The Case for a Third Thames River Crossing
Reading relies on two road bridges built in the 1920s to carry traffic north and south of the river Thames - a case of static infrastructure being forced to cope with an ever-increasing amount of vehicles. The location of the Caversham and Reading bridges means that all this road traffic is funnelled through central Caversham - with unhappy consequences for the local area. As the RBC's Transport Commission reported in early July 2008, the case for a third Thames road crossing at Reading is "very persuasive". However, this third crossing (whether a bridge or a tunnel) remains as elusive as the end of the rainbow - and just as intangible. We've summarised below how Caversham would benefit from a third Thames crossing, and why one has yet to be built.
At the risk of being overly simplistic, let's start by providing three reasons why Caversham (and indeed, all RG4) would benefit from a third river crossing:
With reasons like this, it's no surprise that there's a cross-party consensus amongst Reading's politicians in favour of a third crossing. The RBC is not alone - Wokingham Borough Council has also long argued for another Thames crossing. The trouble is that these Berkshire local authorities have not acted in tandem in the past - with socialist Reading opposed to the Conservatives of Wokingham. Moreover, it isn't just them who are calling the shots - there's also Oxfordshire County Council and South Oxfordshire District Council to contend with. Both of these Oxfordshire authorities have long opposed a third crossing on the grounds that it will act as a magnet to new traffic flowing through the south of their county. There's also the small (ho) matter of how the new crossing would be funded.
Faced with the obstacles described above, along with no clear decision as to where a crossing would be sited, it's perhaps no wonder that the politicians and transport officers of the RBC have investigated alternative solutions to the town's traffic congestion problems. These have included 'park and ride' sites, road pricing, lorry bans and (most controversially) - the bizarre, misguided attempt to impose a one-way IDR on Reading residents. All these can be seen as vain attempts to 'paper the cracks' when compared to the real need to build a third river crossing.
The Third Thames River Crossing: Developments, 2007 - 2008
In recent times, it has arguably been Wokingham rather than Reading that has set the initiative on the issue. In March 2007, Wokingham Borough Council put aside £600,000 for a study to look in detail at possible candidate sites for a crossing, with the intention of submitting a planning application at the end of the study.
Wokingham's initiative was followed on June 20th 2007 by Reading East MP Rob Wilson raising the matter of a third Thames road crossing for Reading at Prime Minister's Question Time in the Commons. In his words, "We urgently need a third Thames Bridge and a north-south bypass. While Reading chokes, the local authorities are spending their time squabbling with each other". But his remarks were made days before Tony Blair was to resign as Prime Minister, and had no impact other than publicising the issue.
Just over a year later, in early July 2008, the Transport Commission appointed by Labour's Labour administration to examine the town's transport problems reported that the case for a third crossing was "very persuasive" - recommending that any new crossing should be tolled in order to support its financing. The recommendation was swiftly followed up with a promise from the Government's Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) to grant the RBC £2.2m of Transport Innovation Fund (TIF) cash to draw up detailed plans for a series of transport measures, including proposals for a third Thames crossing. But the DCLG promise comes with a catch - in order to access the funding, the RBC must have the full support of its neighbouring local authorities both north and south of the river. This support has singularly lacking in the recent past.
At the end of July 2008, Sonning Councillor Steve Chapman tabled a motion at a meeting of Wokingham BC calling for Oxfordshire County Council to work with Wokingham and the RBC to start planning for a new river crossing. Wokingham BC followed this up by submitting a £30m bid to the South East England Regional Assembly (SEERA) for cash to build a new crossing - the Assembly represents the views of councils and communities in the South East, and has several strategic roles -including advising the Government on the region's transport needs. The bid is to be studied by SEERA in Autumn 2008 - with a possible final decision being made by the Government in February 2009 on whether to fund the proposal.
The bid by Wokingham BC for Government funding coincided almost to the day with a meeting held between RBC Labour Councillor Tony Page and the Oxfordshire County cabinet member for transport Ian Hudspeth, in the context of Reading's bid for Transport Innovation Fund (TIF) cash. Cllr Page said, however, that Wokingham's bid for SEERA cash for a new crossing "will fail like all previous efforts... ...Wokingham has been putting in bids to build the bridge for years, but Oxfordshire will never let the bridge go ahead in isolation". A letter from Wokingham Liberal Democrats Councillor Dave Swindells ('Reading Evening Post' 12/08/08 p6) followed up these remarks, saying that it was a bit rich being criticised by the RBC party that had tried to impose "the disastrous farce of the one-way IDR". Cllr Swindells concluded, "It is only by proper consultation between affected councils and residents that fears and aspirations can be addressed and future success can be achieved".
The RBC Cabinet met on Monday, 29th September 2008 to discuss the third Thames crossing and road pricing / congestion charging. At the meeting, Cllr Tony Page told the Cabinet that "the only way" a third bridge would be achieved was via the RBC's TIF bid. The crossing would be from Wokingham borough to South Oxfordshire, and the Council was engaged in efforts to persuade other local authorities that the Bridge "was not going to be a motorway slicing through from the M4 to the M40". Cllr Page hoped work would start before 2018, also saying that Sonning Parish Council was already behind the scheme. At a subsequent full Reading Council meeting on the 14th October, councillors were given details of the Council's bid for Government TIF money to pay for measures including the third Thames crossing - the "sting in the tail" being that the TIF cash depending on the RBC investigating road pricing if it was to win the money.
The Third Thames River Crossing: Developments, 2009
Despite RBC Labour Councillor Tony Page saying in late September 2008 that Sonning Parish Council supported the Thames river crossing proposals, it became clear in the early weeks of 2009 that other local parish councils were worried by what Reading planned. South Oxfordshire parish councils held a meeting on January 22nd in Dunsden village hall (described in the 'Reading Chronicle' 29/01/09 p12), with most objecting to Reading's transport proposals. Sarah Hall, of Kidmore End parish council said: "everybody shouldn't be letting Reading ride roughshod over them - we're not saying we hate Reading, but one size does not fit all, our problems are very different". Faced with this opposition to the TIF bid, Cllr Tony Page said "I'm certainly not giving up..." Some weeks later, the ruling West Berkshire Conservative group issued a statement to calm fears over cross-boundary meetings that it had held with the RBC concerning the TIF / Thames crossing bid, leading to Cllr Page saying: "I am more than aware that our TIF bid is causing concern... ... particularly amongst parishes in parts of South Oxfordshire".
It therefore came as something of a surprise when Oxfordshire County Council gave guarded support for a new Thames crossing in late April 2009. The Oxfordshire CC entertained the possibility of a new bridge (possibly to be based in Sonning) but proposed that it should be exclusively for cyclists, pedestrians and public transport. In the words of Cllr Ian Hudspeth, Oxfordshire council's cabinet member for transport, "We are still concerned over the effect on traffic of having the bridge and our cabinet has set out what we would like to see".
The Oxfordshire Councillor's remarks were given a cautious welcome by his Reading and Wokingham counterparts, but both were keen to point out that it was not the final answer. In the words of Keith Baker, Wokingham BC's lead councillor for highways and transport: "Oxfordshire has set out what it wants, but nothing has been decided. I'd say that proposal doesn't really help ease the traffic problems though, which is what the whole project is about."
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