A last-ditch attempt by Hackney Council to suspend the contentious Silvertown Tunnel was rejected by Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe, documents released under the Freedom of Information Act to the Local Democracy Reporting Service reveal.
Correspondence released by Greenwich Council begins with a letter written at 2am on 24 October urging London mayor Sadiq Khan to take another look at the scheme ahead of awarding the contract to its construction to the Riverlinx Consortium.
The letter, which it has been confirmed was penned by Hackney Council’s cabinet member for transport, Jon Burke, came with an offer for other London councils to sign the letter too. Time was of the essence for opponents to the tunnel, as legal blocks on the award of the contract to build and operate the tunnel had just been lifted.
However, Hackney’s overtures were rebuffed by Thorpe, who expressed an aversion to potential press attention. He said the letter might be used by “political opponents”.
The letter opposing the project was sent to London Mayor Sadiq Khan on the 24 October on behalf of Hackney’s elected mayor, Philip Glanville and Burke. Hackney has opposed the tunnel since 2015. Newham’s elected mayor, Rokhsana Fiaz, and the deputy mayor of Lewisham, Chris Best were also willing to sign the letter, according to the correspondence.
‘My letter to Khan was leaked’
However, Thorpe rebuffed Hackney’s offers to join forces in opposition, despite Greenwich Council’s Labour group calling for a pause and review of the project earlier in the month. He said the letter he had written to Khan calling for tolling on the Blackwall and Rotherhithe tunnels had been leaked.
Thorpe wrote: “Having spoken to colleagues this morning in a number of boroughs, I don’t think that this is the way forward. Within a matter of hours, a letter that I wrote … was leaked to the Evening Standard and other media outlets, and used in a number of ways by our political opponents. I’m concerned that any joint letters will be used in exactly the same way. We have had a lot of positive feedback from residents and members who are clearer about our position and having secured the first unanimous vote on a river crossings policy in the history of Greenwich Labour Group, I’m keen to stick to our position and await a response to our letter from the mayor.
“I believe that there is merit in a discussion between all of the boroughs affected to discuss in more detail these issues with City Hall directly, and think that strategy is likely to lead to a more positive outcome for all of us.”
Thorpe did not get a response to his letter until 21 November, he said in a written response at last week’s full council meeting.
Waltham Forest Council also declined to take part. A representative added: “Waltham Forest will not be signing this letter. I fully agree with Danny.”
Jon Burke wrote back pointing out that if the contract were to be awarded, City Hall would not be “minded to acquiesce” to requests for a pause. The Hackney councillor said this meant a further response from boroughs who had expressed their opposition would be “necessary and urgent”. He asked for clarity as to whether Greenwich had received any assurances that the contract would not be awarded before the south London borough had received a formal response to its letter from Mayor Khan.
However, despite the Local Democracy Reporting Service’s request asking for full email correspondence on the topic, no response appears.
The Riverlinx consortium was awarded the £1bn contract to build the tunnel on the 25 November – four days after Khan finally responded to Thorpe.
‘Not willing to criticise TfL before an election’
Hackney’s letter to City Hall read: “We are writing to express our grave concerns about the proposed scheme. Silvertown Tunnel will induce even greater demand for motor vehicle use in Central Lodon, worsen air quality, and embed decades of greenhouse gas emissions into London’s transport system. It is our firm view that Silvertown Tunnel is the kind of 20th-century ‘solution’ that is completely unfit for the environmental challenges London is facing, and which will only grow in the coming decades.
“We believe that the cancellation of the scheme would demonstrate the kind of vision and moral clarity that our key stakeholders – the children who will have to live with the consequences of our decisions – will thank you for in the decades to come.”
The letter also floated the idea of implementing a “pricing strategy” on the Blackwall Tunnel to reduce congestion, with income to be reinvested in public transport and cycling infrastructure, as well as re-evaluating of the environmental case for the scheme in the context of the IPCC’s most recent climate change report. It also requested delaying the signing of the contract pending further investigations into the full implications of the scheme and an examination of alternatives such as a DLR extension, increased cycling and pedestrian links across the Thames, and tolling on Blackwall and Rotherhithe tunnels.
Hackney Council also raised the possibility of “legal routes” to its opposition to the scheme in the correspondence, seeking to determine “whether there is an appetite amongst boroughs for such action”, adding: “I think it would be fair to say that none of us want to be in this situation.” The east London authority went on to express its “disappointment” in the other boroughs’ unwillingness to sign the letter.
A final correspondent – whose identity was redacted – wrote to all affected councils on 27 November: “Perhaps it would be helpful to understand where we all stand on the issue. The views expressed by local councils so far seem to range from vocal opposition to being against it but not wanting to publicly criticise TfL over it before an election. Is anyone actually in favour of it?”
No response to this question was provided in the correspondence.
‘We are sure it will not be built’
A spokesperson for the Stop the Silvertown Tunnel Coalition said: “We in the campaign group were pleased in October when the Labour group, having long failed to oppose the tunnel, had second thoughts and wrote to the mayor. We are dismayed to learn that the council leader did not take the opportunity to join with other councils and take a tougher line with the Mayor.
“The result is the contracts have been signed. However, we are sure that this tunnel will not be built and we will step up our campaign on the grounds that it will increase air pollution and contribute to greater greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.”
5pm update: 853 can confirm that Hackney councillor Jon Burke’s original email was sent to Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe and cabinet member for transport and air quality Denise Scott-McDonald; Newham elected mayor Rokhsana Fiaz and cabinet member for air quality Mas Patel; Waltham Forest Council leader Clyde Loakes; Southwark Council leader Peter John and cabinet member for transport and the climate emergency Richard Livingstone; Lewisham elected mayor Damien Egan and cabinet member for transport and environment Brenda Dacres.
Additional reporting by Darryl Chamberlain.
Ed Sheridan is the Local Democracy Reporter for Hackney, based at the Hackney Citizen.
The Local Democracy Reporter Service is a BBC-funded initiative to ensure councils are covered properly in local media.
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