853 exclusive: Greenwich Labour councillors reaffirmed their backing for the Silvertown Tunnel last week, with the help of councillors in the area most affected by the scheme who had pledged their opposition to it when appealing for votes last year.
Peninsula ward councillors Denise Scott-McDonald and Stephen Brain voted against a motion that would have seen Greenwich reverse its long-held and controversial position on the planned new road between the Greenwich Peninsula and Royal Docks. But less than a year ago, their co-councillor Chris Lloyd told an election hustings, with them all present, they all opposed the tunnel.
Lloyd was absent from the behind-closed-doors meeting of the council’s ruling Labour group at Woolwich Town Hall last Monday. Lloyd’s absence and his colleagues’ votes for the tunnel helped ensure the motion was defeated by 14 votes to 12, multiple sources have told 853.
While the motion came rather late – five years of construction work is due to begin at the end of this year – it would have signalled a big change in Greenwich Council’s attitude to roadbuilding.
Greenwich has backed the tunnel since it was announced by Conservative mayor Boris Johnson in 2012, even launching a “Bridge The Gap” campaign – and attempting to pack a TfL consultation with positive responses – to get it built. Opponents fear the road will exacerbate rather than relieve congestion in the streets around the tunnel.
At the time, Greenwich leader Chris Roberts saw support for the tunnel, which would link the Blackwall Tunnel southern approach with the Tidal Basin roundabout north of the Thames, as a way of getting a crossing between Thamesmead and Beckton built.
But plans for a Thamesmead crossing have been put on the back burner and the Silvertown Tunnel – now backed by current mayor Sadiq Khan – has since been approved by a planning inquiry.
While Greenwich and Tower Hamlets back the tunnel, Newham’s enthusiasm faded after the Thamesmead crossing was shelved, and new elected mayor Rokhsana Fiaz has now swung the east London council against the tunnel.
Lewisham and Hackney councils have both passed motions against the tunnel, while Southwark is also against the scheme, fearing plans to toll both the new road and the Blackwall Tunnel will send more traffic to Rotherhithe Tunnel.
Even a report commissioned by Greenwich Council in 2012 – which the council attempted to suppress – warned of “exacerbated congestion on the local road network” if the tunnel was built.
The recent opening of Ikea – which has seen long queues build up on the A206 in east Greenwich and Charlton – has put the issue of traffic in the Greenwich area in the spotlight once again.
‘We have a long record of opposing the tunnel’
Speaking at hustings in east Greenwich last April, Lloyd told the audience that he agreed with the Green candidate Dan Garrun about the tunnel.
With his two colleagues sat behind him, Lloyd said: “We as councillors have a long record of opposing the Silvertown Tunnel. It’s not going to be our decision to make… when the second bore of the Blackwall Tunnel opened in the 1960s traffic went up by 100%.
“Whereas in the east of the borough, around Gallions Reach, Thamesmead, there is a great deal of support for a crossing there, so that is where I suggest we put it.”
He said the council had secured funding to ease traffic congestion on the A206, calling it “real action”.
Lloyd did not respond to a request for comment from 853 on why he did not attend the meeting.
Tunnel U-turn in plain sight
Scott-McDonald, meanwhile, has undergone a U-turn on the Silvertown Tunnel in plain sight, becoming a supporter of the tunnel after accepting the role of being cabinet member for transport and the environment, which pays £22,119 on top of her £10,210 councillor’s allowance.
Speaking at December’s full council meeting, Scott-McDonald – who unsuccessfully attempted to be selected as a general election candidate for Cities of London and Westminster last year – cited “additional funding for the Silvertown Tunnel” as an example of TfL investment in Greenwich borough.
Last week, in a written answer to environmental campaigner Carolyn Roberts, she said the Silvertown Tunnel was “a part of meeting our sustainable transport objectives”.
When asked by 853 why she had changed her mind on the tunnel, Scott-McDonald, a former journalist, did not comment except to ask who this website’s sources were.
‘My record is clear… oppose Silvertown’
Stephen Brain has built up a combative reputation on social media since he was first elected in 2014, tangling with critics and opponents on Twitter.
After criticising the decision – taken before he was elected – to allow Ikea to build a store in east Greenwich, he turned up at a photocall to mark the start of work on the store in 2017, calling it “the adult thing to do”.
He threatened the author of local planning blog From The Murky Depths with legal action after being criticised over the council’s record in the ward – in a Facebook post he said: “My record is clear… opposed Ikea, oppose Silvertown.”
Three months later, he threatened to report the Greenwich Green Party to the police over an election leaflet which called the now-scrapped Enderby Wharf cruise port “Labour’s cruise terminal”. He later dismissed the threat as “a friendly warning”.
His U-turn on the tunnel is particularly striking as he was one of two councillors to successfully “call in” Greenwich’s legal agreement with TfL on the tunnel’s construction last May. A new deal has yet to be signed. Last year he was given the role of chairing the council’s “smart cities” spin-off Digital Greenwich, while he also joined the board of council services company Greenwich Service Solutions.
Asked for a response, Brain said: “It was a private meeting.”
News that the vote from the Labour group meeting has leaked out will lead to a fresh hunt for moles on the council. Even though the Labour group meeting is, effectively, one of the key decision-making meetings in the council, it is held in private and councillors are told not to discuss what happens.
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