Earlier this year, on 16th March 2010, Greenland Pier was precipitately and unexpectedly closed to passengers, inconveniencing Rotherhithe residents who rely on the Thames Clipper service to get to work.

The decision to close the pier was taken by Southwark Council, who are responsible for the upkeep of the pier. It was apparently taken without any advance warning to Thames Clippers. Southwark asserted that the closure was necessitated by collision damage to the pier. However, the documents I’ve received in response to a Freedom of Information request strongly suggest that might be a cover story to distract attention from poor maintenance of the pier.

The broad outline of events is as follows:

  • 25th November 2009: Thames Clippers write to Southwark Council enquiring about the status of pin replacement work and recommending the replacement of roller horns on the pier. There is no reply.
  • Various emails pass back and forth about gritting and lighting.
  • 12th March 2010: Thames Clippers again write to Southwark about the maintenance of Greenland pier, noting the lack of response to the earlier letter, and stating that the situation has deteriorated.
  • 16th March: Southwark send contractor to inspect the pier. The pier is determined to be too dangerous for public use, and is to be closed from 20:30 that day.
  • Meanwhile, Southwark appear to be briefing that the closure is the result of collision damage.
  • 17th March: An engineer visits the pier to inspect the situation and recommend remedies.
  • 18th March: Repairs are completed, and the pier reopens.

Southwark’s public version of events doesn’t quite tally with the documents I’ve received. The letter from Thames Clippers to the council on 25th November 2009 makes it clear that the problem had been present for some time:

I show concern that the roller horns that secure the pier into the dolphin guides upstream and downstream are now non-existent after many years of service. To my knowledge these have never been replaced and should certainly be done so at least once every ten years, and given the age of the pier now the replacements are well overdue and this system is currently totally ineffective. [p. 10]

The follow-up message on 12th March shows that the wheels were already missing by this point:

I have attached some photographs taken on 11th March 2010 which clearly show significant deterioration and the need of immediate attention with regards to the 2 pier dolphin guides, especially the downstream end as seen in figure GR3 (it is important to note that should this solid stainless steel spindle that the wheels were once attached fail, the pier would float away from its position). [p. 24]

However, Southwark claim not to have received the attached images, and cast some aspersions on the method by which the letter was delivered:

11. 12.03.10 – Email of letter from —— to —— which was sent at 17:39 Friday evening. —— telephoned —— several hours earlier on Friday afternoon to inform him that he would be sending a letter. —— repeated that he hoped this letter would “assist me —— in getting the funding for these works from the council”. —— told —— that the best way for him to get the funding needed would be if T.C. paid its arrears and assumed responsibility for the R&M of the pier. At no time during the conversation did —— mention the damage to the pontoon locating system, not the fact that the pier was in a dangerous condition. As —— was on leave on the Monday, he did not receive the letter until Tuesday 16.03.100, and despite what was stated in the letter to —— and also in ——’s letter to the Mayor’s office, there were no attachments sent with the letter. On 18 March, —— asked —— in person why the photographs had not been sent. —— claimed they had been sent by special delivery and signed for by someone in C Magro’s office. This was false and in fact the letter with photos were not sent until 19 Mar. In addition they were sent to the Council’s PO box address and not the marina, and were therefore not received by —— until 25 Mar. [p. 2]

Nonetheless, it appears to be this letter that spurred Southwark into action and resulted in the closure of the pier for repairs a few days later. And yet, the Mayor’s Transport Advisor seems to have been given a contradictory view of the situation, judging by a letter of 17th March:

Southwark have explained to me that the damage to the dolphins at the pier was caused not through lack of maintenance (the pier is inspected monthly) but was almost certainly due to a collision – hence the lack of warning over the closure. [p. 30]

On the same day, Thames Clippers denied this version of events, reiterating the lack of maintenance argument:

To be clear Thames Clippers have absolutely not been involved in any recent collisions with Greenland Pier. We have been concerned with the general maintenance of Greenland Pier for some time and have voiced our concerns to Southwark Council on several occasions (see attached supporting documentation). [p. 31]

Southwark’s Strategic Director of Environment and Housing stuck to the council line:

The damage our inspectors have identified is without a doubt the result of severe impact/collision from the river side and nothing whatsoever to do with wear and tear. [p. 32]

Meanwhile, the engineer who visited the pier on 17th March mentioned nothing about a collision. This is confusing, though:

The 4No Rollers which should engage between two vertical 400×200 RHS Guides were missing. We understand that they fell off yesterday. [p. 40]

Yet we know that the wheels were already missing by 11th March.

There is a very different version of the story from each side. I find Thames Clippers’ take to be better supported by the correspondence, although there are still questions about the manner in which Thames Clippers raised their concerns with the council. You can read the whole saga in PDF form if you want to see all the details.

On a lighter note, there are some entertaining bits among the documents; the back-and-forth between the Managing Director of Thames Clippers and the Harbour Master is amusingly bad-tempered:

I would suggest that you keep your comments and your opinions to yourself … [p. 37]

I very much welcome your sudden interest in the safe operation of the pier. [p. 54]

Finally, there appears to be a desire by the council to divest itself of the responsibility for the pier:

Email letter from —— to —— re: R&M work needed on pier. —— had telephoned previously to inform —— that he would be sending the letter, hoping that it would “assist me —— in getting the funding for these works from the council”. —— repeated to —— what had been discussed at their meeting in February, that the responsibility for the R&M should be assumed by T.C. and that if the pier became unsafe in the future it would be closed. [p. 1]

And it was closed, although funding was obtained and the pier repaired and reopened. But what will happen next time? Is Greenland Pier on borrowed time?