Updated story: Greenwich Council’s leader has challenged Sadiq Khan to halt work on the Silvertown Tunnel and reassess his plans for the crossing – a decade after his predecessors first campaigned for the new road to be built.
Anthony Okereke spoke out in a message to a meeting of the Stop the Silvertown Tunnel Coalition held yesterday in Greenwich, telling them he was “frustrated” by the current policy on the tunnel and that leaders must be ready to shed “policies that do not represent the direction we are taking”.
The council leader, who replaced Danny Thorpe in May, had been due to speak but had to pull out for personal reasons.
Greenwich had been a strong supporter of the tunnel – between the Greenwich Peninsula and Royal Docks – under previous leaders Chris Roberts, Denise Hyland and Thorpe, with Roberts and Hyland fronting a “Bridge the Gap” campaign to demand the new tunnel as well as another crossing between Beckton and Thamesmead.
But councillors finally called on Khan to pause the scheme in March after years of pressure from both inside and outside the ruling Labour party.
Construction began in late 2019 and the tunnelling machine started work last month. The road, which will include a dedicated lane for HGVs and buses, is due to open in 2025. It will be tolled along with the neighbouring Blackwall Tunnel.
“We have adopted a pause and review position because we want to ensure that we meet the objectives of protecting the health and wellbeing of our residents,” Okereke said in the message, a full copy of which has been obtained by this website.
“If we are serious about our health, we must take an approach that prioritises people now and in the future. If we want a sustainable future, the decisions we make today should reflect that. We and other policy makers must also be ready to learn and divest from policies that do not represent the direction we are taking.”
“We need to be bold and divest from the Silvertown Tunnel as it does not meet our objectives to enhance our environment,” he continued.
“In fact, I have a huge concern about the number of vehicles this will bring to Greenwich and Newham and the pollutants that will be released in the atmosphere. Sadly, we will end up paying the price from all the potential activity from Silvertown [Tunnel].
“I am frustrated by the Silvertown [Tunnel] policy, but we cannot give up. We need to now focus on initiatives to help mitigate the consequences. Let us continue to work together, come up with ideas and lobby for these changes. Our work may not always be seen, but it is important and powerful, so let us not give up.”
Okereke said that his council wanted to see a 45 per cent reduction in vehicle traffic by 2030 as part of its carbon neutral scheme, and would be setting out policies in its forthcoming transport strategy to achieve that.
“If the tunnel is completed, we will want to ensure it can be adapted and mitigated to meet this target and our strategy,” he added.
Okereke’s comments mark a major shift in Greenwich Council policy after years of either supporting the tunnel or trying to bury the issue. He is the second London council leader this year to criticise the Silvertown Tunnel, which opponents say will increase congestion and pollution on both sides of the Thames.
In February Rokhsana Fiaz, the elected mayor of Newham, where the tunnel will emerge on the north side of the Thames, called the project “madness”.
In June she shared a tweet that called Transport for London’s claims for the tunnel “lies”, to the anger of her counterpart at City Hall, who complained about her to Labour officials, the BBC reported.
Khan, who says the £2 billion tunnel will eliminate the notorious northbound queues at the Blackwall Tunnel. has accused critics of the project of living in “never-never land”.
But of the councils closest to the scheme, only Tower Hamlets, run by Lutfur Rahman, supports it; Labour-run Lewisham, Hackney and Southwark have consistently been opposed.
An attempt by Hackney Council in 2019 to launch a pan-London campaign against the tunnel – the last chance to stop the project before contracts were signed – foundered when Thorpe, Okereke’s predecessor at Greenwich, refused to take part because he said it would be used against Khan.
Thorpe would later write to Khan to ask for the tunnel to be halted after a vote among Greenwich Labour councillors, but he declined to say whether or not he opposed the scheme when challenged in council meetings.
Jon Burke, Hackney’s transport cabinet member at the time, recently accused Khan of “environmental hypocrisy” for continuing with the tunnel while also fronting a podcast about air pollution for LBC.
Green Party London Assembly member Sian Berry, who has campaigned against the tunnel since plans were unveiled by Boris Johnson in 2012, said she believed the appointment of a new commissioner at Transport for London to replace Andy Byford could force a rethink.
“The new commissioner just might come from New York or Paris where they’ve been taking away roads, not building new ones,” she told yesterday’s meeting.
“No-one I’ve spoken to in TfL seems to be enthusiastic about the Silvertown Tunnel, but nobody has the courage to cancel it.”
She added that the Greens would work with local communities to put new ideas to the mayor that would focus on public transport, walking or cycling.
A decade ago, Greenwich Council drew up a scheme for the tunnel to be used as part of a Docklands Light Railway extension to Eltham, but the plans got nowhere. The idea was later resurrected in the local Tory manifesto for this year’s council elections.
Updated at 8.35am with more from Okereke’s message and at 11am to delete a reference to the tunnel being used by trams and to expand on what Sian Berry said.
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