A Greenwich Council scrutiny panel voted yesterday to send back a legal deal with Transport for London about the construction of the Silvertown Tunnel – even though officers warned TfL could walk away from the agreement now it has permission to build the tunnel.
The decision does not prevent TfL from building the tunnel, which could open in 2023, and London’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan defied Greenwich party activists last night by tweeting that the road between Greenwich Peninsula and Royal Docks was “vital to the prosperity of east London [sic]”.
Much of the meeting seemed to as much to do with councillors’ frustrations with the way their Labour leadership has handled the SIlvertown Tunnel, with council officers taking flak that may have been better aimed at outgoing leader Denise Hyland and incoming leader Danny Thorpe, neither of whom were present.
But emboldened by the most eye-catching feature of the proposed deal – £933,000 for a noise barrier at Westcombe Hill and Siebert Road – having been written into the tunnel project itself by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, the panel voted by two to one to send the agreement back for renegotiation.
‘Inevitable significant uncertainties’
Grayling’s announcement on the tunnel, which would link the Greenwich Peninsula with the Royal Docks, conceded there were “inevitable significant uncertainties in traffic forecasting and modelling” – but decided it should be built anyway and a monitoring regime put in place to watch its effects.
Despite fears of local campaigners, TfL has insisted the tunnel – which will be tolled along with the Blackwall Tunnel – will not increase congestion or pollution. Greenwich Council has supported the tunnel since it was first announced by Boris Johnson in 2012, even launching a “Bridge The Gap” campaign to support its construction.
Grayling rejected an attempt by Greenwich Council to secure a sustainable transport fund to offset the tunnel’s effects on the World Heritage Site in Greenwich town centre.
“A sustainable transport fund appears to be desirable rather than essential,” the decision notice reads.
But Greenwich, along with neighbouring Newham and Tower Hamlets, succeeded in a demand to ensure TfL runs a high number of bus services through the new tunnel, if Khan and his new transport deputy Heidi Alexander go ahead with the scheme. (From The Murky Depths has been studying some other aspects of the report.)
Local MP Matt Pennycook said he was “bitterly disappointed”. “We deserve smarter, more effective and more imaginative solutions to south-east London’s transport challenges,” he added.
“I hope I’m proved wrong but I fear today’s decision will mean more congestion and air pollution to the detriment of the health and quality of life of local residents.”
Peninsula councillor Stephen Brain and Greenwich West’s Aidan Smith formally “called in” the deal with TfL, branding it inadquate.
The four-year deal includes £41,000 plus £15,000 in administration costs for a biodiversity action plan, £136,000 for school crossing patrols, and £349,500 to extend the Low Emissions Neighbourhood scheme that operates in a small area of Greenwich.
“Calling in” is a mechanism by which a decision by a cabinet member can be looked at again by a scrutiny committee. It is very rare for Labour councillors to call in a decision. It is essentially the also only way Labour councillors can formally protest about the scheme without putting their careers on the line.
The meeting – came just five hours after Grayling gave permission for the tunnel to be built. Many participants were still not fully aware of the details of the document which gives the tunnel the go-ahead, the Development Consent Order (DCO).
Indeed, many of the points raised seemed to show a lack of engagement with the lengthy planning process or the campaign against the tunnel being built – with points raised that could have been brought up months or even years ago. No Greenwich councillor attended any of the public hearing sessions for the tunnel in in 2016 and 2017.
(As an experiment, 853 streamed the whole meeting live from the town hall. The sound quality is not great, but it does at least put the meeting on record.)
Peninsula ward’s Stephen Brain called the deal “mitigation on the cheap”, complaining that councillors could not access some of the confidential parts of the deal – although it emerged later that a draft version with some figures missing had been published in April 2017 as part of the planning process.
“It does not take into account the real impact of this massive civil engineering scheme in and on our area – the residents and businesses of Peninsula ward, Greenwich West, Blackheath Westcombe and Charlton. The funding is not proportional to the [£1 billion] scale of the project.”
He complained that plans to extend the Low Emissions Neighbourhood area in east Greenwich had only one-third of the funding of the current zone, which covers a much smaller area.
“This is a massive civil engineering project that will make current problems with the air in our ward look like child’s play,” he added, calling the plans to mitigate effects on air quality “one step forward, one step back”.
‘HGVs hurtling around’
On road safety, Brain mocked a payment of £136,000 over the four year construction period. “I though I’d missed a nought off this,” he said. “That’s £34,000 per year for a major civil engineering project – the average pay for a crossing warden is £18,000 per year. That’s the budget gone on two posts. It’s totally inadequate when we have a new school coming on stream in Peninsula ward with 1,600 pupils. And we all see on a daily basis, HGVs hurtling around our award – this sum will no account of the army of sub-contractors [who will build the tunnel].”
Brain called for TfL to come back with a revised offer with a “significant increase in funding”.
Greenwich West councillor Aidan Smith complained about the lack of sustainable transport funding.
He cited a report from consultants Arup which claimed that the tunnel – which is for motor vehicles only – would benefit pedestrians and cyclists, adding that his partner usually walked to North Greenwich tube to get to work because the buses were too full – “but the roads and pavements are often closed”.
Smith also said a bus gate at the north end of Tunnel Avenue would be removed, effectively adding an extra lane to the A102.
If TfL did not improve the deal, Smith said, Greenwich Council should with withdraw co-operation. “Make it as hard as possible to build the tunnel,” he said.
The hearing also heard from resident Sally Hughes, who questioned why improvements to the Woolwich Road roundabout were not included in the agreement.
Hughes also complained that tying the £933,000 funding for the noise barrier at Siebert Road – something Danny Thorpe trumpeted as a triumph when it was first approved in November 2015 – to the tunnel’s construction was “unfair”.
Brain questioned why noise barriers were not to be put in place along other sections of the road – particularly along Tunnel Avenue – and also complained about light pollution.
But the council’s top regeneration officer, Pippa Hack, said Greenwich had reached a far better deal than Tower Hamlets, while Newham had reached no deal at all with Transport for London – adding TfL had threatened to withdraw the Siebert Road noise barrier if Greenwich tried to renegotiate the deal.
Council ‘can still force TfL to change things’
Hack also pointed out that Greenwich would sit on a body called the Silvertown Tunnel Implementation Group (STIG) comprised of east and south-east boroughs and the City of London, which would be able to order TfL to make good problems caused by the tunnel or its construction. Despite being a key element of planning hearings held 18 months ago, this seemed to come as news to some of the participants.
The council’s lead transport officer Tim Jackson, told councillors that the agreement was “a smaller, local agreement”, with the more important measures enshrined in the Development Consent Order – which now included the Siebert Road barrier, so TfL could no longer threaten to remove it.
He told the committee that he did not think the council would obtain any more noise barriers: “I don’t think if we re-entered the argument over noise barriers we would succeed.” The Siebert Road barriers issue – which followed a campaign by residents – was “a battle the council chose to have”, he said.
“I take Cllr Brain’s point about sums for road safety being very small but TfL had the driving cards,” Jackson added, pointing out that TfL could still be forced to make changes to the Woolwich Road roundabout by STIG.
Jackson also said the council – along with other boroughs – had made sure TfL would have to operate a high number of buses through the tunnel. Committee member and Peninsula councillor Chris Lloyd joked about the figure mentioned – 37.5 buses per hour – that he learned something new every time he sat on the committee, but this was another key part of the public planning hearings.
Hack told the committee there was a real risk that the legal agreement would reach a stalemate, as it had in Newham, and the council would lose the concessions it had won. She also added that TfL was unwilling to spend any more money on concessions for Greenwich.
But Lloyd said this was “a very rare chance to bind TfL to make actual improvements” in the area, speaking of his frustration at being told the council couldn’t do anything about issues in his wards where TfL ran the roads.
Committee chair David Stanley referred to the “strength of local feeling on the Silvertown Tunnel”. “Could there have been more consultation with councillors and community about the project?,” he asked Hack and Jackson, although that question might have been better put to the absent Hyland and Thorpe.
‘Gun to our heads’
After Stanley said the timing of the agreement meant council had “an inadequate agreement but a gun to our heads”, Jackson said he doubted anything would be different if the deal had been reached two months earlier.
When it came to the vote, Stanley and Lloyd voted for the deal to be reconsidered, while Tory Blackheath Westcombe councillor Geoff Brighty – who represents Siebert Road – opposed it.
The deal will now be reconsidered by officers. In a report for councillors, officers had advised against this, warning: “Further negotiations after the granting of a Development Consent Order are not expected to have positive results, and would risk jeopardising the options agreed so far. It could also compromise the [council’s] ability to properly scrutinise the next stages of the tunnel’s development.”
Whether the councillors’ gamble will pay off, and TfL contributes more; or whether it will come to be seen as too-little-too-late showboating by councillors who could have done much more years ago will remain to be seen.
But for now, the tunnel is going ahead – and thousands of locals whose lives will be blighted by it will remember who backed it, and whose silence helped them achieve it, whether there is a deal or no deal.
Story rewritten and updated Friday 11 May.
853 provides public interest journalism for Greenwich and SE London. If you’ve found this coverage useful, please consider becoming a supporter:
– buy the site author a coffee at ko-fi.com
– or join over 100 monthly patrons and get a regular newsletter: www.patreon.com/853