Local Tory Leader Says Government Bridge Bill Too High

Grant Shapps reportedly wants borough taxpayers to pay half of restoration costs

Andrew Brown - Conservative leader in Hammersmith & Fulham
Andrew Brown - Conservative leader in Hammersmith & Fulham

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Hammersmith and Fulham’s Conservative group leader has contradicted the Government’s suggestion that the council should pay as much as £64 million to fix Hammersmith Bridge.

Councillor Andrew Brown suggested TfL and Richmond Council should also contribute to the repair bill, which had been estimated at £141 million.

It comes after reports that Transport Secretary Grant Shapps asked the Labour council to pay roughly half the restoration costs.

Council leader Stephen Cowan told The Times that this demand was “cruel”, and an “unprecedented punishment”.

This Tuesday (15 December) the Department for Transport would not confirm or deny that Mr Shapps proposed the figure, and said it was waiting for the council – which owns the crossing – to propose what it will pay.

Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Mr Brown said he agreed that £64 million would be too high, but criticised the Labour administration for not saying how much it would pay.

“The suggestion from LBHF [Hammersmith and Fulham Council] that they contribute nothing is counterproductive, and has probably triggered an equally tough negotiating stance from the Government,” said Mr Brown, of town ward in Fulham.

“My view is the parties who are involved, the council, TfL, the Government, and to a lesser extent Richmond Council, need to sort this out.

“Mine and the [Conservative] group’s position has been from the start that Hammersmith and Fulham should pay a fair and reasonable contribution to the repair, in line with what other boroughs such as Wandsworth and Kensington and Chelsea pay for bridges they are responsible for.

“It can’t be right that Hammersmith and Fulham absolves itself of responsibility to contribute to a bridge that it owns. But a solution has to be fair to the taxpayers of Hammersmith and Fulham.”

Richmond Council has so far agreed to help pay for a ferry crossing which is due to be in place in the spring, but not for the repairs.

A council spokesperson said Conservatives councillors had backed a motion at a Full Council meeting in October, declaring that the Government should pay for the bridge.

Mr Brown was unwilling to suggest a figure of how much the council should contribute, and said this was because the council has been “opaque” and “refused to share” information about the bridge for his colleagues to scrutinise.

He alluded to another row over the council’s ongoing refusal to publish engineering reports about the 133-year-old, cast iron bridge going back several years – before it closed to motor traffic in April 2019.

The Conservative MP for Chelsea and Fulham, Greg Hands, had a Freedom of Information request for these reports blocked by the council.

When the Local Democracy Reporting Service requested them, the council said doing so could risk helping terrorists.

“Highly motivated and potentially resourced terrorist groups can sometimes go great lengths to piece together seemly [sic] harmless information to perpetrate havoc,” the council said.

But this appeared to be undermined when, last week, the Hammersmith Bridge Task Force released engineering reports produced by consultants AECOM and mechanics expert Professor Norman Fleck.

The council may be forced to pay its share of the repairs through a combination of money from its reserves, borrowing, cuts to services or council tax increases.

At a Town Hall meeting on November 18, officers said the council has a total of £80 million “available” in its reserves, having spent over £7 million battling the pandemic.

During the November 18 meeting, council Mr Cowan was scathing of any suggestion that its reserves could be used to fund the bridge, calling it “ignorant and stupid”.

The Times reported that Mr Shapps’s suggestion of the council paying £64 million would mean “an extra” £800 in tax for each local resident.


Owen Sheppard - Local Democracy Reporter

December 15, 2020

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