Newham’s elected mayor condemned Sadiq Khan’s Silvertown Tunnel at a council meeting last night – just four nights after her counterpart in Greenwich refused to offer an opinion on the controversial project.
Rokhsana Fiaz spoke out as the borough’s councillors unanimously passed an emergency motion calling for the £2 billion new road, which will run between the Greenwich Peninsula and the Royal Docks, to be scrapped.
One councillor called the project “nuts” while another said it would completely undermine Newham’s work on air quality and the climate.
The tunnel’s northern exit will be just inside the borough at Tidal Basin roundabout. The tunnel will have dedicated HGV and bus lanes, and councillors fear for the impact on nearby Canning Town and surrounding areas.
Khan, who as London mayor is in charge of the project, has insisted that the tunnel, which will be tolled when it opens in 2025, is needed to deal with northbound queues at the Blackwall Tunnel and will enable new bus services.
Newham had originally backed the scheme and launched a campaign with Greenwich nine years ago to get the tunnel built, along with a crossing further east between Beckton and Thamesmead.
But the east London borough got cold feet when Boris Johnson, when he was London mayor, prioritised the tunnel to Silvertown, and when Fiaz was elected mayor in 2018, she swung the Labour council against the scheme.
West Ham MP Lyn Brown has long opposed the project, although the borough’s other MP, Stephen Timms in East Ham, is a supporter.
Fiaz told councillors at Stratford Town Hall last night that air pollution in Newham was among the worst in England, saying that the “moral imperative of our campaign to cancel the Silvertown Tunnel cannot be underestimated”.
“The vehicles that travel through and around our borough are causing devastation and a public health crisis,” she said.
“Four and a half thousand young people – our children – are being sent into hospital every year with severe respiratory conditions. Several of our major high streets exceed World Health Organisation limits on nitrogen dioxide.
“The body of evidence is stacking up. For this to continue is a madness and it has to stop.”
While the Newham meeting was to set its budget and council tax, an emergency motion from West Ham councillor John Whitworth was accepted by Winston Vaughan, the council’s chair, “because work on the Silvertown Tunnel has already begun and the possibility of obtaining a halt to the project is rapidly receding”.
The tunnel would “undermine the policies the council has introduced over the past four years” to deal with air quality and the climate emergency, he said.
“As the council that would be worst affected by the Silvertown Tunnel, we need to reaffirm our opposition to it at this crucial moment, and call upon the mayor of London to cancel it while there is still time,” he said.
Rohit Dasgupta, a Labour councillor for Canning Town South, said: “There is nothing remotely positive about what it will bring to our area. Far from it, it will have severe implications for air quality and the health of our residents in this borough.”
While Newham had taken great steps to deal with air quality and the climate, he said, “nothing we do will be enough if this tunnel goes ahead”.
Newham’s cabinet member for transport, James Asser, said: “The first duty of any elected politician is to protect the lives of the people they represent. This clearly undermines all that work. I don’t understand why we’re going forward with it – it’s left over from Boris Johnson.
“This was originally part of a wider package of measures about connectivity – but everything else was removed apart from the tunnel for cars. We’ve got rid of other Boris Johnson policies that were nuts, this one remains nuts and we should get rid of that leftover of Boris’s regime as well.”
Fiaz’s counterpart in Greenwich, council leader Danny Thorpe, refused to discuss the tunnel at Woolwich Town Hall on Thursday. The tunnel has never been debated in the council chamber, despite the Labour town hall’s long-held backing for the scheme.
While Newham bent its rules to allow a motion on the tunnel, Greenwich blocked campaigners from asking several questions about the scheme, claiming that the council had no power over the project.
There were angry scenes as protesters heckled councillors, with members of the Stop the Silvertown Tunnel Coalition walking out after deputy mayor Leo Fletcher threatened to clear the public gallery.
Thorpe refused to give an answer when Nigel Fletcher, the leader of the borough’s Conservative opposition and a supporter of the tunnel, quizzed him on his views.
In a written response, the Greenwich leader said the project had been planned for 20 years – although did not mention that under Ken Livingstone’s original blueprint, it was planned to follow the cancelled Thames Gateway Bridge between Beckton and Thamesmead.
While Greenwich Labour councillors called for the project to be paused in 2019, before work started, Thorpe refused an offer from Hackney to join a cross-borough alliance to get the tunnel stopped.
He said on Thursday: “My view of this project is that construction is already under way according to decisions taken by others in both the Labour and Conservative parties in higher positions than me, a long time ago.”
“That’s a statement of fact but I don’t think it’s an opinion,” Fletcher responded, asking Thorpe again to set out his views.
“I’m happy to provide you with a comprehension lesson, which I’m quite skilled at as a teacher,” Thorpe replied, accusing Fletcher of “masquerading” in front of tunnel opponents in the public gallery.
“We respect their views and the views of all residents,” he added.
A motion from Chris Lloyd, the chair of scrutiny, and Gary Parker, the chair of Greenwich’s transport scrutiny panel, is due to be placed before the next council meeting, on March 16, although it remains to be seen whether it will be allowed.
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