Greenwashed Silvertown tunnel pollutes, trashes the climate, and steamrollers democracy

London’s Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan, is pushing ahead with the Silvertown tunnel project despite evidence that it will worsen already chronic air pollution problems and undermine chances of meeting climate targets.

Campaigners opposed to the £2 billion-plus project, to build a new tunnel under the Thames between Newham and Greenwich in east London, gathered on Saturday at a Health Summit to hear researchers explain the project’s harmful health effects.

This article is based on a talk at the start of the meeting by SIMON PIRANI, about why, even at this late stage, the project can and should be stopped, and about some of the campaigners’ achievements.

The Silvertown tunnel, like all road-building projects, has to be considered in the context of transport policy as a whole.

Attendees at the Health Summit on Saturday. Photo by Clive Carter

The only arguments in favour of the tunnel are that it will reduce traffic jams at the Blackwall tunnel. These arguments isolate the problem of these jams from all other problems in the world.

Supporters of the tunnel ask us: “What will you do about traffic jams?”

We say: reduce the total number of cars on the road. Which we need to do anyway, to address the appalling levels of air pollution and the danger of global warming.

If you read the London mayor’s transport policy of 2018, it looks as though this is the plan. It has big headlines about non-car transport modes. But the small print, the reality, is very different. The reality is that road transport in private cars is subsidised and supported, and support for other modes is being eaten away.

We need a transport policy that favours public transport, like the fabulous new Crossrail, and encourages people to travel by train, or bus, or to walk, cycle or use an electric scooter.

That transport policy promises public transport projects such as north-to-south Crossrail, and extension of the Docklands Light Railway to Thamesmead, that have moved no further forward. Meanwhile, as we emerged from the pandemic, the congestion charge was suspended in the evenings and public transport fares went up. And now bus routes are being cut.

This is not all the mayor’s fault; government also has a hand in this. But the negotiations between them produce more threats to public transport – but unity in support of roads and cars.

So, when we say “stop the Silvertown tunnel”, we also mean: shift transport policy away from cars, towards public transport and non-car modes.

This is about air pollution on one hand, and about climate change and energy policy on the other. These issues can not be dealt with separately.

Just as the mayor talks the talk about air pollution, so he does about climate change. But big road projects are incompatible with the climate targets set by the mayor, let alone the more stringent targets worked out by climate scientists at the Tyndall Centre.

In 2018 the mayor announced the aim of making London “zero carbon” by 2050. These targets were not set on the basis of climate science and were problematic. But even these targets would only have been met, in the transport sector, by starting on an ambitious programme of reducing car use.

In January the mayor announced new targets, to reach so called “net zero” by 2030. He also commissioned research into scenarios for the transport sector that would make this possible. Under the relevant scenarios, the volume of traffic would have to go down by between 27% and 40%, by 2030.

Such substantial cuts in car use really could help to tackle climate change. But the question is: if you really intend to make them, why on earth are you pressing ahead with a new road project, costing more than £2 billion, to make room for more cars?

As any transport researcher will tell you, if you address the problem of traffic by building more roads, you get more traffic. And then the construction industry proposes more new roads. And this is happening right now.

If the Silvertown tunnel is built, the next project to be considered by the government will be the Lower Thames Crossing, a six-lane, 22-kilometre motorway with a tunnel under the Thames near Gravesend. Cost: £8.2 billion. Madness.

Now, a point about the local and the global. The cumulative effect of road projects and other fossil-fuel-intensive infrastructure in the global north not only damages children’s health locally, it also impacts on the lives and health of people in the global south.

A powerful explanation of this connection was given by Newham councillor Suga Thekkeppurayil, in August 2020, when we demonstrated outside the Transport for London headquarters in Stratford.

Councillor Suga made a brief speech about how fossil fuel use in the global north, enhanced by projects like the Silvertown tunnel, is already driving people from their homes in Bangladesh. And in that year, 2020, 2.5 million people were internally displaced in Bangladesh and India (mostly temporarily), and 2.8 million homes damaged, as a result of Cyclone Amphan, the sort of storm made much more likely by climate change.

You can well imagine the health consequences of such a dreadful upheaval.

The campaign so far

Environmentalists in south east London have been campaigning for ten years against the Silvertown tunnel project, including massive efforts made prior to the public inquiry in 2017. In 2019, energy was injected into the campaign against the tunnel by the new wave of climate protests led by Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion.

Our campaign has not yet achieved its main aim of stopping the tunnel project. But I think we have made three sorts of progress.

1. We have mounted a sustained challenge to greenwash

Politicians at City Hall have gone to extraordinary lengths to present the tunnel as compatible with climate policy. We have protested vigorously about this. Some false claims are now the subject of a complaint to the local government ombudsman.

We have also challenged greenwashing by the C40 Cities global alliance, that is supported by the mayor of London.

In 2016 the alliance published a report warning that new transport infrastructure could fatally ruin cities’ chances of meeting climate targets. But then the alliance allowed the Mayor’s office to misuse its correspondence, and falsely dress up a report by Arup, the engineering firm, as an independent assessment of the Mayor’s climate strategy.

Challenges by our campaign have made it harder for politicians to dress up climate-trashing policies as green.

2. We have challenged undemocratic attempts to prevent the tunnel project being discussed

In Greenwich, we were told repeatedly over the last two years, by senior councillors and by the council’s legal officer, that to discuss the tunnel would be outside the council’s legal and statutory powers. This was clearly nonsense, and we challenged it.

Thanks to our campaigning, and the efforts of our friends in the Labour party, we finally persuaded the council to hold the discussion. And then, in March, Greenwich called on the London mayor to pause and review the project, as Newham council had done before it.

The Silvertown tunnel construction site at Greenwich

On Thursday of last week, the London Assembly voted to ask the mayor to commission a modelling exercise that would cover a scenario in which drivers using the Silvertown tunnel do not pay any tolls – which the mayor’s office has consistently and falsely claimed could never happen.

These were not only successes for our campaign, but also assertions of local democracy at a time when it is under constant attack from government.

3. We have fostered unity around an issue that could potentially have been divisive

The construction industry, the drivers’ lobby and climate change deniers have always painted opponents of road projects as crazy extremists who want to make ordinary drivers’ lives a misery.

We have successfully cut through this. We have shown that ordinary families who have cars need more public transport and walking and cycling options, so that we could all use cars less often. 

We have convinced many people that there are ways to do transport policy that benefit everybody, and that the Silvertown tunnel is not one of those ways.

To oppose the tunnel, we have united community organisations; transport workers, teachers and other trade unionists; political parties including Labour, Green and Liberal Democrat; health practitioners; and researchers of climate, transport and urban development.

We have isolated the shame-faced supporters of the tunnel project.

A final point

We have to be honest: we may not win our fight. Our coalition has said repeatedly that we will fight to the end, that is, until the tunnel boring machine, which is now being assembled on site, is lowered down and starts boring the tunnel.

Until that happens, it is completely realistic to ask the mayor to pause and cancel the project. Those machines can be sold off on the international market and a line drawn under the losses. Green and Lib-Dem London Assembly members in February proposed an amendment to London’s budget that would bear these expenses, and save hundreds of millions of pounds.

The Riverlinx consortium at first said that boring would start in the spring of this year. Then it was “May or June”. Then this was “over the summer”. So we have to keep pressing on.

If the boring machine starts work, our organising group is committed to holding a further gathering, to discuss what we do next.

Because if the tunnel goes ahead, we will still have to do everything we can to resist road-centred transport policy, pollution and climate change. So we will work hard to build on the challenges we have presented to greenwashing and undemocratic practices, and build on the unity we have achieved.

I am a supporter of the Stop the Silvertown Tunnel Coalition. This article expresses my personal view. SP, 13 June 2022.

Stop the Silvertown Tunnel Coalition

The Silvertown Tunnel is in a hole, so Stop Digging (2020, Transport Action Network)

Electric cars are no panacea – People & Nature, February 2021

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