Time to talk about the Thames

A month after its promising launch, the Thames Strategy is still in the starting blocks. Is it in danger of sinking without trace? Beverley Cohen investigates.

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The Thames Strategy project sounds great. A masterplan for improving the River Thames and its surrounding areas, it aims to restore the river to its former crucial role, with easy-flowing river traffic and bustling activity along its banks. According to Environment Secretary John Gummer, the area “should be a spectacular setting for the best in architecture and urban design”.

But is it all it seems? It’s now a month since the launch of the Thames Strategy report and things have yet to move on. At the time of the May launch, a Department of the Environment spokeswoman for the organising body, the Thames Advisory Group, told DW that the group would meet in June to discuss solid plans (19 May). But this has failed to materialise, and the meeting is now due to be held “sometime in July”, with an agenda due in “three to four weeks” time. Apart from Sir Richard Rogers, who is overseeing developments on the South Bank, no designers have been invited to take part, although the DoE acknowledges that design has an active part to play in the development of the area.

So what exactly is the project about, and how likely is it to get under way? More importantly, will the initiative, which was so promising when it was launched, lose momentum? The following breakdown gives some clues.

What exactly is the Thames Strategy project?

Ove Arup and Partners has researched the Thames Strategy report, which apparently cost 110 000 to draw up. It deals with a 45km stretch between Hampton Court and Greenwich. “We hope to encourage private developers and the 13 local councils to get cracking on proposals for the river area,” says the spokeswoman from the DoE.

What does the report actually suggest?

It focuses on 14 key sites which need “visual articulation and punctuation”. These include Hampton Court, Kingston, Richmond, Hammersmith, Putney/

Fulham, Westminster, South Bank/Charing Cross and finallyCanary Wharf/Limehouse. A paragraph on each site points out the area’s features and offers somesuggestions, for example, the Tower/Butlers Wharf section suggests a cross-river ferry service to the pier and newer tower facilities. Of the areas, Putney could be targeted as being a “significant place” because it serves a large hinterland.

Who is actually organising this project?

Gummer is chairing the Thames Advisory Group to launch the strategy and monitor its progress. Members include Sir Richard Rogers, ex-Royal Institute of British Architects president Richard MacCormac and Royal Academy president Sir Philip Dowson.

But is this for real?

We have to remember that we are not in France, where politicians announce large improvement grants for state-funded projects and things get underway immediately. This is strategic guidance and that’s all. “There are enormous opportunities, people can get together, bid for government or lottery money or private sponsorship,” says the spokeswoman. So it appears to be up to the people to forage for funding.

Does it refer to design?

Gummer has called for “exciting young architects” and established practices to draw up proposals for key sites. Gummer will include designers in this plan. The report also proposes a river bus stop which would have a “striking design to act as a marker on the river”. This could be one of a series of markers located at focal points, and the designs of these could be the subject of a national competition, he suggests. A river bus would also require designers. When DW asked the DoE about the next stage of Gummer’s national competition idea, another spokeswoman said “he did talk vaguely about architecture and design but that hasn’t gone on to any next stage”.

And who will pay these ‘exciting young architects’?

Again, it will be up to bodies submitting proposals to pay architects and designers for their ideas. “It’s for the people who employ the designers to take that on board,” says the spokeswoman. This probably means public funding is needed. Is this a Catch 22 situation? Gummer has said it is the Thames Advisory Group’s decision as to architects and designers being paid for proposals.

What are designers’ reactions?

“Obviously we need to get paid for our creative skills,” says CDT partner Mike Dempsey, who designed an identity for the South Bank Centre last year. “Designers with integrity would not sell themselves for nothing. If Gummer is genuine about us coming up with ideas, it needs very serious thought. I suggest a meeting between the Thames Advisory Group and the design industry.”

Pentagram Design associate Jon Greenfield, who is reconstructing Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in Southwark, welcomes the report as “a very good idea” and says Pentagram architects “would happily draw up a scheme”. He feels the initiative needs to come from the government. “This is all great but it’s a bit wishy-washy. We need actual schemes before we can suggest ideas.” Sir Richard Rogers has said that architects would have to be recompensed.

Is the DoE open to working with design consultancies?

Last year it spent over 1m on design-related projects.”We have 60 designers on our database, and use a variety of large and small consultancies,” says a DoE spokesman. The department “does not believe in spending public money on competitive pitching”, preferring a policy of interviewing designers.

What is the immediate future of the project?

A draft planning guidance report will be published later this year, although there is no specific date.

Gummer is enthusiastic about the project: “The Thames Strategy report is just the beginning. Current interest in the Thames is unprecedented. The Advisory Group members all have one thing in common; a love of London and a shared conviction that the Thames is worthy of more visionary thinking.” Few people would disagree with him, but does the slow start indicate that this is a grand idea going nowhere?

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