Charles Wright: The row about Silvertown Tunnel is far from over

Charles Wright: The row about Silvertown Tunnel is far from over

Sadiq Khan’s £1 billion Silvertown road tunnel plan may not be on everyone’s radar yet, but that’s likely to change as this year’s mayoral election campaigning gets underway.

The controversial Transport for London scheme, a new 1.4 kilometre tunnel taking four lanes of traffic under the Thames from Silvertown by the Royal Docks on the north bank of the river to the A102 on the Greenwich peninsula, is designed to tackle congestion at the nearby Blackwall Tunnel, one of the busiest routes in the capital.

For TfL, with major new developments underway in the area and congestion as well as air quality around the Blackwall predicted to get worse, the new tunnel will provide a “more reliable crossing, ensuring goods and services can continue to move around London”. New buses on dedicated bus and goods vehicle lanes are promised, with user charges on both the new tunnel and the existing one regulating traffic volumes.

But for the growing body of objectors to the scheme, including mayoral candidates Sian Berry from the Green Party and Liberal Democrat Siobhan Benita as well as Newham, Lewisham and Hackney councils, local headteachers, clean air campaigners and academics, it’s a “20th century solution”, out of step with current climate emergency challenges.

King’s College London professor Frank Kelly, whose research underpinned Khan’s ultra-low emission zone, put the case succinctly in a letter to the Mayor last year: “When we have a new road or tunnel link built, it’s basically filled up with traffic…by providing more provision for cars it’s moving in the wrong direction for the future of London.” 

The scheme dates back to Boris Johnson’s tenure, amid concern about growing congestion at Blackwall, which has in use since 1897 northbound, and had its southbound bore added in 1967. The plan was designated a “nationally significant infrastructure project” in 2012, making the secretary of state for transport the final decision-maker.

By April 2016, TfL was ready to submit its application to build the new tunnel. It recognised that this was an “uncommon approach” – there had been no new investment in road capacity in the capital since the 1960s. But “only a new road crossing at this location can address the ongoing and severe problems of congestion, closures and a lack of resilience at the Blackwall Tunnel: measures to improve the situation without adding capacity will not by themselves suffice,” the transport body argued. 

Crucially, as well as paying for construction costs, user charges for both tunnels would be used to manage demand – keeping vehicle numbers down both to alleviate congestion and mitigate air pollution, TfL said. Sadiq Khan signed off the application early in his term, adding extra measures to “mitigate potential air quality impacts” – new bus routes through the tunnel, a possible bus shuttle to carry cyclists and their bikes, and additional pedestrian and cycling improvements around tunnel entrances.

The then transport secretary Chris Grayling approved the scheme in May 2018 after a six-month public inquiry. Measures addressing pollution concerns, including varying user charges to reduce traffic flow, meant that despite some “localised impacts” the scheme would overall “have a beneficial impact on air quality”, he said. Contracts were signed in November last year, with the tunnel set to open in 2025.

While the government green light saw the formal winding up of the resident-led No to Silvertown Tunnel campaign, which fought the plans at the public inquiry, the arguments haven’t gone away. In fact, as the campaign says in its final website post, “the climate emergency has now come to the fore as a reason to cancel the scheme in a way that it never did in the hearings”.

Campaigners in a new Stop the Silvertown Tunnel coalition are vigorously targeting mayoral and London Assembly candidates, not least through active tweeting directed primarily at what the tunnel’s opponents see as “hypocrisy” on the part of the Mayor.

Says campaign coordinator Victoria Rance: “A lot of people still don’t know about the tunnel. We want it to be a major issue in the mayoral election campaign. It’s such a horrendous blight for the future – at the same time as all these councillors are going to conferences about climate emergency and carbon emissions.”

The campaign continues to challenge the scheme’s assumptions – that the project is the only way to tackle the Blackwall Tunnel bottleneck, and that congestion can be managed and air pollution controlled through tolling – as well as the new tunnel’s inclusion within the planned wider ultra-low emission zone.

It has a firm champion in Sian Berry. “Sadiq Khan has signed off an urban motorway tunnel, bringing potentially-fatal levels of particulate pollution from heavy traffic right to Londoners’ doorsteps,” the Green mayoral hopeful told On London. “He claims this road tunnel, which prioritises HGVs, will improve air quality. But the reality is it will simply funnel pollution elsewhere while the hotchpotch charging scheme, like the timid ULEZ scheme, fails to cut traffic overall.”

The argument goes wider too. “You cannot build yourself out of congestion. Yet the Silvertown Tunnel is trying to do just that,” according to Hackney councillor Jon Burke, who has led that borough’s action on climate change. The borough last year urged Khan to scrap the scheme, arguing it was a “20th century solution completely unfit for the environmental challenges London is facing”, that would “induce even greater demand for motor vehicle use in Central London, worsen air quality, and embed decades of greenhouse gas emissions into London’s transport system.” 

But Khan is sticking to his guns: “I am committed to reducing car dominance, improving air quality and addressing climate change. The current situation at the Blackwall Tunnel cannot continue, as it fundamentally undermines these goals,” he said in a letter to campaigners late last year.

The Mayor continues to put climate change centre stage in his bid for a second term, recently announcing a “green new deal” for the capital alongside a carbon neutral by 2030 pledge for the capital. As mayoral campaigns heat up, the Silvertown protestors will be making sure his record does not go unscrutinised.

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Categories: Analysis

5 Comments

  1. Barry Edwards says:

    I could be argued that if traffic moved through the tunnels at the same speed as the north and south approaches pollution would be reduced. Not sure how that would happen with a tunnel starting elsewhere in the north.

    How about charging for use of the tunnels and, when enough money has been collected, building a smoother-flowing new northbound tunnel and keeping the existing northbound tunnel for when either of the others is shut?

  2. Philip Virgo says:

    Until such time as we have electric HGVs the more that is done to keep them away from the rest of us the better. The tunnel is long, long overdue but I would favour a 50% discount on charges for electric vehicles to help incentivise (however modestly) operators to change. We might also use the opportunity of Brexit to start banning big continental size lorries from London, including the South Circular.

  3. Rob says:

    As long as the toll increase to a level necessary to eliminate congestion, I could persuaded that’s not a bad idea. Doubtful they would be high enough to achieve that

  4. Raj Gupta says:

    It’s not clear form the article whether construction can be stopped now that the contract has been signed (after a procurement dispute).

    Incidentally, nationally significant infrastructure projects (or NSIPs in the jargon) are subject to examination rather than public inquiry. The former is a rather more informal process than the latter.

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