What happens when our civic waters are run as profit centres? I call it ‘Liquid Iniquity’. All too often, big business is privileged over nature, over life. And all too often, the results are filthy air, ruined vistas, tormented and dispossessed citizens.
The River Thames is run on a charter from 1909. This allows the Port of London Authority (PLA) to do pretty much whatever it sees fit, so long as it raises its own revenues and doesn’t trouble the Exchequer. The PLA can charge for anything that gets wet at high tide – even for a balcony that hangs over the river. Vessels are its chief clients.
The PLA’s charter was drawn up in colonial times when London hosted a ‘vast imperial and foreign trade’. Revisions over the years have removed most of its responsibility for air, noise and light pollution. So it’s no surprise that Thames boats generally run on crudely-refined marine diesel, rich in particulates and sulphur. Air pollution steals 9,000 lives every year in London. But the Mayor’s power over London’s air stops at the foreshore. Sadly, boat emissions do not.
Cold water amplifies noise. Most Thames leisure vessels are a joy, but sadly the soundscape and nightscape are increasingly dominated by a dozen floating nightclubs favouring blue flashing lights that impact harmfully on both marine and human life. Alongside unspeakably loud music and the screams of revellers, there have been incidents of indecent behaviour, stabbings and even riots.
In 1989, fifty-one young people died when the Bowbelle dredger ploughed over a party boat called the Marchioness. The final report of the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (January 2015) concluded that the skipper of the Marchioness probably never heard the four warnings about the Bowbelle over the party noise. And yet nothing’s ever been done to curb the raging music that could threaten navigational safety on the Thames.
How do I know about all of this? It’s a bit of a horror story.
In March 2019, a neighbour sent me a blog about historic Swan Lane pier by London Bridge. It was going to be restored. Lovely, I thought, imagining day trips to Margate, and a canoe club. But deep in the detail of the planning application, I found a short document: the “Operational Manual of the Oceandiva”. Oceandiva. It sounded big and blingy. So I started to look into it, uncovering a grandiose plan to bring Europe’s biggest party boat to London. This Dutch vessel was Frankensteined out of a Cold War cruise ship. Three floors high, nearly the length of a football pitch, it takes 1,500 partygoers. The Oceandiva also planned to stage corporate jamborees and even to parade luxury cars down the Thames. The historic river would be commodified as an advertising backdrop, while World Heritage vistas stood to be blocked or ruined by the ship’s huge bulk. Meanwhile noise on an unprecedented level was designed into the Oceandiva’s vast open party decks.
The Oceandiva was far bigger than the largest boat deemed safe for regular river use by the PLA, with a consequently high chance of collision with historic bridges. Its very size would reduce the space available on the river for other craft, increasing the possibility of impacts. That wasn’t the only danger. All London’s recent terror attacks started by the iconic river. An emergency on the Oceandiva – fire, collision or terror – would be on a scale never before seen in London.
The Oceandiva was over four times the size of its proposed pier. Nevertheless, the Swan Lane planning application showed not a single computer-generated image of the vessel itself. At the end of the pier, where the Oceandiva would moor, the images just faded to white. Nor had there been any consultation with local residents or businesses. If my neighbour had not passed on the information, I’d have been like most Londoners, unaware of what was going on until the day the Oceandiva first darkened the horizon, a supersized ugly surprise.
The PLA seems to have suspected that its new client might cause local concern, because it failed to mention the Oceandiva at any of its public engagement meetings with river stakeholders, and batted off questions when we tried to raise them. Which is when we discovered that the PLA doesn’t answer to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. And so in March 2019 it seemed horribly likely that a lucrative financial proposition for the Oceandiva and the PLA was about to change the Thames forever.
Campaigning against the Oceandiva put my life as a novelist on hold for nearly two years. Environmental activism can burn you up. But you carry on because you know that if you stop, big money will fill the vacuum.
Residents, businesses, Southwark Cathedral, the Tower and the Globe joined forces. We lawyered up. We found a way to extract some information from the PLA, via Environmental Information Regulations 2004. Novelist Amanda Craig set up a petition where people were able to voice their passionate opposition to the Oceandiva. NoGrandiNavi – the cruise campaigners in Venice – allowed us to adapt their famous logo. The Guardian, Telegraph and Evening Standard reported on the public’s disgusted reaction to the Oceandiva’s designs on London.
October 6, 2020 was decision day for Swan Lane Pier at the City of London. By that time, there were 836 objections on the planning portal and thousands had signed the petition. Twenty-three councillors stood up one by one to denounce the project. They expanded the grounds for refusing the Oceandiva a bespoke berth, citing the police concerns about the effect of over 1,000 partygoers colonising the shore late at night, fighting over taxis and generally behaving in the way people can after hours of revelling.
The Thames could breathe for a while. But not for long.
In March this year, the Oceandiva’s CEO Edwin Petersen hosted a lavish press event to announce that the boat would arrive on the Thames by August 2022 and was already taking bookings. The assertion is that a number of London piers can now be used by a ‘new CO2-neutral’ Oceandiva (is that Whole-Lifecycle CO2-neutral? Do the relevant grid capacity and infrastructure exist to recharge a vessel of this size? How safe are lithium-ion batteries in humid situations? What will happen to riverside communities when the Oceandiva disembarks 1,500 partygoers late at night?)
This time, no-one has to answer these questions: because it floats, the Oceandiva can sail unimpeded through a loophole, escaping any democratic or expert design scrutiny. The Mayor’s office says that the river is the responsibility of the PLA and the Marine Coastguard Ageny (MCA). The MCA admits under FOI that it’s in the process of certifying a client boat of this name for the Thames. All the PLA will say is that the mega party-boat is ‘expected’ on the river this year.
None of our worries are assuaged. The dangers inherent in the Oceandiva’s size, the commodification and Disneyfication of the Thames, the certainty of noise pollution, the PLA’s and MCA’s limited accountability for the human impacts of their huge client – all these things continue to raise urgent questions about the Oceandiva’s arrival.
Consultation this time, you ask?
There has been absolutely none, except when we ambushed the PLA at a recent ‘Stakeholders’ conference. And, as usual, our questions were rapidly and skillfully deflected.
At the time of writing, we’re still trying to speak to the Oceandiva.
So the big question can be posed only on a public forum like Writers Rebel. And it’s this: Is the Oceandiva what Londoners want for their biggest public realm, the Thames?
CALL TO ACTION: Wherever you live, join our campaign No Oceandiva here.
Michelle Lovric is an award-winning author of historical novels for adults and children, set in both London and Venice. She campaigns for clean, quiet air and water in both places too.
Images: at the time of writing, the London Oceandiva is visible only in computer-generated images that are the copyright of the company, so we cannot publish them. However, you can see those images – and the public’s response to them – here.