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Custodians of the Tidal Thames

Christopher Rodrigues’ Speech

PLA Reception – Tuesday, 8 March, 2016


This is my first PLA reception and I am delighted that so many of you could join us.

Arriving at the PLA, as I did, just two months ago I can claim absolutely no credit for anything you saw on the video.  It was all achieved by Robin and his team - under the leadership of my most excellent predecessor Dame Helen Alexander.   The credit is all theirs.  

I also recognise that the credit should be shared with many of you  - my fellow Watermen and Thames people - as much of what the PLA reports as progress is done by you or with you.

So thank you for your part in a most successful year 

Tonight I want to talk briefly about three topics  

  • Some major developments on the river that occurred in the last year
  • Plans for the Thames Skills Academy; and
  • The next Steps on Thames Vision

So let me start by reflecting on 2015

First – all along the river, ships have been getting bigger. 

  • At Tilbury, the Grimaldi service is now using new, larger vessels at riverside berths
  • London Gateway has welcomed ultra large container carriers in ever greater numbers.
  • And in central London we welcomed Viking Star,  the largest ever cruise ship to our Greenwich Moorings

And with bigger ships come:

  • more cargo – last year we collectively handled over 45 million tonnes of cargo, and
  • more people – over 10 million passenger trips on the Thames for the first time and over 100,000 cruise passengers at Tilbury

Here in London we were literally in the spotlight as the crew of the Bond movie Spectre spent five weeks filming on the Thames.  Wearing my other hat as Chair of VisitBritain, I know how important film and TV tourism is - so whether it is David Beckham coming downriver to the Olympics or James Bond in Spectre, millions and millions people see the Thames and are inspired to visit it  whenever it appears on the big screen or their Ipad.

Closer to home the PLA has taken delivery of two new boats – Titan and Maplin - so we can do our work more efficiently; Thames Clippers have two new high speed catamarans built at a cost of £6.5 million and Thames River Services has a new boat on order - the Thomas Doggett.  Notwithstanding increased river traffic we also saw a record number of seals in the Thames last year.

For those who like training in fine boats, we developed a new, easy-to-use Rowing Code of Practice with the Thames Regional Rowing Council and we launched the Cleaner Thames campaign with Tideway and Thames21. 

Finally, at year-end we saw the start of enabling works for the Thames Tideway Tunnel at Blackfriars.  This is a significant milestone as the Tunnel is going to be the biggest single project on the river over the next decade.

Which leads nicely on to the Thames Skills Academy.

Thames Skills Academy

There is a real momentum on the Thames with all aspects of river use growing or set to grow.

To make the most of the opportunities, and to do so safely, we need well-trained, skilled people.

That’s where the Thames Skill Academy comes in.  It’s a very important project that builds on the great work done by the Thames Training Alliance whose hard work and leadership I want to recognize publicly.

The skills academy has received generous support from Tideway as a catalyst.  And now, working together, the PLA, Transport for London, Tideway, the Company of Watermen & Lightermen and the industry can create a key building block for the development of our River – a cadre of more, better trained people to work on the tidal Thames. 

For young people coming to the river at the start of their working lives, and indeed for experienced workers as they up-skill, the Thames Skills Academy will become a critical resource.  For starters, it will make sure river workers are equipped to contribute directly and indirectly to the Tideway Project. 

But beyond that, in five or six years’ time, when Tideway has finished its work and the Thames is much cleaner, there will be a pool of skilled labour ready to move on to the next major project making use of the Thames or onto new Thames transport operations – like the just in time delivery of goods sorted at downriver terminals and brought upriver into London for waterborne delivery to the customer.

So, thank you Tideway for your support of the Academy. 

At this point, ladies and gentlemen, please take a moment to join me in thanking our retiring CHM, David Phillips, for all the work he has done shepherding the development of the Academy; for his leadership of the extraordinary diamond jubilee pageant and for his considerable contributions to river safety and the activities of the PLA.

I also want to introduce his successor, Bob Baker, who joins us on 3 May from Forth Ports, Scotland.  Welcome Bob.

Ladies and gentlemen, when we meet next year I really hope that many of you will be signed up as Academy members, with staff in training. 

Signing up is a leadership role you can play in securing the safe future and growing use of the Thames.  Which brings me neatly to my final comments about the Thames Vision project. 

Thames Vision

I‘ve been a passionate user of the Thames since I first went out in a rum tum at Richmond in 1963 under the watchful eye of Frank Sims. 

But it is the Thames Vision that inspired me to put my hat in the ring to Chair the PLA.  The vision is a perfect device for gathering together all river users – large and small – behind a program that ensures the development of a vibrant, safe, commercially successful river not just in the next year or two but for 20 years ahead.

The initial planning work, supported by many of you here tonight, identified six Goals and 24 Priority Actions which should take us towards achieving:

  • The biggest ever Port of London
  • 20 million passengers on the river
  • More freight moved on the Thames
  • Greater participation in sport, combined with
  • An improved environment and
  • More people enjoying the river than ever before.

And importantly, the launch of the Vision has started to change what people say about the Thames.  It is the beating heart of our city and a great future beckons for all it’s future stakeholders.

To be sure the Vision represents a major project for the PLA, but it cannot be delivered by the PLA alone.

If ever there was a “we” project, this is it.  The Vision cannot be delivered without your active engagement – it will take people, money and importantly, the collective will to see it through.    Latin Americans have a lovely phrase  - juntos podemos – together we can.   How appropriate that is for the Thames Vision.

All the interested parties with whom we consulted supported the Vision – to be sure there were interventions about people’s pet projects - and occasional challenges to be more ambitious still - particularly in the development of inland trade - but there was unanimous support for pushing ahead and for the PLA to play a leading role in driving the vision forward.

Our Board reviewed next steps on this journey only today and – significantly – you will see on our annual report cover that we have grasped the baton you have given us and asserted that we are the CUSTODIANS OF THE TIDAL THAMES.   This is implied in the Act of Parliament the governs us but we have never before formally recognized that responsibility which goes beyond ensuring safe navigation and  growing trade to include facilitating the active development of the river for all stakeholders.

I am not going to be so bold as to claim we are a riverine version of the National Trust conserving the river for ever for everyone.   We might earn that soubriquet in time but we have to prove ourselves first.

And there’s still a lot of work to do.  We’ll start with the low hanging fruit this year and work with interested parties to develop implementation plans for the strategic projects and to confront the trade offs those projects will require – because this much is already clear: there must be trade offs if we are to optimize the delivery of the vision for the public good.

We have started to measure success not just in respect of what we do in the year but what has been done to move the Vision forward and I look forward to reporting our collective progress this time next year.

But, for now, let me close with this thought - have no doubt that the PLA is committed to going beyond the responsibility of being an authority to becoming stakeholder focused organisation and a catalyst for good on the river.  

My Lords, Ladies and gentlemen I invite you to toast the heath of The Port of London Authority – Custodians of the Tidal Thames.