Greenwich Council should call for work on the Silvertown Tunnel to be halted, a scrutiny panel of councillors declared last night – as work gets under way to bring the new road’s tunnelling machine to London.
In a rebuke to Danny Thorpe, the council’s Labour leader, the borough’s regeneration, transport and scrutiny panel called for work to stop so the case for the £2 billion new road can be reviewed.
They also called for Greenwich to work with other town halls on challenging a loophole in the legislation approving the tunnel which could see a future mayor drop the planned tolls on the crossing – potentially swamping the borough in traffic.
The vote – which is a recommendation rather than a statement of policy – is a severe embarrassment to Thorpe, who rejected a call from Hackney Council in 2019 for a similar cross-borough alliance to demand London mayor Sadiq Khan pause the scheme before contracts were signed.
The councillors’ call came after representatives from Transport for London came to give an update on the progress of the scheme, which was formally approved three years ago after a series of planning hearings.
Khan and his deputy mayor for transport, Heidi Alexander, have both insisted that the tunnel will eliminate the notorious queues at the 124-year-old northbound Blackwall Tunnel and that tolls will control traffic at both the old and new crossings.
The tunnel is being built by a private contractor, Riverlinx, which will then be paid back by the tolls. The outer casing for the tunnelling machine arrived in London on Monday night, with the rest due to follow next year. It is due to open in 2025.
The tunnel will run from the Royal Docks to meet the A102 on the Greenwich Peninsula, just south of the Blackwall Tunnel exit. Both tunnels will be tolled, with the Silvertown Tunnel including a lane for HGVs and buses.
While opposition to the tunnel was originally based around congestion and air quality – the first campaign against the tunnel grew out of this website nine years ago after Greenwich launched a pro-tunnel campaign – anger over the scheme has grown with the growing awareness of the climate emergency, with opponents declaring that the scheme is incompatible with London’s commitments to cut carbon.
The council’s former deputy leader, David Gardner, said there were “inconsistencies and a lot of doubt” in the case for the tunnel, and that it was incompatible with the borough’s carbon-neutral policy to cut traffic in the borough by 45 per cent by 2030.
He added that nobody had answered whether the tunnel would add to the queues which build up from the two-lane A2 at Kidbrooke towards the Blackwall Tunnel most evenings.
“No-one has answered the point on how four lanes go down to two at Kidbrooke, we’ve this uncertainty that everything hinges on tolls,” he said.
But there wasn’t “a convincing legal watertight assurance” that a future mayor could cut or scrap tolls, he added.
The tunnel should be “paused, pending a review to take account of the climate emergency” as well as carbon neutral plans in the affected boroughs.
Greenwich should also “join with neighbouring boroughs to seek definitive legal advice on the ability of future mayors to reduce or scrap user charges”, he said.
Gardner’s motion was seconded by Greenwich West councillor Aidan Smith, and supported by chair Gary Parker and fellow Labour councillors John Fahy, Ann-Marie Cousins and Clare Burke-McDonald.
The only Conservative councillor present last night, Matt Clare – who opposes the tunnel, even though his party group backs it – had left before the end of the meeting. Labour’s Norman Adams and Tory Charlie Davis were absent.
A decision on whether to ignore the panel’s motion or to take it further will effectively be down to Thorpe, whose refusal to help the cross-borough campaign helped ease the way for contracts to be signed on the scheme.
He told Jon Burke, who was Hackney’s cabinet member for transport, that opposing the project would be used by political opponents of the Labour mayor. The cross-borough alliance never happened, and Transport for London signed contracts to build the tunnel.
While Parker conceded that the demand was likely to be ignored by TfL, which is chaired by Khan, the vote reflects years of frustration among Labour councillors about Greenwich’s support for the tunnel, first proposed by Boris Johnson as mayor in 2012 and carried forward by Khan, who promised a review of the scheme in the 2016 election campaign but then backed the project within weeks of taking office.
Earlier this year Khan claimed that his re-election was an endorsement of his decision to go ahead with the tunnel.
Greenwich was a keen supporter of the tunnel under previous leaders Chris Roberts and Denise Hyland – but the borough’s policy on the tunnel has never been publicly debated in a full council meeting.
In 2019, Thorpe wrote to Khan on behalf of Labour councillors – rather than the council itself – calling for the scheme to be paused, but just weeks later rejected backing any judicial review of the project.
Greenwich and Tower Hamlets still officially support the tunnel, while Newham – where the northern exit will be – switched sides to oppose the scheme when Rokhsana Fiaz became its elected mayor on the same day the tunnel was approved.
Lewisham, Southwark and Hackney councils have long opposed the scheme, while London Labour delegates called on Khan to drop the project earlier this year. Greenwich & Woolwich MP Matt Pennycook and his West Ham counterpart Lyn Brown are also opponents.
“Given the situation we are in, I suspect this is going ahead whatever we say,” Parker said. “A project like the Silvertown Tunnel really needs to focus on the Cop26 agenda and ensure there is a lasting legacy for our children and grandchildren of mitigating these effects at the very, very least. I’ve always been opposed to this project and I’ve heard nothing tonight to change my opinion.”
While the meeting was billed as an update for councillors on the scheme, opponents from the Stop the Silvertown Tunnel Coalition were also invited to speak and answer questions.
At times the meeting turned into a debate between TfL’s senior lead sponsor of the project, Andrew Lunt, and the coalition’s Victoria Rance and Simon Pirani – a discussion that could have been had before the tunnel went to a public hearing in 2016 – rather than a question and answer session with councillors.
Without any of the Labour politicians who have endorsed the tunnel present, TfL’s representative also found himself the target of a personal attack from the party’s Woolwich Riverside councillor John Fahy – initially a supporter of the tunnel when it was first proposed – who told him: “You seem quite chirpy, which I’m astonished by. The arguments are totally against you.”
Calling for more investment in public transport, he added: “I would have thought the last thing in your mind would be building another bloody tunnel.”
Lunt told the meeting that the first parts from the tunnel boring machine had arrived on site in Silvertown on Monday, ready to be assembled and begin work next year.
Challenged on whether a future mayor could abolish tolls altogether, Lunt said that Khan’s successors would have to consult with local councils before changing the tolling system, but said that he was confident that the charge for Silvertown and Blackwall would “do what it is meant to do”.
He said the mixture of tolling and introducing new bus services meant there was a “carrot and stick” approach, but, in an apparent concession to the fact that a future mayor could scrap tolling, added: “But it needs to be used properly but Im sure the council will hold us to account on that.”
He added: “The Silvertown Tunnel gives us a powerful and flexible way of managing cross-river demand. We can charge people to drive and make sure people aren’t driving if they don’t need to be.”
This made it a “unique” scheme, he said, brushing aside comparisons with the Dartford Crossing, which is also tolled, where traffic has grown, and the charge was originally in place to pay off construction costs.
“I accept that traffic numbers have done up [at Dartford] – if the charge had gone up more, perhaps traffic numbers wouldn’t have gone up,” he said.
He also claimed that HGV numbers might go down, despite there being a dedicated lane, because the introduction of a toll meant there was no incentive to switch away from Dartford.
Lunt did not address the point about southbound traffic jams made by Gardner, but when Clare asked about the Kidbrooke junction to the south of the Sun-in-the-Sands roundabout, he said that TfL would monitor the situation.
Asked why the scheme could not be cancelled, Lunt said: “The TfL board ultimately made the decision – it’s not really within my power.
“It would be quite difficult for us to cancel it at this point, but we think it will be really beneficial, not just for this area, but for London.”
He added: “At this point in time, it would cost more to cancel than it would save in financial terms.”
For the campaigners, Pirani said cancelling the scheme would be “the wise thing to do”.
He added: “It’s difficult, but life is difficult, and it’ll get more difficult if this tunnel is built.”
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