A Greenwich Labour councillor who backed the Silvertown Tunnel when it was first proposed has admitted the town hall “totally screwed up” on the issue.
John Fahy, who supported the new road when the council launched a campaign to see the crossing built, was speaking as the borough’s chair of scrutiny, Chris Lloyd, agreed to put a motion forward to the council calling for Transport for London to pause the £2 billion scheme.
Despite the council asserting its support for the tunnel in 2012, insisting it was needed to stop congestion at the Blackwall Tunnel, the scheme has never been debated in a full council, only in scrutiny meetings where councillors can speak more freely.
But a decade of senior councillors trying to avoid debating the issue – even while declaring a climate emergency – could come to an end next month.
The meeting came two months after Greenwich’s transport scrutiny committee passed a motion calling on London mayor and TfL chair Sadiq Khan to halt work on the crossing to the Royal Docks.
That motion went to last night’s overview and scrutiny committee, which was asked to send it to a full council meeting.
But the committee then found itself tied up in red tape after council lawyers told them that such a motion from it would be ruled out of order for a full council meeting, because it concerned an issue the council had no power over.
Lloyd said councillors would need to “adjust their expectations” but Labour’s David Stanley said it was an attempt to “close down democratic debate”.
To get around this, angry Conservative and Labour councillors asked Lloyd to submit a motion in his own name, rather than it coming from the committee. Lloyd also agreed to write to Transport for London on behalf of the committee, which he is entitled to do under local government law.
Divisions within the council’s ruling Labour group have prevented the issue from being discussed in open council over the past decade; any councillor who defied the whip to raise the issue on their own would face being ostracised and thrown out of the party.
The council’s policy on the tunnel was decided in a behind-closed-doors meeting of the Labour group in 2012 – details of which were only revealed a year later after the Information Commissioner ruled against Greenwich Council’s refusal to release the agenda papers to this website.
The tunnel, which campaigners say will worsen congestion and pollution and contribute to the climate emergency, was approved in 2018 after a series of public hearings. Work has already started and tunnelling is due to begin this spring.
When residents criticised the project at the outset, Fahy – then on the council’s cabinet – was an early supporter of the tunnel. “The option to do nothing or get everybody on a bike is unrealistic,” he tweeted in January 2013.
He struck a different note last night, saying that he was “astonished” that Conservative councillors supported the tunnel.
“In terms of the way this has been handled in Greenwich, we totally screwed up,” he said. “If we’d given this issue more attention back in the day and argued more strongly, then perhaps we wouldn’t be in this position today.”
He said the council had a “duty of care” to its residents to speak out. “All the arguments we’ve seen in recent years are that the Silvertown Tunnel is acting directly against the interests of our residents, and we should say that loudly and clearly to the mayor.”
Kate Middleton of the Stop the Silvertown Tunnel Coalition said that 2,000 children at Millennium Primary School and St Mary Magdalene school, both on the Greenwich Peninsula would be “in the firing line” from the bigger HGVs that the tunnel is being built to take. She accused TfL of using out-of-date data in air quality, because St Mary Magdalene had not been built when the tunnel was proposed.
She said neighbours had started switching their children to different schools because of the tunnel. “Fingers-crossed isn’t good enough for Greenwich children but that’s all TfL is offering us,” she said.
Conservative leader Nigel Fletcher criticised the “extraordinary” position that council leader Danny Thorpe had taken by writing to Khan on behalf of the Labour group to ask him to pause the tunnel, but refusing to do the same in his capacity as council leader.
He pointed out that while he personally supported the tunnel, the Conservatives had called for a pause to the scheme in 2015 to examine the case for running a Docklands Light Railway extension through the tunnel.
“I’m not saying we agree with the points of debate when it comes to a debate, but we think there are things TfL needs to do to maintain public confidence,” he said.
Fletcher’s Tory colleague Matt Hartley also criticised Thorpe’s attempts to dodge the issue, saying it appeared there had been “a concerted effort to stop the issue reaching the council”.
He added: “This Labour-run council campaigned for a crossing and supported the Silvertown Tunnel all this way along. Since 2019 it has engaged in a party political charade so it can turn to people who are against the tunnel and claim to be against it.”
Stanley, whose Kidbrooke with Hornfair ward borders the Sun-in-the-Sands roundabout, the scene of congestion each evening, said: “If we’re serious about climate emergency, it’s frankly absurd to support a major road project that can only increase car journeys and congestion and pollution.
“If the Labour party in Greenwich can make a decision on the tunnel, why can’t the council?”
Fletcher and Hartley both put forward a proposal that Lloyd and Labour’s Gary Parker, the chair of the transport scrutiny panel, bring a motion to the council in their own names.
After Lloyd emphasised his personal opposition to the tunnel, his Labour colleague Ivis Williams followed suit: “I’m going to ask you to put your money where your mouth is.”
Six of the seven councillors backed the call for Lloyd to propose a motion to the council, with Fahy abstaining as he did not believe it was the committee’s role.
When it came to writing to the mayor, the two Conservative councillors opposed the proposal as they believed it could be used to “neuter” the motion to council.
Parker abstained, while the other four councillors – including Lloyd – backed the idea.
Last night’s meeting had originally been due to take place on Tuesday but was put back by 24 hours, meaning that the decision came too late for next week’s council meeting.
That means the next meeting at which a motion could be heard would be at the end of March – the last meeting before the election on May 5.
Anti-tunnel campaigners are also planning a rally outside the new City Hall in the Royal Docks – just a few hundred metres from the tunnel worksite – on February 26.
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