Woolwich Road flyover
A rare quiet moment at the Woolwich Road flyover

Cuts made by mayor Sadiq Khan to London’s cycling programmes mean the Woolwich Road flyover in east Greenwich has become a late sticking point in the planning process for the controversial Silvertown Tunnel.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling will announce within the next seven weeks whether or not he will give permission for the new road, which is aimed at relieving Blackwall Tunnel congestion but will run from the A102 towards the Royal Docks. If approved, it could open in 2023, with charges placed on both the new tunnel and the two existing Blackwall tunnels.

Senior Greenwich councillors – including leader Denise Hyland and her deputy Danny Thorpe – have defied local Labour Party members and maintained the council’s official backing for the scheme. Tunnel supporters say it will provide much-needed relief for Blackwall Tunnel – opponents say it will attract more traffic and end up making congestion worse across a wider area.

Behind the scenes, Greenwich officers have objected to many aspects of Transport for London’s application throughout the planning process, including raising fears that its transport and air pollution modelling are based on the wrong assumptions. A series of public hearings were heard between October and April, and inspectors sent a recommendation to Grayling in July.

Now Greenwich Council says Transport for London needs to address safety issues at the A102/A206 junction following its removal from two programmes – a scheme to deal with dangerous junctions and the Cycle Superhighways project.

Cycle scheme cuts

Woolwich Road flyover, 2009
Adrianna Skrzypiec died trying to cycle around the roundabout in 2009

In May 2009, 31-year-old Adrianna Skrzypiec, from Rotherhithe, was killed while cycling home from her workplace in Charlton. A lorry driver was charged with dangerous driving but charges were dropped before the case got to court; a coroner later recorded a verdict of accidental death.

In 2014, TfL included the interchange in its Better Junctions programme to improve 33 of the capital’s worst junctions, which was intended as a response to a number of cyclists’ deaths. But that scheme was quietly dropped after Sadiq Khan came to power, and replaced with a new project, Safer Junctions, which does not include the Woolwich Road flyover.

The route was also due to be looked at as part of Cycle Superhighway 4. This was originally meant to run from London Bridge to Woolwich, and Greenwich Council has already done some preparatory work by widening cycle lanes on the A206.

However, this has also been cut back by TfL – which is under financial pressure from both the loss of its government grant and Khan’s fare freeze – and will now initially run only as far as Greenwich town centre.

Silvertown safety concerns

Blackwall Tunnel approach
The Heath & Safety Executive has concerns about the proximity of the gasholder to the Silvertown Tunnel approach, which would split from the existing A102 in front of the scaffolding-covered Studio 338 club

A letter from Greenwich’s transportation planning and strategy officer, Kim Smith, to the Department for Transport says TfL now needs to include the junction in its mitigation strategy for the Silvertown Tunnel:

“When the original junction list was agreed, the Angerstein roundabout was excluded from the applicant’s submissions as it was identified in both TfL’s Dangerous Junctions and Cycle Superhighways programmes.

“These schemes were intended to be developed and implemented prior to the [Silvertown] scheme’s completion. Both of these schemes have now been significantly delayed or removed from TfL’s Business Plan.

“Addressing the redesign of the Angerstein roundabout is a [Greenwich] priority.”

With both Silvertown and Blackwall crossings set to be charged – which TfL says is essential if fears of traffic gridlock are to be averted – Greenwich also wants to see “a mechanism to allow timely charging of the Woolwich Ferry (if necessary)”.

The council had wanted to see the ferry abandoned as part of its support for the Gallions Reach crossing between Thamesmead and Beckton. But instead, two new ferries are on their way next year.

Hoola towers, December 2016
Pollution hotspot: Even TfL concedes the Hoola towers will see air quality worsen

Across the river, Newham Council has already raised concerns about the legality of charging for the use of the Blackwall Tunnel. It says it has not yet reached agreement about its concerns, which includes mitigating pollution levels at the new Hoola towers development at Tidal Basin Roundabout (pictured above), close to the proposed northern tunnel portal. This is the only specific location where TfL concedes that increased pollution will have a serious impact, and so forms a key sticking point in the tunnel application.

Brenntag works
The Brenntag plant (left) is a familiar sight for Blackwall Tunnel drivers

Returning south of the river, the Health & Safety Executive also remains concerned about the proximity of the Brenntag chemicals plant (pictured above) – which is next to the A102 – to the redesigned tunnel approach road. The old East Greenwich Gasholder, recently the subject of a redevelopment consultation, is also a concern for the HSE. Construction of the tunnel would also limit the ability to redevelop the gasholder site for housing.

How Bridge The Gap backfired

Bridge The Gap campaign launch
Denise Hyland helps launch the Bridge The Gap campaign in 2013

The Silvertown Tunnel is being considered under rules for “nationally significant infrastructure projects”, so a decision has to be made by 11 October, a year after the public hearings into the tunnel began. This means that while the planning process has received almost no media coverage beyond this website, all papers and correspondence have been placed in the public domain, together with audio recordings of the hearings.

Whatever the decision, even bringing up the topic will bring a measure of discomfort to leaders at both Greenwich and Newham councils, who ran a joint campaign in 2012 and 2013 to see crossings built at both Silvertown and Gallions Reach – their theory being that two new roads would spread the load, so if they supported one, they’d get the other.

This included trying to hijack a public consultation (and attempting to recruit former glamour model Jodie Marsh to the campaign).

Greenwich Council tweets to Jodie Marsh

But the Bridge The Gap campaign ultimately backfired. While Boris Johnson did resurrect plans for a bridge at Gallions Reach, they were later shelved by his cost-cutting successor Khan – a surprising decision considering Labour councils generally back that scheme, and even Tory Bexley was reluctantly won around to it (despite the fears of locals around Plumstead and Welling).

Khan has proposed building a Docklands Light Railway extension there instead, although there has been no public detail about where a route would go and no date for opening.

Silvertown Tunnel bus plans go off course

Blackwall Tunnel by bus
A trip through the Blackwall Tunnel: its planned neighbour may not be as ‘public transport-focused’ as the mayor claims

Even the spin about the Silvertown Tunnel being a “greener, public transport-focused” crossing started to fall apart towards the end of the public hearings in April.

The poor state of TfL’s finances mean bus services through the new tunnel may not be as extensive as first planned – even though the transport modelling (which informs the air pollution modelling) is based around a generous 37.5 buses per hour in each direction shared between Blackwall and Silvertown crossings, with several routes fanning out in different directions.

When local councils objected to proposals to cut this to 20 buses per hour (including the 108 service through Blackwall, which currently provides six of these), TfL’s counsel told the public hearing: “The pot is only so big – other bus services would have to be pulled.” (Listen to audio of the hearing here – from 135 minutes in, the specific line comes at 140 minutes)

TfL also suggested it would remove a service from south London to Canary Wharf from the proposed tunnel network – even though it could help relieve the Jubilee Line. Canary Wharf is by far the most popular destination for Jubilee Line passengers travelling from North Greenwich, with over 5,800 trips made between the two stations on a sample weekday.

Councils – including Greenwich – are demanding a legal commitment to provide an extensive bus network is written into any permission for the scheme.

From Bridge The Gap to ‘a difficult decision’

Greenwich Council meeting, 30 January 2013
2013: Suzanne Miller stakes an early claim for the ‘told you so’ award

Greenwich is now lumbered with having to back a proposal that its own transport consultants say could lead to “exacerbated congestion on the local road network”. Expect lots of grim-faced lines about “resilience and supporting growth” if it does get the go-ahead.

Lewisham and Hackney councils have passed motions against the tunnel. Southwark has also opposed the scheme, largely based on concerns that tolling will mean an increase in traffic diverting via Greenwich town centre, Deptford and Rotherhithe Tunnel.

Only this week, Southwark wrote to the Department for Transport to emphasise its opposition.

“LB Southwark maintain the air quality benefits of Silvertown Tunnel have been overestimated. The traffic modelling provided by TfL throughout the examination shows an increase in vehicular traffic through the borough.

“The UK Air Quality Plan expects each local authority to delivery air quality mitigation measures to ensure the UK is compliant with the EU Air Quality Directive limit values as soon as possible. With an increase in vehicular traffic and a lack of proposed mitigation along the A200 corridor within Southwark, Silvertown Tunnel is likely to make this more challenging.”

Rank and file party members in Greenwich & Woolwich and West Ham have recently passed motions condemning the tunnel – the second in five years in Greenwich & Woolwich’s case. Greenwich & Woolwich MP Matt Pennycook has maintained his opposition. And last year, cabinet member Sizwe James was taken to task at a scrutiny panel meeting on the council’s support for the tunnel.

No doubt mindful of this, deputy council leader Danny Thorpe – a member of the Eltham party – went so far as to claim in July that supporting the tunnel was “a really difficult decision”.(See 31 minutes into this council meeting video.) In reality, the council launched an “all out” campaign to get it built.

Denise Hyland supporting the SIlvertown Tunnel
A ‘difficult decision’

With the Bridge the Gap campaign backfiring and cutbacks nibbling away at the public transport potential for a new tunnel, you couldn’t blame Greenwich’s leadership if they secretly hope the Silvertown Tunnel is rejected and quietly dies. They wouldn’t be the only ones.

Full disclosure: The author helped found the No to Silvertown Tunnel campaign and is also a registered objector to the scheme as an individual. Pro-tunnel campaigns are also available.