Greenwich Council finally set to discuss Silvertown Tunnel – nine years late

Silvertown worksite
Construction sites are now in operation on both sides of the Thames

Greenwich councillors are poised to overturn their town hall’s support for the Silvertown Tunnel – nine years after launching a campaign to get the road crossing built, and weeks before tunnelling work is due to begin.

A motion to be put before the council next week calls on London mayor Sadiq Khan to pause work on the £2 billion road crossing between Greenwich Peninsula and the Royal Docks to take into account the climate emergency and the borough’s climate neutral plan, which it approved last November.

Last Friday Khan accused the tunnel’s critics – which include his own Labour party’s MPs and councillors – of living in “never-never land”. He insists the crossing is needed to fix persistent traffic jams at the Blackwall Tunnel, but critics say it will add to congestion and pollution across south-east and east London.

Next Wednesday’s council meeting – the last before elections in nine weeks – will be the first time the merits of the tunnel have been debated in the council chamber, despite Greenwich’s long-standing support for the scheme. Neighbouring Lewisham passed a motion against it seven years ago, as did Hackney.

Silvertown Tunnel protest
There has been mounting anxiety about the tunnel since it was approved in 2018

But the nine-year taboo has been broken after the council’s overview and scrutiny committee criticised the tunnel last month. That followed a grilling of Transport for London representatives at a meeting of its transport scrutiny panel in December.

Council leader Danny Thorpe – who last month refused to state his personal opinions on the tunnel – has also written to the mayor outlining councillors’ concerns about the tunnel.

The motion has been put forward by Chris Lloyd, the chair of scrutiny, and Gary Parker, the chair of the transport scrutiny panel. Unusually, no other councillor has signed it – possibly reflecting the threat of party sanctions hanging over them if they criticise the scheme.

There was speculation that the council leadership would try to find a legal way out of discussing the project, and Conservative leader Nigel Fletcher – a supporter of the tunnel – said he had prepared his own motion to force the issue.

Newham councillors voted to reaffirm their opposition to the tunnel last week. In 2013, both Newham and Greenwich launched a campaign to build the tunnel as well as a bridge at Gallions Reach, between Beckton and Thamesmead.

But Newham got cold feet when it became clear that a bridge was not on the agenda, and in 2018 the east London borough reversed its support when new elected mayor Rokhsana Fiaz took charge – just as the tunnel was given planning approval.

Bridge The Gap campaign launch
Greenwich and Newham had wanted the tunnel to be built along with the Thames Gateway Bridge at Thamesmead

Greenwich Labour councillors backed the tunnel in a behind-closed-doors meeting in December 2012, when a paper written for former leader Chris Roberts noted that opponents were “rehearsing previous arguments” against the tunnel. The policy was never debated openly in full council and the council lost a battle to keep documents from the Labour meeting secret.

Despite mounting anxiety since the tunnel was approved, in Greenwich the issue has been seen as one of trying to resolve splits in the ruling Labour group rather than something that is concerning residents. In October 2019, Thorpe wrote to Khan on behalf of Labour councillors calling on him to pause the project – but not on behalf of the council itself.

However, Thorpe missed a chance to actually stop the scheme shortly afterwards when he refused an offer from Hackney Council to join a pan-London campaign against the crossing. Contracts were signed shortly after, locking Khan and TfL into the scheme.

Any belated expression of concern from Greenwich is likely to be symbolic at best. Construction work has been ongoing for a year – with the cost of cancellation and breaking the contract with Riverlinx, the consortium that is building and will operate the tunnel, thought to be in the hundreds of millions of pounds.

The £2 billion cost of the tunnel will be paid for by drivers – particularly those at the wheel of HGVs which will get their own separate lane, shared with buses.

Awkwardly, Wednesday’s meeting is likely to be chaired by ceremonial mayor Denise Hyland – who launched the campaign for the tunnel nearly a decade ago when she was cabinet member for regeneration.

The meeting, to be held at Woolwich Town Hall, will also hear motions on violence against women and girls and on the government’s decision to end free Covid-19 testing. Councillors are also likely to vote to freeze their allowances for another year.

Residents who want to ask questions at the meeting can submit them to committees[at] before noon today.

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