A102 southbound queue
The tunnel will feed into the congested A102 south of the river

London’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan has doubled-down on his support for the Silvertown Tunnel – claiming the coronavirus pandemic simply highlights the need for the controversial crossing.

Preliminary work has begun on the £1.2 billion new road between the Greenwich Peninsula and the Royal Docks, which Khan’s administration says will “eliminate” congestion at the Blackwall Tunnel. Opponents say it will fail to do that as it will encourage drivers to make new journeys, and will cause more congestion and pollution in surrounding neighbourhoods.

The long-delayed scheme – due to open in 2025 – will see both the new tunnel and the Blackwall Tunnel tolled. One lane will be for buses and HGVs, allowing lorries that cannot use the 123-year-old northbound Blackwall Tunnel to cross the Thames.

In a letter to the campaign group Mums for Lungs, Khan said “the Covid-19 crisis has brought the case for the tunnel into even sharper relief”.

“Despite record low levels of traffic during lockdown, congestion has continued at Blackwall Tunnel throughout the crisis and traffic has now returned to pre-pandemic levels, particularly in the morning peak,” he wrote. This highlights the importance of the crossing to essential journeys and the urgent need to provide greater network resilience in this part of London, coupled with a user change and an expanded Ultra Low Emission Zone to constrain demand and ensure vehicles using the roads in the area are cleaner.

“There is also emerging evidence linking air pollution with an increased vulnerability to Covid-19, and the crisis has served to emphasise the significant inequalities in who bears the burden. The approach roads to the Blackwall and Silvertown Tunnels run through some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in London, many of which have large BAME populations. It is these very same neighbourhoods that will see direct benefits to air quality from improved public transport and reduced congestion resulting from the scheme, so it is vital that we urgently proceed with the project.”

Khan’s comments are likely to be a reference to the A12 Blackwall Tunnel northern approach through Poplar and Bromley-by-Bow rather than the A102 south of the Thames, which the Silvertown Tunnel will feed into. On the north side, the Silvertown Tunnel will end at Tidal Basin Roundabout before feeding into the Lower Lea Crossing towards Canary Wharf and the City and local roads in the Royal Docks.

The Silvertown Tunnel will branch off from the existing A102 at the site of the old No 2 gasholder, at the centre of this photograph taken during lockdown

Extinction Rebellion protesters chained themselves to a rig in the Thames last month to protest about the tunnel’s construction.

Originally proposed by Boris Johnson, Khan pledged to review the project when campaigning for election in 2016, however, 853 discovered three years ago that he backed it within five weeks of taking office, after receiving a briefing from Transport for London staff. It was given planning approval by the government in May 2018, with then-transport secretary Chris Grayling conceding there were “inevitable significant uncertainties in traffic forecasting and modelling”.

The tunnel was strongly backed by Greenwich and Newham councils, but opposed by Lewisham, Southwark and Hackney, who feared more traffic in their boroughs. Newham reversed its position to oppose the scheme in 2018, but Greenwich has never formally opposed the tunnel despite Labour council leader Danny Thorpe writing to Khan asking him to review the scheme last year. Last December it was revealed that Thorpe rebuffed a request from Hackney to join a campaign against the tunnel, saying it would be used by “political opponents”.

A number of planning applications have recently gone in for various aspects of the tunnel’s construction. One seeks approval for archaeological works on the site – however, as the approach on the Greenwich side will run through the tank of a gas holder dismantled in the 1980s, the Greenwich Industrial History Society has been asking its members to ask Greenwich Council to ensure that its remains are recorded.

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