The Silvertown Tunnel would feed into this nightly southbound queue towards the A2

Sadiq Khan’s deputy mayor for transport avoided a confrontation with demonstrators on Monday as Greenwich Labour councillors discussed their backing for the controversial Silvertown Tunnel at Woolwich Town Hall.

Heidi Alexander came to address Labour councillors at a stormy private meeting of Greenwich Council’s ruling group, which is coming under increasing pressure to withdraw its backing for the road tunnel between the Royal Docks and Greenwich Peninsula.

While the councillors met in private, about 40 demonstrators had got wind of the meeting and gathered outside Woolwich Town Hall. But Alexander, the former Lewisham deputy mayor and Lewisham East MP, avoided the protest by using a side entrance.

853 understands that councillors were angry with the responses – or lack of responses – given by Alexander to their questions. Councillors may now call on Khan to review the tunnel scheme, which was given planning permission 17 months ago.

All three of the borough’s constituency parties have urged their councillors to abandon its support for the £1 billion project, which is opposed by Greenwich and Woolwich MP Matt Pennycook as well as Lewisham, Newham, Southwark and Hackney councils. Tunnel supporters argue that it will relieve the frequent congestion around the Blackwall Tunnel. Opponents say the tunnel – which will be tolled along with Blackwall, and can accommodate HGVs that do not fit into the existing northbound tunnel – will simply bring more traffic and make existing bottlenecks worse.

Greenwich Council has been a vocal backer of the scheme since it began under Boris Johnson’s mayoralty, launching a campaign seven years ago called “Bridge The Gap” to get the tunnel built. While the consequences of the tunnel are only now becoming apparent to councillors, any change of heart would come three years too late to have any official effect. Newham made a belated U-turn in May 2018 when Rohksana Fiaz became the borough’s elected mayor, just before planning inspectors approved the scheme.

Despite this, campaigners believe they can force a last-minute change of heart from Khan and Alexander – particularly with the new campaign group, Stop the Silvertown Tunnel Coalition, putting climate change at the centre of its argument. As chair of Transport for London, which is building the tunnel, Khan takes ultimate responsibility for the project. In July, he criticised “climate delayers” – “people who say the right things on climate change but put off action at every opportunity and in many cases actually make things worse” – yet has continued to defend the scheme.

‘Same old crap’

Blackwall Tunnel approach
TfL insists the new road would end queuing at the Blackwall Tunnel

853 understands Monday’s meeting was extended after Alexander gave a lengthy presentation to councillors. Many were unimpressed, with one observer describing it later as “the same old crap”. Others were felt that their questions were not answered properly – or at all.

The discussion about the tunnel had been due to take place in July, then was delayed until September, and then again to this week, with many in the council suspecting that council leader Danny Thorpe was trying to kick a decision into the long grass. A further meeting, later this month, may vote on a motion calling on Khan to review the project. However, opponents of the tunnel fear that a possible general election could get in the way.

(An earlier version of this story carried some further details of what is said to have happened at the meeting; however, they have now been denied by others there so they have been deleted. It is worth pointing out at this stage that Greenwich Council has held no public debate on the tunnel at all, preferring to keep its discussions to the Labour group and behind closed doors, where accounts of meetings tend to vary.)

The DLR connection

DLR extension report mock-up
A mocked-up DLR extension over the Woolwich Road, from a report commissioned by Greenwich Council into a DLR extension to Kidbrooke

Those now voicing their unhappiness about the scheme include figures close to the council leadership. Greenwich’s cabinet member for housing, Chris Kirby, added to the pressure a couple of hours before the meeting by tweeting: “My personal view is that – in light of the deepening climate crisis – the Mayor should think again and review the decision to build the crossing.

“It surely cannot be right that £billions of public money is spent on an infrastructure project that does not include a significant public transport offer.”

A lot of people have (understandably) emailed me asking about the Labour Group debate on Silvertown this evening. My personal view is that – in light of the deepening climate crisis – the Mayor should think again and review the decision to build the crossing.

— Chris Kirby (@ccakirby) October 7, 2019

It is highly unusual for figures from the council leadership to discuss Labour group meetings in advance of them happening – let alone express a view about them.

But Kirby’s view is not a new one, with Greenwich already having tried and failed to persuade TfL to consider using the tunnel for a DLR extension from Canning Town to Kidbrooke, which would run on stilts along the A102. In 2011 and 2012, Greenwich Council commissioned a pair of reports in to the possibility of building such a line. The executive summary of the second report, completed in 2012, admitted that new developments “could quickly exhaust the new [Silvertown] tunnel capacity and exacerbate congestion on the local road network”. The report was suppressed and not made available to the public until 2014, when this website published it – 18 months after the council had begun its Bridge The Gap campaign to get that same tunnel built.

The spectre of the “DLR on stilts” loomed over a planning meeting in July, when councillors rejected plans for 700 homes next to Kidbrooke station, with Kirby’s fellow cabinet member, Christine Grice, and Eltham MP Clive Efford criticising both the Silvertown Tunnel and the public transport provision in the area.

Package problems

Bridge The Gap campaign launch
Former council leaders Denise Hyland and Chris Roberts plugging the council’s pro-tunnel campaign in 2013

Similarly, Greenwich has always wanted the Silvertown Tunnel to be part of “a package of river crossings” providing north-south links. That phrase has been around been the 1990s, and has meant different things at different times, but it usually includes both a new road crossing at the Greenwich Peninsula and another road crossing at Thamesmead. In the past, it has included the DLR extension to Woolwich, opened 10 years ago. However, there is no package of crossings on offer now – all Greenwich is getting is the Silvertown Tunnel, feeding right into the A102/A2 bottleneck.

Boris Johnson’s plans for road crossings at Gallions Reach and Belvedere have been shelved by Sadiq Khan, while a cycle bridge between Rotherhithe and Canary Wharf promoted by Khan has been effectively scrapped. Plans for a DLR extension to Thamesmead, demanded for over 30 years, have not got off the drawing board, despite promises from TfL to the Silvertown Tunnel public hearings; neither have more recent suggestions that the London Overground could be extended south from Barking Riverside.

Even Johnson, as mayor, admitted in 2014 that solely building the Silvertown Tunnel would pile more pressure on the area, telling an LBC phone-in: “I think the important thing for people on both sides is that you shouldn’t just do one, because if you do one then you’re going to get much more pressure, much more traffic in that area and you can dilute the traffic if you have several crossings.” Going back further, Johnson’s predecessor, Ken Livingstone, also cautioned against building the Silvertown Tunnel alone, saying in 2011: “I’m not sure you want to dump all that extra traffic in the area around the Greenwich Peninsula.”

Without any sign of its long-desired package of crossings, the council’s support for the tunnel has backfired badly.

Pro-tunnel campaigners have talked up the potential to run new bus services through the tunnel. Of the five routes earmarked for the new tunnel, two would go no further south than North Greenwich station, and none would link Greenwich borough’s poorest areas to the east with the financial centre of Canary Wharf. In a BBC interview, Sadiq Khan talked about the tunnel having a “reserved lane for buses”. In reality, it would be a lane for buses and HGVs, including vehicles too big to fit through the northbound Blackwall Tunnel. TfL insists the forthcoming ultra-low emissions zone will mean HGVs diverting away from the area.

What happens next?

Stop the Silvertown Tunnel Coalition protesters gathered outside Monday’s meeting

Construction had been due to start at the end of this year. Progress on the tunnel itself has been hit by a legal dispute over who will build and operate it under a PFI-style scheme. TfL had announced it would award the contract to Riverlinx, a consortium of five engineering and finance companies. But two months ago it emerged that the rival bidder, STC, was taking TfL to court, preventing the contract from being awarded. A High Court judge will decide whether or not the award can go ahead.

Activists are privately hopeful of a late change of heart at City Hall, and point to opposition to the tunnel from the Green and Liberal Democrat candidates for the mayoralty, Sian Berry and Siobhan Benita. But so far, City Hall has been doubling down on its backing for the proposal.

After Greenwich & Woolwich MP Matt Pennycook wrote to Khan in August urging him to think again, he received a response from Heidi Alexander, saying: “I can assure you I would not be endorsing this scheme if I believed it would make congestion and air quality worse. The case is predicated on the fact that it will radically improve traffic conditions, meaning fewer idling cars standing in traffic jams and an overall improvement in air quality. These are not blind hopes. They are conclusions supported by extensive traffic and air quality modelling undertaken by Transport for London during the formal planning process.” And yet that modelling was consistently criticised by officers from boroughs including Greenwich throughout that same process.

By the time Greenwich’s Labour councillors get around to vote, it could well be too late – really too late. The legal block on the tunnel’s construction could be lifted, the diggers could start revving up, and the possibility of huge environmental protests on the peninsula cannot be ruled out. If those same councillors had listened to campaigners earlier this decade, they may have been able to deter Khan from trying to build his way out of congestion. Instead, they abdicated any responsibility for the tunnel at an early stage – not even backing up their support for the tunnel with any independent studies, or even paying a visit to the public hearings to hear what their own officers were saying.

Despite the huge impact the tunnel will have on thousands of their constituents, Greenwich’s Labour councillors have never held a public debate on the tunnel – leaving residents relying on leaks and whispers to fill the vacuum where there should have been leadership. As ever, Greenwich Labour’s most senior councillors will be furious that details of one of those private meetings have leaked out again. If they are strong enough to finally, belatedly, call for a review of the tunnel, they should also be strong enough to review how they ended up dragging their borough into this mess in the first place.

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