The River Thames - Conserving the Capital's Greatest Urban Space
London is defined by its river. It is the reason for its existence and the backdrop for two millennia of its history. At low tide, it reveals our city’s largest public open space, a meandering shingle path that both divides and unites our capital. It was London’s neglected back door until we rightly developed our Canalettoesque concern. And today, the walk on London’s south bank from Greenwich to Battersea has made the river one of Europe’s major urban spaces – both compellingly popular and attracting some of London’s most important cultural destinations.
Characterised by its buildings, the river and its setting is arguably the capital’s most valuable spatial asset. As a space, its significance is beyond measure: without it, London would not be the extraordinarily memorable place it is. This unquestioned value is threatened by London’s pressing need to develop. The relentless exploitative pressure on sites near the river has not been matched by a policy or organisation capable of managing such change. Worryingly, there is no single authority charged with its overall protection. Without a champion, to whom should we turn to protect it?
We might look first to the seventeen London Boroughs that face onto the river. They are, however, definably parochial and find it hard to agree about which should be allowed to develop along the river. Some choose to exploit it and others resist any change and, together, they provide little strategic consensus for the control of damaging development.
London’s strategic planner is the Mayoral authority. It could take the lead but it doesn’t. It may say some of the right things but we remember that it promoted the River Park on the City of London’s frontage – a discredited proposal that provided a platform for commercial space masquerading as public realm. Instead of trumpeting the exemplars of Somerset House and The Royal Festival Hall that engage with and contribute to the river, it has supported developments that aggressively exploit it. It has allowed too many developments, planned perpendicularly to the waterway - like pigs to a trough, maximizing a financial return from every window but leaving the city fabric and the river with the hermetic stumps of their lower floors.
You might hope that the Port of London Authority would have an influence on the form of the urban fabric that forms the riverfront. But this would be beyond its remit. Its interest is singularly about the water and how it is used. In proposing a new vision for the future of the Thames, it describes in anodyne ‘consultation-speak’ a number of obscure and probably indefinable ‘goals’ that will have no impact on a sense of place for the Thames.
We ought to look to Historic England - the Government’s adviser on the historic environment. As a recent Commissioner of that organisation, I investigated if the central section of the River Thames could be listed. Though most view the river as a landscape, my understanding was that, as much of the riverbank is a man-made structure, it could in fact be listed. A listing designation would elicit a wholly different status to the normal cautionary advice of its officers. Developments would be considered not just in their own terms but also in terms of their impact on the setting of the river as a whole. But currently Historic England can only respond on an application by application basis and without reference to an overall strategy.
Sadly, there is no strategy. There is nothing for Historic England to grasp, little coordination or shared consensus between the Boroughs, a Mayoral office that (in my view) fails in its duty and The Port of London authority that bulkily and ineffectively occupies the strategic ground that a conservationist authority should command. There is neither a strategic plan for the urban welfare of the river nor any authority that can be effective in its defence.
I propose that the river should be listed - perhaps from Tower Bridge to Putney Bridge. Such designation would place much more responsibility with Historic England. But in the absence of that safeguard, or perhaps parallel to it, a River authority could be established, separate from the Port of London Authority, charged with the duty of protecting the river as a space. Its remit would include coordinating the view of all the political authorities, conserving the river’s history and ensuring that new development understood, addressed and reinforced the character of the river rather than simply exploiting it. Such an authority would fill a yawning gap in the armoury of London’s conservation.