Saturday 9 November 2019 6:45 pm

Silvertown Tunnel: Bringing London together or tearing it apart?

London has just three road river crossings east of Tower Bridge.

Two of these – the Rotherhithe Tunnel and the western portion of the Blackwall Tunnel – were built for the passage of horse-drawn carts and carriages around the turn of the century. 

Read more: TfL awards 1bn Silvertown Tunnel contract to Aberdeen Standard-backed firm

Legend has it that the bends in the western Blackwall Tunnel, built in 1897, were designed to stop horses from treating the tunnel like the Royal Ascot straight.

However, the east end looks close to getting its fourth – and doubtless most controversial – road river crossing after numerous failed attempts.

The £1bn Silvertown Tunnel is on the verge of getting final approval from Transport for London (TfL), as a contract with Riverlinx consortium is expected to be signed imminently.

It comes after legal action from a losing bidder was recently dismissed.

The tolled underground tunnel will span between the Royal Docks precinct and Greenwich, and it will fall within the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (Ulez).

It would provide a vital link to transport goods across the river, according to its supporters.

TfL and mayor of London Sadiq Khan say it will take pressure off the nearby Blackwall Tunnel, thereby easing congestion and improving air quality.

“The Silvertown Tunnel is the best way to resolve these problems and London cannot afford to wait any longer to see it delivered,” Khan recently told the London Assembly.

However, not everybody agrees.

For members of the No to Silvertown Tunnel coalition, the cause is deeply personal. 

“I live in Greenwich, very close to where the proposed tunnel is and my kids went to three of the most polluted schools in London,” coalition coordinator Victoria Rance said.

“The tunnel would make it worse and it’s our kids who are going to suffer.”

Rance’s message is simple – Silvertown is being built primarily for heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) to cross the river, meaning more of these high-polluting vehicles would be drawn to Greenwich and Woolwich, thus increasing congestion and air pollution. 

The coalition also argues the tunnel will act as a disincentive for people to use public transport.

Rance, who is also a Green party candidate for the general election, said the coalition would rather see a toll on Blackwall tunnel, more public transport options and a “smart road pricing” scheme to manage levels of traffic around London.

There are a growing number of local stakeholders who now agree with her.

Fifteen heads of local schools have signed a letter to the mayor opposing the project due to concerns about air pollution.

Silvertown Tunnel
Construction on the proposed tunnel is expected to begin imminently

The Greenwich, Hackney and Newham councils councils also oppose the project.

So too does Labour Greenwich & Woolwich MP Matthew Pennycook, Green 2020 mayoral candidates Sian Berry and Siobhan Benita.

“My fear is that far from alleviating congestion and air pollution, the proposed scheme will exacerbate both to the detriment of the health and quality of life of local residents,” Pennycook said.

TfL has frequently pointed to modelling that shows congestion and air pollution would decrease after the Silvertown Tunnel is built, however campaigners remain sceptical and unconvinced.

They say the modelling shows congestion would only be reduced at the tunnel mouths and would get worse elsewhere.

Meanwhile, business groups continue to argue the urgent need for more river crossings in East London.

John Dickie, policy director for advocacy group London First, said Greenwich is already awfully congested and polluted because of the inability of Blackwall Tunnel to handle traffic flow.

“The Silvertown Tunnel will connect communities, alleviate congestion, and open up opportunities for jobs, homes and growth,” he said.

Natalie Chapman, South England and urban policy chief at the Freight Tranport Association, said the bridge would provide a dramatic boost to a number of sectors.

“This bridge is so vital in terms of products and supply chains,” she said.

“In terms of the environment, the lorries are still going into the area now, but have to be diverted to the Dartford Crossing [in Kent].

“Putting HGVs on diversion is far worse for CO2 emissions.”

Chapman added that there needs to be a “network of river crossings” in east London.

“East London desperately needs connectivity…If we can spread out the river crossings it will also be a good thing for the environment,” she said.

While the war appears to be lost, the No to Silvertown Tunnel coalition will not be retreating any time soon.

Read more: Rival Silvertown Tunnel bidder launches legal action against TfL

The green light may be soon given to the project, but Rance and co have made it clear they will not go quietly into the night on this issue.

Main image: Getty images.