The controversial £1bn Silvertown Tunnel will finally go ahead after Transport for London signed a contract to build and operate the new road between Greenwich Peninsula and the Royal Docks, it was confirmed this morning.
TfL insists the new road, which is due to open in 2025, will “virtually eliminate” congestion around the Blackwall Tunnel. However, campaigners against the scheme say it will merely lead to more traffic and will create new bottlenecks elsewhere.
Labour mayor Sadiq Khan’s decision to press ahead with the scheme comes seven years after it was first consulted on under his predecessor Boris Johnson, a period in which opinion has largely turned against the project on environmental grounds. It will be tolled, along with the existing Blackwall Tunnel, which TfL insists will ensure that traffic levels will not rise.
It will also include a dedicated lane for HGVs and buses. The biggest HGVs cannot use the 120-year-old northbound Blackwall Tunnel. TfL is also promising new bus services through the tunnel.
The news emerged on Monday morning, at the same time as TfL announced that the licence for the wildly-popular minicab operator Uber had been suspended.
Greenwich and Woolwich’s Labour candidate Matt Pennycook, who has opposed the tunnel as the area’s MP, said he was “bitterly disappointed” by the news.
“I don’t consider this the end of the matter and will continue to vociferously campaign against this ill-conceived scheme,” he tweeted.
Greenwich West Labour councillor Aidan Smith, another tunnel opponent, responded to the news by sarcastically tweeting: “Greenest mayor ever.”
The project will be financed, built and run by a consortium of private companies called Riverlinx. TfL will begin to pay the bill off once the tunnel opens and drivers are paying to use the crossing.
Stuart Harvey, TfL’s head of major projects, said: “Following detailed discussions, we have now completed the contract for the Riverlinx consortium to design, build, finance and maintain the Silvertown Tunnel. Once open in 2025, the tunnel will provide new cross-river bus routes in east London and during its construction we will work tirelessly to ensure that any disruption to local residents or businesses is kept to an absolute minimum.”
Plans for a third crossing on the peninsula have been around since the second Blackwall Tunnel opened in 1967, with a great swathe of east Greenwich and Blackheath demolished to create its approach road, which opened two years later. Development on both sides of the Thames meant a third Blackwall Tunnel was ruled out by the early 21st century, with a crossing to the Royal Docks first advocated by Ken Livingstone when he was London mayor. He envisaged it opening in 2025 – but only after a crossing at Gallions Reach, Thamesmead, was built.
Greenwich and Newham councils were keen advocates of the Silvertown Tunnel, even launching a “Bridge the Gap” campaign to see it built along with the Gallions Reach crossing. Greenwich’s press office even tried to recruit glamour model Jodie Marsh into the campaign.
However, the campaign backfired when the Gallions Reach crossing was shelved by Sadiq Khan after he took office in 2016. Khan had promised a “joined-up review” of the Silvertown Tunnel, but documents obtained by 853 revealed that he approved the scheme within five weeks of taking office, and his only review was into making the tunnel more environmentally acceptable.
The planning process was held up for 18 months while inspectors wrestled with air quality and other questions, while a legal challenge further delayed the scheme this summer.
Lewisham, Southwark and Hackney councils opposed the tunnel while it went through the planning process, while Newham began to oppose the scheme when its elected mayor Rokhsana Fiaz came to power in 2016. Greenwich has never formally reversed its support for the scheme – nor has it ever held a debate on the tunnel in a full council meeting – but council leader Danny Thorpe wrote to Khan last month on behalf of the ruling Labour group asking that the scheme be reviewed. Tower Hamlets has not had a consistent policy on the tunnel, but currently supports it under elected mayor John Biggs.
At planning hearings held in 2015 and 2016, council officers from Greenwich and Newham voiced scepticism about TfL’s traffic modelling. Lewisham and Southwark fear the scheme will lead to more traffic through the Rotherhithe Tunnel – which will not be tolled – while Hackney objects to the scheme allowing more HGVs to travel from south to east London. Campaigners have also voiced fears of extra traffic on the southbound A102 – which is already subject to daily traffic jams – and through Greenwich town centre, as well as routes in east London such as Aspen Way in Poplar.
The No to Silvertown Tunnel campaign was born out of a petition launched on this website in December 2012, winding itself up after the tunnel received planning permission in May 2018. (Full disclosure: The author was part of that campaign.) A separate group, the Stop the Silvertown Tunnel Coalition, was formed a year later to lead a last-ditch attempt to get the scheme scrapped. It confirmed today that it plans to seek a judicial review into the scheme. Its spokesperson Victoria Rance said: “We would like to ask Sadiq Khan where the pressure came from that persuaded him to give the go ahead for this hugely unpopular project which goes so blatantly against his own policies? Why is he ruining his own legacy by favouring London’s business interests over the health of millions of London residents and over the future of our endangered planet?”
In a letter sent to the coalition last week, Khan said: “I am committed to reducing car dominance, improving air quality and addressing climate change. The current situation at the Blackwall Tunnel cannot continue, as it fundamentally undermines these goals.
“You believe that public policy should be made on the basis of the best possible analysis of value for money, air quality and carbon emissions. I can assure you that this has been the case for the Silvertown scheme, and I would not be endorsing it otherwise.”
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