The year about to end has seen three London infrastructure projects become objects of repeated media interest and persistent activist ire. The Nine Elms sky pool, the Seven Sisters indoor market and the Silvertown Tunnel are very different things but in each case the attention directed at them has revealed the shortcomings of protest politics, the failings of journalism and the need for minds in the capital to concentrate on more important things in 2022.
The fixation with the sky pool, an unusually visible private leisure facility opposite the US Embassy, illustrates the dominance of symbolism over substance in today’s London housing crisis discourse. The “segregation” outrage industry, from which a range of click-dependent media outlets benefit, has had a profitable year with this one – primed by copious market testing since 2015 – and the Labour Party in Wandsworth is seeking to exploit it as May’s borough elections near.
The complication here is that the sky pool is largely a sales gimmick designed to maximise the profits needed to help pay for the Northern Line extension, the affordable housing and the community space that are also part of the development. No sky pool, less of the other stuff. To recognise that such trade-offs are integral to development finance is not to applaud them. But to deny their existence is a form of deception practiced, whether out of innocence or opportunism, by too many reporters, protesters and politicians.
Regenerating the Nine Elms site presented big cost challenges, not least because it contained no publicly-owned land and the Battersea Power Station building has had to be preserved. The unending lamentations about the still-unfolding outcome usually boil down to the single assertion that Conservative-run Wandsworth Council could and should have got a better deal in exchange for planning consent. Maybe. But how much better a deal would a Wandsworth run by devout municipal socialists have secured? Probably not much better and perhaps the site would still be the jumble of post-industrial under-use it became in the 1980s.
Being serially appalled by Nine Elms clearly gratifies some, but righteous fervour would be better directed at reforming the Land Compensation Act (1961), making it easier for local authorities to purchase large brownfield sites and change the economics of reviving them for good.
The saga of the Seven Sisters indoor market, known to some as the Latin Village, has continued to be framed by journalists and activists as a heroic defence of a vital community resource by a plucky band of ethnic minority Londoners against greedy property developers and spineless local councillors who want them gone. It is not and never has been any such thing.
An agreement to replace the dilapidated Wards furniture building, of which the market formed a part until its closure for building safety reasons, was signed by Haringey Council in 2007. Ensuing plans included a new home for the market traders on the same spot at initially discounted rents – a fact routinely omitted from media coverage. The job might have been done by now but for a string of vexatious legal challenges by opponents of the scheme, who like to give the impression they represent all the market traders but do not.
Earlier this year the developer, Grainger, pulled out. The “save” campaign declared victory and claimed their “community plan” would restore both the market and the building. But they don’t own the building and haven’t a fraction of the money needed to buy it. The freehold resides with Transport for London, which has been seeking help with bringing together interested local parties to find a way forward.
Eventually, serious development finance – far more than £13 million – will be needed to bring a new plan meeting the various requirements to fruition. The best chance of that happening and a thriving Latin American market within accessible modern premises being re-founded in Seven Sisters lies with TfL making progress. The “save” campaign and its hand-fed media messengers should seek to help not hinder in 2022. They’ve done quite enough damage already.
Finally, the Silvertown Tunnel. For decades London has needed more River Thames crossings east of Tower Bridge and for decades plans have been made and dumped. Silvertown has been on the agenda since at least 2005, the current scheme got the go-ahead in 2018 following two consultations and work began in 2020. It isn’t going to be scrapped, but opponents keep demanding that it should be. Why?
The tunnel will facilitate public transport in the form of a reserved lane for buses and add to London’s suite of road-pricing schemes in the form of a toll to regulate demand by private vehicles. Tolling is also to be introduced for the neighbouring Blackwall Tunnel for the same reason.
Additional bus-use and more road-user charging for private vehicles are to be desired and TfL says it believes the combination of the management of the two tunnels will reduce congestion at Blackwall, which creates delays and air pollution, without increasing overall traffic levels in local areas either side of the river. Both tunnels will also lie within the enlarged Ultra Low Emission Zone.
None of this seems to cut any ice with opponents who insist on calling the Silvertown Tunnel scheme “a motorway” or a “major road project” when it isn’t. In other circumstances, controlling congestion through road-user charging and encouraging travel by bus, especially the cleaner ones, would be applauded by many of the same people.
Critics also argue that the construction work involved would produce embedded carbon outweighing seven years’ worth of current emissions from Blackwall – but not eight, which might be thought a decent deal if emissions from Blackwall start to fall from 2025 when Silvertown is due to open.
The proof of the TfL analysis will be in the project’s outcomes, of course, but even if things don’t work out as advertised any ill-effects from the tunnel will be trivial in the wider scheme of things. In terms of improving air quality and slowing climate change there are bigger gains to be had from cleaning up motor vehicles, encouraging them to move more slowly and smoothly and creating effective incentives for people to use them less.
Much opposition to Silvertown is, I suspect, underpinned by an uncritical disapproval of motor vehicles regardless of context, the lure of an emblematic issue at the expense of focussing on the bigger picture and the appeal of protesting for its own sake.
It is quite right for sceptics and Sadiq Khan’s political opponents to constructively scrutinise the tunnel’s progress and results, but it is going to go ahead whether they like it or not. As with the sky pool and the Seven Sisters indoor market, let 2022 be the year when anti-Silvertown campaigners direct their energies towards more important things. They might even have more chance of success.
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