‘Bonkers’ Tower Hamlets Council refuses to oppose Silvertown Tunnel

Silvertown Tunnel view
Tunnelling work is expected to begin from the Silvertown side in the coming weeks

Tower Hamlets Council refused to back opponents of the Silvertown Tunnel last night – with a senior councillor insisting that the new road would be good for the east London borough.

Councillors were due to discuss the controversial road scheme at a meeting last night after a Green councillor, Nathalie Bienfait, put forward a motion calling on the borough’s elected mayor, Lutfur Rahman, to oppose the tunnel.

But the motion was effectively talked out when the meeting was called to a halt after three-and-a-quarter hours.

However, a GP who practises in Bow, Jackie Applebee, submitted a petition calling on the council to oppose the new road, which will run between the Royal Docks and the Greenwich Peninsula and contain a dedicated lane for HGVs and buses.

After being told the tunnel would make Tower Hamlets “cleaner and greener”, she branded the council’s stance “bonkers”.

While tunnel supporters, including London mayor Sadiq Khan, insist the new road will eliminate congestion at the northbound Blackwall Tunnel when it opens in 2025, opponents say it will fail in that aim and lead to worse congestion elsewhere.

“Evidence shows that after temporary relief of congestion, there’ll be more traffic, which is bound to fan out across east London and into Tower Hamlets,” Applebee told councillors.

“A King’s College study has shown that children in Tower Hamlets have lungs, which are up to 10 per cent smaller than the national average because of air pollution.”

Referring to arguments that pollution will decrease as more electric vehicles are used, she said: “Vehicle pollution is not just from petrol or diesel. It’s from brake dust. And the electricity used for charging is, in the main, generated from power stations that use fossil fuels and the less affluent can’t afford to change their vehicle. So there is likely to be a long legacy of petrol and diesel.”

Calling the scheme “indefensible”, Applebee added: “Why would you support the Silvertown Tunnel, which will only cause more vehicle traffic and more burning of fossil fuels driving climate change?”

But Tower Hamlets’ cabinet member for the environment and climate emergency, Kabir Hussain, refused to engage with her argument.

Appearing to read from notes, he said: “Fundamentally we disagree with you. Our administration believes that the Silvertown Tunnel will reduce congestion around the Blackwall Tunnel so traffic can move smoothly through Tower Hamlets.

“This administration is committed to reducing emissions in our borough. We believe that the Silvertown Tunnel will contribute to making Tower Hamlets a cleaner and greener borough.”

Applebee laughed at the response and replied: “That’s completely bonkers, but thank you.”

The exchange leaves Tower Hamlets as the only one of the three “host boroughs” of the tunnel to fully support the scheme.

Tunnelling work is due to begin within weeks in west Silvertown, close to Tower Hamlets’ border with Newham, which reaffirmed its opposition to the scheme earlier this year. Greenwich has called for a “pause and review” rather than declaring outright opposition. Lewisham, Southwark and Hackney have all opposed the project.

While the Silvertown Tunnel has been controversial in Greenwich and Newham, the issue has never been high up the agenda in Tower Hamlets – even though the tunnel will make car journeys to Canary Wharf and the City easier by providing a simpler route via the Lower Lea Crossing and Aspen Way.

Canary Wharf and Aspen Way
The Silvertown Tunnel will provide a direct route for drivers from south of the Thames to reach Aspen Way and Canary Wharf (image: Google Streetview)

Since plans for the tunnel were first proposed in 2012, Tower Hamlets has alternated between being run by Rahman, a controversial left-winger, and Labour’s John Biggs.

Tower Hamlets opposed the tunnel in a consultation in 2012, when Rahman was mayor, but his administration then cautiously welcomed the project two years later.

After Rahman was removed from office by an election commissioner in 2015 and Biggs won the resulting by-election, the council swung more firmly behind the tunnel.

Rahman and his Aspire party won control of Tower Hamlets in May following a backlash against low-traffic neighbourhoods in parts of the borough, which the new mayor has pledged to remove. This time he has continued with Labour’s backing of the Silvertown Tunnel.

Sabina Khan, a Labour councillor, told the meeting that she believed that the tunnel would reduce the volume of traffic – a claim Transport for London has never made.

Applebee responded by saying that the tunnel would increase traffic on roads close to Tower Hamlets’ borders: “That’s between 15,000 and 30,000 new car, van, and HGV trips every day through some of London’s already most polluted and vulnerable communities. We have to stop this tunnel. It makes absolutely no sense. It’s indefensible.”

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