Greenwich Council finally called on Sadiq Khan to pause work on the Silvertown Tunnel last night – weeks before tunnelling is due to start and nine years after the town hall launched a campaign to see the river crossing built.
The vote took place amid shambolic scenes with Labour and Conservative councillors yelling at each other – with very little discussion about the tunnel itself taking place. It was the last full council meeting before elections on May 5.
Council leader Danny Thorpe again refused to give an explicit opinion on the crossing – instead branding the borough’s Conservatives “the most disingenuous bunch of people I have ever met” for seeking to amend the motion to include a call for a Docklands Light Railway extension to Eltham. However, he told councillors that he had already written to the mayor asking for a pause in the scheme. The letter has not been published.
Despite the council having previously backed the tunnel, it has never been debated in the council chamber – and except for Chris Lloyd and Gary Parker, the two councillors who brought forward the motion, no Labour councillor directly addressed the issue at Woolwich Town Hall last night.
Instead of discussing the worries about pollution and congestion the tunnel has brought to residents, one of the angriest remarks came over who proposed a DLR link to Eltham first – the local Conservatives or Labour MP Clive Efford.
The motion is likely to be ignored by the Labour mayor, who earlier this month accused critics of the tunnel of living in “never-never land”. The last realistic chance of halting the tunnel was missed in 2019 when Thorpe refused to join a pan-London campaign against the scheme, despite having earlier written to the mayor calling for a pause on behalf of Labour councillors rather than the council itself.
A tunnelling machine is due to begin work next month on the tunnel, which will link the Royal Docks with the Greenwich Peninsula. Khan, who inherited the project from Boris Johnson, insists that the tunnel will eliminate persistent queues at the northbound Blackwall Tunnel and improve local bus services when it is finished in 2025.
Opponents say it will cause new bottlenecks elsewhere, worsen pollution and contribute to the climate emergency. pointing to the fact that HGVs will be given a dedicated lane shared with buses.
Lewisham and Hackney councils voted to oppose the tunnel in 2015, while Newham reiterated its opposition last month. But in Greenwich the tunnel has been seen more as a problem for a divided Labour party rather than one for the residents who will have to live with it.
One dissident Labour councillor, David Stanley, was shut down by Hyland earlier in the meeting after complaining about the way the motion had been handled by the council. It had come from the council’s scrutiny committees, but they were barred from submitting it directly to councillors: instead, Lloyd and Parker brought it forward as a motion of their own. Councillors have been threatened with sanctions for criticising the scheme, even though it is opposed by local MPs Matt Pennycook and Abena Oppong-Asare and rank-and-file members.
“It’s been a journey from where we were in 2013,” Lloyd said, recalling arguing against the tunnel when he stood for selection as a Labour candidate in Peninsula ward in the wake of the Bridge the Gap campaign, the council’s push to see the tunnel built.
“We can say as one council that we are calling for a pause and proper substantive review so this project does not cause further damage to the climate emergency and is consistent with our climate neutral plan,” he said.
Lloyd said he had “very, very robust debates” over the tunnel with his Labour colleagues in the past, but now they had “reached a measured and considered answer to a political hot potato in this borough”.
Parker, another longstanding opponent of the tunnel, said that while the climate emergency was known about a decade ago, “the game has changed”.
“It’s down to our generation,” he said. “Our planet is in peril and it’s down to our generation to face up to this issue. Great global cities like London have a particular responsibility. We need to set an example for the sake of future generations, for the sake of our very existence.”
But while Nigel Fletcher, the Conservative opposition leader, had supported the motion at a scrutiny panel meeting last month, he proposed an amendment calling for a review of the scheme to include a DLR link to Eltham – something the Tories had called for in 2015.
“We’ve had years of avoidance by the leadership, who’ve done all in their power to prevent it being aired in this chamber. Why has it taken until now for it to be debated in public?” he asked, branding it “a collective failure of leadership by Labour in Greenwich”.
While the Conservatives supported the tunnel in principle, he said there had been “a missed opportunity” for a DLR link to Eltham, which he said would take traffic off the roads.
Greenwich Council – then led by Chris Roberts – commissioned a study into a DLR extension in 2010, with a follow-up coming in 2012, spending £70,000 on the two reports. The report – which said building the Silvertown Tunnel risked an increase in congestion – suggested building a line on a viaduct above the existing A102 and A2 as far as Kidbrooke. Its findings were never shared with Transport for London.
“The council itself commissioned a feasibility study a decade ago, but pathetically, they failed to submit that feasibility study to TfL, just one of many failures by Greenwich Labour,” he said.
At the very least, he said, one of the new tunnels could be reserved for public transport and a discussion started about more environmentally-friendly crossings like a Thames Barrier footbridge at Charlton.
“We want to see realistic changes that will have an impact,” he said. “Labour have been taking the people of the borough for fools – it’s become Schrödinger’s tunnel.”
His party colleague Matt Clare said they were “very concerned” about the ability of the A2 at Kidbrooke to cope with the increased traffic – “whether that’s a flyover, flyunder, who knows, it will not be able to cope with the traffic from two tunnels”.
In response, Thorpe chose to defend Khan’s leadership of London rather than his own of the council. “Labour’s been attacked for failures of leadership – since 2016 this city has seen the most dramatic improvements to air quality in a generation,” he said. “I never see Conservatives face up to the difficult questions around air quality.”
In lines that seemed to come from City Hall rather than Woolwich Town Hall, Thorpe appeared to actually defend the tunnel, saying that it combined with an expanded ULEZ would “lead to a very different future for our city” on air quality.
He also said the council had made “difficult decisions” on transport such as scrapping the low-traffic neighbourhood in west Greenwich. “Labour is not anti-car driver,” he added. “We do have residents who have to drive. The idea that the idea we have to attack all those people is shocking.”
Thorpe also repeated a false claim made by Khan several times about the 108 bus through the Blackwall Tunnel being “the most unreliable in London” – while figures fluctuate, recently-updated TfL data shows this not to be the case.
At May’s election, he said, “residents have a clear choice: a group of people who have taken residents on a journey to take difficult decisions versus the most disingenuous group of people I have ever met”.
The personal attack brought shouts of anger from the Conservatives.
Lloyd criticised the Tories for not bringing their own motion on the tunnel in the nine years since the Bridge the Gap campaign was launched. “All it would have taken was two members of your group to bring a motion, and you didn’t do it once – please, act your age, not your shoe size,” he said as Fletcher shouted across the chamber.
Tory councillor Matt Hartley said: “This is not the tunnel that we wanted. But doing nothing is not an option. It would ignore the fact that there is an environmental disaster at the approach to the Blackwall Tunnel every day. Not my words, but the words of Clive Efford in 2018, words uttered when Greenwich Labour began their ridiculous pretence that they hadn’t campaigned for the tunnel in the first place. You can tell there’s an election coming.”
But an angry Sarah Merrill, the cabinet member for transport, said: “I cannot let you take credit for the campaign for the DLR. This is Clive Efford’s campaign – he has been on this mission for bringing the DLR to Eltham for 16 years. I mean it, really. I’ve lived this, I’ve campaigned with him on it. This is not your campaign. I cannot let you get away with taking credit for that.
“There’s no money now to do it, but TfL is broke because Boris Johnson won’t give it any money because he’s using it as a football because London is a Labour city and he wants the mayor discredited.
“We’re living month by month – our cycling officer relies on that, our school travel officer relies on that and she doesn’t know whether she’s going to lose her job.”
To cheers from Labour councillors, she said: “Any credit for the campaign for the DLR through Silvertown [Tunnel] is 100 per cent with Clive Efford MP.”
The Labour motion calling for a pause was passed, with the Tories abstaining.
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