Greenwich councillors must co-operate with work on the Silvertown Tunnel even if they belatedly call on Sadiq Khan to pause the £2 billion road link, they will be told next week.
A panel of nine councillors will meet next week to decide whether to recommend that the council calls on TfL, which is chaired by the London mayor, to halt construction work on the tunnel in light of the climate emergency.
The council has backed the tunnel since the current scheme was first proposed by Boris Johnson a decade ago, but the issue has never been formally debated in the council chamber.
Now the council’s Labour leadership could finally be forced to confront the issue if the borough’s overview and scrutiny committee votes in favour of a motion calling on TfL to pause the tunnel.
Last month the London Assembly called on Khan to provide an estimate for the cost of cancelling the tunnel, something he has said would be “completely nonsensical” to do as it would be a breach of contract with Riverlinx, which is building and will operate the tunnel for TfL.
Construction work has been taking place for a year, and a tunnelling machine is being shipped in parts from Germany, but campaigners are stepping up their last-ditch attempts to halt the scheme.
The Stop the Silvertown Tunnel Coalition is due to meet Seb Dance, Khan’s new deputy mayor for transport, next week and is planning a demonstration outside the new City Hall in the Royal Docks on February 26.
Friends of the Earth and Clean Air for London – who have opposed the scheme since the start – have teamed up with other groups including Living Streets and the London Cycling Campaign to write their own letter to Dance, arguing that the tunnel will simply move traffic and pollution “from one area to another”.
Next Wednesday’s Greenwich meeting follows the council’s transport scrutiny panel calling for the scheme to be halted last December. But that call has to be approved by the main overview and scrutiny committee before it can reach a full council meeting.
The tunnel was approved by the government and planning inspectors in May 2018, which followed six months of public hearings that began in October 2016, four months after the newly-elected Khan opted to continue with the scheme, despite earlier promising a “joined-up review”.
The tunnelling machine is due to begin burrowing its way from the Royal Docks to the Greenwich Peninsula this spring. The tunnel, which will be tolled along with the adjacent Blackwall Tunnel, is due to open in 2025.
Council officers have presented the nine with an outside legal opinion on the legality of the council’s position on the tunnel, and on whether a future mayor could drop the charges that TfL insists are needed to stop east and south-east London grinding to a halt under the weight of induced traffic.
The advice, from Stephen Whale of Landmark Chambers, says that the council cannot refuse to work with TfL because the legislation to build the tunnel is enshrined in law.
“The council cannot simply decline to co-operate in implementing the development consent order and it ought not unreasonably to resurrect objections which were fully heard and rejected as part of the examination and decision-making process,” he says.
Whale’s advice also confirms that a loophole does exist to allow TfL to drop charges to zero after consulting neighbouring councils – an issue raised in public hearings about the scheme five years ago, but has now been seized on by campaigners making a last-ditch stand against the project.
“For all I know, it may be unlikely that TfL would scrap or even reduce user charges during the present mayoralty. But the development consent order does not strictly preclude this,” he writes.
The nine will now have to decide whether they should submit a report of their own to TfL calling on the scheme to be paused, which would then be submitted as a motion to a full council meeting.
Attention will now focus on who actually turns up to the meeting. The position of Labour scrutiny chair Chris Lloyd – who opposes the tunnel but has said it is too late to stop the scheme, could be key. His Peninsula ward will see the brunt of the tunnel traffic – but he is switching to the new West Thamesmead seat at May’s election.
Of the others on the panel, Labour councillor Mark James is unlikely to be able to take part as his day job is with TfL. Labour vice-chair John Fahy was once a supporter of the tunnel, but has switched sides; while Gary Parker and David Stanley – both on the left of the party – are firm opponents. Matt Hartley and Nigel Fletcher represent the Conservatives, who back the tunnel.
This leaves Woolwich Common’s Ivis Williams and Abbey Wood’s Clive Mardner, whose positions are less clear, although both are linked with Labour’s “awkward squad”.
Opposition to the tunnel has become bound up with animosity within Greenwich Labour – exacerbated by leader Danny Thorpe’s reluctance to take a clear line on the issue.
While Hackney, Southwark and neighbouring Lewisham opposed the scheme, fearing more congestion and pollution, Greenwich remained steadfast in its backing, even launching a “Bridge the Gap” campaign to see it built.
After pressure from newer councillors – and old hands who had changed their minds – leader Thorpe wrote to London mayor Sadiq Khan in 2019 on behalf of the Labour group calling for the tunnel to be paused.
Khan rejected the call, and Thorpe then declined an offer from Hackney to join a pan-London coalition against the tunnel, fearing it would be used against Khan.
If the panel does agree to call on TfL to pause the tunnel, there is no guarantee that a motion would reach a council meeting before the end of March, when most council business wraps up before the election – meaning it may not be heard until after the new council is elected in May, when tunnelling work will have begun.
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