Sadiq Khan accused of ignoring Silvertown Tunnel’s impact on air quality

Silvertown Tunnel work site
Construction is well under way on the north side of the Thames, in west Silvertown

Sadiq Khan has been accused of “blatantly ignoring his own contribution” to worsening air quality in parts of London by campaigners against his Silvertown Tunnel project.

It comes following new analysis from City Hall that revealed 98 per cent of schools in London are in areas that exceed World Health Organisation limits for PM2.5 pollution, which is made up of microscopic particles that come from vehicle tyres, brakes and fuel emissions.

Following the publication of the figures, the mayor of London said that he was doing “everything in [his] power” to prevent young Londoners breathing toxic air, including expanding the Ultra-Low Emission Zone to the north and south circular roads in October.

But activists have said that Khan’s decision to push ahead with the £2 billion road tunnel under the River Thames “poses a threat to air quality throughout the area”.

The Silvertown Tunnel, which will link Greenwich Peninsula with the Royal Docks, has come under intense scrutiny from local campaigners, climate activists and politicians.

A spokesperson for the Stop the Silvertown Tunnel Coalition said: “Although Mayor Khan expresses deep concern about the health of London’s school children, he is blatantly ignoring his contribution to worsening the conditions and air quality for children in Greenwich and Newham boroughs.

“There are several schools adjacent to the tunnel construction sites both sides of the river that will bear the brunt of air pollution from the 1,000-plus construction truck movements a week that, by this September, will be close passing the children as they walk to school or play in the playgrounds of their schools.”

A102 southbound queue
TfL’s own figures show there will be increases in evening rush-hour traffic

Campaigners say they have recorded up to 200 HGVs an hour passing close to St Mary Magdalene school on the Greenwich Peninsula.

A spokesperson for the mayor said: “Anyone who has been caught in traffic due to a problem in the Victorian-era Blackwall Tunnel will know that there is an urgent need for another river crossing in this part of London. The tunnel is closed an average of 600 times a year with a five-minute closure leading to a three-mile tailback of cars, vans and buses with idling engines emitting toxic pollutants into London’s air and causing congestion further afield.

“Extensive modelling shows that the introduction of tolls on both tunnels at Silvertown and Blackwall will mean no overall increase in traffic and an overall improvement in air quality. The extension of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone from this October – covering the Silvertown area – will play a crucial role in tackling congestion and improving air quality.”

The decision to impose tolls on the Blackwall and Silvertown tunnels is likely to lie with the next mayor, however, with the Silvertown Tunnel not set to be completed until at least 2025.

Modelling for the project conducted in 2014 shows that, without tolls, there could be large increases in traffic flows on the approach roads to both tunnels, though the modelling did not account for any mitigations or traffic calming measures.

However, even with tolls set at a comparable level to the Dartford crossing, Transport for London has in the past stated that there would be increases in rush-hour traffic, particularly in the evening, according to its evidence given to public hearings on the scheme in 2016.

Construction work is already under way, with work continuing on the north side of the Thames to build the launch chamber for the tunnelling machine.

A 2019 study from the British Heart Foundation found that the borough of Newham, where the tunnel’s northern exit is located, had the highest levels of PM2.5 pollution in the UK, with residents breathing air that is the equivalent to smoking 159 cigarettes a year.

Sadiq Khan’s spokesperson said that the mayor is “taking some of the boldest action of any city in the world” to tackle air pollution, including the expansion of the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone to the North and South Circular roads in October.

Khan has said he wants to “work with government” to ensure London meets WHO limits for particulate matter pollution and has called on ministers to make the limits legally binding, with a target of meeting them by 2030.

Additional reporting by Darryl Chamberlain

LDRS logoJoe Talora is the Local Democracy Reporter for the Greater London Authority. The Local Democracy Reporter Service is a BBC-funded initiative to ensure councils are covered properly in local media.
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