thames Bath project
Down by the riverside: the Thames Bath project

In March, he overruled Lewisham Council’s objections to the development of Convoys Wharf in Deptford — a project set to accommodate 10,000 residents in buildings of up to 40 storeys in height. Whether this predominantly low-rise area of London, ten kilometres from the city centre, warrants the construction of buildings of such scale is debatable. The capacity of its transport network is not. The closest underground station lies a brisk 25-minute walk from the far end of the Convoys site. Deptford’s overground station is closer, but offers only a two-platform service that is already close to capacity at peak hours. The fact that Deptford is the poorest ward in a borough that ranks among the 10 per cent poorest in England invites little confidence that many Convoys residents will work locally. Indeed, as the provision of 1,800 parking spaces confirms, what is envisaged is not so much an integrated piece of city as a commuter enclave with a nice view.

If that is as much as the injection of investment into the riverfront is capable of delivering then it represents a missed opportunity of huge proportions. What is being lost is the chance to reclaim the Thames as a resource owned and used by all London’s citizens. The stretch running through the centre is seven times the size of Hyde Park but plays at best a marginal role in most Londoners’ experience of their city. Establishing new connections between existing communities and the river and cultivating a greater variety of activity along it should be central concerns. Property values and planning regulations currently inhibit the combination of industrial and housing use but there is no reason why businesses such as recycling operations and boat builders cannot coexist with housing, providing a valuable source of local employment.

There is also an urgent need radically to expand the range of activities supported on the river itself. The Thomas Heatherwick-designed Garden Bridge represents one initiative directed towards that goal but the Thames and its associated waterways could serve as more than just a spectacle. Cities from Antwerp to Copenhagen have built swimming pools in docks and rivers and the Thames Baths project is currently seeking funding to do the same in London. The capital’s astronomic house prices have also sparked a resurgence of interest in opportunities to live on the water. The Canal & River Trust reports that London’s waterways now support 3,000 houseboats — twice the number compared with seven years ago. However, the Thames remains comparatively unpopulated, the 20-boat Hermitage Community Moorings being the only city-centre boat community established in decades. Capitalising on many of these opportunities is largely a question of mobilising political will. The Thames has played a central role in shaping London’s identity and ensuring its prosperity since the Romans first settled its banks more than 2,000 years ago. Isn’t it time we began nurturing this extraordinary resource with the care that it demands?

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

The Architectural Review and the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich are hosting a programme of debates and films on the future of the Thames curated by Ellis Woodman. Full details are available at

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • Sean Grainger

    In 1995 while cycling into town from Tooting I had a blinding flash of the obvious: apart from anything else we should have in the Thames a huge cycle motorway on stilts running from Hampton Court to Greenwich — at least — with appropriate exits. I tried it on a few people including the DoT to draw inevitably a 100 per cent negative response.

    • Aberrant_Apostrophe

      How about pedaloes? Or bikes with detachable floats?

    • Jim

      Surely a passenger boat would be more practical.

  • Thames Baths Project

    Rousing piece on the neglected life blood of the city. The Thames Baths wants to change this and get Londoners re-engaged with the river. You can find more information and how to support us at #BacktheBaths

  • Sue

    Thanks Ellis, for naming and shaming the real power behind the throne – Tory monster and deputy mayor Sir Edward Lister – for railroading through his mates’ profit driven schemes and ignoring communities, the housing crisis, heaving transport networks and any notion of localism. BTW Convoys Wharf towers are 48, 42, 42, not 40 – so even worse than you suggest!

  • Julian Kingston

    Insightful piece, particularly encouraging to see the forces behind the Mayor in the spotlight. The threat to the waterfront was perceived by some longer ago than you might have imagined. One John Selwyn Gummer realising that waterfront housing would trump any other activity created over 20 “Protected Wharves”in the ’80s to encourage sustainable river transport. Convoys Wharf, site of the earliest Royal Dockyard in the country, was one of these. Tenant of the site then was News International bringing the vast rolls of paper in by ship. Then came Wapping and paper by road. Instead of handing the site back to the MOD Murdoch persuaded the government to sell at a knock-down price. Then came the application for a slightly weaker version of the present proposal and a long fight between the community, council and developer. Eventually passed by L.B.Lewisham it went to Mayor Livingstone for assent with local campaigners still fighting it. Ken, sensing a bear trap, remained undecided until loosing the mayoralty.

    The holding company for the site was by now a News International subsidiary with only the Murdoch family as shareholders. Murdoch then sold the site to the Hong-Kong company, Hutchison Whampoa but, crucially, retaining a profit-share on every residential unit built on the site,this is partially responsible for the absurd densities of the present application.

    A year ago Hutchison, having already drastically reduced the “protected element” of the site with City Hall’s help, demanded that the Mayor call the application in the reason given being that L.B.Lewisham were taking too long and making unreasonable demands. Unique amongst his call ins is that Lewisham were given no chance to determine first. Under Sir Edward Lister’s stage-management the Mayor’s planning hearing then passed the application despite cretinous affordable housing levels, disastrous lack of infrastructure and almost complete disregard for the incredible history and heritage structures surviving on the site. Interestingly, the Mayor’s advisor on housing Sir Terry Farrell is also the architect for this application.

    However, S106 negotiations are not going well, compromise is not this developer’s strong suit and I suspect that the Mayor’s planners are coming to realise that it was not Lewisham planners who were dragging their feet. The sign off date has been put back four times already.

    This could be due to the expectations of a corporation that was the largest single investor in G.B. plc last year. Apart from its vast property portfolio assets include controlling shares in all of our major ports and ownership of our entire national grid and some very familiar high street names. The list goes on and resistance to their plans is not expected.

    Arguments about time are spurious, this site is far too important to get wrong. It’s history is some of the richest in the capital. It has been a dockyard since Roman times. Given its Royal Charter by Henry VIII in 1513 it was the power-house of the navy with over 400 warships built there along with countless ships for trade and exploration. It was the centre of Samuel Pepys’s reorganisations and surrounded by John Evelyn’s gardens and plantations. A seventeenth/eighteenth century “Cape Canaveral”. It’s history is the lost piece of the jigsaw that makes sense of Greenwich.

    Two excellent community initiatives are also being quietly sidelined by the developer and the mayor’s “chief of staff”by whilst proclaiming to support setting conditions to ensure failure. and these would at least go some small way to giving these faceless 48 storey investment towers some link to the city they’re blighting.

    In the words of the local M.P. “The demands of this developer could be compared to a British company demanding to build tower blocks on the Great Wall of China”

  • Terence Hale

    The River Thames needs a dredging strategy to relieve forcible floods. The dredged material could be used to fill the channel tunnel separating the British continent from the European peninsula.

    • Mark McIntyre

      Allowing for the tidal nature of ‘Old Father Thames’ – is it just Moi ? – or have the muddy / sandy embankments been allowed to grow over the years ??
      Whatever – time to send in the dredgers.