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Prescott Lock project runs aground

Predictable practical problems with the Prescott Lock, compounded by financial conditions, are "making barge traffic unviable", it was reported at a November meeting of the Thames River Users Consultative Forum.

Disappointing news for those of us looking forward to watching barges full of Olympic construction materials beaching themselves in Bow Creek as they struggle to get through during the few hours a day the tide is high enough.

The construction of the £21.5 million lock and barrage (double the original estimate), were promoted as a great example of how green London's 2012 Games were, enabling "up to 170,000 lorry journeys" to be removed from local roads during the construction phase. It was supposed to "enable the delivery of construction materials to the site by sustainable means, helping to achieve the Olympic Delivery Authority’s aspiration for the first sustainable Olympic Games". Well it looks like another green Olympic claim has been blown way on the chilly winds of the recession - though whether the 'construction materials by barge' plan was ever a realistic possibility is exceedingly doubtful.

Barge operators Allen C Bennet & Sons were to be the prime users of the new lock facility, hoping optimistically to ship 250,000 tons of aggregate into the Olympic site - 25% of the total that Aggregate Industries are contracted to supply. David Allen delivered this bad news at the River Users Consultative Forum (Lower) meeting in November:

"Prescott lock is now complete including trials and had been looking forward to moving up to 4000 tons of material through the lock. However a problem has arisen in that when clearing lock inwards vessels ground as there is insufficient water. 2.5 million pounds dredging works needs to be carried out between the lock and wharf to make it useable for barge traffic. DA understands this investment is unlikely to occur in the present financial climate and not considered essential for development of the Olympic site by the developers. Additionally because of the credit crunch there has been a collapse in charge rates for moving material by road and the need to contain costs for development of the Olympic site are making barge traffic unviable. "

Very different from what the company were saying 5 months earlier:

"We are delighted to get freight traffic back on the river. This is a lovely reward for both ourselves and BW and is as a result of championing and promoting the idea of using the Bow Back Rivers and building Prescott Lock."

From its inception, there were inexplicable flaws in the project as a serious freight transport proposal, examined in depth in the Regents Network 'Are the Waterways of the Lea In Good Hands?' report. Additionally the project has gradually fallen behind schedule - it was originally due to be completed in summer 2008 and now won't be completed before March 2009 - apparently due to 'unexpected quantities of contaminated soil'. Didn't they do any surveying before embarking on the project? An extra £2m government funding was announced by Waterways Minister Huw Irranca-Davies in November in a desperate attempt to keep the project on track, but the predicted quantities of materials that could be transported always looked hopelessly optimistic.

The 'sustainable water transport' story was never credible; if they were serious about using the waterways, thousands of tons of materials could already have been shipped up the Limehouse Cut at any time of day using existing facilities with minimal investment needed. The Limehouse Cut was built in the 18C because "Navigating from the River Lee to the River Thames using nature's intended route necessitates traversing Bow Creek, a winding tidal waterway not best suited to inland vessels". Clever of them to attempt to revert to using this notoriously tricky route, only navigable a few hours a day, as a key part of the time-critical logistics of the Olympic construction program.

The truth behind the project is the drive by British Waterways, the ODA and developers to create a nice static pool of clean water, ideal for residential and leisure development. Big dirty barges full of rubble would be a nice bonus during the games construction, and would have served well in promoting the spurious sustainability agenda, but no-one would want them ploughing up and down a few feet from the front windows of their luxury waterside apartments or through flotillas of kayaking schoolkids. Residential/leisure and freight usage are simply not compatible.

As the Regents network report pointed out in 2005

"It is important to consider why British Waterways are suggesting this scheme and why they are making out that it is for freight when it appears to be flawed from the water freight perspective. We consider their motive is more likely to be encouragement and promotion of building development, and not for navigational purposes."

Update - February 2009
Tessa Jowell, questioned by Charlotte Atkins MP, admitted that only three 350 tonne barge loads of construction materials had been brought into the Olympic site through the Three Mills Lock in 2009 - which includes the first 6 months of operation.

A rather unimpressive single barge load of construction waste came out of the site, plus 5 barge loads of contaminated residue from soil treatment.

It had been claimed that the locks would be transporting up to 12,000 tonnes per week.

See Also: Prescott Channel Scam

And: Up the Creek

And: How British Waterways are destroying the annual natural spectacle of Bream spawning in the Old River Lea

Planning Decision Notice 253022.pdf409.04 KB

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