Scrapping planned tolls on the Blackwall and Silvertown tunnels would bring gridlock to Greenwich, council leader Anthony Okereke has said – criticising Conservative campaigns against tolls.

Tory MP Louie French, who represents Old Bexley & Sidcup, has launched a campaign to abandon plans to charge for the Blackwall Tunnel when its £2bn neighbour opens in 2025. 

Former Conservative mayor Boris Johnson introduced the plans to toll both tunnels a decade ago, both to pay for the construction of the crossing and in an attempt to stop the new road and surrounding areas being swamped with traffic.

French’s campaign has not been backed by his colleagues over the border in Greenwich, but local Tory leader Matt Hartley asked at last week’s full council meeting whether Okereke would back drivers from Greenwich and other nearby boroughs being exempted from fees.

Hartley said that Khan was “catching up” with the Greenwich Tories by recently raising the issue of discounted tolls for people on low incomes – although plans for discounts were first mooted by Khan six years ago.

He asked Okereke to “consider joining me in pressing the mayor of London, not to scrap the tolls – he said he’s against that – and not for a discount for just some residents in Greenwich, but an exemption for all of our residents and businesses from that toll in Greenwich and the other boroughs closest to the tunnel”.

But the council’s Labour leader dismissed Hartley’s call out of hand.

Silvertown Tunnel building site
The southern entrance to the Silvertown Tunnel is taking shape next to the Blackwall Tunnel. Credit: Transport for London

“I don’t think I can join you on anything when it comes to transport  in the borough,” Okereke said.

“I won’t be joining the Conservatives on anything. The mayor’s right to be concerned about charges. But more importantly we support  tolls on both tunnels [because] the lack of tolling would see more more transport come through into the borough. We must protect this borough from air pollution. We want clean air. If you are not willing to stand up for it, this council and the majority group will.”

In a written answer released before the meeting, Okereke said: “We will also oppose the call from one of Cllr Hartley’s colleagues, Louie French,  who wants to scrap planned tolls on the Blackwall Tunnel when the Silvertown Tunnel opens. 

“This measure was first proposed by Boris Johnson when he was the Conservative Mayor of London and removing these tolls would create traffic gridlock across Greenwich and make air pollution in the area even worse.”

French did not respond to a request for comment from The Greenwich Wire when he launched his campaign earlier this month, despite the effect of his campaign in his neighbouring borough.

Details of tolls for the tunnels are not due to be announced until next year, but are set to become a political football as the mayoral election approaches next May. Opponents of the tunnel have warned that a populist mayor could scrap them altogether, flooding the area with traffic.

Setting a toll will be a difficult balancing act. Charges are likely to be set higher than those at the Dartford Crossing – where car drivers pay up to £2.50 – to deter non-London motorists from using the tunnels as an alternative route between Essex and Kent. 

But councils including Greenwich, Lewisham and Southwark fear that if the tolls are set too high, then routes to the Rotherhithe Tunnel would suffer a big increase in traffic.

Khan first said he was planning discounted tolls in a submission to the Silvertown Tunnel planning inquiry in March 2017. This would apply to drivers on certain benefits in Greenwich, Newham and Tower Hamlets who already qualify for discounted bus fares. 

However, earlier this month Khan wrote to the Tory transport secretary Mark Harper asking him for help funding the discount scheme, saying that peak-time tolls could be as high as £5.25, once inflation is taken into account. Harper rejected his request.