We all recognise the historical importance of the Thames, which has been at the heart of London’s economic and recreational growth. But what many people do not realise is that the river has also become increasingly busy in recent years. Five million passengers and 50 million tonnes of goods are carried on the Thames every year.
Today safety on the this vital waterway is under threat following significant changes made to the level of competence and the experience required to obtain a boatmaster’s licence in order to operate on British waters.
In a recent Commons debate (10 January) politicians from all sides of the House, including me, raised their concerned voices at these changes which will mean an inevitable lowering of safety standards. They will have a particular impact on the tidal Thames, where conditions and the potential for accidents are almost unique.
Until 1 January 2007, a licence granted by the Worshipful Company of Watermen and Lightermen and the Port of London Authority demanded five years’ experience on the Thames and four exams?practical, oral and written. To qualify, applicants had to be certified by five separate masters as being able to manage their craft. The old licence therefore created a maritime elite, reflecting the ability to handle craft of different types, speeds and sizes over a wide range of tidal, visibility and weather conditions and with detailed local knowledge.
To comply with a European Council Directive the Maritime and Coastguard Agency has introduced a new licence for passenger and non-passenger craft of more than 24 metres on all inland waterways, and it allows European boatmasters to operate in British waters. The new licence demands only two years’ experience and one practical examination.
It is madness to lower our standards in this way to accommodate visiting European craft and must be seen as a recipe for potential catastrophe. The desperate Marchioness tragedy, which took place eighteen years ago, had some far reaching and positive effects on the safety regulations of Thames pleasure craft and these important changes are now being swept away.
We must also not forget that accidents which do not involve loss of life can have far reaching effects upon central London life ? for instance the barge which recently collided with Battersea Bridge, caused huge disruption to road traffic crossing the river in our nation’s capital for months.
Special rules apply to principle European rivers such as the Rhine and the Danube and it is vital that similar considerations are made for the Thames before inexperience operators on the river cause damage to the river’s bridges, mooring stations and banks let alone bring about another serious loss of life.
There has been a long struggle over this issue. There should always be certain scepticism at new regulations especially when there is a clear issue of public safety. Of course, we do not want such stringent rules on any of our rivers or, indeed, on any form of transport such that it is impossible for people to go about their every day business. Inevitably, any form of travel and transport will always involve an element of risk, and the notion that we can entirely eliminate risk is unrealistic. Equally, however, we need to ensure that, as far as possible, we strike the right balance between ensuring that the Thames is a great place for pleasure and commerce and ultimately as safe a place as we can reasonably make it.
Another important issue will be some of the river’s tributaries, most importantly those around the Lea valley. I spent last Sunday walking around the Olympic site, although, rather depressingly, little work seems to have been done in the 17 or so months since we won the Olympic bid. However, significant work has been done on the towpaths on the lower Lea valley to make them safe and to ensure that the site is attractive for the many millions of people who will visit the Olympics, as well as for those who will live and work in the area in the years ahead, when the site ceases to be an amalgam of former industrial sites. This identifies the important role that water will continue to play for London’s economic growth in the future, and we need to have an eye to the safety aspects.