Councillors declared the climate emergency on Wednesday night (table of single-use plastics at centre of chamber)

Wednesday night at the council: Greenwich councillors declared a climate emergency last night – but studiously avoided mentioning the borough’s most controversial environmental scheme, the Silvertown Tunnel.

Labour councillors accepted a motion from the Conservatives mostly beefing up their original pledge, promising to make the borough carbon neutral by 2030, or earlier if possible, with a detailed plan and annual report on its progress.

Politicians also pledged to make the council free of single-use plastics by 2020 and to “explore all opportunities” to divest its investments from fossil fuels – an issue the council has previously been reluctant to do.

The discussion came on a tense night in the town hall, with John Roan Resists protesters packing the public gallery and council officers initially refusing to allow the public into the gallery – including quibbling over press access – if they had not asked a question. The climate emergency motion was moved to the start of the meeting, as a possible attempt to lower the temperature in the chamber.

But in a debate where councillors largely explored topics close to their hearts, none mentioned the borough’s support for London mayor Sadiq Khan’s Silvertown Tunnel, a new road linking the Greenwich Peninsula with the Royal Docks. Roads account for 70% of greenhouse gas emissions from transport, and activists also fear the new road will increase pollution and congestion.

A102 southbound queue
The Silvertown Tunnel will feed into the congested southbound A102

Indeed, the council’s continued support for the controversial scheme was buried in a written response, where Denise Scott-McDonald – who proposed the climate emergency motion – said: “By smoothing traffic flow, it is anticipated the new tunnel will reduce emissions. This effect will be combined with user charging, to stop the tunnel generating unnecessary new trips. The Silvertown Tunnel supports our sustainable transport objectives, including supporting regeneration of East London [sic], reducing congestion and improving cross-river public transport links whilst not worsening air quality for local residents.”

Later, when Green Party representative Victoria Rance asked a public question about the tunnel and mentioned that a future mayor could drop the user charge – an element of the scheme that has been known for years – councillors fell silent.

Harangued by ceremonial mayor Mick Hayes to “get to the question”, Rance said the carbon emissions from the tunnel’s construction would be worth “seven years’ worth of Blackwall Tunnel pollution” and asked if the council had considered what would happen if TfL’s forecasts turned out to be wrong.

Scott-McDonald did not answer the question, stating simply that the tunnel had been deemed a national infrastructure project by the government and was being promoted by TfL, and that the question should be directed to them.

Tory leader Matt Hartley congratulated “the campaigners who have placed the issue of climate change so high on the political agenda”, adding that “I continue to disagree with some of their tactics, including disrupting life in this city”.

Indeed, the activists had forced a screeching U-turn at Woolwich Town Hall, as it was only four months since Scott-McDonald had dismissed the need to declare a climate emergency, saying “different councils have different definitions of an emergency”. Last night, though, it was a different story, as Scott-McDonald stumbled through a speech saying “we need to do more, more as a council, more to address the latest warning from the IPCC“.

In the climate emergency debate itself, planning chair Sarah Merrill noted the “phenomenal pressure” housing targets and population growth had brought to the borough.

“We really need to tackle this climate change issue head on, and we really need some groundbreaking policies, and we need to lead the way here,” Merrill said, adding that she had proposed encouraging developers to “do away with concrete”.

“The emissions from concrete, if it were a country, would be the third biggest in the world behind the United States and China. The way we can do this is by encouraging developers to build with timber plus laminated timber, and this can also help to build our local economy.”

Merrill called for “major infrastructure in the north and south of the borough to try to alleviate the pressure on the rail network”, and to revisit a proposal to build an anaerobic digester to deal with organic waste. (A plan to build one with Bexley Council a decade ago came to nothing.)

Greenwich Shopping Park
Greenwich Council has approved a string of retail park developments in recent decades

‘The car is not king’

Labour councillor John Fahy, a former deputy leader of a council which has backed many huge retail park schemes in recent years, added his congratulations to climate change activists. “We need to embrace the kinds of suggestion being made instead of considering them off the wall,” he said, referencing the Welsh government’s cancellation of an extension to the M4, “recognising that the car is not king”.

The council’s deputy leader, David Gardner, spoke of “living streets… principally for pedestrians, then for cyclists, then to access public transport, where children can play safely, where neighbours can talk to each other… they can still park their car in the road if they have one, but they are far less likely to use their car”. “It will help with obesity, wellbeing, a sense of community cohesion, and because you can have pocket parks, you can increase biodiversity,” he added.

And Labour councillor Mehboob Khan said: “It’s important that we work in partnership with the community. It’s important to bring ideas from the council chamber together, but the energy, the thrust, the dynamism and the innovation is not just going to come from council officers or from ourselves; it’s going to come from people in the spectators’ gallery” – the same people prevented from coming into the chamber by council officers – “and by working with them, we can truly make Greenwich the greenest borough in the country.”

While climate activists will have been pleased to have had some recognition of their cause last night, but it did not take long for councillors – sat around a table of single-use plastic cups and plastic water bottles on what used to be the press desk – to return to business as usual.

Flustered and ill-briefed

Just a few minutes later, a resident of Winn Road in Lee, on the borough’s southern border, spoke about a petition they had submitted for more traffic calming measures to prevent rat-running. Most of the road itself is in Lewisham borough, but half the residents are in Greenwich, and they wanted Greenwich to take some action in the small part of the road it controls to slow traffic coming from the A20.

Despite David Gardner’s words about “living streets”, and John Fahy’s declaration that the car was no longer king, council officers’ response was to pass the whole issue to Lewisham. The petitioners’ representatives explained that they were Greenwich residents and they wanted to see it take action on its section of the road, because Lewisham’s measures had been ineffective.

Looking flustered and ill-briefed, Scott-McDonald promised to read up on the issue, but doubled down on the officers’ response that “Winns Road” was in the borough of Lewisham, largely ignoring most of what the petitioners’ representative had to say.

For all the warm words, the biggest stumbling block to Greenwich councillors’ climate emergency appears, as it too often does, to come from Greenwich councillors themselves.

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