As with most propaganda, it’s not what they tell you that matters – it’s what they’re not telling you.
So it’s striking that Greenwich Council’s weekly Pravda, Greenwich Time, has neglected to tell readers about leader Denise Hyland’s trip to Westminster last month to lobby MPs for the Silvertown Tunnel.
Think the Bridge The Gap campaign is dead? Think again. The language may have changed, but Greenwich still wants the Silvertown Tunnel.
Back on 12 January, Hyland travelled from Woolwich Town Hall to Portcullis House to meet the Transport Select Committee (which, by DLR and Jubilee Line, involves crossing the Thames five times) along with others demanding more roads across the river. She was accompanied by Newham’s elected mayor, Sir Robin Wales.
Not that the MPs took much persuading, mind. As a scrutiny exercise, it was largely a waste of time. It wasn’t a session about whether strategic river crossings (across England, not just in London) are any good – it was a session about why these things can’t be built quickly. It was also barely reported. So here’s an attempt to play catch-up.
Two more evidence sessions followed Hyland’s, the final of which took place last Monday. I sat through most of them, so I hope I can fit what happened in some proper context.
I should point out I’m on the committee of No to Silvertown Tunnel, so I’m not exactly coming at this from a neutral angle, which won’t surprise you. This enormous post doesn’t represent that group’s views.
A cosy committee, a flawed inquiry
Those who remember the days of the redoubtable Gwyneth Dunwoody using these sessions to tear hapless policymakers to shred will be a little disappointed. Of the eight others who joined Hyland to give evidence on 12 January, eight wanted more roads across the Thames.
In all three sessions, the only dissenter from the assumption that all roadbuilding is good roadbuilding was the Campaign for Better Transport‘s boss, Stephen Joseph. He snuck some doubts about Thames crossings into a session on a bridge across the Mersey.
One of the MPs on the select committee has certainly made his views known in the past. Labour’s Jim Fitzpatrick is already a keen backer of the Silvertown Tunnel. In 2007, the Poplar and Limehouse MP accepted a free trip to Bangladesh for him and his wife from Canary Wharf Group, which is also a keen backer of the Silvertown Tunnel.
Fitzpatrick, whose recently-expressed views on cycle superhighways eerily coincides with those of Canary Wharf Group, spent the session bowling low balls for Hyland and Newham’s elected mayor Sir Robin Wales, as well as TfL’s director of planning Michele Dix and Boris Johnson’s transport deputy Isabel Dedring.
The session featuring Hyland and Wales wasn’t a brilliantly-conceived one. The committee bundled the vexed question of east London crossings – which have more to do with urban traffic issues than moving freight across the country – in with the equally difficult subject of crossings between Kent and Essex.
The committee came looking for consensus – but by bundling these issues together, it wasn’t going to get it.
There’d been no previous indication that the London crossings would be on the agenda for the committee’s inquiry – after all, this is a devolved issue, where Westminster MPs should arguably keep their beaks out.
But the presence of the London Chamber of Commerce’s chief executive Colin Stanbridge, whose literature was left around the committee room after the session, suggests the lobbying organisation may have helped get them on the agenda.
Local bridges for local people – really?
This was a session on “strategic crossings”, yet Hyland told the committee she wanted “local bridges for local people”. One obvious question would have been for an MP to ask how the Silvertown Tunnel fitted into that – but it didn’t come.
Even Sir Robin Wales, an ardent fan of road-building who may as well have brought a kitten and a shotgun into the session to back up his demand for a bridge at Gallions, was lukewarm about Silvertown.
“We are not opposed to Silvertown — we get its congestion — but we do not think it contributes to regeneration in the way that Gallions will do,” he told the committee.
Greenwich will also get Silvertown’s congestion, but Hyland didn’t acknowledge this. Her opening gambit, in response to chair Louise Ellman, revealed the flaws in the current process.
“The Royal Borough of Greenwich supports the construction of a new tunnel at Silvertown and a vehicular crossing at Gallions Reach, but as part of a package of crossings between Blackwall and Dartford,” she replied.
“In our view, it needs to recognise that the provision of public transport must be integral with any vehicular crossing. For example, we would like to see a London Overground extension come over to Thamesmead and Abbey Wood.
“In terms of Silvertown, we would like to see the DLR extension coming out as far as Eltham, and for the DLR as well to go to Thamesmead [via Gallions].”
Yet there isn’t a package on the agenda other than more new roads.
This website understands Hyland has been lobbying City Hall for the Overground to Thamesmead – yet so far, TfL is sticking its head in the sand, preferring only to extend it to Barking Riverside in the short-term.
TfL also sees the DLR from Silvertown to Eltham – which would have to be built on stilts above the A102, and risks overloading North Greenwich tube station – as a non-starter.
Michele Dix offered a glimmer of hope for the DLR to Thamesmead – “we will also be looking at Gallions for the possibility of potentially having the DLR run along that bridge”. But that was all.
Silvertown sacrifice – traffic could double
What remains undeniable is that people who live close to roads that’ll be hit by Silvertown are being offered up as sacrifices to get construction going elsewhere.
And this appeasement by Hyland and Wales – effectively, “let them have Silvertown and we’ll get Gallions” – could have disastrous consequences if you’re in an affected area.
Isabel Dedring admitted traffic on some local roads could double under TfL’s plans.
“There is going to be significant growth in local concerns as we go through the process, because now we are bringing forward the actual details of the proposals and people are going to say, ‘I like the idea of a bridge but not when I discover that it is going to lead to a doubling of traffic on my road.’ That is inevitable with these kinds of projects,” she said.
“Hopefully, we can make the case that the strategic importance of it for London, and indeed for the local areas, outweighs the local issues.
“There is going to be that noise. That will be the immediate issue for the consensus. It is how loud the local issues become.”
Essentially, the more people find out, the more they don’t like it. That’s why TfL has been so consistently vague on its Silvertown proposals – and why you read so little about it in Greenwich Time.
Bridge The Gap: The corpse twitches
Batting away another simple ball from Jim Fitzpatrick, Denise Hyland claimed “we have put a lot of pressure on TfL to put public transport as an integral part of the crossings”.
That’s a marked difference from the approach taken by predecessor Chris Roberts, but is simply not true as far as the Silvertown Tunnel is concerned.
Indeed, the council’s report into extending the DLR to Eltham via the Silvertown Tunnel – which concluded that a link as far as Kidbrooke was feasible, but was doubtful about proceeding further – was not even presented to City Hall.
While a tunnel at Silvertown would provide an opportunity to run new bus routes across the Thames, there is nothing stopping TfL making more use of the existing tunnel to run services to Canary Wharf and points north – something the council has failed to lobby for.
The Blackwall Tunnel may be good enough for Kent commuter coaches to Canary Wharf, but local politicians and TfL seem to content simply to route services into North Greenwich station instead, piling more pressure on it.
Greenwich Council’s response to last autumn’s Silvertown Tunnel consultation was to back it, but demand the mythical Eltham DLR extension as well as other measures.
But what happens when TfL turns around and refuses the DLR to Eltham?
The question the MPs didn’t ask – and a futile search for consenus
Real scrutiny would have been asking if Hyland’s support for Silvertown or Gallions was conditional on them carrying public transport. That question didn’t come.
Because nobody’s asking that question, it’s storing up problems for the future.
On Silvertown alone, the consensus the Transport Committee hoped to find simply doesn’t exist. Locally, rank and file Labour members in both Greenwich & Woolwich and Eltham voted to oppose the Silvertown Tunnel – but were ignored by the council their party purports to control.
Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Greenwich & Woolwich – and Greenwich West councillor – Matt Pennycook has written about his grave doubts about the scheme.
Worse still, the old problem of bullying in Greenwich Labour was also used to secure support for the tunnel. This website understands some newer councillors in the south of Greenwich borough were threatened with deselection by a senior party figure if they didn’t back the Silvertown Tunnel in an internal group vote.
Nobody expects a panel of Westminster MPs to be fully conversant with the murky underbelly of local politics in different areas. But none of them asked Hyland – or any of the other council representatives there – if her views really represented local opinion.
The nearest they got was when Jim Fitzpatrick asked if the Labour group on the London Assembly was on board. He knew the answer, but the question was clearly designed to demonstrate some kind of consensus.
Surrender over Silvertown – but defending Dartford?
There’s also the case of the brave Labour representative who knows that if you add extra capacity to an already-existing river crossing, you’re simply going to make surrounding roads worse.
Simon Thomson, Labour candidate for Dartford, should know – he was originally selected as a candidate for Greenwich Council in Blackheath Westcombe ward, before bagging the chance to go toe-to-toe with the Tories in this bellwether seat.
When Boris Johnson pledged to build a further Dartford crossing (he doesn’t have the power, of course) Thompson wrote and complained. When Johnson pledges a similar threat in Greenwich – where he actually does have power – Hyland and her colleagues have backed away.
Indeed, Greenwich recently advertised for a “director of regeneration”, with a job description which includes lobbying for Silvertown.
Maybe it’s a reflection of the differing political cultures in Dartford and Greenwich – Labour can never get complacent in a seat like Dartford – but it’s a real indication of just what’s gone wrong in Greenwich.
Regeneration, regeneration, regeneration
Perhaps Dartford Labour’s Simon Thomson should have been at the final committee hearing, held last Monday inside the Palace of Westminster itself. Here, the committee heard from Tim Healey, deputy chair of the Association of Civil Engineers’ Roads Sector Interest Group (essentially, a group of roadbuilders) that extra crossings at Dartford had boosted regeneration there.
Yes, that’s the same Dartford as the Kent town that’s been dying on its backside for years. The roads had brought Bluewater shopping centre, which lies in Dartford borough – but there was no mention that this was at the expense of Dartford itself.
Futureproofing? Be careful what you wish for
Another absurd piece of evidence accepted without questioning by the committee came from Healey’s colleague, Roads Sector Interest Group chair Mike Llywelyn-Jones. He suggested that new roads should be “futureproofed” so they can cope with anticipated demand in 30 years’ time – ignoring a body of evidence that indicates roads generate demand, rather than simply accommodate it.
If London’s roads had been “futureproofed” in the 1970s to cope with anticipated demand today, some of the capital’s most popular neighbourhoods simply wouldn’t exist today.
Brockley Central is a local blog that has come out in support of the Silvertown Tunnel. Yet the heart of the area would have been ripped out if the Ringways scheme had gone ahead, smashing the South Cross Route through Brockley Cross.
Instead, Brockley has undergone a remarkable revitalisation led by public transport investment, making it a desirable place to live. Where there once would have been motorway gantries, there’s now a tasteful bar called The Gantry.
Those who love seeing Brockley’s Victorian terraces on Location, Location, Location might want to think about the fate of SE4 if the Ringways had gone ahead before they condemn other areas to more traffic, traffic, traffic.
‘Silvertown should the last built… or never be built’
Here’s the bit that those who skip straight to the comments box to write “something must be done” will ignore. It’s worth pointing out the views of former Greater London Council transport planner John Elliott, who twice submitted evidence to the inquiry but wasn’t asked to speak to the committee. He did get to speak to the Wharf newspaper.
“”The historical record for these kinds of packages is they build one and run out of money,” he said. “There are big gaps along the Thames and yet they want to build it next to one already there, and a very busy one at that.
“Silvertown should be the last crossing built or, preferably, never built.”
He wants to see a pan-London congestion charge before any new roads are built.
“It’s time for a congestion charge within the M25,” he wrote. “It could be relatively popular, keeping out long distance car commuters and tackling the problem across the whole of London, freeing up more space for essential commercial traffic.
“Rather than tolls on individual crossings, we need other congestion charges.”
Essentially, he argues that building a tunnel at Silvertown, or even bridges at Gallions Reach or Belvedere, will be a waste of time until London politicians have the courage to get to grip with traffic levels in the capital.
But in a committee that had made its mind up anyway, this voice wasn’t heard. He wasn’t called to give evidence.
Flawed committee, flawed scrutiny – time for councillors to step up
By allowing Boris Johnson to have boxed her in over the Silvertown Tunnel, Denise Hyland could be about to wreak incalculable harm to the people of Greenwich she purports to represent. Getting across the river may be a hassle, but putting more traffic onto the borough’s streets won’t help.
Greenwich Council’s failure to properly challenge the Silvertown Tunnel is all the more worrying because of the failure of others to properly scrutinise it. The MPs on the Transport Scrutiny Committee had clearly made their minds up that new roads were good things. And here in the capital, Tories and Labour on the London Assembly teamed up to vote down a motion criticising the mayor’s spending on river crossings (see video).
While individual assembly members – notably Caroline Pidgeon and Darren Johnson – have done exemplary work on Boris Johnson’s road-building plans, the assembly as a body has been rendered largely useless on this issue because of the Labour group at City Hall’s blindness to the issue.
Opponents have also had their blind spots – falling for TfL’s narrative of treating the crossings as a whole, rather than scrutinising each one and spotting the individual flaws. After all, the problem of traffic trumps the problem of getting across the river, which can be eased with public transport initiatives.
Treated individually, TfL’s rationales quickly fall apart. Silvertown’s easily the barmiest of the lot, yet still casts a spell over the easily-led. It’s claimed Silvertown will relieve congestion, but there’s enough evidence to show it will simply increase traffic right across south-east London. Will Hyland stand up to this issue?
Proponents of the Gallions Bridge claim it will regenerate the area, but will Thamesmead really be regenerated by warehousing and other space-hungry businesses that depend on road traffic, when London is crying out for more homes? Leaving Thamesmead to depend on roads has been a self-defeating act of cruelty by London’s politicians. Denise Hyland has the opportunity to seize the agenda here, to champion Thamesmead and her own ward of Abbey Wood, instead of meekly following the desires of Sir Robin Wales (who has little interest in the south side of the river).
A Labour politician who rolled over for Tory plans for the NHS or social security would rightly be hounded. Yet too many in Labour treat the Silvertown Tunnel, with the extra traffic and congestion it will bring, as if it’s inevitable, and go for a policy of appeasement rather than challenge.
Yet the failure of both the London Assembly and MPs to properly scrutinise this scheme gives the likes of Denise Hyland a chance to think big and set the agenda. Forget parochial dead-ends, forget borough borders. It’s time for councillors to step up and really interrogate these schemes – and engage with both sides of the debate. Why not start a big campaign for public transport?
Too many awkward questions have gone unanswered, many in the little-explored grey areas between “yes” and “no”. (For example, if the original Blackwall Tunnel isn’t fit for purpose, why is the Silvertown Tunnel adding to it rather than replacing it?)
We’re in an interesting time for London politics – the current mayor’s a lame duck, and the big parties will soon start to choose their replacements. Labour outsider Christian Wolmar – who knows more about transport than most of us will ever forget – has spoken out against the tunnel. His colleagues should heed his warnings.
So right now, even the most humble councillor has more influence than they think. It’s time for them to get to work and properly engage with this, rather than accepting others’ half-baked assumptions – because on the Silvertown Tunnel, the path of least resistance is a road to disaster.
1.30pm update: I’m indebted to Greenwich councillor Aidan Smith for tweeting some details of a scrutiny meeting councillors held last night with TfL and Southeastern. (I missed it because I wanted to finish writing this enormous post.)
The meeting was told that analysis of the effects of the Sivertown Tunnel on local roads still hasn’t been done – this should be enough to raise alarm bells.
TfL’s representative also didn’t know how much work had been done on a business case for extending the Overground to Thamesmead and Abbey Wood – surely if TfL took it seriously, its representative should have been briefed? Again, this should be ringing bells.
Both issues should be enough to make Greenwich councillors realise they should be kicking up a stink. Claiming they are just “stakeholders”, as they have done in the past, really isn’t good enough now.