Greenwich Council is under new pressure to reverse its support for the controversial Silvertown Tunnel after local Labour Party members across the borough passed motions demanding councillors drop its backing for mayor Sadiq Khan’s £1bn road scheme.
Party members in Greenwich & Woolwich, Eltham and Erith & Thamesmead have all passed motions attacking the tunnel – with all three of the borough’s MPs now critical of the scheme for the first time.
The council has backed the road link between the Greenwich Peninsula and the Royal Docks since the consultation process begun under Khan’s predecessor, Boris Johnson, in 2012. The tunnel, which was approved for construction in May 2018, would include a dedicated lane for HGVs – the biggest of which cannot use the Blackwall Tunnel – when it opens in 2025.
A contract to build and operate the tunnel – which will be built through a Private Finance Initiative-style scheme, similar to the Lewisham and Woolwich extensions to the Docklands Light Railway – is due to be awarded to the Riverlinx consortium within weeks.
Backers of the tunnel say it will relieve congestion at the Blackwall Tunnel because both crossings would be tolled, opponents say it will create new jams elsewhere in the area and risk increasing pollution. Opponents also point out that a new mayor has the power to remove the unpopular tolls altogether, just as Johnson removed part of the central London congestion charge in 2010, which would rip up TfL’s conservative predictions for traffic using the crossings.
Labour activists hope they can force a new vote among Greenwich’s Labour councillors aimed at reversing the council’s stance, albeit nearly three years after the planning inquiry started when council opposition would have carried the most weight.
The last attempt failed after Peninsula ward councillors Stephen Brain and Denise Scott-McDonald – who aligned themselves with tunnel opponents in the run-up to the May 2018 council election – voted to continue the council’s stance of supporting the scheme. Scott-McDonald, who harbours ambitions of becoming an MP, has since become the cabinet member for transport and air quality. In a council meeting earlier this month, she appeared stumped by questions on the tunnel and said members of the public would be better off asking Transport for London, which is building the tunnel.
Any move to change the council’s stance would be behind closed doors and among Labour councillors only – with the exception of some questions from the Conservative bench in the early stages of the planning process, the tunnel has never been debated at a full council meeting, despite its huge ramifications for the borough and wider area.
Erith & Thamesmead speak out
The Erith and Thamesmead party passed a motion last week calling on Greenwich councillors, leader Danny Thorpe, deputy leader David Gardner, transport cabinet member Denise Scott-McDonald and London Assembly member Len Duvall to “oppose the construction of the Silvertown Tunnel and to stop any activity to progress it with immediate effect”.
The party’s motion will be a warning shot to Scott-McDonald. She is thought likely to put herself forward to be the Labour candidate for Erith & Thamesmead at the next general election following the retirement of Teresa Pearce, the current MP who is opposed to the scheme.
Opposition in Erith & Thamesmead is notable because Greenwich Council has claimed to be supporting “a package of river crossings” including a road crossing at Gallions Reach, linking Beckton and Thamesmead, which itself was fiercely opposed in the area.
However, no such package exists. The Silvertown Tunnel is being built in isolation and a Gallions crossing was shelved by Khan in 2016. A Thamesmead DLR link – which has been demanded for over three decades – was raised by TfL in the planning hearings, but a route has not even been chosen.
Opposition in Greenwich and Eltham
The Greenwich & Woolwich party restated its opposition at its annual general meeting at Charlton House on 17 July, passing a motion which noted that a new mayor could remove the tolls which both the council and TfL are relying on. It called upon Thorpe, Gardner and Scott-McDonald “to use every opportunity to explain the environmentally disastrous consequences that will flow from the construction of the Silvertown Tunnel and to make it clear that Greenwich Council are opposed to it”, and upon Khan to scrap it.
Greenwich & Woolwich’s MP Matt Pennycook has been a consistent opponent of the tunnel, although his predecessor, Nick Raynsford, was a vocal backer of the scheme.
The neighbouring Eltham party has also passed an anti-tunnel motion – which led to the surprising sight of its local MP, Clive Efford, criticising the tunnel during a planning meeting for a housing development in Kidbrooke two weeks ago.
“Air quality in Greenwich is causing increasing concern among local residents and this can only get worse along the approaches to the Blackwall Tunnel with the addition of the Silvertown Tunnel,” he said.
In 2013, Efford called on his constituents to back the scheme along with a new DLR route to the area, a proposal which was never on the table, helping TfL claim a high level of support for the tunnel.
Efford is not the only figure to have changed his stance on the tunnel. Former Greenwich Council deputy leader John Fahy and ex-Newham cabinet member Conor McAuley reversed their support for the scheme after dropping to backbench positions.
Lewisham, Southwark and Hackney councils all oppose the tunnel, with Newham joining belatedly last May after elected mayor Rokhsana Fiaz replaced the pro-roads Sir Robin Wales at the head of the council.
Earlier this month, Hackney Council’s leadership wrote to Transport for London commissioner Mike Brown, asking him to scrap the tunnel. Hackney has opposed the tunnel since passing a motion against it in 2015, and objects to it having a dedicated lane in each direction for HGVs which cannot use the existing northbound Blackwall Tunnel, fearing it will bring more heavy lorries into east London.
This week, @mayorofhackney and I wrote to @TfL Commissioner Mike Brown, to formally register @hackneycouncil's opposition to #SilvertownTunnel on air pollution and congestion grounds. This project is fundamentally incompatible with the kind of transport system we need to create. pic.twitter.com/EqbWlTTrev
— Cllr Jon Burke (@jonburkeUK) July 18, 2019
“You cannot build yourself out of congestion, and the new Silvertown Tunnel is trying to do just that,” the letter from elected mayor Philip Glanville and transport cabinet member Jon Burke said. “The Silvertown Tunnel stands to increase traffic on Hackney’s roads, especially in the east of the borough, with a negative impact on air quality, vehicular speeds and highway safety”.
TfL said it remained “absolutely committed” to the scheme, stating that its modelling showed it would reduce congestion – modelling consistently questioned by boroughs including both Hackney and Greenwich during the planning process.
Khan doubling down
With final contracts poised to be signed on the Silvertown Tunnel, Khan – the only person who can stop the scheme – has been doubling down on his support. When seeking election in 2016, he promised a review of the scheme, but backed it within five weeks of taking office.
Interviewed by BBC London’s transport correspondent Tom Edwards last week, he said: “This is the first tunnel which has been built with a reserved lane for buses,” neglecting to add that the lane would be used by HGVs too.
Khan insisted that the numbers of HGVs would fall because of a combination of the toll and the forthcoming ULEZ charge, adding: “We’ve got the greenest policies of any cities in the world.”
Efford’s U-turn could open the way for Greenwich Labour’s establishment to follow suit. But within the town hall, there is little sign of a change of heart.
Greenwich councillors who support the tunnel have also been doubling down on the scheme, with the Plumstead councillor Matt Morrow telling a public meeting held in Woolwich earlier this month that commuting was a “class issue”.
Asked about his comments by 853, he said: “People who go to work on our road networks earn on average less than those who go by train. The lack of resilience of river crossings means we need improvements. Many of the people who tell me they oppose Silvertown [Tunnel] seem to have good jobs that they reach by train and therefore simply don’t value the improvements road users need.”
However, at a session of the planning inquiry in January 2017, Greenwich Council’s senior transport planner at the time, Kim Smith, noted that “the primary beneficiaries are business car users” (listen at 24.30), reflecting a TfL submission to the hearings.
While the last-ditch opposition to the tunnel will cheer opponents of the tunnel, many have found their voices rather late. Greenwich Council’s Labour group began campaigning for the tunnel in 2012, while the planning inquiry – the best chance outside City Hall to get the scheme ditched – ran for six months from October 2016.
Indeed, any U-turn by Greenwich councillors could well come after contracts have been signed to build the tunnel – rendering their opposition symbolic at best.
But the emergence of Extinction Rebellion and politicians’ eagerness to jump on the climate emergency bandwagon has sharpened the focus on environmental and infrastructure policies – leading to major media outlets starting to highlight the incongruity of the tunnel scheme, again, several years late. And opposition from both Greenwich and Newham would send a powerful message to Khan – albeit three years after it would have been most potent.
Politically, the Silvertown Tunnel is more likely to represent another self-inflicted wound in a Labour party already shot through with fissures at national and local levels, with the Greens and Liberal Democrats unambiguously opposing the project. It may well affect the willingness of Labour activists in Greenwich and Newham to go out on the doorstep for Khan at May’s mayoral election, against a backdrop of construction lorries rolling through the streets.
With years of construction to come, the tunnel is also likely to pollute the already toxic atmosphere in the Greenwich Labour group for years to come. While Greenwich councillors such as Brain and Scott-McDonald are safe in their seats until the 2022 council election, leader Danny Thorpe will be up for internal re-election in May – with his backing of the tunnel sure to be used against him by whoever steps forward to challenge him.
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