Sweeping majestically over the River Thames between Thurrock and Dartford, the cable-stayed Queen Elizabeth II Bridge was opened by its namesake monarch in October 1991, just four years after construction had commenced. Designed to ease congestion at what Kent on Sunday described as ‘one of the south east’s most notorious pinch points’, it forms the above-ground section of the Dartford Crossing, whose first tunnel was completed in 1963. The bridge is 1.8 miles long and elevates the traffic to a height of 213 feet above the water’s surface; it sits on four steel caissons that were built in the Netherlands, towed into place, sunk and filled with concrete. All being well, they are expected to sit there solidly for the remaining 93 years of the bridge’s anticipated lifespan.
High levels of traffic mean that the bridge is routinely denounced as Britain’s worst section of motorway, although it is in fact technically only an A-road, and not an M: this, according to a helpful attendant at the ‘crossing office’ on the Dartford side, being to permit the passage of farm machinery from one side to the other, which would be illegal on a motorway. Another source of grievance among regular users is its toll, later rebranded as a ‘charge’ to circumvent an EU ruling that tolls should be subject to VAT, which was originally expected to be withdrawn after the cost of construction had been recouped. Having started at 2 shillings and sixpence, it currently sits at £2.50 for a one-way crossing in a car, and since the withdrawal of the toll booths (perhaps calling them ‘charge booths’ just didn’t sound convincing) must be paid online. Number-plates of passing vehicles are scanned automatically by the cameras that unblinkingly stand guard.
As the classicist, teacher and taxi-driver Roy Phippen notes in his superb 2005 book M25: Travelling Clockwise, the QE2 was among the first fruits of the so-called ‘Private Finance Initiative’ instituted by John Major’s Conservative government, though often falsely attributed to Tony Blair due to its proliferation during his premiership. A commemorative plaque at the crossing office proudly states that the bridge ‘marks the first time this century that the Government has contracted to the private sector the financing, design, construction and management of a major road infrastructure project within the United Kingdom’. The pride one can hear in this pronouncement is of a piece with the overall impetus and ambition of PFI, whose agenda was similar to that of later policies like the ‘academisation’ of schools: to wrench public infrastructure from the complexities of local authority management and usher it and into the lean, cold-blooded world of business, where the imperatives of the market would, by default as it were, put paid to waste and inefficiency.
Increasingly, however, PFI has come to resemble a collectively inherited misfortune. As has become clear in the case of hospitals and health infrastructure, the long-term reverberations of PFI schemes have produced false economies and debt spirals, and reduced any sense of public accountability. By tying public bodies into uneconomical contracts with private providers under problematic terms (such as linking costs to the Retail Price Index), PFI is like a pay-day loan on a national scale. After the 2008 financial crisis, the scheme faced growing criticism: the Treasury Committee found that a PFI-built hospital will end up costing up to 70% more than one built using public funding. During the Lib-Con coalition years, George Osborne briefly rebranded PFI as ‘PF2’; it was finally ditched by Philip Hammond following the high-profile collapse of the firm Carillion in 2018.
In the case of the QE2, the PFI era was embodied by the brand-new firm ‘Dartford River Crossing Limited’, whose shareholders were Trafalgar House PLC, Kleinwort Benson Limited, The Prudential Assurance Company Limited and Bank of America. Dartford River Crossing commissioned the work, under a concession from the Secretary of State for Transport; the ultimate financing ‘comprised loan stock placed with institutional investors by Cazenove & Co and a syndicated bank loan developed by Bank of America and provided by a group of major banks.’ All of this is set out methodically and clearly on the commemorative plaque, even if the plaque itself is no longer easy to find: having been removed from the exterior of the crossing office, it is now mounted alongside four others in a corridor within the facility. Perhaps, to today’s reader, its pride sounds a little too much like hubris.
Since its return to state hands in 2003, the QE2 has narrowly avoided successive governments’ plans to sell it off again. In light of the failure of other bridge projects in the ‘Thames Gateway’ to get off the ground (in 2008 Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, finally did away with plans for a Beckton to Thamesmead crossing that had been discussed on and off since the 1970s), it is still the only major downstream river crossing for road traffic. Another is now planned even further out into the estuary, but for the moment motorists faced by the QE2’s occasional closure are still instructed to ‘USE BLACKWALL TUNNEL’, which is so far upstream that it seems an almost bizarre alternative, adding at least 40 minutes to a journey. The only intermediary crossing is the Woolwich Free Ferry, which with its limited capacity and its vessels named after local MPs and personalities like Ernest Bevin and Vera Lynn, feels like a fragment from a very different history book.
My own early memories of the QE2 are roughly contemporaneous with the opening of Bluewater Shopping Centre in 1999. Living in Essex, we had to cross the bridge to get there. And getting there was a must: Bluewater’s opening catapulted the Lakeside Shopping Centre, on the northern side of the bridge, into a sudden condition of ‘outmodedness’ such as might have been relished by the Parisian Surrealists of the 1920s. All at once, Lakeside could be recognised for what it really was: a relic of an earlier form of American-inflected exurban development; of the desire for Reyner Banham’s idea of the motorway as ‘a coherent state of mind, a complete way of life’ as he saw it in the Los Angeles of the 1970s. This had been apt to the overall atmosphere of the area: as Dartford historian Roy Hawkins told Kent on Sunday in 2016, the QE2 itself ‘was just like having an American freeway brought into our system’. But where Lakeside is notable not so much for the shopping centre itself as for the extensive network of vast retail units around it – amenities like Costco Wholesale, a Harley Davidson showroom and an American-style roadside diner actually allowing one to live out something like Banham’s ‘coherent state of mind’ – Bluewater is a more modest, more polite and altogether less noisy affair: a benign spaceship sunk diffidently into a former quarry, its loading bays hidden discreetly beneath the superstructure. One drives between the shops and facilities at Lakeside; at Bluewater, one parks and then forgets about the car.
In common with much late twentieth-century infrastructure, the QE2, Lakeside and Bluewater have had fairly limited representation in popular culture. Travelling the opposite way to Roy Phippen as part of a doomed attempt to turn back time and halt the Millennium celebrations, Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital was published in 2002. The accompanying film, made with Chris Petit, made much of the M25’s association with drug-dealing and other forms of criminality, focusing on the so-called ‘Essex Boys’ murders of 1995 in nearby Rettendon, and Bram Stoker’s choice to site one of Dracula’s houses at Purfleet. Like Lakeside, these sites are all on the north side of the QE2. November’s chilling news story about the bodies of 39 Vietnamese nationals being found in the back of a lorry in Grays confirmed a trend in which the darker aspects of contemporary logistics – the trafficking of people and drugs – seem to gravitate to this locality.
At Bluewater, evidence of the estuary’s association with criminality is harder to find, but there is one ‘artwork’ where it seems to erupt like a repressed memory. Opposite the ‘Place of Quiet’ contemplation room and a large-scale reproduction of a ‘Watercolour commissioned for Bluewater of the surrounding lakes and parkland’, a huge thumbprint on the wall looks as if it might have just been discovered by some nightmarishly oversized store detective, a ring-road Sherlock Holmes. Looking closely, one sees that the print is actually a commemorative mural: the lines are composed of the names of all the people who worked at Bluewater during the first decade of its opening. It’s a nice idea, but taking the form of a print – an emblematic kind of ‘stain’ or ‘blemish’ on the otherwise pristine surface – it’s almost as though it’s intended to make up for the lack of impact that a person working here, even for a long time, could expect to make on the material structure of such a clinically indifferent setting.
With the QE2 bridge looming in the near distance, just out of view– the infrastructure that makes all this commerce viable–the thumbprint-artwork at Bluewater also feels apt to the ways in which the Private Finance Initiative is increasingly being regarded as a kind of ‘crime scene’. As the government acknowledges that some hospital trusts are spending up to a sixth of their budget servicing PFI debts, and will continue to do so for several decades to come, there is an increasing sense in which the present era is coming to terms with the massive hangover induced by the original amphetamine rush of this 1990s policy. Just like a pay-day loan, in retrospect it’s hard to believe that it could ever have seemed like a good idea.
It’s interesting to note that some of PFI’s most eloquent critics have been angered by aesthetics as much as economics. Owen Hatherley, for example, has written persuasively in his accounts of Britain’s ‘new ruins’ of the aesthetic poverty of developments with in-house ‘designers’ rather than architects, concerned more for deadlines and costs than beautification or interaction with pre-existing structures. Perhaps the QE2 slips under the radar of such analysis partly because it is clearly determined by function more than form. And anyway, it is in a part of the country routinely disparaged as a concrete mess. Despite being called the ‘Dartford Crossing’, it’s still more associated in the public imagination with the north side of the river than the south: more Lakeside than Bluewater. As Roy Hawkins put it, reflecting on the bridge’s construction, ‘what you were looking at on the other [northern] side of the river was an industrial area so people didn’t complain about it too much from an aesthetic point of view’. Designed by the German engineer Hellmut Homberg, a specialist in cable-stayed bridges whose work included five crossings of the Rhine and who died a year before the QE2 was opened, the bridge is in fact far from unattractive. Views of it from the RSPB nature reserve at Rainham Marshes, or the riverside at Greenhithe, are little short of majestic. On its opening it was the longest cable-stayed bridge in Europe. Maybe, as the unlikely emblem of a scandalous piece of policymaking, it’s like Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘purloined letter’: so obvious that it’s managed to go practically unnoticed.