Sadiq Khan was urged last night to prioritise walking and cycling in the new Silvertown Tunnel by Greenwich councillors, with one of them branding his £2 billion road project a “ticking timebomb” waiting to go off in the borough.
The London mayor has always insisted that his road project will “virtually” eliminate the notorious congestion at the Blackwall Tunnel, and has mocked critics as “living in never-never land”.
But his Labour colleagues in Greenwich lined up to pour scorn on the scheme, which they fear will simply lead to more jams in neighbouring streets and set back attempts to deal with the climate emergency.
Council leader Anthony Okereke appealed to the mayor to think again about the project, saying: “Just like the mayor has taken a bold stance on ULEZ, we invite him to protect our air quality as we take a bold stance on Silvertown Tunnel.”
Greenwich had backed and even campaigned for the Silvertown Tunnel when it was first consulted on in 2012. But all that was mostly forgotten last night as councillors – who were either not elected at the time or had quietly opposed the previous three leaders’ views – called on Khan for a rethink.
“History can be unforgiving if the Silvertown tunnel goes ahead in its present form, as designed,” Creekside councillor Majella Anning, who proposed the motion, said. “When residents see the container lorries and the juggernauts going past their front doors and going very close to their children’s playgrounds at school, they will ask us, did you know this was going to happen? What did you do about it?”
Referring to delays in the tunnel’s construction, Anning said the mayor had “a very short window of opportunity to act. We can call and hope to persuade the mayor to put forward a redesign of the tunnel to give priority to public transport.”
The tunnel will contain a dedicated lane for HGVs, which buses will also be able to use, allowing heavy lorries that are currently banned from the northbound Blackwall Tunnel to use the new crossing. Critics of the tunnel fear this will vastly increase the number of HGVs in the area – particularly as warehouses are built close to the crossing.
Citing the dangers from particulate matter pollution, which come from the friction of tyres on the roads, Anning said: “We are inviting hundreds and hundreds of these enormous lorries every hour to go on our roads. It cannot happen. We must fight till there is breath left in our bodies to stop this because we cannot say we knew about it, but we turned a blind eye.”
Anning said that she was in “no doubt” that local roads would exceed World Health Organisation limits for particulate matter in the first week of the tunnel’s opening, due in 2025.
Khan has claimed that the tunnel will be “public transport-focused”, but only two bus routes will serve the tunnel when it opens. One, an express route from Canary Wharf to Grove Park, will only serve a handful of stops on the border of Greenwich borough.
Conservative opposition leader Matt Hartley tried to amend the motion by adding criticism of TfL’s failure to provide better bus links through the tunnel and within the borough, stating “Greenwich deserves a better deal from City Hall on public transport”. This was rejected by Labour councillors.
“It’s very important on this issue that we do not concentrate on party politics. This is about the health of our residents,” Anning said.
But East Greenwich councillor Maisie Richards Cottell, who seconded the motion, did criticise the lack of buses.
She added: “When I tell people where I live, the area I represent, they talk to me about the traffic. I was born and raised on the Woolwich Road, and I’m very proud to represent my area. But the traffic is awful, and this tunnel will make it worse.
“One of the reasons I ran for election last year was that I want to see younger people in politics, particularly young women. I was born in the 1990s and touch wood, I will still be alive 50 years from now. My generation and the generations that come after me will see the consequences of the decisions that are being made now on climate.
“We need more river crossings. We need a lot more of them, but they need to meet the needs of local people. They need to connect local people to the rest of London and the rest of London to us through walking, cycling, and public transport. 43 per cent of households in this borough don’t have access to a car. In the areas nearest to the tunnel, that figure rises above 50 per cent.
“Imagine if you could get a bus from Eltham to Canary Wharf, Woolwich to Whitechapel, or Greenwich to Hackney. Just because you build a tunnel does not mean you have to use it for cars.”
Last night’s motion follows a similar one from Newham Council last October which also called for a “cross-river cycling plan”. Greenwich’s deputy leader Averil Lekau said the two boroughs were discussing the plan.
Okereke lavished praise on Khan for the ULEZ expansion and his support for the Docklands Light Railway to Thamesmead, but added: “We encourage the mayor to go even further, and as he goes even further, this council will support him all the way.”
For the Tories, Hartley said he had always been a supporter of the tunnel in principle, but “the tunnel that Sadiq Khan is delivering is very far from the tunnel that I wanted”.
“We do need more connectivity,” he said. “We need more resilience in the road network and I don’t sign up to the level of catastrophising that we often hear. And I’d humbly make the point that when all vehicles on the road on our roads are electric, which will happen one day, we will still need this kind of infrastructure on our side of London.”
Echoing an argument once made by Labour councillors in the same chamber, Hartley added: “The one thing that is always missed in debates around Silvertown is the fact that it will undoubtedly open up markets for small businesses in Greenwich and bring a significant economic benefit to our community.
“[But] the underlying principle of the motion that public transport should be prioritised in the tunnel is certainly something we can support. This is very late, and it is a shame that the council didn’t do more to persuade the Labour mayor of London at the end of the day.”
Labour councillors passed the motion unanimously, while the Tories abstained.
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