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Imports and Exports Prevail

Apart from the necessary commitment of vast Government resources to achieve such an objective, there were other difficulties of a political, economic and commercial nature facing the British Government in 1953. The Port of London dock system, despite the extensive damage sustained during 1940 to 1945, was still the largest such system in the world. Through it passed the largest share of total imports of food and manufactures into the United Kingdom. To these totals had to be added the essential imports of oil for the Thames refineries downstream, a large amount of coal for the London coal-fired power-stations and materials for a wide variety of industry and construction sector activity along the Thames. Heavy emphasis was being placed at this time on the need to pay for steeply rising imports through new export capacity, much of it located on or near the Thames. At that time also, regular passenger ferry services to Europe and long-distance routes all over the world brought large streams of passengers in both directions. Any interruption in this passenger and freight traffic and impeded access on the River caused by barrage or barrier construction would have had dire effects on post-war economic recovery. There were also coldwar security issues: vast locks and vulnerable earth barriers would, in the event of war, present an indefensible target for long-range ballistic missiles, whether conventional or nuclear.

The Thames Barrier open for maritime traffic.

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The Next Best Solutions

By 1972, when I first became involved in these matters, the die had just been cast by the Thames Barrier and Flood Prevention Act that received Royal Assent in August 1972. The decision had been taken to construct a multi-gate barrier at Woolwich on the basis of the following logic:

• London was indeed highly vulnerable to surge-tide flooding and a reliable system of protection was necessary and urgent.

• There could be no impediment to the free flow of shipping up and down the Thames.

• The construction of a downriver earth dam would be too costly and take too long to build. Studies of the consequences in terms of silting and the need for continuous dredging of the shipping channels above and below the dam ruled out this option.

• The construction of a multi-gate barrier from Tilbury to Gravesend would greatly inhibit the development of the new post-war dock facility at Tilbury which was already bedevilled by the awkwardness of its tidal entry that imposed limits on the size and number of vessels capable of entering the dock on each high tide. This difficult manoeuvring also interfered with the free passage of large vessels to and from the upriver docks

• The multi-gate barrier at Woolwich was the next-best solution. The ideal site would involve the closure of the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery, the largest in Western Europe and its deep-water unloading berths in the River. Once the Government had realised the scale of compensation to be claimed by the company, they settled on the present site. An important factor here was that the necessary building land on either side of the barrier was readily and cheaply available.

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