Transport for London needs to repair relations with local people about its £2 billion Silvertown Tunnel project, senior figures in charge of the project have been told after a review of the scheme suggested they make clear just how the road project will get Londoners out of their cars.
Work has already begun on the scheme, with piling work being carried out in Silvertown to make room for the tunnelling machine that will dig the new road between the Royal Docks and Greenwich Peninsula.
TfL and mayor Sadiq Khan have insisted that the tunnel, which will be tolled alongside the Blackwall Tunnel and is due to open in 2025, will “eliminate” congestion at Blackwall and boost bus services. It will carry lanes especially for HGVs and buses.
Opponents, including the Stop Silvertown Tunnel Coalition, say the tunnel will fail to cut congestion, will increase traffic on other roads and will contribute to the climate emergency.
A review of the tunnel by the accountancy firm EY, prompted by complaints from the coalition, largely gave the scheme a clean bill of health, TfL’s audit and assurance committee heard on Wednesday morning – although the draft report wanted more information about how the tunnel would assist in Khan’s policy of having 80 per cent of all journeys made by foot, cycle of public transport by 2041. The coalition has rejected the report.
David Rowe, TfL’s head of the tunnel sponsorship team, said that one of the tunnel’s aims was to increase the public transport share of journeys through the corridor from 10 per cent to 30 per cent.
Lynn Sloman, the vice-chair of the committee – and a former chair of Campaign for Better Transport, which opposed the project – said that point was “really important” and that TfL needed to make clear just how the tunnel would benefit its neighbours.
“If we were able to assemble the commitments that have been made in a clear and succinct form, it might go some way to reassuring some people,” she said.
“You all know I’m a sceptic about this scheme but I think for us to lay out why we feel this will lead to better mode share rather than worse mode share might reassure me and it might reassure some other people. It’s beyond the remit of this committee but just in the spirit of trying to find a way through things, otherwise one ends up in this very unproductive battle with people with a loss of trust on all sides.
“I just wonder whether there is something we can do around trying to rebuild trust with local people, which is about saying: here is why we think the commitments we have made would lead to a better situation with less traffic in these areas, rather than what people are worried about, which is more traffic on their roads feeding into the Silvertown-Blackwall entrance.”
TfL is relying on tolling to keep traffic levels at the crossing manageable – at the public hearings into the scheme in 2016, it was suggested this would be as low as £1 for a car at off-peak times – and to pay for the construction costs.
Sloman said the lack of a definitive statement about how much tolling would be “made TfL vulnerable to a future administration thinking ‘well, we can just reduce the toll’, which may be an electorally popular thing to do but ending up with more traffic”. She called for a clearer statement of how the tunnel could cut traffic.
Alex Williams, the director of city planning for TfL, said the toll could work in conjunction with the possible Greater London boundary charge, which could see drivers charged £3.50 for entering the capital.
“I hear what you’re saying about a risk, but there’s also an opportunity,” he said. “The reality is we don’t need to fix the tolling until 12 months before it opens, and I can see some people say there’s a risk that we won’t have tolling, but in reality we have to have tolling, there’s no way we can’t have tolling for this.
“It gives us an opportunity to have tolling that responds to the policy agenda of the day. The other thing we are thinking about is the relationship of this scheme with the potential boundary carge. We are working on that as we speak and we will publish something in the summer, but we need to look at the relationship between the two charging systems and others – Heathrow, ULEZ, others. The boundary charge could have been in operation for a few years by the time Silvertown comes on.”
WIlliams said that when Khan took over from Boris Johnson in 2016, there were “over a dozen river crossings on the books from the previous mayor – he had an enthusiasm for river crossings that I never quite understood”.
“There was a shift with the new administration away from the road crossings to public transport-orientated crossings,” he continued. “Belvedere and Gallions were on the books and they came off the books, as it were. I remember early discussions with the administration about Silvertown and what swayed him [Khan] was the public transport offer that went with the crossing. The tunnel creates an opportunity for 75 buses an hour – a huge increase in capacity but also connectivity.
“Silvertown Tunnel was very much considered in the mayor’s transport strategy [to get to 80 per cent]. There seems to have been an implication that it’s contrary to it, but it’s very much in tune with it. It increases supply of public transport and has demand constraint measures in a user charge. It’s part of our overall story of how we get this city from a 60 per cent sustainable mode share to 80 per cent.”
The committee agreed that more financial details about the scheme should be published, subject to some redactions. £120 million has already been spent on the project, the meeting heard.
Labour Party members are organising a last-ditch revolt against their mayor’s scheme through local parties, while earlier this month Sizwe James, the cabinet member for sustainability and transport in Greenwich, declined to discuss the project at a scrutiny meeting about climate change. The Labour council led a campaign for the crossing eight years ago.
The Stop the Silvertown Tunnel Coalition said in a statement issued before the meeting: “Despite the fact that the Silvertown Tunnel is justified on primarily economic grounds, TfL just does not know, has never tried to know – and has consistently refused to provide when asked – the actual economic benefit that will be derived from its road-building project, over and above that of the road pricing scheme that will be implemented simultaneously; and that TfL have also failed to update the economic case for implementing both schemes to reflect a context where the mayor has committed to substantial motor traffic reduction in his own 2018 transport strategy.”
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