‘I don’t live in never-never land’: Sadiq Khan’s jibe at Silvertown Tunnel critics

A102 in evening rush hour
Campaigners fear the Silvertown Tunnel will worsen existing jams like this southbound queue on the A102

London’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan has accused opponents of the Silvertown Tunnel of “living in never-never land” – days after one of his senior party colleagues in the capital branded the project “madness”.

Khan made the jibe in an interview about his planned expansion of the ultra-low emission zone to cover most of the capital, which he announced at a school in Forest Hill on Friday. He insists the £2 billion tunnel, from the Royal Docks to the Greenwich Peninsula, is needed to beat persistent queues at the Blackwall Tunnel.

Opponents of the tunnel – including Lewisham Council, which runs Forest Hill School, where he launched the Ulez expansion – fear it will increase congestion and pollution by making driving in the area more attractive.

Hackney, Southwark and Newham councils are also opposed to the scheme, as are local MPs Matt Pennycook and Lyn Brown. Last Monday, Newham councillors voted to reaffirm their opposition to the project, with a senior Labour member calling it “nuts”.

Construction work has been taking place for a year, with a tunnelling machine due to start digging next month.

“I do have a choice, which is what someone has to do, to put my head in the sand and pretend there isn’t a problem in that part of London, to pretend Victorian-built infrastructure, the Blackwall Tunnel, isn’t fit for purpose; to pretend it wasn’t deliberately built with a bend so horses didn’t bolt; to pretend that it doesn’t close 700 times a year; to pretend that every time it closes it leads to three-mile tailbacks; to pretend it doesn’t cause massive problems with air pollution and congestion; to pretend that the single decker bus that uses is probably the most unreliable,” he told Callum Marius, the transport reporter for the MyLondon website in an interview posted to his own Twitter account.

“I’m not willing to live in never-never land and pretend, I’m going to take action to solve the problems and fix them for the better.”

While statistics fluctuate, the most recent available TfL data shows that eight routes are as unreliable as the 108 or worse, with the most unreliable bus in London being the 288 in northwest London.

Khan added: “The Silvertown Tunnel will have one lane reserved, not for an unreliable single-decker bus, but for more than 30 double-decker buses [an hour] going through – zero-emission.”

The mayor did not mention that the “bus lane” will also permit the biggest HGVs, which are banned from the northbound Blackwall Tunnel.

Silvertown Tunnel junction
Khan insists the tunnel is needed to deal with Blackwall Tunnel queues, but opponents fear it will worsen other bottlenecks

TfL’s plans for buses have barely changed since 2015, when proposals were drawn up under Boris Johnson’s mayoralty. It has committed to running 37.5 buses per hour through the Blackwall and Silvertown tunnels, including the single-decker 108 and an extension of another single-deck service, the 309, both of which run six buses per hour. Full proposals are due to be developed next year.

Khan also said that there would be “air quality monitors – a good example of a mayor taking action to make a city greener and healthier”.

While extra nitrogen dioxide monitoring is planned, only one extra monitor for particulate matter is proposed, which will be on the north side of the Thames.

Khan does not appear to have been challenged on his assertions during the interview.

Rokhsana Fiaz
Rokhsana Fiaz, the Labour elected mayor of Newham, is an opponent of the tunnel

The mayor’s comments will frustrate opponents of the tunnel in the Labour party, who are preparing for council elections in nine weeks’ time amid growing – if belated – anxiety about the scheme, which was approved nearly four years ago.

Khan’s comments will also inflame divisions over the tunnel in Greenwich Council’s ruling Labour group. The town hall still formally supports the tunnel, but it remains to be seen whether council leader Danny Thorpe – who has refused to give an opinion on the project – will allow a motion criticising the tunnel to be presented to next week’s council meeting.

Last week Rokshana Fiaz, the elected Labour mayor of Newham, said there was a “moral imperative” to cancel the crossing, citing the number of children who needed medical treatment for the effects of air pollution in the borough.

“The body of evidence is stacking up. For this to continue is a madness and it has to stop,” she said.

James Asser, Newham’s cabinet member for transport, 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.

“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.”

In a separate interview with LBC radio, Khan falsely claimed that the Silvertown Tunnel would replace the Blackwall Tunnel, and that the 108 was the most unreliable bus in London.

Caroline Pidgeon, a Liberal Democrat London Assembly member, has challenged Khan on his claims about the tunnel before, particularly his assertions about the 108 bus.

She told 853: “Back in June Sadiq Khan made the absolute claim that the 108 bus was the most unreliable bus route in London. Yet when he made that claim there were 85 other bus routes in London with a higher excess waiting time than the 108.

“When challenged to defend his claim he took five months to reply to me and failed completely to defend his initial claim.

“It is depressing that in desperation to defend the Silvertown Tunnel misleading claims are still being made. The mayor should stick to the facts and stop trying to ridicule the many people that dare challenge the Silvertown Tunnel.”

Story edited at 00.45 on Tuesday to add a reference to Khan’s LBC interview.

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