The developement on the north and south sides of the River Thames; the transformation of Southwark; creation of the public-private Cross-River Partnership; the re-generation of Bankside & the creation of the Tate Modern gallery; people, politics and problems with the decision and design of the bridge, and it’s ultimate success.
Bridge building is in the DNA of the City of London. From the early Roman wooden bridges across the River Thames and construction in the late 12th century of the first stone bridge – London Bridge – building and managing bridges, and the wealth emanating from them, has been the City’s business. London Bridge is arguably one of the pillars of the City’s prosperity. As we all know, the City Corporation has in its care five of the major Thames bridges.
It is, therefore, surprising that the Millennium Bridge – the first new crossing over the Thames in the City in more than 100 years – was not originally a City of London enterprise, and all the more surprising that at the outset the project was vehemently opposed here in Guildhall.
Indeed, the City of London Corporation may be said to have gone into the project backwards.
This paper, based on extensive interviews, tells how the Millennium Bridge was conceived, and how it gradually won support across London and crucially in the City to become – after a heart-stopping birth – one of London’s most successful transport stories and one of the capital’s great contemporary icons.
The story is important because it charts, and is indeed in part responsible for, a major political shift which saw removal of Labour’s threat to abolish the City Corporation. It also illustrates a significant change in culture in both the City and its neighbouring boroughs.
People’s Republic of Southwark
The story begins just across the river in the People’s Republic of Southwark. Historically, Southwark was the City’s dumping ground. When the Romans came, they built London on the north side of the Thames where the ground offered good foundations on firm clay. The south side was a flood plain. It was not secure. And since that time there had been a division: the north was the government, the serious capital, the banking centre; the south the workshop, the port, the industry and the place for theatres, bear-baiting and brothels.
Once 600 metres wide, the river divided London. Over time, land reclamation on both banks narrowed the gap to 300 metres, but even in the late 20th century that one third of a kilometre still created an immense gulf.
In the 1980s Southwark Council was in the hands of the ‘Loony Left’. Nothing better illustrates the mind-set of the then Labour controlled borough than a decision to block the building of Sam Wanamaker’s Globe Theatre on Bankside because Shakespeare was deemed to be ‘elitist’. A project to clear the riverside on the south bank and create today’s thriving walkway was also obstructed on grounds that the area was needed to park BT vans and the borough’s dust carts.
All change at Southwark
A lot changed, in fact almost everything changed, thanks to a former postman and social worker – Jeremy Fraser, who is today the Anglican Dean of Newham. Fraser joined Southwark as a young Labour councillor in 1986, and over the next 12 years he helped transform the borough, serving initially as head of Social Services, then Planning and, from 1993-1997, as Council Leader.
When Fraser joined, in his own words, Southwark council was obsessed with housing, and Social Services were a basket case. Surviving death threats and multi-million pound law suits, he rapidly sorted out Social Services and in 1988 took on the chair of Planning.
As Fraser explains: “Southwark’s Planning Department had pretty much turned its back on the river. Housing was its only solution. I began to realise that re-generation and re-thinking some of our past policies was where I could make a difference.
“I realised that Southwark was blessed with a fantastic riverside, better even than the City’s, and I started to focus on it.”
One of the first things Fraser did was to remove the dust cart depot from under Southwark Bridge to pave the way for completion of the riverside walkway and construction of the Globe Theatre
“I went to see Sam Wanamaker in person,” says Fraser. “I apologised for what had gone before and offered him some money from planning gain.”
Fraser also had the walkway under Blackfriars Bridge widened and embellished. This was critically the first time Southwark had been directly involved with the City Corporation which, of course, owns the bridge. Until
then, the neighbouring boroughs had simply scowled at each other across the river.
“At that stage there was almost no partnership across these boroughs,” says Fraser. “We stood at our borders and blew raspberries at each other.”
“The Blackfriars Bridge underpass was our first effort with the City,” he explains.
A new spirit of cooperation evolved and eventually led to creation in 1994 of the public-private Cross-River Partnership, which for the very first time brought Southwark, Lambeth, Westminster and the City into a formal framework.
After Blackfriars Bridge, and the riverside walkway and the Globe Theatre, Fraser set his sights on a far more ambitious goal – bringing the new international Tate Gallery to the borough.
Bankside Power station had been decommissioned in 1981; its giant turbine hall and towering brick stack had lain idle for a decade. The wharf where fuel was delivered to fire the furnaces was no longer in use.
Fraser opposed plans to list the building; he had seen what had happened at Battersea, which had been listed and which, as a result, nobody wanted to touch. Nick Serota, for example, had looked at Battersea as a possible location for the New Tate. But he only wanted the site, not the building.
Fraser’s achievement was that he persuaded Serota to come to Bankside. At first this appeared an impossible mission.
“Serota had six sites in London and we were the sixth. He really didn’t want to come to us,” says Fraser.
“His chairman of Trustees – Denis Stevenson – had lived in Southwark and had met my predecessors and had said to him: ‘You can place the Tate anywhere you like in London but not in Southwark. They are barking mad.’ So, we realised we had quite a lot to overcome.”
Fraser recalls that Serota initially refused to see him. But he turned up unannounced at a meeting with Serota’s team with a clear message: Southwark was indeed open for business.
“That same day I got a phone call from Serota apologising for not being present, and I said that is fine; you can buy me lunch. By the end of that lunch, I had persuaded him the Tate was going to come to Southwark.”
Serota’s commitment to Bankside began to focus people’s minds on connectivity. Southwark had a new Underground station planned with the extension of the Jubilee line, but otherwise it was still largely off grid. “Initially everyone was concerned that Southwark was so far away from the centre of London,” says Fraser. “I remember taking the Lottery Fund trustees onto the roof of the power station to point out to them in fact how close we were to it all.
“But the strategy was that it was no good just saying we were part of central London, we had to be part of it physically, and one of those ways was to have a footbridge.”
The idea of the footbridge is born
The idea of the footbridge evolved only gradually. There doesn’t appear to have been a eureka moment.
One of its early champions was Chicago-born Fred Manson. Initially appointed Borough Architect, he held a succession of posts as Director of Development and Head of Re-generation, and he is generally regarded as the begetter of the bridge, or as he himself modestly puts it: “Once we started planning for the Tate, the need for a bridge became self-evident, and I helped people put it together.”
Fraser says Manson is being too modest. “Fred deserves more credit, he had the vision before any of us.”
By a happy coincidence, the Financial Times had moved in 1989 from its City base, Bracken House, across the river to Southwark under the stewardship of David Bell, who recalls being met with a frosty reception on first approaching pre-Fraser Southwark: “In fact,” says Bell, “they could not have been more obstructive.”
The FT’s actual arrival coincided with the more welcoming and outwardlooking Southwark under Fraser.
Southwark invested £2m in the Tate project but it was beyond their remit to develop any of the surrounding infrastructure.
“I advised Southwark that we could not do it but that we should find a group to do it,” says Manson, and it was he who persuaded Bell to back the Bridge.
“Getting David Bell on board was crucial,” says Fraser. “We needed to show that we had business leaders.”
Bell set up a board of trustees and brought on some big business hitters such as HSBC. He took a personal hand in steering the project by means of fund raising, and a competition for the design, through construction to its opening by the Queen. He insists it is a bridge for everyone, but in so many ways it
was his bridge, and the story of his achievement is rightfully told in a book
published in 2001 – Blade of Light.
Thus, a constellation of movers and shakers brought the Millennium Bridge into existence, and though no one can claim ultimate ownership, Fraser, Manson and Bell were among the prime movers.
Simon Jenkins also played a role; he is credited as the first journalist to go public with a story proposing a pedestrian bridge linking the new Tate with the north bank, and he became an unwavering supporter.
The Tate’s Nicholas Serota was initially opposed to the idea, which is why the bridge doubles back on itself at the south bank and does not go all the way into Tate Modern, but he was to come enthusiastically on board once he realised that a bridge would help put his proposed new gallery on the map.
Some key businessmen were early backers, including Stuart Lipton, Hugh Stevenson and David Sainsbury.
The missing link
There was, however, one missing link – the City of London where the bridge would land on the north bank.
The proposals received a less than friendly reception at Guildhall.
“We did not get the support of the City’s Planning Department, nor to begin with did we get the support of Serota,” recalls Fraser.
Manson is blunter. The City Corporation, he says, was ‘diametrically’ opposed to the bridge.
The Corporation’s newly appointed Chief Planning Officer, Peter Rees, was indeed dead set against the project, as was Barbara Newman, Chairman of Planning from 1993-96. They both argued passionately that the proposed bridge threatened the recently opened view of St Paul’s from the river looking up the newly built steps. They also invoked the long-standing policy against further construction on the riverbed.
“There was indeed a basic stand in Planning that this was going to block the river view and therefore we could not support it,” says Annie Hampson, now the Chief Planning Officer, and then Rees’ deputy.
Newman marshalled other strong objections, insisting for instance that the sweep of the Thames between Blackfriars and Southwark was one of the longest surviving open stretches of river and that the proposed bridge would introduce unnecessary and unwanted clutter.
“The bridge project was sold as reaching out to the people of Southwark,” says Newman. “I believed it was reaching out to the Tate Gallery.”
In her view, the best way to help the people of Southwark was not to build a bridge but to construct more housing; little did Newman appreciate that housing was precisely the cure-all policy Fraser was trying to get away from.
Even the City Bridge House Trust didn’t help. When first approached, the trustees said they no longer did bridges. It took the promoters two whole years to win round the Corporation; the resulting delay meant that the bridge was nearly not ready in time for the Millennium.
Erica Bolton who managed PR for both New Tate and the Millennium Bridge, states that: “There could not have been a greater contrast between Southwark and the City Corporation. It needed a massive advocacy job to bring the Corporation around, because the Chairman of Planning and the Chief Planning Officer were totally opposed to it.
“There was enormous distrust between the Corporation and Southwark. They were like chalk and cheese, with the Corporation terribly worried that these unwashed lefties would come over the bridge.”
Exaggerated as Bolton’s words are, the views she expresses are nonetheless instructive. This was indeed the impression the City Corporation was giving to outsiders.
It took a lot of pressure and lobbying, and then as Annie Hampson says: “They got the FT behind it and everybody else, and the view about that view started to change.”
Policy and Resources to the rescue
It was in fact only when Policy and Resources Committee took hold of the project that it really started to gain traction at Guildhall.
Both then chairman, Michael Cassidy, and his deputy, Judith Mayhew, instinctively understood the wider political significance of the bridge.
John Major’s Conservatives had won in 1992, but it was increasingly clear that Labour under Tony Blair was going to win the next election. The threat of abolition still hung over the City Corporation. So, the City of London needed to position itself.
Now, if ever, was a time for the City Corporation to reach out to its poorer neighbours: and the bridge was to become not just a critical part of that process but a powerful and very visible symbol of it.
Mayhew recalls a landmark meeting with a delegation of 45 grandmothers from Southwark.
“They told me that their grandchildren could not get into high schools because there weren’t enough places for them, and they asked: what we were going to do about it?”
The grandmothers were probably unaware that they were pushing at an open door. Abolition of the Inner London Education Authority had recently left the City Corporation in charge of just one state primary school, the Sir John Cass, and it was evident that the City could neither justify nor require a state secondary school. But it could reach out and set up `academies in neighbouring boroughs.
“The academy movement was just starting at the time,” Mayhew says. “So, we said, great, we will build you an academy, and we did.”
“Cross-river partnerships like this became hugely important,” says Mayhew.
“We did all these developments to try to break down that ring of deprivation around us. The bridge was very much part of that movement.
“It was on the back of this new spirit of cooperation that Michael and I managed to get the City out of abolition from the 1997 Labour manifesto.”
Mayhew was also focussed on establishing a cultural and tourist footfall in London: “The whole thing was to break open this idea that we are not just the financial centre, we are a huge cultural centre as well,” says Mayhew.
“In the end, it was part outreach, part cross-river partnership and part paying back for what we had done from Shakespeare onwards.”
David Bell concurs. “One of the sub-texts of the bridge was that the City was reaching out,” he says.
“If Labour ever come round again to trying to abolish the City Corporation, the bridge will stand the City in good stead in showing how open it is.”
Erica Bolton is sure the proposal would never have been approved at Guildhall without Cassidy and Mayhew.
“It was thanks to them that it got through,” she says.
But even with the full support of Policy and Resources, and with a lowprofile and blade-like design by Norman Foster and Partners and sculptor Antony Caro, shaped to minimise the loss of that river view, the bridge project continued to receive a rough ride at Guildhall, running into one objection after another – such as cost of maintenance, safety, access, and land ownership.
Bell and his fellow trustees did their best to pacify Newman and Rees. As he puts it: “Barbara said people passing down the Thames got this wonderful unspoilt view up to St Paul’s and we would ruin it.
“So, we measured how many boats went past, and how many people were on them, and how long you could see that wonderful view, and we multiplied the number of people on those boats and calculated something like a 1,000 people a day saw this for all of 25 seconds.” Compared to the tens of thousands who would enjoy a new panoramic view of St Paul’s as they crossed the bridge this did not appear to be an overwhelmingly strong argument, and the influential Michael Cassidy agreed. “The issue was the unbroken view up to St Pauls,” he says. “But the general feeling was that it was worth sacrificing that split second of view from a passing boat for the overall effect.”
By the time the project finally came to the City’s Planning Committee on 9 June 1998 there was a new, more ‘bridge-friendly’ Chairman, Stuart Fraser, with Newman now his deputy, yet opposition remained strong.
Norman Foster gave an audio-visual presentation and was insultingly addressed by several members as Lord Rogers, who is, of course, his arch competitor. David Bell also spoke. Exceptionally, a special meeting of the Planning Committee was called for the following week. Members voted 11- 6 in favour of the project. The proposal was taken to Common Council on 25 June 1998, where its opponents mounted one final attack arguing that it would be costly to maintain, and that it was dangerous, and in the wrong place. But in the end
the opponents could only muster 35 votes against the bridge.
The sudden eagerness to get the approval process through was a belated gesture; the Corporation had held up the project for so long that any further delay would have ensured there was no chance of the bridge being completed for the Millennium.
Barbara Newman sticks to her guns.
“It’s a very well used bridge but not really of any use to the people of Southwark,” she says. “It’s for tourists and still primarily of benefit to the Tate. It was purely for Serota’s benefit. It’s something we didn’t need, money we could have spent elsewhere.
“We had worked for many years to get that flight of steps going down from St Paul’s. To me that was the view we have ruined.”
But Peter Rees was in time to change his mind. Bell describes an encounter with him several years after it was opened.
“Peter came up to me and said: ‘I would like to apologise. I was wrong. I was opposed to the bridge and in retrospect it was a mistake.’”
As is well known, the bridge got off to an embarrassing start when it swayed quite violently as 80,000 people turned up on the opening day.
The bridge had effectively become a victim of its blade-like design. Its deck, cradled by low cables slung from side-arms rather than suspended from pylons on the Telford/Brunel model, had a basic design flaw.
Media reaction ranged from the hysterical – unfounded claims that the bridge would eventually collapse – to the bizarre suggestion that it should simply be left to wobble. Even though the lateral movement was technically a sway – a phenomenon known as Synchronous Lateral Excitation caused simply by the movement of the human gait – the structure quickly became known as the Wobbly Bridge.
When it was closed two days after the opening almost everyone ran for cover, and of course the naysayers had a field day. It was hugely embarrassing for Norman Foster, by then engaged on the ambitious cable-stayed Viaduct across the Tarn Gorge in France. His reputation, and that of construction engineers Ove Arup, were in jeopardy. As for David Bell, he said it was the worst day of his life. The story of what went wrong, how engineers from Arup had failed to take into account already documented evidence that large crowds of walkers could cause such floating deck structures to sway, is well known. Unabashed, however, David Sainsbury, who had always supported the bridge, wrote a cheque, while Arup and the insurers picked up the bulk of the tab for the repairs.
The day after the bridge was closed, David Bell spotted a man with a rucksack clambering around its underarms. This was David Newland, Cambridge University’s Professor of Engineering. He had taught half the engineers responsible for the construction and was there to investigate what had gone wrong. David Bell signed him up on the spot as a special consultant, and Newland returned to Cambridge where he had a cross section of the bridge rigged up in a workshop and he diagnosed the root cause within a week. It took Arup a little longer to concur with his diagnosis and a year to fix the problem with huge viscous dampers, or vibration absorbers. The bridge opened permanently to the public in February 2002.
In truth the bridge still sways from side-to-side, and always will. If you stand under the deck on the south bank and put your hands onto the join of one of the hydraulic telescopic dampers you can feel the movement for yourself. But it is, of course, imperceptible to people crossing the bridge, and it has long shed
the ignominious nickname of a quarter of a century ago to become one of the unchallenged joys of the Thames and a natural link between Southwark and St Paul’s.
The bridge has far exceeded its original capacity forecasts. It is a rare phenomenon – a transport triumph.
“It has become a fantastic asset for London,” says Michael Cassidy.
The backwash in Southwark has been dramatic – new hotels and restaurants and the transformation of the area around Clink Street, the Cathedral and Borough Market.
“We were originally quite cynical of the annual forecasts of 4.4 million people using the bridge,” says Annie Hampson. “But we were wrong.”
Almost 8 million crossings were recorded in a recent year; the tourist footfall in the City and in Southwark has increased many times over.
“When I walk across the bridge now, I do feel that it has done what we thought it would do, plus,” says David Bell. “It opened up the City, and it opened up St Paul’s.”
There was achievement on cost too. Even with the repair bill, the final spend was a modest £25 million. That’s half the total spent on the Garden Bridge project which never even got off the drawing board.
The ever-versatile engineering and design company, Arup, turned potential disaster into a PR triumph. They have been dining out on the Millennium Bridge ever since.
There were no losers. The bridge permanently changed London’s geography and enabled the City of London Corporation to stride with confidence into the 21st century.