Halt Silvertown Tunnel, Greenwich Council leader tells Sadiq Khan

The motion stops short of opposing the controversial tunnel, which would feed into this nightly A102 queue

Greenwich’s Labour councillors have called on Sadiq Khan to halt the Silvertown Tunnel project for a review, after a second behind-closed-doors meeting on the issue in eight days was held on Monday night.

Councillors agreed unanimously to pass a motion demanding work on the £1bn new road between the Greenwich Peninsula and Royal Docks – which is already held up because of a legal dispute – is paused. The about-turn comes nearly seven years after the council launched a campaign for the tunnel to be built. A letter from Khan to Thorpe containing the text of the motion was released late last night.

The motion stops short of the outright opposition to the scheme expressed by Lewisham and Hackney councils, and comes three years after the start of planning hearings into the scheme, which was given approval in May 2018. Indeed, Greenwich’s Conservative councillors called for a halt to the project in 2015 on similar grounds.

But campaigners hope that councillors’ belated misgivings about the project, which they fear will increase traffic in the area, will convince Khan to finally scrap the scheme. Newham Council, many of whose residents face sharply increased traffic levels as traffic exits the tunnel at Tidal Basin Roundabout in Silvertown, switched to opposing the scheme last year.

The motion leaves Tower Hamlets as the only one of the three boroughs closest to the tunnel that remains an active supporter of the project. TfL says the tunnel will “virtually eliminate” the notorious congestion around the Blackwall Tunnel, opponents say it will simply lead to more traffic and will cause more queues there and elsewhere.

853 understands that Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe wrote the motion over the weekend, following a stormy initial meeting of Labour councillors last Monday. It also follows pressure from rank-and-file Labour members across the borough, which goes back as far as 2013. Councillors were initially due to vote on it at a meeting on the 28th, but an extra meeting was called at short notice to attempt to settle the issue.

Councillors appear to have strengthened the motion slightly – the version sent to Sadiq Khan calls for a review into “alternative options to reduce congestion and pollution around the Blackwall Tunnel”, the original, seen by 853, simply called for “a review”. The climate emergency, which has driven the renewed opposition to the tunnel, is not mentioned.

Bridge The Gap campaign launch
Binned: Former Greenwich and Woolwich MP Nick Raynsford, Denise Hyland and former council leader Chris Roberts promote the tunnel in 2013

Accounts of last Monday’s meeting continue to differ, with the 40-strong Labour group on the council riddled with personal and political enmities. But the motion allows tunnel supporters to be seen to be acting on residents’ concerns, after years of the council leadership dismissing any criticism of the project, and declining to take any responsibility for its potential consequences.

As cabinet member for transport in 2013, Denise Hyland – still in Thorpe’s cabinet – refused to countenance the council commissioning any studies into the consequences of the scheme; while in July, Denise Scott-McDonald, the current postholder, waved off questions about the project’s effects by telling residents to ask Transport for London.

Whether Khan will listen is another matter. Anti-Silvertown Tunnel campaigners are optimistic that Khan will hear Greenwich’s belated doubts and move on the tunnel, but the mayor – and his transport deputy, Heidi Alexander, have doubled down on their support for the scheme in recent months. Alexander addressed councillors at last week’s meeting, but most were unhappy with the answers she gave to their questions.

It’s not just about the tunnel

Greenwich Time, September 1987
Greenwich Council calling for a DLR link to Thamesmead… in 1987

As well as demanding a review of the tunnel project, the motion contains a number of points that councillors want Transport for London to address. (Read it here.) Whether or not Khan continues with the tunnel, these issues will not go away.

  • It calls for a discussion on how to deliver a DLR extension to Thamesmead, a council ambition for over 30 years and one which has never got off the drawing board, despite promises made by TfL to the planning hearings into the Silvertown Tunnel. A London Overground extension from Barking Riverside, which has had some council support in the past, is not mentioned.
  • It wants a discussion on how to “increase the opportunities for pedestrians and cyclists to cross the Thames more easily”. Khan recently scrapped plans for a pedestrian and cycle bridge at Rotherhithe – which was pledged by Khan at the same time he endorsed the Silvertown Tunnel, allowing him to dress the scheme up as somehow being “greener” – citing rising costs, so this is likely to mean more river bus services, which sit outside the TfL fare structure and will cost users more.
  • Councillors called for “a discussion about how we can improve public transport links between the north and south of the borough, such as a DLR extension to Eltham”. Greenwich commissioned two reports into such a scheme – which involved the tracks being carried on stilts above the A102 – in 2011 and 2012, but they were later suppressed by the council (they criticised the tunnel) and shrugged off by TfL. This point also mentions Crossrail – likely to mean another push for an express version of the 161 bus linking Woolwich and Eltham. TfL is likely to point at the new 335 bus from Kidbrooke to North Greenwich, which starts on 26 October, in response, but it has also cut evening and weekend frequencies on the 286 from Eltham to Greenwich as part of a wider programme of service reductions to cut costs.
  • The motion also asks what measures can be taken to immediately reduce congestion at Blackwall Tunnel – and whether tolling both that and the Rotherhithe Tunnel could be introduced. TfL already plans to toll both Blackwall and Silvertown tunnels once the latter is opened in 2025, but without tolling Rotherhithe – leading to opposition from Southwark Council.
DLR extension mock-up
Greenwich Council had pushed for a DLR extension to Eltham in the early 2010s

Finally, the motion also calls for “a wider discussion about the transport and infrastructure needs of the borough”, noting that the population is due to grow to 350,000 people by 2039, up from 255,000 people in 2011. While blindingly obvious to most residents, most politicians have glossed over the lack of substantial new public transport projects to serve the tens of thousands of new residents, mostly in the north of the borough.

Khan has set Greenwich a 10-year target of 32,000 new homes – the third highest in London, yet there is no firm plan for serving them with new public transport once Crossrail has opened; with the 20-year-old Jubilee Line extension through North Greenwich seemingly being treated as if it has limitless capacity. Khan cancelled plans to upgrade the line in 2017, citing a lack of funds.

Furthermore, other stiff housing targets – and major redevelopment plans – are being made in the boroughs that share Greenwich’s infrastructure. Newham has to approve 38,000 new homes, Tower Hamlets 35,000, Southwark 25,000 and Lewisham 21,000. Even Bexley has to approve 12,000 homes. Southwark and Lewisham are banking on the Bakerloo Line extension – which will also benefit many Greenwich residents – to serve major redevelopment zones such as the Old Kent Road, Lewisham and Catford. But the Greenwich Peninsula is expected to depend on the Jubilee Line alone; the Charlton Riverside on… buses to the Jubilee Line. Thamesmead will have to rely on buses to Abbey Wood and Crossrail.

TfL’s ability to respond to these challenges has been hamstrung by the Conservative government removing its subsidy, as well as a lack of fare income from the delayed Crossrail project. Theresa May’s government also ignored its plans to take over mainline rail services.

But under both Khan and Johnson, even relatively cheap ideas to help ease the pressure and help boost Woolwich have been ignored; a proposal to rezone Woolwich Arsenal to zones 3/4, which would allow residents from west of Woolwich – such as those moving into Charlton Riverside developments – to use Crossrail and the DLR without being penalised for entering zone 4, taking some pressure off North Greenwich, has been rejected out of hand. The idea for an express 161 to help with Crossrail has also been ignored, despite a major new express route, the X140, coming to west London soon as part of its Crossrail package.

A102 southbound queue
The final decision on the tunnel rests with Sadiq Khan, not with councillors

But will anything change?

Anti-Tunnel campaigners are cockahoop. Shifting the view of a council leadership as notoriously obstinate as Greenwich feels like a big deal. But it remains to be seen whether Thorpe will allow councillors to have an open debate on the tunnel in a council meeting – something neither Chris Roberts nor Hyland, his predecessors, would allow. Residents have had to raise the issue in most of the seven years since the council launched the Bridge The Gap campaign to get the tunnel and a road crossing at Thamesmead built.

In the town hall, Thorpe has managed to herd his cats behind one view on the scheme, after years of bitter divisions. That will count as a good evening’s work for him. It will also enable councillors who have backed the scheme to say they were merely backing Labour group policy. The motion has also enabled Thorpe to try to get City Hall to be more ambitious on infrastructure policy, instead of assuming the borough – and its neighbours – can simply soak up tens of thousands of new homes. For the leadership, that is probably more important than the tunnel itself.

But the tunnel still goes ahead – with diggers waiting for a judge to rule on a legal dispute over the contract to build and run the scheme. The motion comes three years after Greenwich Council could have objected at the planning hearings – and it didn’t. The real power lies at City Hall.

Over to you, Sadiq.

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